Music Interview

Interview: Young Guv on Power Pop, Tom Petty, New Mexico Biostructures, and Depression


Young Guv, the solo project for Ben Cook of Fucked Up and No Warning fame, follows up the GUV I and II double album from 2019 with GUV III, another set of immaculately crafted power pop tunes that offer a sugary, hooky respite despite relatable lyrics about quarantine bumming. We spoke with Ben about being a journeyman in both music and life, the journey to GUV III with GUV IV on the horizon, and power pop as a balm for modern malaise.

Through your time in Young Guv—and in all of your different projects—you’ve covered a wide spectrum of guitar-based styles. Obviously No Warning and Fucked Up are on their own grids of the punk table, but Marvelous Darlings also had this gutter-punk/Replacements’y thing, and over the course of the different albums you’ve done as Young Guv, you’ve explored different sounds. You’ve explored not only traditionalist power pop type stuff, but also sophisti-pop and electro-pop on some records. Even on GUV III, you’re getting into a Laurel Canyon’y, twangy vibe on some songs. You’re also kind of a journeyman in life too—you’ve lived all over, from Toronto, Canada, to New York, New Mexico, and Mexico. Do you think the way you write and make music is similar to how you live your life? Is the approach similar?

Ben Cook: Yeah! I mean, as you’re talking, I’m thinking, “wow, I really am a product of my surroundings, it seems.” I’m really dug in about how I make records and how dedicated I am to the actual craft, but I think I’m pretty malleable in terms of where I am and who I’m with. I’m very susceptible to any kind of inspiration at any point. It comes naturally to me. I just find people and places inspiring. I think that would definitely reflect in the various forms of the kind of pop spectrum I’ve been exploring in the last decade or so. I really believe that music is this soulful, enriching journey and you really have to just do what feels good to you. It’s one of the only things in my journey and my life that I look to for that kind of valuable experience. 

I don’t really care to have a project that stays in one lane. I started this while I was in Fucked Up and while I was in No Warning—those bands kind of stick to a formula, similar to what the Ramones did. That’s something I really respect with those projects. That’s not something that comes naturally to me with my own stuff. I really like to wander. And sometimes it might be something that’s a little harder to follow or a little disorienting, to myself in particular. Living all over, and living all of these places, while it’s been so beautiful and so soul enriching. I’ve been experiencing these different reality vortexes and welcomed into different little tiny subcultures of people’s existence. Sometimes it is a little disorienting, and I think my music can be that way too. At the same time, I hope it’s exciting, and it still excites me. Who knows what I’m going to do after releasing GUV III and IV.

Does this sense of exploration continue GUV IV?

BC: There’s a bit of a journeyman vibe on IV, yeah. I tried to make GUV III a solid “this is my band, this is me and my guys, offstage, right into the studio.” This is a rock record. You’ll notice on GUV IV, the first half is like if you went back to the late 90s and did heroin at Glastonbury and nodded out. It’s a little darker, a little more minor, a little bit more groovy—some Madchester shit I have to get off my plate.

Gotta get that Primal Scream!

BC: Yeah! Some Primal Scream shit. What were we calling it… we were calling it “spiked out.” Spiked out music. Meaning like…

Heroin chic.

BC: It’s a little heroin chic.

We’re in a new opioid era, so it fits that.

BC: It’s a little more opioid! The second half of GUV IV kind of goes into my drum machine/bedroom-pop/homemade stuff. It’s almost like two EPs in one. And then GUV III was meant to be more of a singular, cohesive rock full-length.

Releasing two EPs and an album combining them later has become a regular release strategy for a lot of artists, so it’s good you’re cutting to the chase! I respect that!

BC: I could have done GUV III and then GUV 3.5 and then GUV IV but I just didn’t want to be that annoying about it. I just figured, throw it all on GUV IV. You’ll recognize, Side A of it is a full band spiked out on a fuckin’ Madchester groove; the second half is some weird bedroom pop by way of the New Mexican high desert.

That’s really exciting! Some of my favorite stuff you’ve done is stuff like Yacht Club or the 2 SAD 2 FUNK record from Young Guv. You’re doing almost a chillwave or hypnagogic pop, Sean Nicholas Savage type of thing on those records. Colder, synthy new wave type of jams. Exploring Madchester sounds like the next progression of that!

BC: I’m actually working on 2 SAD 2 FUNK 2. I’m going to continue being annoying numbering my records.

I was wondering! After GUV IV, are you going to make your HOUSES OF THE HOLY? What’s next after that?

BC: I don’t know! I have one more record after that on Run for Cover. I feel like GUV I and II and GUV III and IV. Looking back, I want those to be my Run for Cover years.

