The story of Simply Saucer is somewhat tragic. As with many bands bred in a local scene, plagued with line-up changes, unapologetic audiences and limited resources, their creative peak came in the wrong place at the wrong time. The place was Hamilton, Ontario, an industrial depot an hour’s drive south of the metropolitan melting-pot of Toronto. The time was 1977, a year between the fading twilight of rock’s golden era and the doorstep of punk. Simply Saucer was in the studio recording what would be their first and only release after already being a band for four tumultuous years. The “She’s a Dog” 7-inch single has never been considered one of the highlights of their career arc. It was the last nail in the coffin, stripping their sound of all the hyperactive electronics and improvisational jams that set them apart from their peers in an effort to conform to the burgeoning Toronto punk/new wave movement.
Fast forward to 1989, and to most of the world Simply Saucer wasn’t even a blip. But to a select few the band had, in its five-year existence, assembled the greatest Canadian album ever. That handful of lucky listeners were privy to the beautifully wonky demos the original group had recorded with the Lanois brothers, Bob and Dan (the latter would go on to be an Eno collaborator and super-producer; see The Joshua Tree) in 1974, and a sharply zonked live set taped at the top of a downtown Hamilton mall the next year. They had proof, albeit 15 years after the fact, that Simply Saucer had evolved from garage nuggets to acid ravaged freak-out, and on to complex post- and proto- and (eventually) decidedly punk. So was it punk that killed them or was it the Dionysian decade sputtering to an end?
Cyborgs Revisited, first released by Fistpuppet, then on LP by Mole Records, and most recently by Sonic Unyon in definitive form (including the 7-inch), is the ultimate mish-mash of heady ’70s geek language. It’s a deejay’s catch-all. Forget having to spend the night and early morning cueing the Velvets with the Modern Lovers, then Beggar’s Banquet with For Your Pleasure, “Interstellar Overdrive” with “Archangel Thunderbird.” All the possible hypotheticals any voracious collector could conjure up get exhausted on songs like “Dance the Mutation” and “Nazi Apocolypse.” The first spin of this record is the perfect and earnest foil to Reed and Richman, the punchy shuffle of Richards and Morrison, before riding off the rails and letting Irmin Schmidt and Keith Moon Jr. through the back entrance. The band’s music unabashedly mimicked the trailblazers in quick succession, but also veered into territories that were widely considered adventurous for their time.
Despite critical acclaim and multiple reissues, Cyborgs still remains a mystery. Perhaps it is the quizzical bands that only last for the length of a cigarette that provide the most intriguing works? Light was recently shed when Edgar Breau, founding Saucer, got the urge to bring his nervous guitar and leftfield vision back to the masses, scheduling a reunion tour (which sadly only includes original bassist Kevin Christoff) and recording a new album, Half Human, Half Live. Going public began to reveal a baffling page in rock’s strange history, one of the (almost) universally unknown.
Early reviews suggest that Breau’s newly recruited Saucer is as potent as that of its ’70s heyday, and that the band intends to start anew in the coming year. And the lengthy interview I recently conducted on the near-eve of their anticipated performance at this year’s Terrastock 7, reveals Cyborgs was just the beginning, if frozen for 30 years.
I recently read that the band was together for four years before the first 7-inch was recorded. When you began, what kind of music where you playing? What were your first influences?
Edgar Breau: The band was formed in 1973 as a six-piece. The line-up was myself on electric guitar, theremin and vocals; Dave Byers on guitar, flute and (treated) sax; Paul Colilli on Farfisa organ and piano; Kevin Christoff on bass; Ping Romany on audio generators; and Neil DeMerchant on drums. Our influences were vast, including the Velvet Underground, Can, Stockhausen, Sun Ra, Kinks, Savage Rose, Terry Riley, Amon Duul, Wally Tax and the Outsiders, the Dolls, the Stooges, Lightning Hopkins, Hendrix...etc.
Did you have any aspirations of becoming successful at all?
EB: Yes, we were hopeful of success.
By 1977 you had progressed into the proto-punk, psychic-trance wave band for which you are famous. Was there a great evolution in those four years?
