When 54-40 come to the Island this month, their hard-rocking tunes will be a little mellower than usual.
The Vancouver-based rock group is bringing its A History Unplugged tour to Victoria and Nanaimo, named for its 2016 record, La Difference: A History Unplugged, in which 10 of the band’s biggest hits are given uncharacteristic acoustic arrangements.
Bassist Brad Merritt calls the unplugged performance “a bit of a high-wire act.”
“There’s a naked quality to it, rather than sort of blasting away and guitars and people screaming into microphones and all that kind of stuff. It’s just more exposed and more of a vulnerable approach, too,” he said.
“Also, we do them almost exclusively in buildings which are designed for acoustic performances, so it’s the kind of place where at certain points you can hear a pin drop, which is antithetical to rock ‘n’ roll.”
Merritt said the unplugged album came about after guitarist and keyboardist Dave Genn came up with a piano rendition of the 54-40 song Crossing a Canyon. From there the group – Merritt, Genn, singer Neil Osbourne and drummer Matt Johnson – starting considering rearranging other tunes as well. Merritt said it was a “trial and error process.”
“We kind of saw that we could look at these songs with sort of fresh eyes, or ears, I guess, and give them another chance. To add meaning to the song,” he said.
“And then once we did one [song] we decided to do a bunch more. And the more we did, the more we liked the process and the more people we got involved and we recorded them all. The next thing you know, you’ve got enough for a record.”
But while the bandmates were poring over their past compositions for La Difference, Merritt said they were concurrently preparing material for their first record of new material in six years, Keep on Walking, which was released on Jan. 26.
Born out of a series of jam sessions, Keep on Walking begins with “very honest, raw” subject matter which over the course of the record transitions to a mood of hope. Merritt said the record came together slowly, yet organically.
“The early songs were thematically a bit more melancholy with sort of a tinge of … disappointment, not knowing where your life is going,” Merritt said.
“And then, I think, as the process went on the themes seemed to become more reflective in a positive way. More gratitude, more philosophical, more fun, more full of life.”
Featuring 11 original songs helmed by a quartet of superstar producers that would make a gear nerd quiver, Keep On Walking is a snapshot of precisely where the band — songwriters and multi-instrumentalists all — is right now: totally dialled in and seriously on fire.
“Gavin Brown has a system of recording that is tight and efficient but still leaves room for the magic that can happen spontaneously during recording,” Johnson explained. Osborne added that when it came to deciding who would produce what, “We asked the producers which songs among our demos piqued their interest and went from there.”
While long-time 54-40 fans will find recognizable sonic touchstones on Keep On Walking, sharp left turns also appear, perhaps most notably in the two tracks produced in Toronto by first-time 54-40 collaborator Brown — the above-mentioned “Hold My Kiss,” and the swirling, futuristic yet somehow vaguely psychedelic “Sublime Like Me.”
“My favourite song on the album,” Johnson says of “Sublime.” “I love the groove.”
“We’ve played the song live a few times and it’s already evolving,” Merritt adds.
“I think it has the potential to become a staple of our live shows well into the future.”
54-40’s success across the decades is virtually unparalleled. Formed in Vancouver by Osborne and Merritt on the cusp of the 1980s, the band — with only three line-up changes since its inception — quickly caught on with discerning local audiences, mining that rarefied space between rock, punk, folk, and pop.
The release of their self-titled album in 1986 heralded the arrival of a powerhouse with the songs “Baby Ran,” “Take My Hand,” “I Wanna Know,” and, especially, “I Go Blind” steamrolling across alternative, campus, and commercial radio nationwide.
54-40 will play an acoustic show at Victoria’s McPherson Playhouse on Feb. 22 and at the Port Theatre in Nanaimo on Feb. 23 at 7:30 p.m.
— With a file from Monday Magazine