Canadian Music Hall of Famers 54-40 head to the Iceberg Alley Sept 13. Ahead of their much anticipated show, bassist Brad Merritt has a one-on-one with The Herald
From his home in Victoria, 54-40’s bassist Brad Merritt mentally prepares to head east to Newfoundland.
“We get in the night before so we will have the day to poke around,” he begins with a laugh.
Merritt has been to this province before with the band; singer/guitarist Neil Osborne, drummer Matt Johnson, and guitarist Dave Genn – songwriters and multi-instrumentalists all – and a few visits stand out, some areas more than others.
“We’ve been to Quidi Vidi. We’ve been to Signal Hill where Marconi sent the signal there and we’ve been out to the lighthouse in Cape Spear. And George Street. Many, many hours spent on George Street.”
In their 38th year as a band, 54-40 unleashed Keep On Walking, what has been called their most eclectic, propulsive, flat-out excellent album in a career spilling over with much to celebrate.
It’s been a ride, one that has come with great perspective, Merritt admits. While the band started out in Vancouver, established New Year’s Eve 1980 at Vancouver’s famed Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret, their sound was quickly embraced by a nation. That love has been returned in kind.
“I think we have a national perspective. We just played a show up in Timmins, Ontario with the Beach Boys, the Arkells and Alan Doyle and Bryan Adams was there; and I know all these people. I had a nice chat with Alan. I see us as more of a Canadian thing now than a Vancouver thing. It’s become bigger for us.”
Part of the joy of being in the music business is seeing this beautiful country of ours.
“Oh yeah! That’s one of the side benefits of doing what I do. When I first started out I saw this as a Vancouver thing. Vancouver against the world… then it was about being from B.C, then about being a western Canadian and then once you started going to Ontario and Quebec it was all about that, and then the Maritimes and then Newfoundland followed, now we’ve been to all the Territories many times over. It’s definitely Canadian, that’s my new perspective. I’ve learned a lot, not just about the geography of south eastern Newfoundland, but the whole country.”
More than just learning about the country, there’s much to learn about their own music as well.
“The songs, they are strong and they can be presented a number of different ways and they stand up. It’s not just a sound thing, it’s a song thing and the record we released prior to the one we released this January (Keep on Walking) is called La Difference: A History Unplugged and we interpreted ten of our bigger sons or hits or whatever you want to call it.”
Merritt explains how that journey began. Take the song Crossing a Canyon which was on their Trusted by Millions record
“Dave Genn the guitar player – the new guy, he’s only been with the band 15 years – he said; what is that song about? The lyrics are kind of dark yet it’s sort of has a power chord/major key thing going on. So we explained where the song comes from; his father battling cancer and being involved with the treatment and driving him to the hospital a few times a week and having a conversation with his father who is a World War II veteran.”
That generational gap is the canyon being crossed in that song, he continues.
“Dave takes that away and works on it and comes back and it was a sound check situation and Dave goes; here’s your first note, I want you to sing the melody the way you normally sing it, and he just kind of plays these minor chords underneath Neil’s melody and I was like, oh my God! And the whole thing became big and cinematic and way more emotional than the way we initially did it and I think it kind of worked for everybody… this could actually be a record. We can retweek all these songs again and reinterpret them and give them more meaning or different meaning or just have some fun with them.”
There was no song that couldn’t be looked at. It was all about learning and growing.
“It definitely has been a learning process and if you stop learning in this business you’re dead you can’t even tread water. I think it’s a big part of who we are. We are a curious people and we want to learn and we want to be challenged.”
While the music business has changed, it still really is all about connecting with the audience.
Merritt has been known to close his eyes and do “the giant Snoopy” while performing. “Playing live is special. It’s that communion that you have with people who care about your music. We like everyone to get in there with us and if it’s going really, really well, then that’s what I do (the giant Snoopy). I remember Keith Richards saying; if you see me jumping around on stage things are either going really, really good or really, really bad.”
Name dropping? Merritt laughs. The band actually opened for the rolling Stones.
“I think that was the last time I was nervous playing live. It was the anticipation that morning. I had a hard time eating breakfast. It was really something else.”
They’ve come so far. All they wanted, Merritt admits, was to play at their home venue, the Commodore Ballroom. “That’s as far as I could see that band going. If we could just open up for someone and make 150 and play in front of the crowd where I’d seen so many bands play. That was where I wanted to play.”
And now, a return to Newfoundland. “That’s amazing, coming to Newfoundland is a side benefit of what we do and I wanted that. I wanted to be able to travel. I wanted to be able to travel our country and North America and Europe and we’ve had the ability to do that and are grateful for it.”
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