The OBGMs press photo 2020 by Amanda Fotes
photo by Amanda Fotes

Interview: The OBGMs are the future faces of punk rock

The OBGMs are releasing the best punk rock music of 2020, and no one knows it better than them. Fiercely supporting and advocating for themselves, it’s impossible not to adopt their energy. I mean, maybe if the music was bad, it would be more of an “I admire their tenacity” thing. But… their new album The Ends, out this Friday on Black Box Music, is the crown jewel of their discography. When they say no one else has made music like them, they mean it. This album is innovative and unique and exciting, and it leaves them poised to be one of the prominent faces of the genre for years to come.

Soft Sound Press chatted with frontman Denz about the album release, being a black rock artist in Canada, and the concept of super tours. Oh, and we got a free TED Talk about how artists should decide if signing with a label is right for them (it’s SUPER informative, not to be missed!)

You can read it all below, and find all the links to pre-order/pre-save The Ends here.

It sounds like the process to get to this album has been very long and winding. How are you feeling being this close to the finish line?

How am I feeling about the finish line? I feel nothing. Everything I could have felt before, I felt last year. Finally getting around to coming back, all the hours of being alone in the studio and making crap and finally making something kind of good. That’s done. I am thrilled. I was thrilled last year. I’m past it! I’m happy that it’ll be out. Finally, everybody will get to know what we’ve been working on, but we worked on this last year. So, I’m excited to close that chapter and start a new one.

That’s actually interesting, I’ve been running into this with a lot of bands lately. They went on hiatus or have taken a really long process in creating their albums and then… they’re finally out this year and the whole world is like, “nevermind, we’re shutting down.”

Yeah, you know? In an ideal world, we’d have put out the album, been on a world tour with Beyonce, playing sold out stadiums like the O2 Arena. But we’re not going to get to tour this album. So I can’t be invested in the same way emotionally as I would’ve normally been for a record. Like, “aw, man, this is gonna be life changing, it’s going to be yada yada, yada,” Literally, this is just a statement, and now it’s time to get back to work to show people what we’re really about. So when there is some type of normalcy on a record that we actually can tour, you’ll be reminded again that we’re the people to fuck with. Because we can’t tour this record, man, it’s kind of… it’s unfortunate and it kind of drives me crazy, to be honest. I just don’t want to be disappointed. I know we did something good, and I know we can do it again.

That’s the thing, it feels like this could be a career defining album for you guys. So it’s frustrating that you can’t actually get out there and share it with people in their face, which is such a visceral, important way of absorbing punk music.

Absolutely. Absolutely.

I’ve also been running into a lot of artists this year who’ve reassessed their values and what matters to them, since they’re unable to do their usual things. Has this whole “take a step back” moment been ultimately helpful or hurtful for you?

I feel like — and I use this analogy a little bit now — I feel like life is a video game and you have to do certain things to get past the next level or you’re going to be on the same level forever. I’ve run into the same types of obstacles throughout my life that I haven’t been able to beat because I was running into things the same way. When it came to music, I wasn’t a very public figure. I wasn’t talking online. I didn’t know anything about editing, nor did I have any urgency to learn. What the pandemic has taught me is that I need to pivot and refocus what’s important to me and what legacy I’m actually trying to leave. Or is this going to be forgotten when I’m all said and done with this? I think the pandemic, for me, has been a blessing. I’ve learned a lot of things about myself. I’ve learned a lot of things about what I hold dear and want to be about. How I want to be remembered. I work every day to figure out new ways to be creative and champion those messages.

That’s awesome. It’s been nice to learn new things and not feel like I don’t have time for it. I’m glad you’re having a similar experience. I was reading another interview you gave saying how in order to make it in Toronto, you have to make it elsewhere. I’ve always had that feeling where people say, “they’re only famous in Canada” as if it doesn’t mean anything. But now that we’re all home, everything’s online. Does that change the feeling of location defining an artist’s popularity?

