Their first gig was New Year’s Eve 1980, and 54-40 frontman Neil Osborne is still shooting for the stars.
“We’re still trying to make it,” Osborne laughed. “Never quit.”
The alt-rock group out of B.C. has been making music together for over three decades, and while the industry has taken some twists and turns in that time, the heart of what draws people to music is much the same for Osborne.
“I think the things that appeal to people in music, in a way, hasn’t changed a lot. Either they like a certain voice or a lyric, but mostly people like a good groove and a melody, I don’t think that’s really changed,” Osborne said. “Certainly the way it’s marketed and produced, the industry and all that, that’s changed and evolved, but the music itself, it still comes through.”
Osborne and the rest of 54-40 are returning to the Penticton Peach Festival for a free show Aug. 6 in Okanagan Lake Park, hoping to recreate some fond memories from their appearance three years ago garnering one of the biggest crowds in PeachFest history.
“It was a really nice night, playing outside and just the whole vibe of it, it just felt good,” Osborne said.
Osbourne is making the stop in his home province in between trips to Ontario this summer, working in some recording time along the way for two new albums including an unplugged project set for release Oct. 2. The idea for an acoustic album, cleverly titled La Difference — a line from their 1994 hit Ocean Pearl, came about during a retuning of Crossing A Canyon.
“Dave, our guitar player, decided it might be neat to try a different approach with a piano and making it a minor key instead of a major key to give the lyrics a bit more, I don’t know, depth,” Osborne said. “Then we liked that so much we thought what if we used piano for some of our songs and bring in a violin player and singers and see how they get re-interpreted.
“We quite liked it and did a bunch of shows with it and decided to go into the studio to make a record out of it,” Osborne said. “It’s a little more intimate.”
After three decades of playing music, it wasn’t a terribly difficult adjustment to a softer, more up-close setting. However, changing up the wardrobe for a more elegant style of show was a new hurdle.
“The biggest challenge was the fact that we dressed up in suits,” Osborne laughed.
The unplugging also had an effect on the currently untitled album shaping up to be released in spring of 2016.
“It was a nice way to inform some new writing,” Osborne said. “That helped for a different approach to writing some of the songs that will be on the, I guess regular new album, I don’t know what you’d call it.”
The untitled project is taking on a new spin as well. The band sent out song demos to six different producers asking them which songs piqued their interest. 54-40 is set to produce a couple songs with Canadian singer-songwriter Hawksley Workman, and just wrapped up a session with Gavin Brown, a musician/producer who has worked with artists like Three Days Grace, Billy Talent and the Tragically Hip.
“We said whatever you think you have a vision for, or identify with, or for whatever reason it hits you, that’s the one we’ll do. So that’s been kind of cool,” Osborne said.
With over 30 years worth of material, the set list for their PeachFest appearance will divvy up between old and new, with a lot of material that will lend well to the summertime atmosphere.
“We’ll throw in a couple of new songs then we’ll do what we call ‘the hits.’ The ones people seem to know and want to sing along to. It is a good time, summer thing, so we’ve got no problem doing that,” Osborne said.
There is one member missing from the lineup, the iconic Smilin’ Buddah Cabaret neon sign they obtained from the East Hastings nightclub when it closed in the early 90s. The Buddah sign joined them across the country on tour, but now resides in the Vancouver Museum’s neon exhibit.
While it was a fun memory of the neon-bathed East Hastings of old, it was a bit of a space-taker.
“We were just tired of storing it. It was actually stored in our rehearsal storage space. The only place it fit was we had to take a wall down and put it in between the studs of the wall. We thought, this is ridiculous, we got to give it to somebody,” Osborne laughed.