Ben Cook is a morass of contradictions. The 31 year-old has been in the music business since he was 15 but still looks as though he’s barely out of high school as his cherubic face greets me in the living room of his great-uncle’s apartment. “I look like I’m 12 years old now and back when I was 15 I looked like I was six,” he sheepishly explains later, his chosen outfit of a sleeveless red hoodie and black jogging bottoms not doing much to help his cause.
As long-time misbehaving guitarist for Fucked Up and founding frontman of No Warning, Cook has been involved with two of the most seminal hardcore punk outfits of the last decade and a half. He also spends his time running punk label Bad Actors back home in Toronto. Yet here he is today to talk about Young Guv, his nascent power pop side project. New album ‘Ripe 4 Luv’, out on Slumberland Records this month, has been described as “Big Star produced by Prince,” into which you might mix any number of other power pop luminaries from the Knack and Cheap Trick through to eighties disciples the dB’s and the Plimsouls.
The record would be a striking left-turn for any avowed punk rocker but for Cook, expanding beyond the genre’s boundaries is nothing new. For years now the Torontonian has forged a career ghost writing for the likes of Sum 41 and Taylor Swift and what becomes abundantly clear throughout our time together is an abiding love for pop music in its simplest form. “Ultimately it’s all Beatles-derivative,” he declares some way into our chat. “Everything is.”
“Punk is where I come from”
I came up in hardcore, DIY and that kind of culture. That’s kind of how I met the Fucked Up guys – we all came up going to shows with this kind of anarchist collective called Who’s Emma? in Toronto, when I was like 15 or 16 and doing hardcore bands. I just kind of fell into it through kind of other misfit people. I grew up in a neighbourhood in the East End of Toronto, which was just volleyball jocks and lacrosse players and stuff like that. There were maybe three or four of us who were just like, we kind of had little chips on our shoulders. I’ve tried to hold on to a lot of things that were important about that; like the community thing and just trying to release shit on your own.
“I was the bad kid in Fucked Up”
When I first joined Fucked Up and we were touring Europe for the first time, I was stealing everything. I was stealing all my food and stopping at all the gas stations and just constantly stealing. I don’t know why, I was just an idiot. I think it also had something to do with, like, I’m only getting this much per diem, I need to save this so if I steal I can save a bit more money. But Damian [Abraham, Fucked Up’s frontman] is a guy who’s been brought up really respecting the rules, and he got super pissed at me and we had a huge blow-out fight about me stealing. Then I stopped because I realised it was making people feel uncomfortable and kind of maybe jeopardising the tour. I guess when you grow up in a neighbourhood and you’re so bored, you get into the habit and it’s just something to do at night to shake things up a little bit.
“No Warning was always my baby”
I think within the hardcore community, No Warning always had a weird story. We were these kids from Canada who did this specific brand of New York hardcore, released our, like, important hardcore record, sold out to Warner Brothers, then did a weird nu-metal pop punk record – ‘Suffer Survive’ – which I fucking think is kind of terrible. We never did a last show and I don’t know, it was just a weird timeline for a band. We experienced so much through it. The reason we did the new music last year [the ‘Resurrection of the Wolf’ 7”] was that our old bass player, he got into some deep shit with the law and he was in jail. He had a weird run of things, got into drugs and a lot of shit and kind of fucked up a bit. It was money to help with lawyer fees and also to help him with his daughter. After we did that one song for him we pressed a thousand copies and we sold out in like 40 minutes so we thought, you know what, this was a really easy and pleasurable experience. Plus, everything seems like watered down at this point and I want to make an aggressive, brutal statement about some things artistically. I’m not like a writer, I’m not going to write an article so it’s the only way I can express my distaste and disgust with things, to perform with that in mind.
“Punk cuts through the shit”
I love the simplicity of punk and the really straightforwardness; almost like the confidence. Just shitting out music. I know the music that I’m doing on the Young Guv record is like this glistening, glamorous pop with guitars and stuff like that, but I do feel like the simplicity and just the stripped-down song-writing is still very rooted in where I’ve always written songs. I’ve done hardcore and very heavy shit and I really love that kind of stuff, but I’ve always loved pop music. The other thing is that I think especially in 2015 there are so many sub-cultures and sub-sub-cultures, so why can’t I do like the hardest record of the year and also a glistening pop record that sounds like Paul Weller naked on the Thames?