I was going to ask if you considered it a quadrilogy.

BC: I think I do! It’s hard to say, I always just do things—you write a song in literally one minute and you’re like, “I have no idea what this is about” and then six months later you realize the emotions going into that song were more profound than you had initially thought through.

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You released GUV I and II in 2019, then had your tour canceled due to the pandemic, and ended up living in a biostructure in New Mexico, which is super cool. I’m sure that affected the approach of GUV III—both the actual writing, and the whole creative process. When did you decide you were going to do GUV III and IV and have them be of a piece with GUV I and II?

BC: GUV I and II, I really liked how it went! It was the first time I had a really amazing experience with a record label—shout out Run for Cover! I liked how it brought me together with a band, with a group of friends of mine who put themselves on the road with me out of their own belief. Some of them have gone their separate ways, which I completely understand. It’s not for everyone. When quarantine hit, and we were out there in the Earthship, there was nothing else to do but start writing again. I never really planned to do GUV III and IV. I had never thought about it. I didn’t really think that far ahead. I hadn’t even thought about doing a new record at all—GUV II had just dropped. I had just been on tour for the double album and I was like, “ah fuck, I guess I have to make another one now!” 

I was out in the desert with a bunch of dope people, and I wanted them to get involved. It kind of just happened that way. I never intended it to be another double album, but you come out of those mountains with a lot of stuff. I don’t really believe in sitting on shit. I know it’s a lot for the average listener to take in, a double record, but I do believe these are artifacts and statements of myself at the time, and they’re discoverable for years to come. Similar to No Warning, five years after we dropped our first record, people started coming to our shows. Similar with Fucked Up, they weren’t appreciated for a really long time until they crossed the border and did stuff. Not saying that is gonna happen with Young Guv, I just wanna drop whatever the fuck comes out, and it happens to be a lot of music.

Fucked Up weren’t afraid to get a little long in the tooth, as it were. They weren’t afraid to get epic. I think people who are familiar with you should come to expect length.

BC: Yeah! I wasn’t the mastermind behind the lengthy Fucked Up stuff. In fact, there were a lot of times when I was trying to be the voice to cut shit down. It’s not my place, and sometimes it caused a little tension, but that’s the way it is. But here I am, with double records!

It rubbed off on you!

BC: It might have rubbed off on me a bit. I think what really rubs off on me is the inspiration around me. GUV I and II I was so inspired to be in a new place and in GUV III and IV I was inspired to be in a new place despite the shit that was going on in the world. It was still quite the time to be an artist and a hypersensitive type.

I was looking at videos of the Earthship, the biostructure you were in. Totally crazy! It’s crazy architecture.

BC: It’s fucked! It was made out of bottles, adobe clay, and tires. It was masterminded by this man named Michael Reynolds in the 80s. There’s a community out there in surrounding Taos, New Mexico. We were lucky to come upon it. Life is magical, but New Mexico is even more magical. You’re out there and things just come your way and you have to walk through these doors. We walked through an Earthship door and thought “we can make this a home!” We ended up with six or seven people over the course of the months we were living in the home—not at the same time. It was beautiful. It was one of the first Earthships ever built by the inventor. It had a real spec pyramid on the land. He’s a fucking crazy fucking guy, he probably built all of this shit on several acid trips. Some of the pieces used to construct the pyramid were from Egypt and shipped. It was like this tomb where they actually cremated people who died over the years. I would go over there and sit and meditate. I meditated in the pyramid for like 30 days in a row. A couple people I was living with got weird vibes from it energetically speaking. I think a lot of negative stuff had gone on in there, a lot of drug use in particular. New Mexico’s got it bad out there.

Lots of BREAKING BAD-juju in the pyramid!

BC: E-fuckin-xactly dude. Maybe I’m not as hypersensitive of a person as I think I am, because I thought it was a really interesting time to vibe in that shit. I don’t know if it cursed me—sometimes I feel like it might have, knock on wood. It was a mindfuck. I thrifted a camera and made all the videos with it, but I also threw together an 18-minute documentary focused on our time in Taos to Mexico proper, where I lived for the last year in Oaxaca. I stripped down a bunch of musical elements from the record for the soundtrack. It was an incredibly valuable, traumatic, beautiful time that I’m still wrapping my head around. The last three, four months I’ve been in some of the lowest places of my life. I don’t know if this is the pandemic catching up to me, but depression is super hard to deal with at this time.

I’m feeling that too! I’m in the same boat. I feel like a lot of people are in the same boat.

BC: I feel like we’re in this collective, ubiquitous moment of complete fucking suffering.

Oh yeah. 100%. Things suck shit.