I think Toronto is still going to be the city that if they’re aware it’s attached to Canada, it’s automatically diluted. We have no hometown love. I love my city, I want to be the leader of my city. And I love that because you have to be a certain type of asshole to thrive in that environment where people don’t automatically want to support you, even if you’re good. But it’s always going to be like this for us. This city is about appearances first, and association second. Until they see me pictured next to Drake, it’s not going to resonate with them, what we’re doing here. If you look at artists like Sean Leon, this guy’s doing amazing things, making amazing music. He’s working next to Kanye West and he’s still not getting his comeuppance. Unfortunately we live through the United States, we live through the UK, and we haven’t really found our own identity yet. Until more popular and outspoken artists come out to really make and stake a claim for where we’re from, it’s always going to be like that. There needs to be artists like me that will say, “hey, I am from Toronto” and put Toronto on the map so it’s okay to be associated with us, and we can have some pride in ourselves a little bit. Right now, we don’t.

It’s so strange to me how we’re so proud to say all of these major artists are from here, but at the same time we can’t bring anyone else up. It’s such a strange concept to me, but it’s so true.

Look at Drake’s career. I remember — and I think about it all the time — my first show in New York, Drake was starting to get popular. This is like the So Far Gone EP. This is right when he was starting to get really big. I remember hearing about him all the time and I was like “this guy’s good,” but people were trying to sell me his CD in New York. I’m like “this guy’s from Toronto, why am I going to buy that?” That was my thought process. But then he just kept on coming with it. For a person in his position, he could have been like, “fuck the city, they never supported me.” He had to go to different cities to get a claim.

Now he comes back home and he’s celebrated. That took a long time and a lot of work, and it legitimized Canadian hip hop and RnB music. There’s nothing like that for rock music over here. And particularly rock spaces aren’t about putting on anything except your insecurities. I’m insecure, I am self-deprecating, yada yada yada. It’s not really about anything else outside of that. So I want to take a different approach in being much more loud in what I’m stating and what I’m fighting for, and we’ll see how it goes. It’s going to be a long road though. I don’t expect that right away.

I like your approach because I think a lot of artists get too stuck in the whole “we’re not that great” thing. You end up bringing yourself down. Whereas if you actually tell people what a great band you are and what a big deal you are, it encourages other people to see you that way. It’s a great approach.

You gotta manifest. Nobody would make music if they actually thought they sucked. I get it, it’s scary. You’re putting your heart on your sleeve and putting it into people’s ears for them to judge you, say that you suck, say that they hate you. That’s hard to deal with. Every single artist in every field, whether it’s visual or whether you’re writing, goes through that at some stage. But you don’t have to live there. I’m not going to live in my insecurities. I’m going to live in the other part that I know no band sounds like us. I know that for a fact.

Every band they say sounds like us doesn’t, over the course of a record. I know that we have a great record and I haven’t heard one sound like it in the last 20 years. It is what it is. I’m going to tell you that I think I’m John Lennon, man. We’re making genres, I’m John Lennon, and it is what it is. So we’ll see. People hate it, people love it, who cares? Hopefully they listen to it. I just don’t want anybody to feel indifferent, which is the death kiss.

Not really an interview question, but I don’t think people are gonna feel that way. This album is really fantastic.

I appreciate it. I feel the same way.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about labels. I used to work for both indies and majors, and you see label deals or the things artists are going through, and it’s scary shit. Just seeing how badly they’re being screwed over and half the time they don’t realize. You guys have been signed to Black Box now for a few years. How have you enjoyed the experience of being signed vs. unsigned in Toronto?

That’s a great question. For a band like us, we’ve been around since 2007. I think I have a really good sample size of being in it as an artist that has been signed and being an independent artist that was pretty successful. As an independent band, we were able to do four European tours, one under our own name as a headliner. We made a good amount of money that was able to pretty much fund our art. We could do all these things ourselves, in that we weren’t required to do a deal. But I came up in the era of hip hop and everybody getting a Roc-A-Fella chain, you know? You get a Roc-A-Fella chain and now you’ve made it. There’s a particular degree of access that you’re able to get with a label easier than as an independent black artist.

If we’re talking about the access, it is easier with a label that has some type of cred. We’re able to walk into grants a lot easier that can help us. We were able to work with Dave Schiffman for this record, which I know as independent artists we would have never been able to afford or fathom. And I very much liked that. But if the question is, would I do it again? Yeah, I would. There are certain things I wouldn’t do again, and there are certain things that everybody needs to consider if they need a label for it. It all depends on what type of artist you are, what type of drive you have, and what losses you’re willing to take.

