The Burlington natives on drugs, collaborations, and their newest 7" 'The Owl'
Photo courtesy of Beth de Jong
When it comes to Canrock history, it feels as though in 2014 the discussion always starts with Broken Social Scene in Toronto and Arcade Fire in Montreal (and depending on how far back you go, maybe Sloan in Halifax.) This is a shame, because for me, it all began in Hamilton, around 1993, when the Sonic Unyon label ushered in a fruitful and highly influential DIY scene. Beginning as a home to release music by Tristan Psionic, whose Mark Milne and Sandy McIntosh founded the label, Sonic Unyon meant everything to Steeltown’s music scene before going national with successes like Hayden, Thrush Hermit and Treble Charger. (It would get even bigger, releasing music by Pixies, Death Cab For Cutie, Jens Lekman and the Jesus Lizard.) An oral history must happen at some point because there is plenty of fodder there.
SIANspheric could be the most fascinating chapter in the Sonic Unyon story. One of the original bands on the roster (an early incarnation was named Gleet), the Burlington natives are also one of the longest running. The band consists of Sean Ramsay on guitar and vocals, Jay Patterson on bass, Locksley Taylor additionally on guitar and vocals and Matthew Durrant on drums. Hiatuses have come and gone, but at the moment, SIANspheric is active and currently working on their fourth full-length, their first since 2001’s The Sound of the Colour of the Sun. Out now is a brand new 7” called The Owl which finds the four-piece continuing to explore the depths of their amorphous, infinite space rock.
Noisey spoke to the band about their many ups and downs, how they nearly collaborated with Bob Dylan, and some of the craziest drug stories you’ve never heard:
Noisey: I remember the band starting out as Gleet. How did that band begin?
Ramsay: I was introduced to Scott Kish and Steve Peruzzi in 1991. And my friend Roy started playing drums with us. I had only just bought and started playing guitar a year before. With my friend Aaron’s sage advice, I got into the early days of Sub Pop, the Jesus & Mary Chain, Jane’s Addiction and stuff. Scott and Steve and Roy, we were all kindred spirits, interested in expanding our minds, opening up to the other side. Yeah, we liked to get high all the time. I was still in high school here in Burlington, and we’d get tons of acid every Friday and go to somebody’s house and space out. We’d try to jam, but it was always a disaster. But it was always fun, hanging out with the Rainbow Butt Monkeys. We’d play the Kirk House in Waterdown, mostly covers but some Gleet songs too. Then we started to play in Hamilton, like at the Corktown, where we met the Sonic Unyon guys. They liked what we were doing, and we liked what they were doing. There was this great community of musicians there. Everybody was keen on helping everyone out. Lots of talented people around. It was an exciting time for sure. We put out our first cassette, Gleet’s Decline, and went over to Mark Milne’s house and put together the cassettes in his basement. Actually, we had a cassette before Decline called Numb, which had some of the same songs. That would’ve all been between ’92 and ’93. So yeah, everyone was just into the same stuff: getting high and having fun playing music. It was a great time to be 19.
And then in January 1994, we played a Sonic Unyon New Year’s party. The next day we were driving up to our friend Brett’s house, and the car that Scott was in with some other friends hit some black ice and it was hit head on. Scott was pronounced dead that night. It was heavy especially because he was a ridiculously charismatic guy. I see pictures of him now, and he wasn’t exactly good looking, he was a weird, little guy, but he stood a thousand feet tall on stage. He had a lot of confidence, obviously.
From what I can remember, Scott had great stage presence. I remember when he died. Everyone was in complete shock.
Ramsay: It was evidenced by how many people showed up to his funeral. It was pretty awe-inspiring, how many people he touched. He was really vocal with certain issues, like environmental and domestic abuse, which he put into his lyrics. I think the thing that has always been consistent with Gleet and SIAN is that we just don’t give a fuck. We play what we want to play. We play when we want to play. If things aren’t going well we’ll take a break. If things are going well we’ll work hard at it. Music is just ingrained in us, and I think that passion comes through in our music and our performances. With Gleet, I’m not a spiritual guy at all, but there was something intangible about it. Scott’s stage presence but also what we put into the music.
How hard was it to recover from Scott’s death and move on? Did you discuss ending the band?
