With nothing to lose, the OBGMs dialed up the danger
The Toronto trio’s Polaris-nominated sophomore album, The Ends, charts an arc from rage to recognition
Written by Michael Rancic.
For many Canadian artists, being nominated for the Polaris Music Prize is a long shot, a career-affirming and life-altering pipe dream. But for Toronto trio the OBGMs, whose sophomore album The Ends was shortlisted for the award this July, it's all part of their plan.
That may sound cocky or entitled, but speaking to them via Zoom, the three members have a strong sense of their value, and know that no one is making music like them. That mindset is a survival instinct as much as it is motivational, since for much of the OBGMs' career they've had to be their own hype men.
The Ends documents the OBGMs at a breaking point, the urgency of the 28 minute-long record soundtracking the frustration of knowing their worth and potential, all the while never being acknowledged or appreciated for what they're doing. Fourteen years into their careers, the OBGMs say they are tired of being questioned, doubted and undermined.
"We've been in a band for a long time. And the lack of recognition we get for doing some cool things, it feels like it's an industry barrier. We're trying to do something and it's like speaking to a wall so, let's get this [album] noticed by any means necessary," vocalist and guitarist Densil McFarlane explains, with percussionist Colanthony Humphrey and bassist Joseph Brosnan nodding in assent. "I need to feel accepted," he continues. "I need to feel like we can do something bigger and better. And the lack of that is driving me crazy at times."
Throughout the band's history, that lack of acceptance has hounded it at every turn in spite of the work the bandmates put in. The OBGMs formed in 2007 and released their first EP, Interchorus, in 2009. Momentum picked up in 2014, when Budweiser chose the band for the beer company's Epic Concert campaign, which helped put the OBGMs on the map and funded their self-titled debut album. Though the band had developed a reputation for explosive live shows that the scrappy first record lived up to, the accolades and prime gigs never followed.
"Quite often I found us falling through the cracks of what is our belonging, people would often question if we were a punk band or a rock band or just rappers," McFarlane explained in a November 2020 interview with CBC Music Morning's host Saroja Coelho. "If you question me in this rock space, you literally delegitimize the band." Even though Toronto has a diverse population, that diversity isn't reflected in opportunities the artists and bands in the city are afforded.
Few venues are operated by Black owners or promoters, and the concentration of venues in the city's downtown privileges the mostly white artists living close by, making it difficult for those often racialized acts on the periphery, in neighbourhoods like the Jane strip where McFarlane and Humphrey grew up, to make professional or social inroads within scenes — or even get on a bill. The one major leg up the OBGMs did have early on was that Budwiser co-sign, but in punk or DIY circles, corporate sponsorship undermines so-called credibility, posing a catch-22 for artists who need the money because they experience gatekeeping in other ways. This frequent shifting of the goal posts is a familiar story for any band with a predominantly Black membership, bands often have to satisfy a different set of rules to be legitimized by the industry.
Together, the OBGMs collectively rise and rage against that adversity with The Ends. The bandmates are depicted burning red, eyes white hot on the album cover, designed by Humphrey and photographed by Amanda Fotes. Their rage is palpable, and on the record, it's directed at anyone who's prevented them from getting their due ("Cash"), social climbers ("All my Friends," "WTFRU"), former loves ("Not Again"), and even themselves ("All my Friends").
The Ends begins boldly with a provocation, and a warning: the OBGMs are done playing games, and have no more time to waste. Opening track "Outsah" is clear and unequivocal to anyone who would interfere with that, as vocalist and guitarist McFarlane chants the band's response with intensity and abandon: "You can meet me outsah." It's unapologetic, it's aggressive, and as an opening statement, is more than confident that the album will make good on the promise of violence.
"This is the music business, there's definitely a little bit of a monkey on your back if you're not where you want to be, so you're always striving for better and will never be satisfied," explains Humphrey. As much as that determination can help drive an act's creative output, it's also easy for that endless striving to turn into self-doubt, which is where McFarlane was when it came time to record.
In 2017, the OBGMs signed with Black Box Recordings out of Mississauga, Ont., which reissued and remastered the band's debut that same year. The OBGMs were also set to step into the studio with producer David Schiffman, who had previously helmed the band's remastering work, but McFarlane hit a wall.
"I literally was having an issue with imposter syndrome, wondering if I could even make music anymore or if I was good at this," he reveals. Schiffman had worked with luminaries from Rage Against the Machine to Fefe Dobson, a varying and intimidating cast of artists. "I just got afraid and I needed some time to reflect on what was going on, who I was and rediscover how to make music again," McFarlane says.
When they regrouped in 2019, Schiffman helped put the band at ease by understanding immediately what they were trying to do. "It's always hard to describe your own music, but he just was able to articulate it in ways that I never could," explains bassist Brosnan. That deep insight into their sound and direction helped give the trio the freedom in the studio to be themselves and try new things. "[Schiffman] just uplifts what you're trying to do and what you're trying to build," McFarlane chimes in. "As long as you're open and ready to have an honest conversation."
On the surface, the OBGMs are a punk band, motivated by short, explosive guitar-driven songs. Throughout The Ends, however, they draw on a myriad of influences to forge their own sound. Most notably, the guest contributions of percussionist Roberto Molina add flourishes of congas and bongos to songs across the record that embellish the group's already groovy sound. Elsewhere, McFarlane's warped, reverb-drenched vocals recall dub when paired with Brosnan's hypnotic basslines ("Outsah"), while Humphrey draws on new jack swing for the hiccuping, hard-hitting beat of "Fight Song."
"I cannot with music that is not dangerous at all. That takes no risk at all. That has nothing new about it at all," Humphrey says, on what motivates him to experiment musically. "We all actually sound pretty different," McFarlane adds. "We all have really, really different experiences with music, we all grew up loving something else or being exposed to something else, you know? And I think we all want to do something that stands out."
Schiffman also connected the OBGMs to Pup's Stefan Babcock, who, while on a European tour, helped provide feedback on tightening up some of the band's songs and is credited as a co-writer on "All my Friends," "Fight Song" and "to death." "For [McFarlane], the feeling he gets whenever he initially comes up with something and the initial spark is so fulfilling for him that you sometimes just want to leave it at that," Brosnan says of the writing process. The group says that having both Schiffman and Babcock to bounce ideas off of gave them a sense of confidence in their songs while also providing the tools for helping them achieve greatness.
Nowhere does that come across more than through the record's themes. Behind all of the anger and frustration is an emotional arc to the album, as the music and lyrics chart a transformation from explosive rage to acceptance. This switch is first alluded to on the second half of the album, when "Triggered" transitions from pure chaos to harmony as bass, drums, guitar and vocals start working together in the song's final moments. During our interview, the bandmates operate on a similar wavelength, finishing each other's sentences and gassing each other up while we chat.
"When I thought of The Ends as the name, I was always thinking about where I was from, like 'the west end.' [Humphrey] and I grew up in 'the ends,'" McFarlane explains. "But it's cool that it could take on a bunch of different meanings, like 'the ends of all things.' It just all fit in a way because of the ending of something, isn't a bad thing. It could be the start of something new."
Don't miss Short List Summer: a season-long showcase of the 10 albums shortlisted for the 2021 Polaris Music Prize. Read the weekly Polaris Spotlight feature at cbcmusic.ca/polaris and tune into The Ten radio special every Sunday night at cbc.ca/listen.