54-40: A Hall of Fame Career Continues
By David DeRocco
(Republished from an earlier interview)
It’s a cruel irony of the music business. The people who claim rock is dead are usually the same people unwilling to listen to the new music being made by heritage artists. That’s especially true in Canada, where great bands with long legacies of delivering huge hits typically have their new music ignored by radio and record-buying public.
This article is here to encourage you to change the dynamic: if you’re a fan of 54-40 – the hit-making pride of Tsawwassen, British Columbia -- then go out and buy their latest release, THE LONG WALK. Play it more than once. In fact, don’t listen to anything else for a week; just immerse yourself in the songs, the hooks, the catchy vocal sing-alongs, the signature sound. At the end of that week, you’ll have a bunch of new favourite songs to add to that great list of hits 54-40 has created since forming way back in 1981: “Baby Ran,” “I Go Blind,” “One Day In Your Life,” “One Gun,” “Baby Have Some Faith,” “Miss You,” “Nice To Love You,” “She La,” “Assoholic,” “Ocean Pearl,” “Love You All,” “Lies To Me,” and so on and so on.
The band performs January 10th at FirstOntario PAC. Bassist and founding member Brad Merritt took time to chat with GoBeWeekly about the new album, the band’s history and the benefits of having Hootie and The Blowfish cover one of your biggest songs.
GOBE: Writing as Richard Bachman, author Stephen King wrote a book called The Long Walk. The book is set in a dystopian future where 100 walkers have to keep walking with no finish line in sight, and if they slow down they get shot, with the last man standing winning the ultimate prize of anything he wants for the rest of his life. Looking at the cover of 54-40’s new album Keep On Walking, with its endless road and blurry horizon, it made me think of the book and the long road your band has been on for nearly 40 years. You’ve dodged a few bullets that have taken other bands down and here you are still walking. Does it feel like an endless road to you?
BRAD: Wow, that’s a tough question.
GOBE: They get easier.
BRAD: I’m cognizant of the fact we’ve been around a long time. We keep on walking, we haven’t slowed down (laughing). But at the same time I don’t take it for granted. And I know it’s going to end at some point. I’m appreciative for what we have and I recognize we’ve been around a long time. How it feels is, it feels about as long as it’s been. I’ve got a pretty good sense of time and space. We’re comfortable where we’re at. We definitely see a future and we enjoy what we’re doing.
GOBE: I spent 30 years in rock radio, and when I started your album Show Me had just come out. The station I worked at didn’t play “One Day In Your Life” and “One Gun” because you were considered too alternative. I’d be hard pressed now to think of a station that doesn’t play 54-40. People talk about narrow playlists now, but it may have been worse then.
BRAD: Well they play Led Zeppelin in the supermarket now so a lot has changed (laughing). I don’t know what to say about that. I guess it’s good for us. When we started out as a band we never wanted to be the biggest and richest and the most famous. That wasn’t where we were at. All the bands that we liked kind of had middling success but it was the stuff we liked. Not that we emulated it but we were influenced by it. Given time people or radio programmers kind of see things for what they are. That’s the way it is with history. You can’t really appreciate history as it’s happening because you don’t have that perspective of time. When you look at our music and the songs you just mentioned, the early stuff that’s considered alternative, it sounds pretty good. And it’s not exactly inaccessible music. We’ve always had kind of an ear for melody and the turn of a phrase, a little hooky thing.
GOBE: At the recent Canadian Music Week the band was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. That’s kind of like becoming a grandfather; as young as you feel you can’t deny you’re at that age to become one, or to be entering a Hall of Fame. What if anything do those acknowledgements mean to you at this stage of the career.
BRAD: It was great. We certainly didn’t get into this to receive awards and acknowledgements or whatever, but it’s nice to be recognized by your peers. There were other musicians, other record company people there, there were radio people, music publishers, etc. The best part of the whole thing was we also got inducted into the Canadian Indie Music Hall of Fame. We were in Toronto for five days, we played two shows, stayed at the Sheraton downtown. Everybody we knew was parading through the lobby. It was like old home week, being able to catch up with these people we’ve known for 35 years. We were grateful
GOBE: What have been the best and worst changes you’ve seen in the Canadian musical landscape over these past three decades.