Ramsay: Well, yeah, we did. But I’ll be honest with you: it wasn’t that hard. It was hard to talk about initially, but we pretty quickly realized that, and it sounds trite, but Scott would want us to keep playing. His passion was making music with his friends and we didn’t want to lose that. So we wanted to keep doing what we were doing. And it was different enough. We knew Paul Sinclair from Crayon Bomb, so we asked him to jam with us. And actually prior to Scott passing away was getting Matt Durrant on drums. Here’s a funny story. When we hired Matt, there were all these rumours about our band’s sexuality. Scott and Steve used to bang tons of chicks. But people used to say, “They’re totally bisexual and/or gay.” We used to wear dresses, in a Jane’s Addiction way. And at Matt’s first band practice we said, “Matt, you are not allowed to leave this band. If you leave this band we will fuck you up the ass so hard you’re gonna be screaming bloody murder.” He was sincerely worried about it. Apparently his old band mates warned him that Gleet had the craziest parties and were always high. Of course, it was only partly true.
SIAN definitely had a different sound from Gleet.
Ramsay: Our influences changed and were definitely on our sleeves. We were super into Verve, Slowdive, lots of Creation Records stuff. Whereas Gleet was more Monster Magnet, Swervedriver and Jane’s Addiction. We did some recording in ’94 and then Somnium came out in ’95.
What can you tell me about your connection to super producer Daniel Lanois?
Ramsay: While Paul was still in the band, we had met Dan Lanois at a show in Hamilton. He was super loaded at the time, but he said, “You guys are the best! I love you guys!” And we kept in touch for that record. He really wanted to record us, so we recorded John Lennon’s “Imagine,” and it was just messing around and jammed it out because we didn’t know it that well. Dan recorded it and put stars in our eyes. He said it was for this John Lennon tribute album, and he started saying, “Well, I’m doing something with Iggy Pop so I’ll probably ask him if he wants to sing on it. Actually, wait, I’m also working with Bob Dylan so I’ll ask him if he wants to sing on it.” No fucking shit of a lie. And he actually asked Bob to sing on it, but Bob said, “’Imagine’? Oh, I fucking hate that song!” So yeah, nothing happened with it, but when we were doing the full-length, Dan said, “I really want to record you guys.” We told him we really appreciated it but we couldn’t afford him. Plus he was actually in between the Bob Dylan record [Time Out of Mind] and the Scott Weiland record [12 Bar Blues]. But he said, “Tell you what I’ll do. I’ll fly you guys down to New Mexico to my studio. You record some of my songs and I’ll record some of yours.” And we said no. And the only reason why we said no was because Steve and Matt were trying to get straight, and they had just started new jobs. I was totally up for it and over the moon, so I wasn’t that impressed. But I said, “If that’s what you guys have gotta do then I understand.” So we told Dan that and he said, “That’s alright. You’re not burning any bridges. No problem.” But he sat us down and gave us tips. We went over to his house and ate bananas in chocolate syrup in his living room, sitting on these pillows, and he wrote us this big long laundry list on tabloid paper, which I still have at home. So we recorded There's Always Someplace You'd Rather Be, and I’m sure it’s way more lo-fi than Dan Lanois intended. [Laughs] He probably heard it and thought, “They didn’t listen to me at all!” I don’t have any regrets in my life but this is one of them.
The press release mentions “drugs, brake-less vans, pawned equipment, more drugs, an ill-fated tour with Swervedriver, and the exodus of bassist Steve Peruzzi.” You’ve mentioned drugs already, so let’s start with “brake-less vans.”
Ramsay: That was in 1998. We had finished recording There's Always Someplace You'd Rather Be, and at that point Paul had left. He and Matt were always fighting. It was to the point where after a show in ’96 we were coming back from either Detroit or Rochester and when we got to Paul’s house he got out and said, “Fuck it, I’m done.” He had done that before, but as the rest of us were driving home we said, “Okay, let’s never pick him up again.” [Laughs] And that was kind of the end of that. So then we took a bit of a hiatus to relax. When we started playing again we tried it with just me playing guitar. We all started getting into harder drugs, and it all seems so fucking cliché. But we got asked to tour with Swervedriver across Canada. [Years later, SIANspheric released a double split album with Toshack Highway, the successive project of Swervedriver’s Adam Franklin.] So we had a van, which Steve drove. But he was really getting into coke hardcore, to the point where he was owing sketchy people money, so he was in a bad way. Anyway, we were driving up to Montreal, and there’s this stretch after the 401 where you start to hit traffic lights. So Steve tries to put on the breaks and we’re not stopping. We’re coming up to the light going 80 miles per hour, so we’re all yelling and screaming. To stop we had to drive into the median to slow the van down, which destroyed the side of the van. It was still drivable, but that’s how we had to stop. We were playing with Swervedriver, so we weren’t going to stop. From that point on, Steve would have to gear down a few miles ahead because there was no breaks – the master cylinder was gone. And we would all yell out the window, “Here we come! Here we come!” Eventually when we got close, Steve would have to throw it into park or reverse so that we’d actually jolt to a stop. So that’s how we got to Montreal, which was the first show. But the show was really good, though Swervedriver thought we were idiots. And then: A) Loading out, Steve fell flat on his face into the pavement. And B) Steve put the bass amp into the van without checking to see how far in it was, then slammed the back door, which exploded in shards of glass.
