As a way of kick-starting a re-invigorated period of creativity, the members of seminal Canadian alternative rock band 54-40 chose to first take a fresh and critical glimpse at their impressive back catalogue, before moving forward with an album of new material.
The result is the new rootsy, acoustic-based album La Difference: A History Unplugged which came out Dec. 18 through eOne. The second album is set to come out in late 2016.
La Difference sees vocalist/songwriter Neil Osborne, bassist Brad Merritt, guitarist Dave Genn (who joined from The Matthew Good Band in 2005) and drummer Matt Johnson deconstruct 10 hit songs in ways that are starkly beautiful and surprising – even to long-time fans.
“I would say because of the inspiration of the two records it’s just kind of reinvigorated our professionalism or our caring – it’s definitely given us a really jolt of creative energy. I wouldn’t say that we were complacent over the last few years, but I think we were kind of satisfied with just playing the hits on the summer festival circuit and a few other times throughout the year,” Osborne said, from his home in Victoria, BC.
“We decided we wanted to step up our game a little bit with the idea of introducing new material and focus more on the fact that we are creators, artists and songwriters.”
He added that an increased demand from fans and promoters for stripped down, acoustic shows also played into the equation when it came to re-imagining the bands songs, thinking of how they would be done live as well as on the new album.
“Whether it’s for corporate audiences or soft-seat theatres, a lot of our audience don’t want the full-on big electric guitars shows and some just don’t want to stand up in a bar all night, even though lots still do. So one component has been putting together a show that would essentially be a different branch of the 54-40 brand, which is the acoustic thing,” Osborne explained.
La Difference was recorded essentially live off the floor at Blue Frog Studios in White Rock, BC, which has been turned into an intimate performance venue with the capability of capturing a band’s live show with state-of-the-art recording gear.
“Because it’s hard for studios to survive these days with everyone seeming to be making records from home, they have reconfigured their space so they can accommodate about 100 people in an audience. They have been bringing in people like Barney Bentall or Dan Hill and they do a little concert which they record both the video and audio and everybody walks away happy,” said Osborne.
“We decided that was a cool idea but took it a step further. We booked the place for 10 days. And then we brought in some extra folks, like talented roots multi-instrumentalist Daniel Lapp (ex-Spirit of the West) and the three female background singers. We rehearsed every day and we had both their studios busy. In the afternoon we would rehearse and record the songs and then the last three nights were shows. And it was interesting because the way we were reworking the songs informed the live shows and the shows informed how we were re-doing the songs.
“So we told the people, ‘okay we have been working all week on making a record, and here is a show of what we have created for you.’ Turning it into a fun project that had as all committed to being in the same place for the entire 10 days really helped us focus and I think it really created some great moments on the record that carried over into the new songs that we’ve been working on.”
Some of the more creative interpretations that came about from the sessions were done for some of 54-40‘s most popular songs, including Baby Ran, Lies to Me and Crossing the Canyon.
“Dave Genn actually came up with a lot of the arrangements. We had sort of been fooling around over the years with Baby Ran doing it a few different ways. Dave came up with the overall concept for the project and the first one we really tweaked was Crossing the Canyon, serving the lyrics in more of a true and sombre way by putting it in a minor key. That was really the impetus and it got us thinking about seeing what we could do with all of the songs. We believe the songs are strong enough to handle different interpretations because we wanted to offer up something a little more entertaining than just straightforward acoustic versions,” Osborne explained.
“It’s good for us to play around with this stuff. We have grown and evolved in a way so that we’re not afraid to admit that those
songs have a place, especially in this country, where they may have become a little iconic. The licence to play around with them is there because we’re not precious about it. It’s actually be a lot of fun to explore how the songs can be bent and twisted up a little bit, but still retain their essential integrity and meaning.”
Osborne continues to be amazed at the band’s enduring popularity as 54-40 approaches its 35th anniversary. Merritt and Osborne are the two remaining co-founders of the band, which has released 13 studio albums, including three consecutive platinum sellers: 1992’s Dear Dear, Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret in 1994 and Trusted By Millions in 1996. Since When, released two years later, went Gold.
Besides the aforementioned trio of hit singles, 54-40 continues to get loads of airplay for songs like I Go Blind (which was covered by Hootie and the Blowfish), One Gun, Miss You, She La, Ocean Pearl, Casual Viewin’ and the title track for Lost in the City, the band’s most recent album which came out in 2011.
Osborne said they felt La Difference would be a great gateway into creating, recording and releasing all-new material. That as-yet untitled album is in the final mixing stages and is expected to come out in the last quarter of 2016.
“We want to make sure this first one has some legs before we go and release the second one. So It won’t be any time before June for sure. We are still working on some of the songs with producer Garth Richardson and have already done some with Gavin Brown. Once that’s done, we’ll be finished with the tracking and then we will just finish mixing it and mastering it, hopefully by April,” he said.
“We’re hoping that these two offerings generate enough interest and business to remind people that we’re out there and still rockin’. Our biggest competition is actually our old catalogue, which is why we’re going with La Difference first to get people thinking about us, thinking about those older songs in a new way, and prepping them for the new songs.”
For the band members, the choice to tour again to support La Difference starting in January is the best part of the whole experience in being part of a beloved, veteran band like 54-40.
“We all live in different places so it’s a big deal when we can all be in the same place. And the fact of the matter is we just really like being together. It’s fun and it’s exciting, especially when you’re working on new material. The fact that there is still so much interest in us is great. Once we’re up on the stage, we all look at each other and smile because it’s so amazing. It doesn’t matter if it’s a smaller club or if it’s outdoors and the weather is terrible or if we’re in front of a packed crowd of 20,000 people – it’s still amazing.”
And the amazingness will begin again on Jan. 11 when the band comes to Toronto for three days of promotions and media interviews. The tour proper begins on Jan. 14 in St. Catharines, followed by Oakville Jan. 15, Oshawa on Jan. 16 and Mississippi Mills on Jan. 17. After a day working in the studio, the tour reconvenes at Showplace in Peterborough on Jan. 19, followed by a date at The Grand Theatre in Kingston Jan. 20 and the London Music Hall Jan. 21. The revamped Roxy in Barrie plays host to 54-40 on Jan. 22, with the final date on the Ontario leg happening Jan. 23 in Brampton.
For more information on the band and the tour, visit www.5440.com.
- Jim Barber is a veteran award-winning journalist and author based in Napanee, ON, who has been writing about music and musicians for a quarter of a century. Besides his journalistic endeavours, he now works as a communications and marketing specialist. Contact him at email@example.com.