The only way to really get to know Sisters Euclid is by getting into a very small room – Toronto's Orbit Room - (usually very early) in Toronto on a Monday night and committing one's self to music, totally appropriate to wail and dance to, in a setting more like a less severe jazz club. The classic lineup was until Organist Rob Gusevs recent amicable departure, Kevin Breit (Guitar, stringed things), Ian deSouza (Bass) and Gary Taylor (Drums). The devoted and revolving cadre of attendees are treated to what feels like a fraternal bond reflected in a loose even spastic improvisational context guided by the feverish Kevin Breit. Although the setlist doesn't adequitely reflect what actually happens in the room it's the only document we have to trace out the performance.
Ian DeSouza: We don’t usually work from a set list, much like the music itself…it’s kind of, feel the vibe of the audience combined with what we feel like playing.
Q: Looking through the discography, being familiar with the live show exclusively, how much of the respective recordings do you still play?
ID: We play material from all our recordings in addition to stuff that hasn’t been recorded…sometimes we play things no one has heard, ourselves included.
Q: To my view I see only "Trouble in Orbit" - if this is "Sisters in Orbit" which it probably isn't or bares little resemblance- from Green Pastors (1998) as still being played.
ID: It is the same tune, the same form…but it changes every time we play it. Kevin may play the head on Mandolin, Mandola, Electric Sitar, Mark Lalama….our new Keyboard player may choose to double the head on accordion or melodica. Gary and I may re-jig the groove to a ska/tango type of thing…we workshop song ideas on the fly. Sometimes the rhythmic idea that Gary and I play is completely contrary to what Kevin and Mark are playing, creating a weird kind of tension.
Some tunes follow a more prescribed path (in terms of feel) like "Tumbleweed Tea" or "Mission Bell Blues" (from All Babies Go To War – 1999), but even then, there are other elements of the performance (like dynamics, tempo or instrumentation) that are tampered with. We play material from Other Folks (2001) quite often, Coltrane’s Giant Steps, Mingus’ Slop, Bill Evan’s Green in Blue and the Beatles/Charlie Rich medley of "Helter Skelter/Behind Closed Doors".
Q: I'm guessing almost everything off of Sisters Never Rust (sic. Run Neil Run) has been played out live.
ID: Actually, Sisters Never Rust is a bootleg name for a record of Neil Young songs (done instrumentally) we recorded in Germany sometime back. We won a Juno for 'Best Instrumental Recording' in 2007 for that record. We seem to play material off that record the least, with the exception of our renditions of "Southern Man", "Helpless", "Ohio" and "Harvest Moon". After that record came out we toured Germany extensively and are releasing a limited edition collection of live recordings from Germany during that time (release date, Feb. 22, 2010). Strangely enough, the new Live in Germany record doesn’t have any Neil Young songs on it. But it does have some previously unrecorded original material and some material from a special Radio Bremen show we did in celebration of the life of Johnny Cash. It’s the Sisters way, I guess.
Q: Bringing us to Faith Cola which perhaps best reflects the evolution of the live show or at least contains a number of songs that have been workshopped over the years, among them "Faith Cola", "Big Al", "Perry Garcia" and "Lowell".
ID: Faith Cola was an important record for us because we all felt like it was the record that summarized the previous 11+ years (at that time) of playing live and recording. While all the other records were about the moment, this record in particular, was about a period longer than ‘the moment’. Even on Faith Cola there was material we had never played together as a band, until we started recording, but it felt like we had.
Q: A fascinating aspect of the Sisters live show as reflected in the most recent recording Faith Cola is your evolving homages to guitarists you presumably greatly admire. "Perry Garcia" is the only obvious tip off title wise but of course a number of other songs are, or began as, I'm presuming your treatment of their voices or using their singularity as an inspiration for a composition. Is this overly presumptuous? How would you describe the 'guitarist' songs and how they've evolved as group improvisations over time?
