Only three minutes into our interview Densil McFarlane—frontman and guitarist for punk rock three-piece The OBGMs—has already compared his band to John Lennon, Steph Curry, and Steve Jobs. As he speaks the musician makes big gestures with his hands. Every few sentences he pushes the dreads off his forehead and makes direct eye contact.
McFarlane’s claims are bold and ballsy, over-the-top like a pro-wrestling promo. I can't tell if he's playing things up for the sake of the story or if he always carries himself with so much swagger.
"Closed mouths don’t get fed. All of this is about to take off to another level. We are doing dangerous stuff. We slap. If you’re looking to legitimize alternative music right now there is no better band to back than us.”
After the interview, I turned on an advance of the group's new album The Ends and wondered if McFarlane was right. The record is set for an October release. Over its twenty-four minute run time The OBGMs barrel through hook-laden, guitar forward, tracks reminiscent of the early aughts garage rock revival. Underpinning that sound is feverish punk energy coupled with shout sing vocals. It's something like The Hives by way of The Germs. Or the Strokes covering The Stooges. The Ends is a truly exciting prospect in a time where rock's mainstream influence is continually waning. Maybe this is just the kind of kick in the teeth guitar music needs every few years.
The formation of The OBGMs goes back to 2007 when while walking home from a party at Toronto’s Caribana, McFarlane and drummer Cola H were tackled by a group of police officers and thrown in a riot van. McFarlane later learned he was being charged with assault on an officer after the incident. The musician had planned to attend school in America, but the pending charges meant he couldn’t leave the country. While dealing with the court case McFarlane picked up the guitar to pass the time. He says the charges were eventually dropped, but the guitar stuck around. The experience amplified how important it was to tell his own stories in his own way.
While the band has been championed by heavy hitters like Green Day and PUP—PUP frontman Stefan Babcock took on a mentorship role in the songwriting process for The Ends—The OBGMs haven't always felt welcome in the punk scene. Different iterations of the group have existed since 2008. Since that time the band watched their Toronto contemporaries like Metz and Single Mothers celebrated for their unique spin on the genre, but a common refrain from outsiders—and even media—was asking whether The OBGMs were a punk band at all. For McFarlane, that question felt personal.
"I do feel like it’s vaguely built on racism. The Clash and The Cro-Mags are both punk bands but sound completely different…I do and don’t care about the validation of being labeled punk, but the fact that people question our legitimacy in the genre is really weird. I bet a bunch of Black fronted bands feel like that. They never know where to place you.”
During their tenure, The OBGMs have shared the stage with massive acts like The Roots, Pusha T, and Saul Williams. Because The OBGMs is a Black-fronted band they were booked with other Black artists, regardless of whether the sounds aligned. But getting booked on punk shows has proved more difficult. High ranking music insiders suggested that the band make something more palatable if they wanted industry support. They needed the band to fit into a box they understood.
The group wanted the same kinds of opportunities afforded to their peers. It was necessary to reach the level of success they felt destined for. But after years of hustling against other people's expectations, the frustration started to take its toll.
"I fell out of love with music. I was tired of not getting paid attention to," said McFarlane. "It's a lot of the same stuff that gets popular. If you're not in the race to be second with the same sound it's hard to get your name out. If you don't fit into the mold they don't know what to do with you."
In 2017 after finishing a grueling tour McFarlane didn’t have the willpower to keep fighting. The OBGMs headed home. The group didn’t speak for almost a year. McFarlane felt like the dream was over.
The OBGMs 2020 comeback was birthed out of two main factors. As the Toronto punk scene began getting more international attention thanks to bands like the aforementioned PUP, the band couldn’t stand the thought of being left behind. But more importantly, it felt like the conversations about race, art, and the Black experience were starting to gain traction. McFarlane felt like he had something to say.
The Ends feels like an opportunity for The OBGMs to do just that. The band has put everything they’ve got into the record and intentionally positioned themselves as leaders in the Toronto punk community. They’ve set lofty goals for themselves—there is a lot to live up to when you compare yourself to Nirvana and John Lennon—but for McFarlane, that kind of success seems possible. He wants to use that success to show other BIPOC artists it can be done. "Right now in Canadian music, I don't see a band that looks like me. I don't see a band that sounds like me. BIPOC artists want to tell different kinds of stories and make different kinds of sounds. We want seats at the table. And if they don’t give them to us, we’re going to take them."
Graham Isador is a writer and photographer in Toronto. Follow him @presgang