David Byers is one of the unsung names in Hamilton's musical history although his influence and participation would shape some serious milestones. Byers musical journey began in the late sixties but his musical adventures in the early '70s and early '90s would shape what he's doing now in his late sixties. This month, the Shangs return after a couple of decades away and Byers discusses that and how his old friends in Simply Saucer brought him back to making music again.
"I met Edgar Breau and Paul Colilli at a party on January 8, 1972," recalls Byers. "Although we all had plenty of different musical inclinations but we were all interested in the art rock scene at the time, especially the Canterbury scene in Britain, a lot of obscure bands, and I think that's what motivated us to start a band ourselves."
Byers and Collili would leave Saucer a year later and while other incarnations would keep the band going through 1979, Simply Saucer would only start getting accolades a decade or so later upon the posthumous release of some Bob Lanois studio and a live recording atop Jackson Square.
But this isn't the story of Simply Saucer, although they will factor into the Shangs actual return to recording some twenty four years after their last release.
Byers left Saucer and first became a contemporary music journalist for hire, writing biographies for obscure artists in record collecting magazines but eventually began making music again, ironically with Breau again in a shortlived band called the Third Kind and then on his own slightly different project with Ed and later Pat O'Neill and they would call themselves the Shangs.
"Music journalism is important to music - especially people spreading lesser known musicians - it's important to bring them to the forefront when we live in a blatant commercial society," offers Byers perhaps speaking for this writer as well. "There are so many great musicians that struggle in the shadows and they should be recognized."
With 'fervent' gospel singer Martha Carson, an early arcitect of rock and roll that influenced Elvis that Byers traveled to Nashville to interview, Byers would focus on writing for years but eventually would begin making music with a couple of partners.
"The O'Neills brought something else to the band - Hollywood glamour and tragedies - and I channeled that into what the Shangs became," recalls Byers. "It was totally different from Saucer, a lot more ethereal and quieter, too. That's where music took me. It started off as a duo with Ed and myself but through the years we added Ed's brother at one point. Musically, he was a creative influence but more or less we were a duo for quite a few years. Bossanova lounge interspersed with howling instrumentals, and a different kind of deconstruction. When Simply Saucer formed in '72, Paul Colilli thought of it as deconstructing music. The early Saucer didn't have songs, we tried to deconstruct music and that spilt over into the Shangs. I still love that free form line between music and noise."
Taking their name from a fans take on the girl group the Shangrilas, the Shangs were born from a love of girl groups, what would now be considered lounge, as well as a variety of experimental and ethereal influences, the Shangs were dramatic, esoteric and atmospheric with a pop sensibility that was often contrasted with unsettling presentations.
"We loved girl groups especially the Feminine Complex but we took things like that and did it differently," says Byers. "As opposed to a traditional band, we loved the production of Phil Spector and others that were less band and more ensemble oriented with orchestras and tympanis. That's the way it was.
"We just wrote and played specifically to get a recording but not for the love of playing itself," adds Byers. "None of us were great musicians but you work with your strong points. We wrote songs and made recordings - that's the way I've been for decades. I like production - great sound and great presentation is valuable but performance is the most important thing. I could listen to great performances on scratchy vinyl 78s and still get the same impact rather than some modern pristine presentation. The performance is the major thing. We didn't play out a lot because of the music we were creating even though we did a couple of gigs in the '90s.
The Shangs would officially last about five years with "A Little Bit Of Semi Heaven" (1991) and "Longet" a year later with a 7-inch single, "Claudine" released in 1995 being the tombstone for the project for some time. More of a studio project, the Shangs went back into the studio to follow up with the tentatively titled "Motel Darlene" album but with changing times, the Shangs simply faded from the local spotlight and focused on other things. With the rise of the internet, Byers contacted O'Neil to explore Youtube.com and perhaps pick up where they left off and see what might happen in the new world wide web. But an ill fated album started in 2008, tentatively titled "Whatever Happened to Carol Wayne", would never see the light of day as O'Neil would leave the sessions because Byers says that, "he couldn't take the pressure". Now some twenty-four years since their last official release, the Shangs offer a new album.
"We have more comebacks than Judy Garland," laughs Byers. "We didn't breakup but things got put on the shelf. When Youtube.com came about, we hadn't been in contact for a couple of years but somehow in 2004 we got together to make some videos and started working toward another album and that didn't see the light of day. I didn't live and breathe music for some time but I always had a love of music. I didn't see anything in the future. As you get older, it's a big deal to go out there and play your heart out. Now I just play music and try to get it out there and if it becomes famoous thirty years after I passed on, so be it. I don't think good music has a shelf life.
"I left Saucer amicably and we've been on and off getting together for a few decades and the members had a hand in recording the new Shangs album so we're still connected," adds Byers. "The stuff on the new album is pieced together into some kind of crazy quilt. The product came from a Simply Saucer commemorative project that's been going on for the last five years with the four original members of Saucer, being myself, Edgar, Kevin Christoff and the late Paul Collili. We'd been getting together and recording off and on for at least five years with the hope in mind that we would finish an album and put it out. It's still going to happen but that lead to me with doing things for the Shangs. The Saucer '73 material is all finished but Paul died and that kind of derailed things for a time."
After thirty years, I'm excited to have an interview with an underground Hamilton music legend and an internationally acclaimed recording artist. With the Saucer '73 project, Byers got inspired to do his own music and now there's an international renewed interest in what the Shangs are doing.
"As strange as it is, now I am the Shangs," says Byers. "The "Golden Hits of the Shangs" is a mish mash of old and new stuff with other people involved - the Simply Saucer guys were involved in augmenting the music for this album but I'm steering the thing now. I dont' anticipate Ed coming back into the picture but while I thought of doing some solo stuff, there are other people with my name making music. I thought I still wanted to do the same kind of Shangs sound so why not keep the name even if I'm a singular person. I did that out of necessity. "
"I wrote and recorded some things specifically for a Shangs project but about half of it is from the two ill fated albums, augmented and arranged and pieced together and that's basically it," adds Byers. "The whole issue of 'Golden Hits' and the album cover is a tribute to an album released in 1967 by the girl group named the Paris Sisters. I decided to visually replicate the album and wanted something provocative. You kind of have to stand out in some way and as nice as albums are, the cover is the first thing they see and it has to reflect the music. It's dark, strange and convoluted cover and I think it works for the music inside."
The Internet allows to target a much larger demographic - that niche is world wide and rave reviews are pouring in from a wide range of online media. With the return of the Shangs and revisiting his early days in Simply Saucer, now in his late sixties, Byers is in a new phase of his musical career.
"When Saucer formed we were so young and lived and breathed music and as you get older your life branches out," says Byers. "The new Shangs album - the four of us got together after all these years and recorded some totally improvised material back in 2009. What I did was utilizing that material within other stuff so there's a fair amount of Edgar's 'prepared guitar'. Kevin recorded half of the bass tracks for this album and there are tracks with Paul on it. Ed and Pat are also on the older tracks. They are both represented and their contributions are valued.
"The Saucer '73 project should come out by next year but it's a commemorative project by four people that were in a band after almost fifty years so I don't know if there will be live shows for that," adds Byers. "For the Shangs, we do what we can and get it out there. The reviews have been very gratifying so far. It's nice to even get a review from an oldies act. It's been inspiring but we have a physical recording, I thought about it and we got it out. It's not a notion or a pipe dream - it's there. There may be more music from the Shangs. Thinking of the future and what to do now, well it keeps you creatively young. If that's your inclination, you've got to nurture it like a garden."
The Golden Hits of the Shangs is available for streaming and purchase. Check out theshangs.ca