EB: We started out improvising a lot, playing long spacey jams. But when Dave and Paul left I began compressing everything, writing songs that left room for the kind of angular instrumental sections that we became known for and that ultimately became Cyborgs Revisited. By 1977, we had dropped the electronics and were part of the Toronto punk/new wave scene. It wasn’t a perfect fit for us, but the only game in town, so to speak. We were still doing some of the older material, along with more pop-oriented tunes.
How were you so in tune with what was just becoming popular at the time (the Stooges, the Modern Lovers, Hawkwind), the influences that are apparent in your sound, but at the same time experimenting leaps and bounds beyond those bands? Especially living in Hamilton, Ontario?
EB: All of us were huge record collectors, turning each other on to all the new music happening in England and the U.S. We read reviews in the underground press and gave everything and anything a listen. We loved music period. The Hamilton thing was a blessing and a curse: it kept us from being a part of a scene that might have given us a more generic sound and it engendered a fierce iconoclastic drive. But the main problem was that gigs were hard to come by and so there were always financial pressures and line-up changes.
Did your out-sound ever get you chastised by the more traditional bands you played around with?
EB: In the early days we were thrown out of clubs after playing a couple of songs, emptied arenas and had our brake lines cut. We never really found a home and then later on went up against another kind of conformity when we rubbed up against the Toronto punk bands.
Back in 1974 we had already recorded music that was edgier and more outrageous than anything happening in Canada in the late ’70s. But by then we were experimenting with quieter, quirky lyric-driven material somewhat like the third Velvets record. Trouble was our earlier songs had never made it onto vinyl, so the continuity and progression of our sound was misunderstood.
America does get a great deal of Canadian music these days, but the late-60s and ’70s stuff is pretty much obscure besides Rush and Gordon Lightfoot. I’ve often heard that Hamilton had an amazing punk/underground scene at that time. Care to elaborate on some of the bands you were playing with, and some of your countrymen that you think have gone unnoticed?
EB: There were some great bands from Hamilton at the time. Teenage Head and the Forgotten Rebels come to mind. There were some great ’60s Canadian bands like the Ugly Ducklings and Kensington Market, the Haunted, Christmas.
I’ve also heard Hamilton referred to as the armpit of Toronto. Is there a quality to the city that you think lends to the music scene?
EB: Hamilton is a gritty steel town, with real working class people, a good University, a beautiful natural setting and a thriving music scene full of talented people. I grew up in the east end, a stones throw from two of Canada’s biggest steel mills. It was a rough, raw place full of colorful people, gangs and pride. I’m sure the industrial noises, fire and smoke had an influence on our music just as Detroit gave birth to great rock & roll. The sounds of the factories get transformed by the musician.
Your history is kind of fuzzy. What was the reason for the band breaking up?
EB: The club scene was dying; there were addiction problems within the band, personal lives out of control.
And what encouraged you to get back together?
EB: I’ve played and continued to write since the band broke up, including performing Saucer material live. There came a point when I realized that my own repertoire was lying in a frozen state there for the taking and I began to wonder if I could play electric like I did back then. The critical acclaim just kept on rolling, and in 2005 Uncut made Cyborgs Revisited one of its top 20 re-issues worldwide. I went to a local show to see a psyche band called the Unintended and afterwards was itching to play electric guitar again. The band played a brief reunion set later that year to great reception. I found excellent members and the original bass player, who by the way, was the only constant musician in the ’70s. We were booked suddenly in Hamilton, Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa and New York, and the shows were well attended and the audiences enthusiastic. Everything came back. We signed to Sonic Unyon Records, and recorded and then released Half Human, Half Live. The reviews have been excellent. We are intending to go back into the studio and record brand new songs with a very hopeful eye to the future.
Are you at all familiar with Terrascope? Can you say anything about how your performances have been lately and what the Terrastock crowd can expect?
EB: We will be performing classic Simply Saucer material from Cyborgs and Half Human, Half Live energetically. Terrascope I know only in the context of our first record and the fest upcoming. I have explored it online and I’m really impressed with the accomplishments and dedication to the music.
