Canadian rock staple takes on reinvention

An old adage says that the only constant in the world is change. For the better part of three decades, Vancouver-based rockers 54-40 have been ruled by that adage.

Since the group’s formation in 1981, the band has crafted a series of albums with a varied sound, all while constantly touring. Appropriately enough, 54-40 is poised to close out this year in the way they’ve become accustomed: touring across Canada to support their new album, Northern Soul. For a change of pace, lead singer Neil Osborne says the group is jumping in a bus for a month-long sojourn across the country.

“We haven’t been on a bus in years,” says Osborne. “We usually fly and drive, head to town, hop in a couple of trucks and do it that way. This is one of those very linear tours, straight from the west coast to Newfoundland. Obviously in our history we’ve done it a few times, but I think it’s actually been about 10 years since we’ve travelled the Canadian Shield by land.”

After 20-plus years and nearly as many albums, 54-40 has defied musical convention by frequently reinventing their sound. Prior to their 2003 album, Yes to Everything, the band bid farewell to long-time guitarist Phil Comparelli and welcomed former Matthew Good Band guitarist Dave Genn to the fold. Osborne feels Genn contributed a lot to their latest album.

“He knows everything about music,” gushes Osborne. “Him and I really worked together really well on this one, Northern Soul. The one previous, we went, ‘This is what we do, we want you to try to fit in.’ On this one, we traded ideas more equally.”

On prior albums, Osborne notes that 54-40 often tested out material on tour before taking it into the studio. For Northern Soul, the band decided to go in a different direction, renting out a converted funeral home chapel for studio space and utilizing Genn’s producing experience to create a unique album.

“We decided we weren’t going to work a song to death [on tour] and then take it into the studio again,” shares Osborne. “We wanted to capture it and then build it from there with whatever happens. In other words, here’s your piece of clay and here’s the start of what’s going to be your sculpture. Now you’ve got to finish it.”

When not touring or recording albums for 54-40, Osborne has also produced albums for groups like Jets Overhead and Heathers, which features his daughters. He was happy to help his girls, aged 18 and 19, delve into their musical career, but notes he tried to be as non-controlling as possible.

“They grew up with backstage passes on their jeans, so they’re almost already seasoned,” says Osborne. “I always respect it when they tune me out. I’m staying out of the way as much as possible. I’m certainly not making them do this, it’s something that they want to do. Whatever happens with it, it’s just for fun.”

As for his own musical career, Osborne is looking forward to the latest 54-40 tour and producing for more bands in between albums. He’s optimistic and open-minded about 54-40’s place in Canada’s musical mix moving forward.

“The whole scene or environment or landscape of music and everything in five years will be something so different that if there is a 54-40, I think that’d be kind of cool,” says Osborne. “I have no idea what our world’s going to be like in five years. It’s kind of exciting that way. We’re definitely taking it as it comes.”

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