Kevin Breit: Well, actually, for the longest time, "Perry Garcia", was called the New One. On one Monday at the Orbit Room, we had 3 tables full of deadheads. I've always loved the whole Grateful Dead relationship between band and fan. Anyways, I introduced the song as Jerry Garcia. This was met with hoots and hollers. The title stuck until we went in to record it on Faith Cola. Our pal, Perry White played on it with us and I guess we've always considered him the Jerry Garcia of the saxophone. Ta da...A Song Is Born.
Q: The first of the 'guitarist' songs I became aware of was "Big Al" which as a fan I can safely describe as a showpiece of the live set (in the parlance of a Deadhead it is a not particularly rare 'bustout' but always a huge launchpad for expansive improvisations). First is this a particularly fun song to play live? While on the topic of fun songs to play live off the top of your head what songs do you particularly enjoy (beyond all of them) playing from your set?
KB: "Big Al" is a blast to play because you, the improviser, can take it to many places...blues, jazz, twangy, without disrespecting the composition. Every night, different songs are great to play and deconstruct. The audience is a huge factor. We've been mis-booked on a few occasions and trying to make the populace happy can be daunting, to say the least. Not everyone may want to hear, "A Mall Full O Toads", but, being the professionals we are, we forge ahead, blazing trails perhaps fraught with projectile vegetables or glass containers. We haven't had an indifferent audience yet. I think folks like a launching pad regardless if their heart is saying, 'Skynyrd'
Q: Most won't have heard of Big Al Anderson or NRBQ(1), how would you describe the importance of NRBQ as a band, Al Anderson as a guitarist and your kinship with him to a novice?
KB: NRBQ was the best band in the world. They no longer perform, unfortunately, but the influence they've had on so many bands is astounding. I wish more people had heard them. Big Al is beyond, beyond. No nonsense, take no prisoner badass.
Q: I'm not sure chronologically what came next but "Lowell" has appeared in the live show for some time now and is also an homage in this case to Little Feat's Lowell George. Bill Payne once said that of all the things he learned from playing and living with Lowell the lesson he remembers most is phrasing. From your perspective what is lasting about Lowell George's place in music history and can you point to how that is reflected in the composition "Lowell" or it's live expression.
KB: Lowell had an ability to write the most beautiful melodies, utilizing these long tone phrases married with heart wrenching words. He was the best part of the 'California-sound'. The Beach Boys have been credited with this label but I think leaving out The Mothers (of Invention) and Little Feat in all this is just plain sad. Throw Captain Beefheart in there for good measure! We have a lot of fun with "Lowell". It moves around harmonically but I hope it doesn't come off that way. It's just a simple tune.
Q: Again being uncertain of the chronology "Domenic" (after session guitarist Domenic Troiano(2)) - a classic example of a musician's musician - whose biography even a devoted Canadian music fan's ignorance could be excused - appeared likely shortly after his passing. What can you tell us about Domenic as a musician or a person and the importance of his contribution to Canadian music and music in general?
KB: Domenic was so respected. His reputation of being musically monstrous was legendary. Rob Gusevs(3) performed with Dom, on and off for several years. I know he had many incredible journeys with him. Above all, he was a gentle soul who cared deeply for those around him.
Q: I think, in the world of Sisters arcana, I'm correct about this but didn't Domenic in fact develop into "Faith Cola" the title track of the new album? What can you say about this transition from one of the 'guitarist' songs to a distinct composition in it's own right? Am I attributing too much to the notion of Kevin writing these compositions or are they truly collaborative efforts which evolve naturally over time with fairly democratic input?
ID: "Faith Cola" is in fact "Domenic", and yes, Kevin writes 99% of the material (other than the covers). The actual performance of the tunes is the ‘releasing of the hounds’ so to speak. The analogy that comes to mind is, Kevin tables the topic and we discuss it (in a musical sense, that is). And as in all conversations, a particular thought will lead to someone taking the discussion in a different direction, which will lead to discussion in that area for a while until another idea is introduced. This crucible is one of my favourite aspects of this band, because no matter what is brought to the table, we all participate equally, which is also the great thing about how Kevin writes for this band. There is never any question about what is right or wrong, preciousness or ownership, the only thing that is absolutely required is that you come prepared to talk. This is the beautiful thing about a band, beyond the playing part. The respect and trust that your mates will be listening and that they will answer.
