54 40’s journey from punk to pop

54-40 is set to make music history in Whitehorse this weekend. The Vancouver rock band will be inducted into the Western Canadian Music Awards Hall of Fame alongside the likes of BTO, The Guess Who, Loverboy and Chilliwack.

54-40 is set to make music history in Whitehorse this weekend.

The Vancouver rock band will be inducted into the Western Canadian Music Awards Hall of Fame alongside the likes of BTO, The Guess Who, Loverboy and Chilliwack.

The award comes exactly 31 years after three gangly guys got together to start jamming under a bridge in East Vancouver.

The raging Vancouver punk scene left its mark on the fledgling three-piece, which was influenced by Echo and the Bunnymen, Gang of Four and Wire.

Practising in an old house at bassist Brad Merritt’s father’s foundry, the trio started off playing “angst-ridden, rhythmic, very austere post-punk,” said Merritt.

“It was three people making noise, then we’d take one or two things out,” he said.

“We didn’t know how to write a song.”

Three decades later – with more albums and hits than you can count on both hands, including Hootie and the Blowfish’s cover of their song I Go Blind – 54-40 has it figured out.

“We create little, groovy atmospheric things, rather than something that is overly bombastic, or too clever,” said Merritt.

The band has also moved away from post-punk over the years, into a more pop-fueled genre.

“The key for us is how do we keep ourselves interested and engaged?” he said.

Although they’ve been treated very well by radio over the years, it’s not about catering to radio, said Merritt.

It’s also not about pleasing record companies and fans, he said.

“It’s about making ourselves happy, we want to challenge ourselves and grow.”

And if the music they create pleases record companies, fans and radio hosts too, all the better, he said.

It’s no easy feat keeping a band together for more than three decades.

Merritt and frontman Neil Osborne are the only original members.

The group lost its first drummer and morphed into a four-piece early on, before signing with Warner Brothers in the US.

The second drummer stuck it out for 21 years, but substance abuse troubles took their toll.

“We tried everything and eventually had to replace him,” said Merritt.

Just over eight years ago, the band got a different guitarist too.

Throughout its various incarnations, Osborne’s creativity has carried the group.

“Neil writes most of the lyrics, he’s most interested in expressing himself,” said Merritt.

Recently, this expression has taken a new turn.

54-40 used to write its new albums between tours, hashing out guitar licks and melody lines in its practice space.

But for its most recent album, Lost in the City, the band tried something a little different.

On tour, when they had more than one day off, the band would rent a practice space, wherever they were, and start to work on new music.

“On tour, your already in that mode of playing and listening well,” said Merritt.

“It’s spontaneous and you have a lot of energy. It’s not artificial.”

54-40 used to play more than 100 shows a year. Now they’re down to 50.

“We all have families, and can’t be bohemian musicians anymore,” said Merritt.

When 54-40 began, Merritt and Osborne weren’t dreaming of stardom.

“We didn’t have career ambitions and weren’t thinking about making a living,” said Merritt.

It also was “not about drugs and girls.

“It’s always been about the music for us,” he said.

“It’s about the creative process.”

It’s a natural inclination for an artist, said Merritt.

“We wanted to get our music out to people; we had this profound desire to share it.”

But it’s more than that.

Ever since he was small, growing up working in his family’s foundry, Merritt has dreamed of “doing something worthwhile.”

“I wanted to do something to help my country,” he said.

It’s only recently, that the bassist realized his music has done just that.

“There’s a theme that runs through some of our biggest songs,” he said.

“Life is full of bad stuff, and things you can’t control and it may make you unhappy, but you’re going to get through it, there’s something on the other side.”

The songs are “uplifting,” he said.

They also make you want to “sing and hum,” which helps.

Watching people’s reaction when the band plays makes it all worthwhile, said Merritt.

“That why we keep pushing ourselves and keep on keeping on,” he said.

54-40 is playing the Western Canadian Music Awards Gala on Sunday, October 23 at the Yukon Arts Centre.

Breakout West is featuring bands from Western Canada all weekend at eight venues downtown Whitehorse.

It’s $20 for a weekend pass.

For full listings and the schedule visit www.breakoutwest.ca.

Contact Genesee Keevil at