“It’s Big Star produced by Prince”
I’m a huge fan of Ned Doheny, Dwight Twilly, Phil Seymour, which are kind of like these low-key power poppers from the late seventies. People are saying the new Young Guv record sounds like Big Star produced by Prince, which is so sick because those guys are some of my favourite shit ever. But really it was more like, I love mid-eighties and late-seventies power poppers who got signed to a major label and failed. And, like, they have one record, which is just like gold; they’re just gold classic songwriting from these weird songwriters who just disappeared. They might have charted at the bottom of the Billboard 200 or something like that. The guy who produced this with me, Tony Price, he kind of saw where I was going with it.
“There’s something really satisfying about writing a corny pop song”
I don’t care what anybody says. If you’re a musician, you want to write a hit pop song, 100%. I can go up on stage and do a no wave noise session for 20 minutes but can you go up on stage and perform 20 minutes of hit pop music and write that music? Good luck. It’s hard as fuck. If you’re an artist at a certain level, unless you’re the Beatles, it’s writing by committee. Look at a Katy Perry song – there are like 17 writers on ‘Teenage Dream’ and it’s one of the best songs ever, I don’t even give a shit. Taylor Swift, writing her own songs? There’s no way. Maybe she has some lyrics. Ghost writing was just kind of a weird opportunity that I took and I’ve just kind of finessed that into other opportunities. I would love to do it more but that world, like the writing world, the American Idol world and all that shit, I don’t know how to fucking navigate that at all.
“I’ve got Beatles DNA”
For the first part of my life I grew up in England. My family’s not really musical at all so the only thing my mom would play would be The Beatles and so through osmosis I absorbed that. My mom actually grew up near John Lennon, once he’d moved to Surrey in the mid-sixties. She has this funny story about the Lennons. My mom was hiding under some leaves for some reason and then it was like either Sean or Julian Lennon pissed on the leaves. So now she always jokes that I have Beatles DNA, because my mom got pissed on by a Lennon!
“Fuck them, you’re better than this”
I read this interview once with Savages, and they were saying there should be more people in the industry helping each other, because there’s just so much wackery. It’s true. When I was 15,16, going to shows, a lot of people helped me and put me on and guided me in a cool direction. I feel like there should be more people who have actually been through it – they haven’t been to school for it but they’ve actually been through it – and who can just be like, you know what, these are the little steps you can take to avoid fucking industry dinosaur douchebags. You don’t need to go in this direction, you’re an amazing artist, you’re the powerful one. I don’t really care about Bad Actors as a label; I really use it as a way to meet young artists and help them navigate their way through things and not make the same mistakes I have in the past.
“It’s such a shit show, music now”
Press is everything. You hand stuff off to these blogs and these press people who give it maybe 5% of their brain and it’s just like, here’s the thing you’ve worked on for two years and it’s like post of the day. It’s fucking bullshit. I’ve gotten a taste of that through Fucked Up and we’ve definitely benefited from it – the Pitchfork phenomenon – and I’m not trying to be a brat about that, I’m really thankful for it and I’m lucky to have music as a career. But I know tons of talented people who are unable to navigate their way through this shit show.
“I know how the game works”
It’s a machine. If you have $5,000 for a press agent you’re gonna get all this blog hype whereas if you’re an amazing, talented artist with none of that and you send it to them, they’re not gonna touch it. It’s just weird, but it’s almost the only way for a lot of people to get known now. In hardcore and punk, you would just release a 7-inch into that community and then you would go tour. For me that’s a really cool way to do things – it’s a very natural way.
“I wish I’d never quit acting because I’d probably be rich”
I went to a canoe camp when I was, like, 10, and I ended up capsizing another canoe. I was like a little shit and ended up smashing all these other canoes. This other kid fell into the lake so I got kicked out and put into acting camp, then I got a commercial through this acting camp and it kind of went from there. I think I was on [children’s ‘horror’ TV series] Goosebumps three times. I was also on this old Canadian period thing called Road to Avonlea with Ryan Gosling before he blew up. His band Dead Man’s Bones played a festival the next day after Fucked Up did once and I left him a note for his dressing room like, “Dude, it’s Ben!” Then he sent me a t-shirt and a CD of his band. It’s shit.