Vancouver post-punk pop-rockers 54•40 are slowly creeping up on 40 years as a band with little to no downtime through the years.
Known for catchy songs like Nice to Luv You, Ocean Pearl and One Gun, as well as writing the classic Hootie and the Blowfish hit I Go Blind, this west coast band has had a successful life with no signs of slowing down.
The band hits the road this month with several shows in the 519 area in St. Catharines on Jan. 10, Paris on Jan. 14 and 15, Meaford on Jan. 16 and Guelph on Jan. 19.
Original bassist and founding member Brad Merrit checked in ahead of the tour to reminisce about the band’s interesting history.
Aside from being a bit older, what are some of the major changes that you see or hear with the band now, compared to the band that began its career opening for DOA 39 years ago?
Well we know how to write songs and keep each part in the key of the song without changing keys. We learned how to do what we do. We started in a do-it-yourself kind of scene, and we were very enthusiastic and worked very hard, but didn’t know what we were doing, and then we figured it out as we went. That doesn’t make it any better, what we’re doing now. It makes it different, maybe more conventional. So there’s growth, and I think that was the object of the game all along. We’re more concerned with the process than getting a result.
Have you been happy with the band’s career?
Yes, I am. The way I look at it is, if we had achieved much more success off the get-go, if we released the Green Record in 1986, and not just had MTV play on Baby Ran, but radio embraced it, and then we got to I Go Blind as a single, which we never did in the United States, and they didn’t have the independent promoter scandal and the payola scandal, and we could’ve actually marketed the record and got our songs on the radio, I think we would’ve been a much bigger act in the United States, obviously. We feel vindicated that I Go Blind came around years later as a hit for Hootie And The Blowfish, so it could’ve happened.
You guys really never took a hiatus, but there was a lapse between new studio albums until Keeping On Walking came out last year. What are some of the reasons why it took six years?
That’s a good question. Well I think there were existential questions being raised from within the band. I thought I know Neil wasn’t really motivated to create within the band, because we actually started in 2013, and we had 22 or 24 jams that we had actually recorded that we felt had lots of potential. So it took a little while for us to sort of, as a group, decide that this was what we wanted to do.
Then of course, the way you finance these things too. We didn’t have a record company, and so we knew we had to do it ourselves, so we did an Indiegogo campaign, a crowd funding exercise. That allowed us to get some money together to complete it.
Then at the same time we realized that it would be a good idea to maybe look at some of our bona fide hits, and try to interpret them in a different way. So we actually did another crowd funding exercise, and actually stopped working on Keep On Walking, and did this acoustic record called Le Difference, A History Unplugged. Then we toured on that for about a year.
Sucker For Your Love from Keep On Walking has that classic 54-40 vibe, and it sounds like it could be a future concert favourite. Can you tell me about that song?
There are songs that are like that in our catalog, where it’s kind of pedaling eighth notes and you’re chugging along, an up-mid-tempo. A very direct kind of song, we’ll say, rather. And we were in a studio, this is actually the song has been written, and we were talking about the feel and the tempo, and taking a close look at this before we started to get in there and start laying down tracks. The band was going through a bit of an ELO phase, you know, Electric Light Orchestra, Jeff Lynne. Don’t Bring Me Down was the song, we looked at the video and went, what a clever, simple song, but it had this nice little pulse to it.
As a bassist, you must love driving songs like that, and Nice To Love You, and Love You All.
Yeah, I do. But I like them all. They’re fun. That’s part of the reason why we got into this. And I think people enjoy that. It’s a four-on-the-floor, pulsing kind of rock and roll thing, full of little guitar riffs which are kind of catchy. It’s a big part of the music that I grew up with, whether it be the Kinks or the Troggs or the Rolling Stones or whatever. There’s a timeless appeal, from 1964 to 2024. I don’t think that’ll ever go out of style, at least for us anyway. But I don’t want to do that all the time.
In fact I remember going to see bands, the bands that I know and love. You mentioned DOA. Love DOA, but after they’ve played five songs you go okay, it’s kind of what it is. This is why punk rock, which I love punk rock, is, you’re right, you’ve got to keep those sets short. It’s got to be half hour, and then you’ve got to get them off, get the next band on. We were never going to be that band. Our interests were more varied than that.