BC: It sucks so bad. It’s really helpful to hear someone say that, too.

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It’s a hard time to navigate in a lot of different ways. There’s so much going on. I tweeted it the other day, but I’d really like for our imperialist overlords to chill out for one second, because I have enough going on in my personal life that already makes me depressed as shit on a day-to-day basis. I don’t need culture and the outside world to be even more depressing.

BC: It’s so bad and it’s so hard not to feel isolated right now. I’ve been going back and reading books on social media and the smart phone—stuff that was written like three or four years ago when people started to catch wind that this shit was really fucking us up. Now I feel like we’re a little past that time, and people are still so addicted to these things. It’s a root of a lot of this feeling that we’re feeling. I’m just as addicted as anyone else, and just as isolated from it. I’m moving to New York in a few weeks and I’m going to take a few steps to really just sit and be with myself. Be more present and shit in my life.

I don’t think we’re meant to process as much information as we have to process right now. I don’t think anyone was built for it. I think it’s really affected younger generations, for sure. Gen Z is super anxious, I think, because they’ve had social media and smartphones since they were in elementary school. As a millennial—I’m 32—I had to adapt to all that stuff. When I was in college I was still burning CDs! I downloaded music on MP3 blogs!

BC: God bless them! I think no matter what generation you’re in right now, whether you had to adapt to it and grew up in a time when you had a flip phone, or if you’re a Gen Z’er and have grown up with this shit—we’re still all addicted to cigarettes. This is just the new cigarettes. It’s sad they’re allowed to get young kids hooked on cigarettes! I really do feel like the way my brain works and how present I am in reality has completely flipped on its ass.

I think it took the pandemic and the last two years for me to feel that way. Before I was completely dismissive—I was like, “oh what, you’re going to post some MEME about how FACEBOOK and your cell phone is GEORGE ORWELL? Who are you, BANKSY?!?”

In the last two years, we all were isolated in quarantine, and we were all forced to rely on social media for all of our information-and there’s so much disinformation spreading, and “Fake News” …it’s crazy! It radicalized people in various ways, good and bad! It’s legitimately dangerous.

BC: I hope, and I’m optimistic that, like… y’know, they said after the Spanish flu we had the Roaring 20s. Whatever comes after this, we’re going to have people sick of being on their phones. We need to get out—just break out and throw ‘em all in the fuckin’ river for a year. At least for a year, and I don’t even think that technology itself is bad. I think the addiction to technology is bad.

Sure, and it’s that there’s an addiction—but the addiction is being fueled by the same six corporations controlling all of this shit. Everything is so monopolized, and we’re so deep into this late capitalist hellhole. We can’t trust our news sources, we can’t trust the news that comes in via social media, because everything is in the pockets of people whose best interest is to make things awful. Or people who are so cloistered off that they don’t fully understand they’re doing irreparable harm.

BC: And they make things awful intentionally, because that’s what we respond the easiest to.

Causation, for sure. I can turn this around and talk about music and power pop and shit—it does relate! That’s what struck me when listening to GUV III: a lot of the songs are major key power pop songs, but the lyrics are all about being sad, or trying to get out of this quarantine, COVID mindset. The dichotomy of that, it’s clearly intentional.

BC: “I love The Byrds, I love Neil Young, I love Teenage Fanclub. But I’m in a horrible place.” That’s what the record is. All I want is love around me. That’s all I care about. All I want is community and support and love. Whether it’s the love of a partner or friends. That’s all that matters. It’s all that feels natural to me as a human being. Tying it back into isolation and the phones… when it starts to get me down and I can’t make music, and I can’t do this thing that I love, I just feel like I have to talk about it. This depression is getting worse for us all, and I just hope for the best. I hope the music sounds optimistic and brings you back to a place when you felt fuzzy and warm inside. Because I dunno if people have been feeling that these days.

I was thinking a lot when listening to GUV III about power pop itself, and the reasons I listen to it. It’s because it’s happy music that makes me feel happy on just a lizard brain level. At the same time, a lot of modern, capital P Pop music—modern popular music in general of the past five years—it’s been extremely depressing! It’s very dour, and the music has reflected the times. Everything’s very minor key and dark.

BC: It’s that opioid shit. It really is that opioid chic. They’ve turned it into this whole thing—I don’t resonate with it at all. I’m in my own world half of the time, or most of the time. To me power pop is happy and sad music. It’s something I can listen to and feel an extra kick in my step when I’m walking down the street in New York, or wherever. Finally getting a little moment to yourself. You plug in. You put your music on. You’re feeling good, it’s getting you going a little bit. It’s happy/sad-it’s also somehow making you feel this deep longing for something. I don’t intentionally make music like that, but when I listen back sometimes and try to appreciate what I’ve done. There are moments when you listen to a final product, and I’ll be moved by how I made it, who I made it with, the process is really meaningful for me. I usually get that feeling—I feel accomplished, but I feel so sad inside at the same time. Sometimes it’s unexplainable, and that’s fine too.

