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A & E MUSIC | Revelation Rock

Revelation Rock
Three decades after his band’s first record, Simply Saucer frontman Edgar Breau is still out there

By James Tennant

They have been called “pioneers” and “as quintessentially Canadian as Medicare and street hockey.” Their first album has been hailed as one of the best Canadian releases in history. And you probably haven’t heard of them. The band is Simply Saucer, and by rights, they should have been lost forever, buried in the gritty depths of Hamilton’s music history. Formed on the fringes of the scene, Simply Saucer garnered no critical praise until a decade after they broke up. This is their story, a story as anomalous as their sound.

In the late ’60s and early ’70s, mainstream music had become relatively friendly. Yet on the outer planets, rock ’n’ roll seethed, mutating into new, edgier forms. The Warhol-inspired aesthetic of the Velvet Underground, the raw power of the Stooges and the psychedelic space rock of early Pink Floyd thrilled critics and inspired other musicians. At the same time, they could not compete with radio’s more accessible sounds.

These were the types of artists that inspired Simply Saucer. Yet if Lou Reed couldn’t reach a wider audience in New York, what chance did Simply Saucer have in Hamilton? Ahead of their time, Simply Saucer would have to wait for time to catch up – which would take over 20 years.

Simply Saucer was helmed by Edgar Breau, whose sojourn into the fringes of modern music began early. He began with country, Elvis, the Beatles; when he learned to play guitar in his youth, he picked away at songs by Gordon Lightfoot and, later, The Kinks’ Ray Davies. As he grew up, he soaked himself in British psychedelia from Pink Floyd to the Soft Machine. He dipped a toe in the Pacific with Moby Grape and the Grateful Dead. He revelled in the disjointed genius of Captain Beefheart and the hypnotic racket of German bands like Can and Amon Düül. Record geeks in London and New York could just hit their respective Sohos to find these albums. In the Hammer, however, such music could only be had via special order. These special orders were stock in trade at Bob Moody’s Record Bar on John Street North, where Breau loitered and made friends with other local rock intelligentsia.

“We used to get together and have record spinoffs,” Breau recalls. “We’d get a bottle of wine and rate records on originality and all kinds of categories. We had fun like that.” Inspired by the rock counterculture, as well as authors such as Kerouac and Wolfe, Breau and a friend headed west in 1972. They thumbed down highways and panhandled for change; Breau returned to Hamilton in the fall, a changed young man. “There was a creek at King and Quigley,” he recalls. “I tossed all the books in the creek and that was it for schooling. I went right into putting this band together.”

From various corners of the Record Bar, Breau gathered people to help him release the sounds that circled in his head. It began with friend Paul Callili and, one by one, other likeminded musicians came on board – Dave Byers, Kevin Christoff, Neil DeMerchant, Breau’s foster brother John LaPlante.

In an upstairs apartment not far from Moody’s, this unlikely sextet set about making a racket that most Hamiltonians would never understand. LaPlante adopted the mysterious moniker Ping Romany; he twisted knobs on oscillators and early synthesizers, creating spacey sounds inspired by Hawkwind, Sun Ra and Karlheinz Stockhausen. The band maintained the Velvets’ cool, the Stooges’ power and Floyd’s sonic expanse. They also maintained their distance from Hamilton’s other bands, who were happy playing cover tunes in local bars. “We were pretty hostile towards what was going on in town,” Breau says. “Full of piss and vinegar and almost contentious. Hamilton wasn’t exactly a thriving artistic mecca in the ’70s.”

The refusenik attitude landed the band no gigs, but for a time, that was fine. They were content, rather, to turn up the feedback, leave the apartment and see how far away they could hear the noise (as it turned out, James Street). The lack of forward motion, however, eventually tired some members. Callili departed for college, Byers simply departed and the rest of the band relocated to a grungy storefront rehearsal space over at 220 1/2 Kenilworth Avenue North.

Though they had never played a show, word of Simply Saucer reached the ears of Rick Bissell, a transplanted Montrealer, who offered to manage the band. He booked their first unlikely performance – in the basement of St. Alban’s Anglican Church.