I guess I need clarification as to exactly what the Lanois brothers were responsible for recording by the group. Have you kept in any contact with them over the years? Do you think they are aware that you guys were the most interesting group they ever had the pleasure to record?
EB: The Lanois brothers, when they started out in the early ’70s, were working out of the basement of their mom’s home, having moved from Gatineau, Quebec to Ancaster, Ontario after their parents’ marriage ended. We recorded the six studio songs on Cyborgs Revisited in that studio, which was called Master Sound Studios. Bob Lanois engineered most of it, with Dan helping out whenever he could. Dan was playing a country gig at the time with a local songwriter by the name of Ray Materick. I remember Dan at one point sitting cross-legged on the floor with his eyes closed tightly shut and his hands over his ears. God only knows what he was thinking!
I lost touch with Dan who went on to fame as a producer. (Anecdotally, when Eno first contacted Grant Ave studio about recording there, Bob covered the receiver and inquired, “Who the fuck is Eno?”) Anyhow, Dan and Eno really hit it off once they began working together, and the rest is history. David Byrne of the Talking Heads attended school here for a year or so, and had mentioned it to Eno, so he was aware of the place. A New York radio station had a contest going: “Have Lunch with Eno.” The winners were a band visiting New York from Toronto, who had recorded their record at Grant Ave., and they recommended the studio to Eno, who was looking to avoid expensive New York studios. Once the critical acclaim started happening, we found ourselves name-checked.
Bob Lanois tweaked the live side of Cyborgs for us using the same equipment the other side was recorded on. (That would be in ’88.) Last year, I toured solo with Bob, and we see each other now and again. He’s an interesting character, and we’ve talked about recording a new Simply Saucer record at the Shack, his studio in the dark, haunted woods on Snake Road.
Were you reluctant at first to get back on the stage and start playing again, considering your age and how long the band has been defunct? Are you ever embarrassed by the artists you used to try and emulate (Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, the Stones) and how they eek out questionable material in old age?
EB: Quite honestly, I had ambivalent feelings about it all. I wasn’t sure I could get into that headspace again—sing those lyrics, play those licks. Increasingly, I became curious about my abilities as an electric guitar player, especially after the comments in the reviews of Cyborgs about my playing. I finally decided to take the plunge, and after about six months of rehearsals, I felt really comfortable again. After all, it was my own catalog I was playing, songs from my own psyche, words written by myself. There are writers who do readings from early works, early poems and early essays, and in a musical sense that’s what a band does when it performs material written years ago. The saving grace with our material is that it lived on long after it was recorded. There was a kind of prophetic edge to it that was as modern as many contemporary bands.
I guess musicians can be like the over-the-hill prizefighter that wants that last moment of glory and instead gets humiliated in the ring. I hope that never happens to me. On the other hand you have great artists like Johnny Cash and Segovia who die with their boots on, making great art to the very end.
Where did the inspiration for your lyrics come from? There are Nazis, mutants, cyborgs, bandits—all sorts of leftfield themes that perfectly complement the chaos of the music.
EB: It came from a pretty big mix: comics like Dr. Strange and Silver Surfer; novels like A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay and The Nightland by William Hope Hodgson; Andrew Lang’s fairy stories; John Ruskin and William Morris; Cobbett’s critiques of industrial England; growing up near Canada’s two biggest steel mills and their eerie clanking muffled noises and smokestacks; Hamilton’s gang culture; my own splintered post-teenage psyche; Kerouac; hitchhiking out west; and, of course, all the weird music I could lay my hands on.
You mentioned recording some new songs soon. In what direction do you think you’ll take them? Do you have a vision for what Simply Saucer should sound like in the 21st century?
EB: I think Saucer will always be a band that is part traditional and part experimental, lyrically and musically. I’ve entertained the idea of doing a stripped down space/roots record called Nothing Is Ever Lost. The title comes from a line in Faulkner’s The Reivers.
Lastly, though it may be a generic question, I’m always interested in what characteristics Canadian musicians think makes their music and art distinctly Canadian.
EB: I think the huge geographical spaces—the prairies, the mountains—the east coast Acadian culture, with Quebec in the middle, and a big breathtaking mix of influences are who we are.