Do you need a label? If your obstacle is money and the access to the grant system? That’s all labels are, they’re a bank. Especially Canadian labels. For me, there’s nothing else you can really provide in terms of influence on certain sectors that will happen right away for an artist that looks like me, a black artist in rock. There’s nothing you can provide me in terms of like… what, access to videos and stuff? I make those myself. You can literally just provide me money, and money’s valuable. I’m able to afford three different PR agents. I’m able to afford some trips to LA in which I can work with different people.

So that’s cool. If you’re the type of artist where you feel that money is your major obstacle and money will help advance your cause, you’re not interested in doing those grant applications yourself, paying for all those things yourself and having to start up capital to do it yourself… by all means, I think a label deal is smart for you. But I would say, really pay attention to what you sign and make sure that you’re informed. There are lots of different resources in which you can seek counsel on different types of deals. Talk to our lawyer, he’s great! *laughs* That would definitely help you out.

Now, there are the different types of artists though that… you don’t need a fucking deal, but you need to tough it out. Those are the artists that are their own PR agent, have a good team of more than one person, or you guys are a band. You guys are each pulling your own weight on different things that help push the cause. All bands need are influence on streaming partners. You know who all the contacts are, you know their names, you know everything about them. You operate like a label, you operate like a business. You have a PR division, you have a data optimization division, you have an art division that helps you stay regular with posts and content and stuff like that. If you have those things, you don’t need a fucking label, man.

I think it’s a dying business unless they — what’s the best way to say this? Unless they do something different. I would say with Black Box, I’m happy with them. They’ve helped me access a lot of different things because I’m the type of artist that likes to focus on my art. I can do the business stuff, but since I did it for so so long, I had no more interest or drive to do that for myself. Our deal was structured in a way where I was good with it. I do believe that it gave me access to things that have created this album, which I think is an iconic album. That’s what I did it for, and I think that’s great. But if you are an artist that honestly… if you just need money, you might as well fucking tough it out, especially in 20-fucking-20. There’s no strategy they can give you that’s going to help push your music. Everybody’s online. There’s nothing that you guys are doing that’s any different. All the rock business is based off of is touring and showing your face. And we can’t do that. So if you need money in 2020, hold off on your deal. Maybe until late 2021. It’s not worth it. I don’t even know if that answered your question, because I feel like you can see I’m kind of conflicted.

Honestly, I feel like I just attended a whole Ted Talk. That was illuminating.

There’s so many different things to consider on if you need a label or not. You may not need just money. You need influence, and influence is something that takes time to get. Even if you have all the money in the world, it still may not move your actual music if you don’t have influence. If you’re signing into a label just for money, then I think you really have to consider that it’s not going to turn on just like that. If you’re comfortable with the long road and the long plan and the long build, and you aren’t comfortable doing all the XYZ parts of the business, and you want a teammate for that? And that teammate is also going to teach you about the business so you’re able to monitor it for yourself? Then I think that’s a good deal. But if you’re already doing that shit, turn your fucking business into a label, call it a label, and start operating on the same playing field as these guys. They’re not doing anything different than you. But I have to stress, love my guys. My guys have granted me access to things I wouldn’t have been able to access for my type of artist and the way I hold value to things. These guys are in line with what I want to do. That is not for everybody.

I think that’s all very good advice for artists because I’ve seen too many people sign deals just because they think getting a record deal is what you’re supposed to do. And then they get screwed.

Yeah. You get screwed over because you think that it’s gonna happen right away. And it’s not. Especially these Canadian labels. We’re not trying to play in Canada. Anybody that starts a band and is thinking of playing shows, nobody’s thinking of playing in Canada. We’re thinking of playing somewhere else.

That’s because it’s too expensive to tour in Canada! Everything’s too far apart.

The OBGMs haven’t even toured Canada, but we’ve been to Europe five times because it was cheaper. These Canadian labels, not all of them have the type of influence that I think you may need. They may offer a couple of other intangibles that may be worth it. Us, we got to work with Dave Schiffman. I wouldn’t be able to fucking do that shit. And that’s a lifelong friend now. That’s awesome for me. My guys are good, my guys are great! I appreciate my guys, my guys have granted me access to things and they’ve also been good partners on other things like my causes. They’re willing to champion different things that I’m a very big fan of. This is outside of the scope of just label shit. You know what I’m saying? So like, love my guys. My guys give me what I need.