“It was east end neighbourhood kids that came out to see us,” says Breau. Those east end kids, however, were not prepared for DeMerchant’s violin (which he really couldn’t play), Breau’s cacophonous audio generators or the performance of an hour-long piece aptly entitled “Noise.” Fights broke out. The authorities were involved. A defining statement was made.

Despite the dubious nature of their first public performance, Bissell was able to book more gigs for Saucer, often at unsuspecting high schools from Elmira to Hawksbury. He also suggested the band record a demo tape, so Saucer went into the Master Sound Recording Studio, run by producer brothers Bob and Dan Lanois. The resulting tracks included the band’s mathematical space jams (“Mole Machine”), snarling proto-punk (“Nazi Apocalypse”) and Velvety nihilism (“Treat Me Like Dirt”). The demos were stellar – but Canadian record labels remained unconvinced. Saucer continued to make New York sounds in their Hamilton home without attracting the attention they deserved.

Meanwhile, Breau made his home in “The Office” on Kenilworth, a place he describes as “dumpy” and not fit for permanent habitation. The neighbourhood was rough; members of the Parkdale Gang would hammer on Breau’s back door in the wee hours. The band played where they could. One infamous performance took place on the roof of Jackson Square on June 28, 1975 – coincidentally, on the same day Pink Floyd played Ivor Wynne Stadium. Still, it wasn’t enough for Bissell, who believed the band could be moulded into something more marketable. He drew up a management contract that gave himself the right to make certain decisions on the band’s behalf. Breau declined, and their business relationship with Bissell came to an end.

Breau was still intent on making the Saucer fly, but keeping the group together became a challenge. He began to write more direct, succinct songs, which left little room for LaPlante’s trademark twiddling; eventually, Ping left the band. Drummers rotated through the lineup. When someone stole their instruments, the members of Saucer were even more discouraged, despite being insured; in late 1976, Saucer disbanded briefly, but Breau quickly revived the group. They returned as a three-piece, living and rehearsing in a rented house on Ferguson Avenue.

Thus began the so-called “third phase” of Simply Saucer. Toronto’s Queen Street West had become a burgeoning scene for the punk movement. Breau met an American fanzine publisher named Gary “Pig” Gold who, after coming to see them practice on Ferguson, saw a connection between Saucer’s new sound (influenced by artists like Television and Patti Smith) and the Queen West scene. Before long, Gold booked the band to play in Toronto and became their unofficial manager.

While it lasted, it was a wild ride. Gold released the group’s first record – a 7” of two new songs, “She’s a Dog” and “I Can Change My Mind.” The single, now very much a rarity, met with modest success. This year marks the 30th anniversary of its release. Yet despite this success, the band – Breau, Christoff, drummer Don Cramer and guitarist Steve “Sparky” Parks – had trouble keeping priorities in lines. Associates in and around the Saucer circle had dabbled in drugs, and now, in need of income, some of them moved into “product distribution.”

“In the end there were really scary people coming down,” Breau recalls. “I’d be downstairs rehearsing and there’d be guys that came along that scared me just to look at them.” Meanwhile, the Queen scene began to fray and the shows dried up. Parks left the band. Christoff followed. Breau watched in disappointment as his dream dissolved. As the band collapsed, there came a final nail in the coffin. Someone had an affair with someone else’s girlfriend. Discoveries were made, items were smashed, blood flowed, drug use exploded, and eventually, Christoff found one of the parties dead in the house from a self-inflicted shotgun wound. “That sealed the whole thing in a very negative way,” Breau says.

It was the proverbial end of an era. Breau married, had children and drifted through the 1980s. He found jobs here and there, studied cabinetmaking, and became interested in philosophies that were directly at odds with his previous life in the rock counterculture. He embraced his religious roots by reading Aquinas and delving into conservative, pre-Vatican II Catholicism. He read G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, interested in the ideals of the distributists. He traded his electric guitar for an acoustic, and began writing music that owed more to folk and country than rock ’n’ roll. He wilfully turned his back on Simply Saucer. What he didn’t know was that the band was far from over.