Ferguson: Steve was leasing this van from a regular Ford dealer. This was a new-ish Ford van that he leased.
Ramsay: So that night we crashed and went back to Quebec City.
Did you fix the brakes at least?
Ramsay: Nope! No brakes. We get to Quebec City and play our sound check then leave to score some blow. When we came back to the club, the bassist from Swervedriver came up to us and said, “Hey man, is that your Boogie amp? Because it was on fire!” And it wasn’t ours, we were borrowing it from Mark Milne at Sonic Unyon. So we melted his amp, but the show was okay. And then I had to work the next morning, so we drove all night, with no brakes. Steve was driving, and I couldn’t sleep, so I sat in the back seat watching him and I swear to god his eyes were closed for half the drive! [Laughs] So they dropped me off at work and promptly run into the fucking president of my company’s Jeep Cherokee! And he was still sitting in it, but apparently said, “You know what guys, it’s okay. Don’t worry about it.”
We were supposed then finish the tour, going back out across Canada with Swervedriver. Instead, Steve took the van back to the dealership and put the keys in an envelope that read: “Don’t drive. No brakes.” He then put it on the dashboard and left. We had all of this gear we recorded the new album with, and he drove to a pawn shop and sold all of our gear, I think to pay back everyone he owed money to, so that he could score. And then he left a message at Sonic Unyon saying, “Sorry guys, I can’t do the tour. I’ll talk to you later.” And that was the last time I saw him for about five years. I heard rumours about where he was going. I think he went to Amsterdam. I don’t know what’s true and what wasn’t.
How did you get the equipment back?
Ramsay: Well, his girlfriend at the time just got her Socan cheque, and she went to the pawn shop and got all of it back for us with her Socan money. We felt so bad. She was the best.
There was this legend I remember hearing about Steve, where he took all of these hits of acid and went missing for a while…
Ramsay: Yeah, that was in 1996 at a friend’s birthday party in Guelph. We were hanging out with Wool [from Tristan Psionic] and Dan Dunham [from Shallow], who was a garbageman. He found this crate of old records on his route and brought them to the party. We were looking through them, thinking, “Oh this is great.” But he was like, “No, no, no. Here is the best part!” Then he pulls out Crown of Creation by Jefferson Airplane and opens it up. Where the record should be are these sheets of little black plastic tabs the size of your fingernail. We thought it was acid, and Dan said, “Do you guys wanna try it?” And we said, “Yep!” At this point we had been well-versed in LSD and we knew you wait a little while for it to come on. So we each took one and after 20 minutes we were like, “It’s probably a dud because we’re not feeling anything.” It was probably from 1967 when Crown of Creation came out, so we said, “Let’s fucking eat it all!” There were about 25 hits on a piece of paper. I had about eight, while Matt had 15 of them. Steve ate the rest. He also ate the tape, which had tabs taped to the paper. And then he ate the paper too. I can tell you, I was literally tripping for three days. It was crazy. I had to be medicated afterwards. It was awful and not a cool trip at all.
Was that black acid?
Ramsay: I guess so. I’m not sure what it would be. But at one point, Steve said to me, “You know how your spine starts growing into the couch?” And I was just thinking, “We are so fucked!” We ended up leaving the apartment and sitting outside to work our way through the trip because we knew we were fucked. So we were trying to chill and Steve took off. And the story is that he ended up running around that night in Guelph, and felt so hot he had to take off his clothes. I guess he was yelling at people, “Help me! Take me to the hospital!” And one guy was going into his house and shut the garage door. Well, Steve pulls an Indiana Jones and rolls under the door as it’s closing and pops up saying, “What are you? An animal?! I want to go to the hospital!” Later on, he passed out in a Sears parking lot and woke up by somebody who said, “Buddy, cover up your bag and we’ll take you in.” So he went into the drunk tank, where they gave him orange overalls. We were still at the party, and then he walked in at six in the morning wearing these overalls. I don’t remember that well, but for the next few days I was still tripping. And we had a show to play the next day. Matt just arrived.
