Tales of industrial din

When Canadian avant-garde punk legends Simply Saucer make their Motor City debut this week, it will be the fulfillment of a dream that dates back decades. From the SRC and the MC5 to the Stooges and ? & the Mysterians, the musical spirit of Detroit has loomed heavily on the Saucer's radar since the group's formation in 1973.

"What I liked about the Detroit bands is that they could go off on tangents," says lead singer-guitarist Edgar Breau from his base in Hamilton, Ontario. "Their music was very angular at times, but it wasn't predictable. They were trying new things, and yet they reached back to some older jazz and blues artists. There was always an openness and a respect for what came before. I think that's the problem with some alternative bands today. You don't feel it's grounded in anything except angst."

In fact, it was true of many artists of the era, and to underscore his point, Breau points to Captain Beefheart, one of his all-time favorites. "There's nobody that's more 'out there,'" says Breau, "but he's very grounded in the blues, very grounded in roots music. I think that's a pretty good combination to have — your feet on the ground even if you're still on the outer limits."

It also perfectly encapsulates Simply Saucer's brand-new Half Human Half Live album (Sonic Unyon), wherein rock solid rhythms balance a mélange of caterwauling guitars, clashing analog electronics and apocalyptic lyrics. Their futuristic vision of rock 'n' roll remains the same as it did in their mid-'70s heyday, when their shared passion for comic books, sci-fi novels (and other subversive literature), the country blues of Lightnin' Hopkins, the teen tragedy of the Shangri-Las and the experimental sludge of Can could have changed the course of pop music ... but instead resulted in only one single.

Underrepresented, to say the least, it's what led Saucer historian Jay Hinman to memorably refer to them as "the single greatest 1970s band to have influenced absolutely no one." But that all changed when the Cyborgs Revisited album was finally unleashed in 1989, a decade after the band's demise.

Listening to this 18-track proto-punk tour de force in 2008, it's hard to believe that instant classics like "Bullet Proof Nothing" and "Illegal Bodies" languished unheard for so many years. While the accolades poured in from NME, CMJ, Spin, The London Sunday Times and others — as well as such experimental tastemakers as Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore — what was most telling was the reaction of other musicians who bought the limited-supply album.

Among them were local rockers Jeff Meier, Mark Walz and Dan Kroha, who formed Rocket 455 in 1992 totally under the spell of the Saucer. Fittingly, along with longtime Saucer devotees Human Eye, all of the aforementioned will be performing in front of their heroes; Meier and Walz — as well as later Rocket guitarist Marco Delicato — as Exit Eyes and Kroha in the Readies.

This underground exchange couldn't be more appropriate, says Meier: "Being influenced by Detroit, all of us were influenced by them. So it's come full circle." And Hamilton, Meier also points out, is a rust belt city very similar to Detroit, rife with the kind of desperate influences that often fire artistic triumph.

"I think if we had come from a bigger center like New York or Los Angeles," says Breau, "we'd have sounded more generic. But when you're off by yourself, in a city in the middle of nowhere, then you're not getting anywhere anyway, so you'll try anything. I used to moan about Hamilton to [early Saucer collaborator] Dave Byers, saying, 'If we'd only moved to New York or to London ...' And he'd reply, 'But maybe staying here made the music better in a way.'

"There were always the industrial sounds as a backdrop. You'd hear the clanking of the steel companies. It wasn't until later years that I actually began to think about it. But when I ask myself, 'Where did it come from?' I think, 'Well, the steel company, the industrial city, all that must have had a big influence.'

"It's got a real rough, raw side," continues Breau about his hometown. "There were gangs at war right on our doorstep in '74 and '75. We had our gear ripped off; there were times that I had people holding machetes to my neck. I was living in a storefront with no bathtub and no furniture and I was sleeping on a little piece of foam amongst the amplifiers with all that street life raging around me. And that's where I wrote everything for Cyborgs Revisited."

The problem, then, as now, was finding an audience. If the world back then couldn't accept the Stooges — who'd unceremoniously unraveled in 1973 because, as Iggy Pop so famously said, "I knew nobody was going for this" — what could be the future for Simply Saucer?

"It was pretty frustrating," Breau agrees. "We got thrown off of stages — I remember our drummer being physically thrown out of a club — we'd have our brake lines cut after shows. We even emptied an arena. Then our manager started booking us into high schools in these small Ontario towns where people were totally unaware of what we were doing. Once, he actually booked us at a high school prom! This was during the early days of the band when we were really at our most experimental. We did a set and the principal of the school came and literally begged us, half crying, to turn down and play some covers. Our manager said, 'Oh sure,' and then we went out and did the same thing we did the first set!"

The recording session that wound up yielding Cyborgs — at the home studio of now-famous producer Daniel Lanois — was hardly much more of a meeting of the minds, recalls Breau: "Dan, when he heard us, sat down on the recording studio floor cross-legged, with his hands over his ears and his eyes closed. That's how he listened to Simply Saucer. Bob Lanois, his brother, did most of the engineering. The needle would start going toward the red and Bob would say, 'We can't have that!'"

Nevertheless, the band's explosive spontaneity and untamed energy were perfectly captured by the Lanois brothers.

"It was shopped to every major record company in Canada and we got turned down by everybody."

Finally, in 1979, the band packed it in. Breau, who'd mastered finger-picking, began performing strictly acoustic music and never thought to look back, even when Cyborgs was finally released to serious acclaim.

"In a sense, I tried to kill it off because when it started creeping back I thought, 'I had my kick at the can,'" he recalls. "When something fails, you want to move on in life. I didn't want to be yearning after something that hadn't worked. But people started urging me to play again and I started getting curious as to whether I could. Because I wasn't quite sure what I was going to sound like on the electric guitar."

A one-off gig with original Saucer bassist Kevin Christoff edged fate even closer.

"We went onstage after rehearsing for about four hours and it felt great," Breau says. "I'd forgotten just how much fun it had been because all the other stuff had kinda gotten in the way. But the music itself was a lot of fun to play. Then we recorded Half Human Half Live and suddenly we were back in the swing of things. It was as if we'd never gone away."

Part of the magic, Breau believes, is that he's been on the opposite end of the musical spectrum for so long.

"I think that my own playing had been left in sort of a frozen state from those days," he theorizes. "I hadn't really evolved as an electric guitar player, so when I picked up the guitar, I had a style and I just naturally went back to that and played that way.

"It wasn't a planned thing," he says of the Saucer's resurrection. "It took a lot of incremental changes in my life and convergence of the stars, confluence of the planets, that sort of thing, to have made this happen. If somebody had told me 10 years ago that I'd be playing with this band again, I'd have said they were stark, raving mad."

Simply Saucer performs Friday, June 20, at the Bohemian National Home, 3009 Tillman St., Detroit; 313-737-6606. With Exit Eyes, the Readies and Human Eye.

Michael Hurtt is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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