When I reach Brad Merritt, bassist and co-founder of influential Vancouver quartet 54-40, he’s helping his brother in the backyard – which is exactly how you imagine one of Canada’s biggest rock stars spends his afternoons. He cracks wise and is definitely excited about the band’s new retrospective of tunes acoustically re-imagined, La Difference: A History Unplugged.
Featuring refreshed re-workings of such CanRock classics as “One Day In Your Life,” “She La,” “Ocean Pearl” and “Casual Viewin’,” the disc is a love letter to the fans, and a way for Merritt, singer/guitarist Neil Osborne, drummer Matt Johnson and guitarist/keyboardist Dave Genn to keep things interesting.
With a record like this, there’s always a worry that these radio love songs are almost too beloved – meaning something to everyone the way they are. Merritt and co. took this into consideration before embarking on the project.
“We’re always trying to make music for ourselves, and if someone else liked it, that’s a bonus,” he says. “This time around, I think that these songs mean something to people. We took the process seriously and in terms of what might be interesting for the fans.”
The record, released in January, already has a successful tour behind it. Merritt says audience reaction to the intimate theatre shows (billed as “an evening of songs and stories”) exceeded expectations.
“We’ve literally had people leaping out of their seats at the end of the performances,” he says, still sounding shocked. “Neil and I have been at this now for 35 years, since we were in our late teens. It’s important to find ways to keep it interesting for yourself, and not just in making the records, but how you present yourself live. (These shows are) acoustic performances, we’re all standing up front, four across. If we’re playing a theatre Dave gets a nice big grand piano. It’s really satisfying for us to present our music and ourselves and our live performance in a different way as well.”
Merritt credits Genn with the initial idea behind La Difference, which came out of asking Osborne what exactly “Crossing a Canyon” (from 1996’s Trusted by Millions) was about.
“The song, which has kind of a three chord major key thing going on there, Dave goes to Neil, ‘What are those words about? Because it seems a bit darker than the tone of the music.’ Apparently it was a period Neil was going through where his father was dying very slowly of cancer and trying to make a connection with him,” Merritt tells. “Then Dave just played it on a piano with a minor key interpretation of the song and it was quite a revelation to us.”
The Steven Drake-produced Trusted by Millions features such hits as “Lies To Me” and “Love You All,” and is the band’s biggest record to date, the third in a row to go platinum after Dear Dear (1992) and Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret (1994). It also turns 20 this spring.
“I think Dear Dear was kind of one of those records we had a lot of time to put together,” he says. “Then for Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret, we went back with the same producer, Don Smith, and I don’t think Don was at his best for a number of reasons. We kind of walked out of that project. We used five of his songs and the rest of the songs on that record were essentially our demo tapes, including ‘Ocean Pearl.’
“So with Trusted by Millions we wanted to explore some sort of middle ground where there’s still kind of that intensity and an eclectic approach, but there’s still an attention to detail like with Dear Dear. Also, our manager Allen Moy would say ‘Why don’t you make this concept 10 Pop Hits?’ To craft a pop song is a difficult thing.”
He notes that bringing Drake (known for his production/mixing work with the Hip and others, and at the time of pop heroes Odds) on as producer helped the band to find that balance between art and pop.
“Steven gets in there and said he didn’t want to ‘Odds-ify’ our sound, he just wanted us to do our thing. So you have this confluence of all these different ideas and preconceptions to it, and you come out of it with what you come out of it with, and you go from there. I think Trusted by Millions really exemplifies that approach and how we make records.”
The band’s next release, 1998’s Since When, effectively put an end to the rock wave the band was riding.
“We really took a real left turn for Since When,” he says with a laugh. “The record was kind of a conceptual thing for us, where we wanted to do something that was stripped down and retro or timeless. So (for the version of the record’s title track on La Difference), instead of having it driven by an electric piano riffy thing, it’s more an acoustic guitar-driven thing.”
The new version of “Since When” is still timeless, fleshed out by Daniel Tate on the organ and multi-instrumentalist Daniel Lapp (who is featured prominently throughout La Difference, alongside back-up singers Kelly Brock, Sarah Johns, Saffron Henderson).
“We spent a lot of time in pre-production figuring out the vocal arrangements and what Lapp was gonna play and when. It’s an exercise but it comes down to what’s fun for us.”
Merritt still sounds like he’s having fun, even after 35 years. He also promises that the band is working on something “extremely eclectic” for 2017, co-produced by Gavin Brown (Mother Mother), Garth Richardson (L7) and longtime collaborator/La Difference producer Dave Ogilvie (Skinny Puppy).
“At this point for us it’s about experiences,” Merritt says. “So to get together with some old friends and record is very appealing to us, rather than to write 15 songs, then get it down to 12, then pick a producer and try to get it out like you’re manufacturing something.
“It’s kind of indulgent on our part.”
Visit 5440.com for more information.