Which is great, and I’m glad to hear it. I think the other thing that’s interesting to consider now, with touring in Canada & the UK/EU, is that the fees for the P1 visas went up in the US and things are gonna go crazy overseas because of Brexit. I’m curious what the future of touring looks like for any Canadian bands, if the only thing we can afford is to tour Ontario on a loop.

Yeah, it’s ridiculous. I think if your business is based off of seeing people in person, you have to change what your model was. Our business was based off seeing people in person and selling things in their face and impressing them there. It doesn’t make sense that our business would be postponed for two years because we can’t do that. When touring does come back, things may not be the same again. What I’m hearing about for whispers of shows — I think in Australia they’re starting it — they’re opening venues at limited capacity. Let’s say it’s a venue that holds 200 people. They’ll have an artist that plays three shows in one night to 25 people per show. If that’s the way they’ll do it, that’s not a viable touring mechanism. I’m a weak vocalist, I can’t be playing 20 or 40 shows for a five day tour. I can’t do that. I’m going all out. I just don’t got the energy for that, so I don’t feel like there’s a viable touring path. By touring, we’re talking about the four to six week tours. I don’t see that in the next 18-24 months. You can’t just sit back and wait for when shows exist. If you want to continue making your art and you’re making fantastic art, you have to find different and creative ways to stand out, period. I think at the end of it, everybody who’s doing that will be better for it because they will have a global brand that is identifiable. But everybody else that’s just sitting back waiting for tours… that’s cool, but only the big boys can really do that. Us small bands that are just coming out can’t do that. You’re irrelevant if you don’t release music.

You’re losing all the ground that you’ve gained in the years leading up to this.

Absolutely. And then you’re going to start in a year — let’s say 2021 is the year, which I don’t think it is. You’re going to start in a year when all the big acts have already held their releases because they could. I’m not trying to compete with Foo Fighters, especially when they’re just gonna want to go on tour with another large act to do super tours.

I didn’t even think about that.

That’s what I think, super tours are going to be a thing. I’m calling it right now. You’ll have larger outdoor spaces in which people can be together and they can draw enough that it still makes financial sense. Whereas me, I can’t demand that from the O2 Arena yet. I can’t get booked at Cowboys Stadium, they won’t book me there for some reason? So if I’m booking a tour and it’s in Ontario, large cap, what am I going to be doing? Anywhere between 200-300 caps all around Ontario and maybe 500 in Toronto, I guess? But we can’t fit those people in the venue. So it’s really going to be 1/10th of whatever number you think. That’s gas money, man. There is no touring. Don’t base your business off of touring. You better start editing videos and content, or turn yourself into a comedian. You better do whatever you can until there’s normalcy or your band is dead. That’s how I feel. I’m sorry, I’m ranting.

It’s great. It’s nice to actually talk to other people about these things. I haven’t left my house much.

Oh man. When I leave my house, like to the grocery store, it’s Mission: Impossible because I’m trying to avoid all contact. I’m trying not to be seen, or touch anybody or touch anything. And that’s the soundtrack.

Absolutely. I started having to go back to work a few days a week and just going there… I don’t even like making eye contact with other people.

We don’t know how it’s transferred!

Until I know for sure, nobody look at me.

And don’t say anything to me, definitely.

It’s such a weird world to be living in. I feel like the release show and announcing a tour is such an exciting part of the album process. It almost feels like the release isn’t happening without it. Do you guys have anything you’re doing to keep the it exciting or tangible for you?

Oh man, this is a constant conversation. We are trying to create a moment that is COVID-proof, but we can’t do that with people. I hate the idea of these fucking online shows as well because they’re corny, and people are going in and out. Nobody’s really paying attention. We’re trying to find the sauce as to what to do to connect with our fans in a real way that they don’t think is stupid. Something they want to attend instead of a phone thing where we’re competing with if Tory Lanez is going to say something today. We haven’t found it yet, but I do believe we’re going to have something special planned for the release because we have to. Otherwise, it’s just like you’re leaking the album. That’s disposable in a climate that is like a drop of water in the ocean, which is Spotify and Apple and all those places. Like, you released music today? That’s cool. You know who else did? Every single person in the world.