BRAD: There’s lots. When we started out just doing what we were doing there was no market for us, at least not a commercial market in Canada. I can show you rejection letter after rejection letter from Canadian major record labels. At the same time in the United States we had all these letters saying we really like what you’re doing, keep us informed, tell us your tour dates, give us new material. It was a completely different thing. Eventually we signed to Warner Brothers in Los Angeles. The Canadian music scene was very parochial, it was kind of branch plants where they had to look for stuff for other markets, a style and hair. And we were just not that kind of band. So that’s the way it used to be. But then, with the CanCon rules, the real sort of effort to create a Canadian scene and Canadian sound, that all kind of happened after we started as a band. But it a positive thing. You can actually be a Canadian artist in Canada, make a living, create. That’s happened since late 70s early 80s. I guess on the downside today, without the kind of filters that used to be there like radio play or being signed to a major label, you just get inundated by so many things, so many artists coming out, it’s hard to figure out what is up. That’s a small price to pay for the progress the Canadian music scene has made.
GOBE: Another upside is that 54-40 has a new album out. You’re still making new music. While fans often get stuck listening to only the songs that came out during a particular time in their lives, as a band you have to treat each new song like a new baby. You have to love them equally. What degree of joy do you find in creating and finishing new songs after 37 years of making music. Is it still a rush.
BRAD: That’s a great question. It’s the #1 thing for all of us. That’s our favourite part. That’s why we got into this, to be creative, to be able to express, to be able to write and record and release music. I would say that is probably the #1 thing for us. It’s gratifying too for us to get this album out. The last record we did of original material in the studio was released in 2012. So we literally got together in 2013 and had a jam, and eight or nine of those became songs on this record. So it’s been a long drawn out process but I have got to say it feels good to still be able to doing that, even more so than the live part.
GOBE: I have a race car driver friend who got hired by Sly Stallone to be a stunt driver in his Indy racing flick and he wound up building his Toronto home with the money from that one lucky break. How much of a windfall was it for 54-40 when Hootie and the Blowfish covered “I Go Blind.”
BRAD: It was a boost, and it was a boost financially at a time we needed it (laughing). It was a vindication too. You can’t be in a band without thinking you’re great. If you don’t then you’re in trouble. We think we’re great. We thought we were great when we were making records for Warner Brothers. And we put in a solid effort there for three records but we didn’t think we got the results we deserved. When the Hootie version of “I Go Blind” came out it was a bit of vindication for us. Here’s a song that Warner Brothers said we’re not going to release as a single. They only released it in Canada. You have this great song and then it gets recorded and doesn’t get promoted at all. It was never released as a single, but radio started playing it on their own. Without any kind of radio promotion it got to #3 in the country with zero push. That tells you something. That’s a really strong song. We took that as vindication that we were good and that we write good songs.
GOBE: It’s one of the things I love about 54-40. Every band has a signature sound, whether it be vocals or guitars or whatever. With 54-40, with all those great hits, there’s a real variety in the song structure. Kudos to you all for being such talented songwriters.
BRAD: Thanks. That was a conscious decision. We knew we were sort of limited in the way we were able to interpret music but we always tried to make things different. We always tried to expand our way of looking at things and ways of presenting ourselves.
GOBE: After 30 years on touring, what are the comforts you make sure you get on the road these days that you may not have in the early days.
BRAD: Oh there’s so many (laughing). Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs right. I think the big thing is getting a hotel room every night. Even if we’re on a tour bus, very rarely do we sleep on a tour bus. And we get our own hotel rooms. I used to room with Neil (Osborne) for the first 20 years (laughing). That’s if we had a hotel room, if we were riding all night in a van or sleeping on the floor of a club or a friend’s house. That would probably be the #1 thing. We’re in our own bed in our own room every single night.
GOBE: Fans see you on stage but don’t always think of the logistics of touring a country as large as Canada. Given the amount of travelling you do by bus and the tragedy earlier this year in Humboldt, do things like who’s driving your bus ever enter into your mind?
BRAD: It’s interesting. You kind of have to put it out of your mind. We’ve had a few times where we’ve had to move pretty quickly on the bus. I’d say we’ve become hyper aware and not just because of the Humboldt disaster. There was a basketball team in New Brunswick in an econoline van five or six years ago too. It’s tough, especially in the winter in Canada. But we also know it’s a random world and that stuff is kind of beyond our control. I think we’re somewhat fatalistic about some stuff. We’re able to put it out of your minds.
GOBE: You’re on the road and, knock on wood, you arrive safely in Niagara for your show at Canal Days. For that one person in Niagara who may never have had the pleasure of seeing 54-40, what can we expect from this tour.
BRAD: The set is constructed with St. Catharines and Niagara in mind. We’re going to play all the hits, we’re going to play a couple album track, and we’re going to play two or three new songs. And we’re going to rock and have fun doing it. We look forward to creating that sense of community with all who are there and to have some fun!
54-40 plays FirstOntario PAC January 10th