Durrant: Hey! Man, I don’t like walking in on this. I don’t want to relive this. I was in high school and I couldn’t read for two weeks after! I would look at the book and it looked like another language. After a few days of that I realized I’d have to learn how to read again. I’m gonna have to learn the alphabet again. But then after two weeks it all came back. Well, it never all comes back. But I could read again. And I learned don’t do drugs you find in some strange album cover.
Ramsay: Of course it’s a funny story and we’re not dead, so we can laugh about it now. But we had a show to play the next day or the day after that, and all of our instruments were tuned backwards, it was so fucked up.
What happened the third time you almost ended the band? I guess it was in 2006?
Ramsay: We were on a tour… [To Matt] I don’t know if you want to relive this one either!
Durrant: We drove all night from Baton Rouge to South By Southwest. We got there and decided to buy beer, so we did some drinking. Then at the venue they decide to give us all this whiskey, which was cherry-flavoured. This was close to noon now, and I went totally mental. I did a bunch of stupid things.
Patterson: The best thing was looking back at Matt playing the drums with his bare hands, saying, “Where are my sticks?”
Durrant: The stage was short and my stool kept falling off stage. I had lost all of my motor skills, and I was always falling off. Sean was pretty mad at me, so he through his guitar at me. Like a spear, not like a toss to a roadie. I might have tried to throw something at him, but my lack of motor skills probably hit a little girl in the audience.
Ferguson: I always felt that if it was three years later, there would have been all of these cell phones filming the show, and you would have been the biggest band in the world a day later. I think there was one internet report on it. We had heard about it, and they described it fairly accurately to Matt’s story. But yeah, that kind of weird meltdown people would’ve gotten into it.
Durrant: When I played with Adam, he was right pissed at me that day. He was so mad.
Ramsay: At that show we backed up [Swervedriver’s] Adam Franklin. It was a cool show, but really too bad because there were a lot of people there to see it. Mark Gardener from Ride was also playing. It started out quite well. I think that’s my second regret in life, throwing my guitar at Matt.
Durrant: But if you go to a rock show and a guy throws a guitar at the drummer, I’d be like, “Oh my god! That was great! Did you see that?” If that was the time to do that to me? That show was it. I didn’t feel it anyway. And I deserved it. At least once you got to do that to me.
So what was the aftermath like?
Ramsay: We played one more show after that tour and took a break. It was an unspoken thing.
Matt Durrant: But we had done that before. Everyone usually feels the same way about it. We don’t exactly have bosses tell us to get back on the road. We aren’t run like a business. We can take a break for a year and it won’t matter.
Do you think those incidents and circumstances prevented SIANspheric from becoming bigger?
Ramsay: I don’t think so. Like I say, I don’t think we ever had delusions of grandeur. We understood where we were in the musical sphere, on the outside a bit. We just play because we have that scratch to itch.
Durrant: We never really dedicated ourselves to playing show after show and travelling. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. You can’t expect people to know who you are if you don’t play. I think we stayed local in a way. I’m always flattered when I hear from someone on the other side of the world writing us and asking us about our music. I feel content with that. The other option to doing this is to work really hard and tour and be dirty all the time. And drink too much. Instead we had kids and jobs and other stuff to do. We’ve found a place to make music though. We can just get together and be creative. It’s not like being a hockey team. As far as getting bigger, whatever that means, it comes down to doing all that work and being steady about it. I do think the one loss of taking those breaks was when we did play all of those shows weeks in a row, travelling and playing shows every night, we did get better. And it showed. So maybe, yeah, just the fact that we kept getting tight would’ve been different.
You have this new 7” out on Noyes Records. Is this a one-off or the lead-in to something more?
Durrant: We just what we feel like doing and the opportunity for that 7” came up. Everything about it was cool. There is no game plan to get somewhere with it. We’d like to put out a full-length at some point soon. We’ve done some stuff in the studio, but we haven’t put anything together yet.
Ramsay: We want to make something that we’ve put our heart and soul into. And so far the recordings have been fun, but nothing’s felt like an actual record yet. We keep going back to the drawing board.
Ferguson: At the same time there are a lot of songs ready. We’ve got two out.
Ramsay: If we can get it together… You know what? We’re gonna do it. We’ll have something new out soon. It’s gonna happen. I know it.
Cam Lindsay is a writer living in Canada. He's on Twitter.