So we’ll try to find something special. I’m turning my sights to different methods to stay relevant until there’s some sense of normalcy in the next two years, which is to flood the market. I love this album. I honestly can’t remember a better album than this, especially in the year 2020. But I think I could do it again and I think I could do it again in three months. I think I could do it again in six months. I think I could do it again in nine months. The other thing is not staying in boxes as well. People don’t listen to just one genre of music themselves, so I can’t be expected to make one genre of music. I might release a pop album or a hip hop album, I might release an RnB album. I might release whatever I want, just to flood the market and keep on releasing music for the next 12 months. So I’m very happy for this release. I’m very happy for what we’re going to do. I’m sad that we don’t get to have a sold out release show at like the Opera House or something. But you know what? That’s fine. We made a timeless piece of music. I think it’s timeless and I think we can do it again and again and again. I’m very happy and very motivated to stay relevant during this time. It’s scary though! Fuck!

I’m excited to hear other genres of The OBGMs, that would be cool! It keeps you creative too. If you’re thinking in different ways and what different people enjoy or having things for different moods or scenarios, it keeps you thinking differently.

Absolutely. That’s how I feel. You gotta keep on doing something and as long as I’m happy with it, that’s all I really need. I stopped making music because I wasn’t happy with it, because I was making it for the wrong reasons. Since I discovered how to make music for the right reasons again, I’ve been immensely happy, so I’m gonna make music for my moods. Hopefully people can dig it. If they don’t, I don’t give a fuck because I’m not making it for them. I’m making it for myself and the cool kids. If you wanna be one of the cool kids, you gotta like this.

Oh god, the FOMO. I need to be part of this. So I know everything is kind of strange, but you’re putting out this album that is fantastic. And we all know that it would be performed at Cowboys Stadium, the only obstacle is that they’re not booking shows right now. That’s the only barrier.

That’s the exclusive reason, for sure.

Exactly, and I’m putting that on the record. But manifesting things for the future and where you want to be after this is over, what would you guys like to achieve as a band that you haven’t done yet?

What do I want to achieve as a band? It’s a long answer, ’cause I got a lot of goals. I would like to put a face to punk rock, an identifiable face that is universally known, and I would like us to be the face of that. What does that mean? If I was going to ask my grandma who Drake was, she would know. Does she listen to Drake? No, but she may even know a song.

I don’t feel like punk rock itself has an identifiable face to that degree. And I believe it’s because people have been approaching it incorrectly. They’ve been approaching it in a way where it’s just about guitars and mosh pits, which is cool, which I fucking love. But I do believe there’s a bigger game to play, and that’s the one I want to play. I want to play on a different field. When people think about punk rock, I want them to automatically associate that to The OBGMs. That’s our end game, to be the face of actual rock and roll.

If we’re talking about small goals… I’m a black artist. I’m a black punk rock artist. And a lot of people don’t include me in this space. During this pandemic time, there’s been a real big time of social consciousness where my thoughts on silence have changed and I’ve become way more vocal on issues that matter to me, and way more vocal on promoting black, indigenous, and POC artists in these alternative spaces, because they’re not often promoted. And what that means is that if I look at any of your top playlists and look through different types of acts and what they look like, I’m not going to see a lot of people that look like me. It is what it is. What I want to do is use my platform to build an inclusive space for all types of people from all different walks of life that you may not have heard before, because we’re not elevated to the top position.

I really want to find different ways to share my insights with bands that look like me, share my resources with them, and just elevate us. The conversation of deals comes up, and to the young artists it’s still the same. I need to go get a deal so I can get this money. You don’t necessarily need to do that. You have to figure out what type of artist you are, and if that’s something that you need. And if it is something that you need, by all means, talk to me. I want to be able to share my resources and share my thoughts and opinions to people on different platforms. As I’ve developed that, I’m launching a company now which is going to be focusing on uplifting black, indigenous, and POC artists through the arts by sharing resources and community.

If I have the plug to Spotify, by all means, we have the plug to Spotify. If I know how to make videos and you need a video, I want to make that for you so you can get a leg up. We just want to use all the resources available to us so we can move as a block and uplift the music. So that’s my immediate goal right now. Uplifting artists that look like me, because if they thrive, I thrive.

I think those are some pretty good goals.

That’s my immediate goal, but that one’s going to happen soon. And the other one’s going to happen soon too. So we’ll see how it goes.

Follow The OBGMs on their journey to becoming the global faces of punk rock on Twitter & Instagram

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