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54-40 hits 30, doesn't look back

Vancouver band celebrates its anniversary with a stop at Whistler Olympic Plaza



Thirty years is a considerable amount of time for human beings, no matter how you slice it. It's a long time to be alive, it's a long time to be married and it's a long time to be in a band.

And so when Brad Merritt, bass player and co-founder of 54-40 looks back, he feels a strong sense of pride. Few bands ever make it that far. They've had their dark periods, sure, but 54-40 has avoided all the clichés and trappings of a rock and roll band.

They're celebrating their anniversary with a cross-Canada tour, playing smaller towns and avoiding the major stops. Merritt says the best part about being in the band after all this time is standing on a stage with his three band mates - nay, friends - and banging out some tunes.

And, fortunately, the crowds still dig it.

"It's apparent that our music has value and it's important," Merritt says. "We play it live, I see people's expressions, I hear them singing along. I sense their change in outlook and mood and this sense of community that happens that we facilitate. It's not like we're causing it, it's there all the time, but we bring it together. It's a wonderful experience," he says.

He's speaking from his home in Tsawwassen, which he recently moved back to after fleeing the suburbs for Vancouver in 1981. It was there, in fact, where the seeds of 54-40 were planted. Vocalist Neil Osborne and Merritt met there in high school and have been "co-conspirators" ever since.

"It's not an easy thing to meet like-minded people (in a small town) necessarily because there's a limited pool. But Neil and I were fortunate," he says.

But he says that it wasn't so much a function of place that the band ever started, as much as it was a function of the time. Entertainment was far more limited than it is today and boredom was harder to combat - there were no computer games, no social network, TV was garbage. Osborne and Merritt used rock 'n' roll as a way to slay their idleness in a way that was meaningful and constructive.

A decade and a half later, they birthed "Ocean Pearl," which is still a shower-time sing-a-long favourite for yours truly. They've carved an admirable spot in the Canadian pop landscape with  "I Go Blind," "Lies to Me," and, of course, "Ocean Pearl." Three of their albums have gone platinum. By the mid-90s they had reached a cross-section of fans that included rock-loving 30-somethings as well as their adolescent, Much Music-adoring children.

That wave of success has since crested and while some bands - most, in fact - crumble in that kind of aftermath, 54-40 has managed to not only ride out the ensuing years, they've been quite productive along the way. They've released five albums over the last decade and the most recent, Lost in the City, was released earlier this year.

It's the sound of four friends having fun in the studio, and a statement from a band that refuses to give up its groove. Lost in the City finds the band coming full circle, revelling in the up-tempo riff-rock of their mid-80s output. The entire album was written through jam sessions, as it had been in the early days, and it finds Osborne at his most freewheeling in a decade.

Merritt credits this to the band's proclivity to always look forward. He says there's been a policy in place since the early days to always look forward to the next big thing - whether it was an opening slot for a major band, a stop over in a cool city or signing to a major label, there always had to be something to look forward to on the horizon, because otherwise, disappoint would be constant and heavy. It's one of the reasons, he says, they've managed to stay together.

"When the thing crests from selling platinum records and being on a major and all that kind of stuff, to essentially being an independent band again, there's certain struggles that are part of that - which has less to do with us than the complete collapse of the record industry - you have to sort of put it in perspective and say, 'Look, this is still fun, this still has meaning, and we still make a living at this,'" he says.



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