That’s a great way to put it, and that’s definitely the sense you get from the album. Kudos to you for making great power pop music in these trying times!

BC: Thank you! Maybe my next one will be an opioid disaster.

You gotta have the two, the ying and the yang. 

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It’s funny—I’ve been talking to a lot of other contemporary power pop songwriters, recently Mo Troper and Matt from Hurry. Both of them talked about how power pop as a genre is seen as this rigid, traditionalist, very formalist thing. As people and artists who love that kind of music, and love Teenage Fanclub and all these different bands… They understand that, like any other style or subgenre, there’s fluid interpretation. Going back to the Ramones, and Ramones-core, and bands that do one thing super well, and do constant iterations of that thing—there’s a craft to seeing the boundaries you can stretch reiterating a single idea. At the same time, as you’ve proven, you can use many different colors in your palette in order to make power pop. Your approach is the exception that kind of proves the rule.

BC: I guess I got roped into this power pop thing for a reason. Young Guv was birthed more out of Marvelous Darlings, I guess, looking back on it. Fucked Up had some power pop songs, and those were the songs that resonated the most with me in that band. Marvelous Darlings were just a straight-up power pop band, and Young Guv’s first single was “Virginia Creeper” which is pretty much power pop. It’s kind of ventured into all this weird shit, but come back into this traditional, almost Tom Petty, fuckin’ Traveling Wilburys/Jeff Lynne type shit. I guess it’s just because I’m a stubborn dick, but like… when people call my stuff power pop I get a little argumentative inside. It’s completely fine that people call it that, and I’m totally cool with it, but sometimes I’m like, “Hey! Why are you calling it that?!” Tom Petty has, like, five power pop songs, but he’s a rock artist, y’know what I mean?

Petty played bass for Dwight Twilley, I think he’s as power pop as they come.

BC: He is. I love Nick Lowe. I love all the classic shit.

There’s a weird baggage with power pop as a genre. Maybe because a lot of it is a bunch of weird old guys who never made it.

BC: That’s what I like about it! 

It’s an underdog kind of music! The big formative bands in the genre were all just trying to sound like The Beatles and they all fucking stiffed at radio.

BC: I really like that about the genre—that it’s discoverable. You have to be kind of a head to know who Dwight Twilley is. You have to be even more of a head to know who Phil Seymour is.

It has built in gatekeeping.

BC: Yeah, and it’s, like, you’re going to go into a record store, and the Phil Seymour record is going to be $5. Maybe now it’s going to be $20—but when I bought it like 10 or 15 years ago, it was one fucking dollar. I really like that. I like people’s stories. Like, woah, Ned Doheny was this rich kid whose dad was an oil tycoon in LA and he completely failed, but his records are fucking so sick. I do really like that. There’s a record label called PPU that reissues a lot of basement tapes from—I wouldn’t call them failed artists, I would just call them artists from the ‘80s who were making albums in their basement. Robbie M, for instance, who I covered on 2 SAD 2 FUNK—the song “You’ve Been Acting Strangely Lately” is a cover by him—if you go back and listen to his song, that’s a complete fuckin hit. It is such a good, well written song. That’s what I like about this kind of stuff.

“Why didn’t lightning strike with this?? This is the best song I’ve ever heard!”

BC: It’s so interesting! They’ve left these golden artifacts for us to discover later. Sometimes I romanticize that about the Guv project a little bit. Now is DEFINITELY not the time for a white dude with a guitar to be playing Tom Petty songs – for good reason! I’m not fuckin’ butthurt about it at all. I’m still gonna do what I do. People can check it out now or whenever – when I’m in Thailand.

You could say the same thing about the original power pop stuff. Those guys were doing it in, like, ‘77, when the punks had way more socially conscious lyrics, and into the ‘80s and the birth of hip hop too. Sometimes the personal politics of power pop is what it all boils down to.

BC: It’s a genre that’s always been between the cracks and a long time ago I accepted that I’m just a between the cracks kind of artist. It’s just how it is.

You can check out GUV III over on Bandcamp

Luke Phillips
Luke Phillips is a radio promoter currently living in Los Angeles. His go-to karaoke song is "A Little Respect" by Erasure. You can usually find him going to local pro wrestling shows, playing Dungeons & Dragons, at the movies, or some twisted combination of the three.

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