54-40 — 30 and loving it

Justin Brake
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Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, 54-40 performs Friday at Mile One, opening for Bachman-Turner. — Submitted image

It’s hard to believe they’ve been at it for so long but 54-40 is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.

Few would argue the Vancouver veteran rock band’s contribution to Canadian music is less than significant. And, three decades ago, even fewer would have believed that members of the Tsawwassen trio would be touring the country in support of a 13th studio album in 2011.

But they are, and they land in St. John’s Friday as the opening act for Randy Bachman and Fred Turner at Mile One Centre.

Formed in 1981, it wasn’t until after a few band member alterations and the 1986 release of their self-titled sophomore album that 54-40 began to earn their dues.

In the proceeding decade Neil Osborne (vocals/guitar), Brad Merritt (bass), Matt Johnson (drums) and Phil Comparelli (guitar) released another six albums, three of which were certified platinum in Canada and one gold, and charted a number of singles, including “I Go Blind,” “One Gun,” “She La,” “Radio Luv Song,” “Ocean Pearl,” “Lies To Me,” and “Crossing a Canyon.”

Through the 90s 54-40 was one of the most played bands on Canadian rock radio. And certainly, though they’ve fallen off the mainstream radar over the past decade, their creative output and artistic integrity is worthy of esteem.

Osborne, on the phone from his Vancouver Island home, shares insight into the band’s long run, its new album and what matters most to him about 54-40’s music today.

In the early 80s gigs in Vancouver were a dime a dozen, “but making records was really hard and expensive,” says Osborne. “There were only so many studios and ... they were more expensive then than they are now, so making a record was our dream.”

When they accomplished that with their “Selection” EP in 1982, 54-40 was among the earliest of bands to emerge from Vancouver’s post-punk underground music scene with an actual record, a huge accomplishment at the time.

“Today, with computers and technology, anybody can make a decent sounding record in their bedroom, but it’s really hard to get a gig, especially one that pays more than a couple hundred bucks,” Osborne explains.

If the easy gig and hard album phenomenon wasn’t a thing of the past, it’s possible the band might not be on the go still.

But what keeps them going?

“We have been around the block and we have bigger lives than just the band,” Osborne explains. “We’ve learned fairly quickly that our records are a reflection of our own experience in the world and our own experience with our music, and a new vision or new idea comes forth from that.”

“Lost in The City” hasn’t spawned any radio hits, but in a time when more quality music is found off-radio than on, maybe 54-40’s consistent output and subterranean retreat is a fitting embarkment down the final stretch for the seasoned musicians.

“We release a record, we go tour, the world changes significantly, we change significantly, and we write a new record,” says Osborne. “Initially we embraced some causes and attitudes that were considered political at certain points in times and with certain songs. (But) that line is pretty much gone now.”

Less a political statement than a keen observation on the state of society and humanity, “Lost in The City” is chock full of references to relationships and love and events, but all with a deeper connection to the album’s theme of “the world moving a little faster than our ability to deal with it,” says Osborne.

Influenced during the album’s songwriting period by Blues legends Booker White and Robert Johnson, Osborne asked himself, ‘Can a white guy in a Canadian band in 2011 still apply some of these sentiments to what’s going on today?’ And I said, yeah, certainly, why not?”

“Good Man Feeling Bad” addresses the “modern day anxiety” Osborne says we all seem to find ourselves subjected to.

“The basic philosophy is acknowledging what’s happening and go on,” he says. “And then obviously looking for something valid or significant or new in another person or in a relationship.”

What filters into 54-40 songs on the new record, he admits, is a distilled perception of what matters most: “Meaningful relationships and trying to discover your own humanity. In other words, empathy for (others) and some sense of greater good,” he says. “And what the details of that are can change, and they do.

“We find if you sort of sit and wait things through, it does tend to sort itself out where you can have a clearer picture. So I guess the older and more seasoned you get you begin to understand the importance of patience. And I don’t know what that has to do with music,” he laughs, acknowledging his full-circle digression.

“It’s kind of our attitude for staying together anyway.”

Geographic location: Vancouver Island, Tsawwassen, Canada

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