Ironically, it was Breau himself who unwittingly brought Saucer back to life. It was Breau who mentioned the group’s existence to local scenester Bruce “The Mole” Mowat, and Breau who procured the fabled demo tapes from Bissell for Mowat to hear. Mowat was floored. Over the years, Saucer’s influences had edged their way above ground to some extent. Stadium-filling groups such as REM and U2 cited Television and the Velvet Underground as influences, while the Cowboy Junkies had an enormous hit with the Velvets’ “Sweet Jane.” That Simply Saucer had not released an album was a wrong Mowat wanted to right.

Loans were made, tapes were mastered and vinyl was pressed. Dubbed Cyborgs Revisited, the album consisted of two separate recordings. Side One featured the Lanois demos. Side Two featured the rooftop Jackson Square concert. Less than a thousand copies were made, but the album’s impression was deep. Musicians such as Julian Cope and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore converted. Critical acclaim was immediate. Some reporters called it the Greatest Canadian Album Ever.

Obviously, it pained Breau to discover something he had intentionally forsaken was now considered worthwhile. Instead of using the new interest as a springboard for his solo career, he went in the other direction and stopped playing live entirely. Breau retreated further into isolation with his family, even home-schooling his children. Meanwhile, outside, someone invented something called the Internet. Interest in Cyborgs Revisited grew exponentially, even as copies of it became impossible to find.

It was then, in 2002, that Hamilton’s Sonic Unyon Recording Company approached Mowat about putting together a better CD release – with extra bonus material, extended liner notes and proper distribution. Breau, who was slowly beginning to re-emerge with his acoustic guitar, agreed to the re-release and began performing again, albeit as Edgar Breau, not Simply Saucer.

Sonic Unyon’s re-release was an enormous success. It is likely to be Sonic Unyon’s biggest seller this decade. Most recently, Cyborgs Revisited appeared in a book entitled The Top 100 Canadian Albums, where it landed at #36 – above albums by The Band, Neil Young, Shania Twain and Rush. “All of a sudden the band started getting a kind of mainstream exposure,” Breau says. “Not just the people who read the book, but the artists. Maybe the Barenaked Ladies or Blue Rodeo heard it.”

Today, Breau has re-embraced his past repertoire. Knowing the only context he could play them in was Simply Saucer meant that, after years of avoidance and varying levels of denial, Breau had to revive the group as a living entity. It was not a decision he took lightly. “I had to try to picture myself singing those songs – and those words,” he laughs. “How am I going to feel? ‘Here Come the Cyborgs?’ I mean… come on.”

Yet Hamilton, once grey and discouraging, had come to prize their prodigal Saucer sons. It was a Hamilton label that resurrected the band on CD, and local fans flocked to the first performances by the group in almost 20 years. Along with stalwart Kevin Christoff, Breau is surrounded by younger Hamilton musicians Dan Wintermans (electronics), Joe Csontos (drums) and Steve Foster (guitar). The scene they once sneered at has changed. Saucer are no longer outsiders, even if their music remains on the fringes.

Since their reformation, Simply Saucer have even recorded a new album, which many believed would never occur. Entitled Half Human/Half Live, it mirrors the studio/live split of Cyborgs Revisited, and consists mainly of material Breau wrote in the ’70s. “It’s a transitional record, from the old to the new,” says Breau. “I’d like to eventually broaden the fan base. In doing that you might lose some of the critical acclaim, but the band’s capable of more than just playing punk and psych.”

As such, Breau already has plans for the next album – new material, freshly written, and likely different than the music for which Saucer has (finally) become known. Some would say it’s a fool’s errand; that Breau shouldn’t mess with Saucer’s critical success. Yet what is Saucer’s story, if not a series of new beginnings?

Breau plans on titling this future album Nothing is Ever Lost. To him, it is a reference to Faulkner’s The Reivers, but to fans of Simply Saucer, it has a deeper meaning. Simply Saucer’s music could have been – perhaps, in some ways, should have been – lost. They were, as Mowat says, “something that was… completely out of step with the progression of popular music in this country,” and as such, they fell through the cracks. Fate and circumstance pried up the floorboards, and what was underneath was a gem so rare it demanded we retrieve it. It was not forgotten. It was too important. HM


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Originally appeared in HM Spring 2008

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