Q: Barring understandable omissions the last 'guitarist' song I can think of is of course "Perry Garcia". Unlike the guitarists I've mentioned so far Jerry Garcia's voicing on the guitar is immediately recognizable to perhaps even casual music fans. A single note or incredibly brief run would be unmistakable as anyone other than the late great Jerome Garcia. That said it would take quite a few words to describe what is essentially his tone. How then would you, again to a novice listener, describe the tone or distinctive sound of Jerry Garcia's guitar playing? How is the uniqueness of that voice reflected in the composition "Perry Garcia" and how does, if at all, his questing improvisational spirit manifest itself in the live rendition?
KB: Jerry's tone is truly his own. I know he had some fairly oddball guitars, amps and witchcraft stomp-boxes. People at their concerts would take snapshots of all his 'stuff'. Guitar Player Magazine, went in depth into the Garcia chain of machines once. He probably kept a luthier in business for many years. I find this so funny because Jerry sounded like Jerry on a nondescript flat top. He had 'style' which existed when the lights went out and the generator ran out of gas. "Perry Garcia" is a blues, where the I IV V chords are diminished, not your dominant seventh offerings. It's trippy. Kinda like someone we're talking about.
Q: In some regard your canonization of obscure session guitarists, were it not for your impeccable humility as a person, is unsurprising- they stand in as thinly veiled surrogates for yourself. Is there a question in there?
KB: Everyone needs a mentor. No one said you couldn't have thousands.
Q: Although lauded as a songwriter rather than guitarist Warren Zevon is another musician with whom Kevin, and presumably you all feel a deep kinship. Hunter S. Thompson's theme song "Lawyers, Guns and Money" has appeared in the set over the past year or two. As another fine musician lost fairly recently and known best to other musicians and intense music fans how should he be best remembered?
KB: Let's add him to the California soundboard. An excitable boy to the highest degree.
(1) The New Rhythm and Blues Quartet has a 30 year history as a recorded and live entity that developed a fanatical cult following worldwide. ‘Led’ by keyboardist Terry Adams the core lineup was comprised of Adams, guitarist Al Anderson, drummer Tom Ardolino, bassist Joey Spampinato and, after Al quit in 1996, brother Johnny Spampinato played guitar. NRBQ is sometimes referred to as the Simpsons house band because creator Matt Groening is amongst their phalanx of fans (including also Keith Richards, Paul McCartney and Bonnie Raitt). NRBQ appear animated in the eighth episode of the 11th season of the Simpsons (November 28, 1999) in an episode entitled ‘Take My Wife, Sleaze’. Rolling Stone magazine describes their later albums as essentially ‘live souvenirs, the idea being that NRBQ is best caught in concert.’ One of NRBQ’s lesser recorded forays on a major label is entitled Grooves In Orbit.
(2) Domenic Troiano is sometimes described as the best guitarist you never heard of. He is known in the context of music history at large for his earliest work with Robbie Lane and the Disciples, Mandala and Bush. In 1972 he replaced Joe Walsh and joined the James Gang. In 1974 he joined the Guess Who and recorded two albums with them as well. He later recorded with artists including Diana Ross, Joe Cocker and Randy Bachman as well as working with producers including eminent figures like Donald Fagen and Todd Rundgren.
(3) Rob Gusevs became a Sister Euclid on Sept. 20, 1996 and played his last gig as a Sister on Nov. 21, 2009 . He is the signatory Hammond B3 organist that completed the Sisters sound. His fluidity and strong left hand (hell strong right hand) is truly a joy to behold. Perhaps owing to dynamics more related to personality than amplitude Rob proved a wry straight man to Kevin’s child like histrionics. In this way with a single smirk or glance he could ‘cast doubt’ on the entire proceedings not unlike a disapproving uncle. Interestingly Gusevs appears on a recording 2B3: The Toronto Sessions which featured two Hammond B3 organs and 7 North American players including Little Feat’s Bill Payne accompanied by Little Feat’s Richie Hayward.