Playing live still a rush for 54-40 after decades-long existence

The marquee performers at the June 24 Nickel Days concert, iconic Canadian rockers 54-40, are making their second trip to Thompson at a different time of year and during a different stage of their musical journey than when they first performed at Winterfest 15 or 20 years ago, says drummer Matt Johnson, a member of the band since 1985.

“If I remember correctly it was in the middle of winter so it’ll be nice to see it this time of year,” he said.

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Back in its heyday of ubiquitous hits on radios across Canada, the band followed a grueling touring schedule.

“We were constantly on the road at times where we would do two-month and three-month tours throughout North America, come home for a couple of weeks and go out again and go to Europe or something,” Johnson recalls.

These days, their approach is more humane. “I don’t think we could do that at this point so we keep our tours pretty short. They’re usually on weekends or maybe a couple times during the summer we might go out for a week but they’re much more civilized now. We try and fit them in around our lifestyle. We just don’t want to kill ourselves being out on the road for a month at a time.”

Known for songs like “Ocean Pearl” and “I Go Blind,” 54-40 was a constant presence on radio in the late 1980s and early 1990s and Johnson says they often hear after shows from fans who didn’t realize how many of the bands songs they knew.

“I think for a lot of people when they come see us live, it’s an epiphany, just how much the body of work we have created over the last three decades,” Johnson said. “A lot of those songs were big singles on radio so they’re imprinted somewhere in people’s brains and so as soon as they hear them they come to the forefront.”

In recent years, the band has revisited some of those songs in a different way, with the end result being their greatest hits album “La Difference: A History Unplugged,” featuring acoustic reinterpretations of their biggest and best-known songs.

“It was an idea that came from our guitar player Dave Genn who was playing around with one of our older songs on piano and kind of inverted a chord here and there and put it into a minor key and that was ‘Crossing the Canyon,’” Johnson says. “Once we did that we thought, ‘Well, why don’t we do this to more of our songs?’ So we spent the next couple of years working on that and released that a little over a year ago.”

Having two different versions of the same songs keeps 54-40’s members on their toes when they do tours involving both acoustic shows and the electrified performances.

“We also do kind of acoustic shows usually in theatres and that’s usually what we play, those reinterpreted versions of those songs acoustically,” Johnson says. “The four of us stand out in front of the stage. I’m playing kind of a smaller drum kit. I’m standing up. That’s usually how we present ourselves when we’re playing that record. The arrangements are a bit different and you really have to use your brain to go, ‘OK, how does this song go again? What are we doing tonight?’ It’s quite challenging but rewarding at the same time.”

With all the members but Genn, who joined in 2005, having been together since the early to mid-80s, 54-40’s career has spanned the era from records and cassettes to CDs and MP3 downloads.

“People get their music from so many different places where 10, 15 years ago it was like most people listened to the radio and heard the song and said, ‘Oh I want to get that, I like that song,’” Johnson says. “Now, it’s people are streaming on Spotify and iTunes music and they’re getting playlists sent to them by friends and they’re hearing music from different sources so there’s a lot of noise out there. It’s part of the deal with bands like ourselves to make sure we find our core audience, people that have been with us record after record and hopefully it filters out that way. If the song is strong enough maybe it’s enough for it to get a little momentum behind it and permeate through the masses.”

The band has an album called “Keep On Walking” coming out in the next few months.

“We’ve already teased the first single out on our social media sites so people are more than welcome to go there and check it out,” Johnson says. “We’ll have a video for that soon. The rest of the record should be available, I’m hoping, by the end of summer.”

Though he says he now has to exercise before tours to get into shape to play the drums, instead of playing the drums to get in shape like he did when he was younger, Johnson says playing live shows is always a blast.

“That never changes and I think we have a deeper appreciation of where we are and how fortunate we are to be able to begin our careers when there was a kind of a unified music industry and be able to use that legacy to still play and tour,” he says.

The Thompson performance comes after one in Lewiston, New York on June 20 and another in Winnipeg June 22 and before a pair of performances in Ontario and another 10 in various provinces through July and August.

“It’ll be mostly all our big songs and a couple of new ones, I think, from the upcoming record,” Johnson says. “It’s a fun show. It’s a lot of energy. The band’s playing better than ever.”

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