54•40 has a very distinct sound, and after almost four decades, it’s almost expected that your sound kind of stays that certain way, or at least be familiar. Do you find that there is that need to keep that familiarity?
Being the pop rock combo that we are, or stylists in other words, where no one went to university and has got a fine arts degree in music, there’s certain limitations that we have, but that’s what creates the style. Because you’re not chameleons. But at the same time, we always have this intense desire to not repeat what we just did. And what we found early in our career is that each record, within what we were capable of doing, was diametrically opposed to the record that we just did. So we just did these huge oscillations back and forth. But it allowed us to grow and experiment and try different things, and some were successful and others less so.
I think now, we feel very comfortable with who we are, and we don’t feel this need to vacillate, swing wildly back and forth. So we actually do that within the record itself. That’s what we did with Keep On Walking. It’s a very eclectic set of songs, and produced by four different producers, but it still holds together. I think that comes with age, experience, and confidence.
You guys posted an incredible performance of “Book” with Spirit of the West from ‘92. I never knew you guys played together.
That was from a Much Music kind of documentary, where they just followed us around as we were all over the place, Toronto, Vancouver and Los Angeles, and we hung out with other bands, and chatted and played songs together. There’s also a neat thing early in the broadcast, where The Hip were down in Australia touring, and they pulled into a studio and did their own version of Baby Ran too, which is on that same broadcast. It’s all over YouTube, so you can find it. But it’s hilarious.
Anyway, we’ve all sort of one back and shared that with each other, with John Mann’s passing, we did that. It’s a clever song. It was on Dear Dear, which was released in ‘92. John played guitar and sang background vocals, Jeff played flute, Linda McRae played accordion, and Hugh played mandolin. It was a great experience, we really enjoyed it.
Did you know John apart from that performance? And if so, do you have any great memories to share?
So many. You just couldn’t imagine a kinder, nicer, more pleasant person, and you couldn’t imagine a person with more energy than him.
We both lived in Vancouver, and we’d run into each other from time to time. We played together, we visited them in the studio when they were doing Save This House, Mushroom Studios, and did the Book song together. We played together with them, us, and Tragically Hip in Saskatoon once.
It was outdoors, and they opened the show, and you could see it starting to get kind of windy, something was coming in. And we get onstage, and it’s being summer in northern Saskatchewan, it’s still light at 9:30 at night. And it’s just starting to get dark, and the wind is getting more intense, and we finish our set, and then Tragically Hip gets out there, and the heavens just open up. This is prairie rainstorm. They move the whole back line back, the band backs up under the cover, and Gord Downie just gets right out to the edge of the stage and just does the whole show in the pouring rain. And there’s us and Spirit of the West watching the show from the side of the stage going. What a great night, and what a great thing for us to play together, and that Gord Downie guy, he’s pretty amazing.
Some of the upcoming shows that you’re playing are going to be in our home region. Do you have any stories from playing around in Southwestern Ontario?
Yes, lots. We played, the Peace Festival, near the Peace Bridge, down there. What a great show. That was great fun. And we were actually on, the night after we were going to play with a bunch of other bands, but it was that band with Chris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash – The Highwaymen.
Yeah. So it was a big thing that they had going on there, so when we played there was probably 30,000 people there. But anyway, they put us on last. Which is fine, we can be last. We don’t like being last in these big festivals, we’d rather be second or third to last. And they wanted a band that had some catalog so the people would stick around and hear some of the songs. and then the Tea Party.
I’ve got nothing against them, and actually we’re on very friendly terms with them now, but they had this new record out called Twilight, and they were scheduled to come on at 6 pm and they didn’t want to go on so early because they wanted to play during twilight. So they dragged out the changeover so everything was late, which I held against them for at least two or three days, but I got over it pretty quickly.
So we go on at 1 am in the morning, trying to play and I remember getting paid, got paid in cash, and I had just a wad of cash in my front pocket as we’re playing the show. And we’re still out there at 2-3 in the morning, and to my surprise, everybody stayed, enjoyed the show, sang along with us. It was the first show where I realized that we had something that was unique and appreciated and valuable, and something that people really wanted to be a part of. It wasn’t us trying to impose ourselves on people. I was quite grateful to the people of your region that stuck around and saw our show, as late as we came on.