It’s a gloomy November evening, and Tim Darcy and I are braving the drizzle on a picnic bench in the yard beside the ATP Pop-up Venue. Tonight his band Ought will deliver a dazzling show here, just as they did last time I saw them (End of the Road Festival), just as they did the first time I saw them (Pitchfork Paris, 2014), and just as I imagine they have at every booking in-between and ever since. Because, hyperbole aside, Ought are probably one of the best live bands in the world right now. But then, they’ve had a lot of practise.
Formed in 2012 – while studying at McGill University – the Montreal-based quartet have been touring pretty-much solidly since the release of their debut on Constellation Records, back in February 2014. The follow-up to More Than Any Other Day – September’s equally superb Sun Coming Down – was written on the hoof, allowing much of the new material to be thoroughly road-tested. Indeed, stand-out track, ‘Beautiful Blue Sky’, had been regularly appearing in set lists a full year before its official release as the album’s lead single, in May 2015.
For those unfamiliar with Ought’s output, that near-eight-minute sprawl is the perfect entry point. Simultaneously visceral and cerebral, the track is powered by a metronomic bass riff, woozy keyboard chords, and inventive guitar work that ebbs and flows between almost-pointillist neatness and vast swathes of squalling distortion. Over it all, Darcy grapples with ideas of existential angst, wringing euphoria from apathy via a monologue of banal conversation-starters that climaxes in the declaration, “I’m no longer afraid to die, because that is all I have left,” followed by an emphatic, “Yes.” It is a perfect song and a firm live highlight.
As a direct consequence of Sun Coming Down’s critical success, Ought have been on the road for the majority of 2015, leading one of the group to semi-jokingly tweet last month, “For Halloween, I am ‘home from tour’.” With the year’s live commitments nearly complete, I sit down with Darcy post-soundcheck to take stock on the past twelve months.
You’ve been touring relentlessly since May. How’s that working out for you?
Um, good. But yeah, this was a long year. We were still finishing touring the first record pretty much until the week that the new record came out, and then a week and a half after that we left to start touring the new record… Like, it was ok because I think of them as sister records – so there wasn’t any lack of emotional continuity – but it seemed like there was a lot [going on] without much of a pause. And also, as soon as everybody goes back home to Quebec, it’s a mixture of [being in] a catatonic state – just recovery and doing absolutely nothing – and then incredibly busy, working on lots of other projects as well as this band.
One of our interviewers said that the first song he listened to after the Paris attacks was ‘Beautiful Blue Sky’, we were really taken aback by that.
What are you working on outside of Ought?
Tim [Keen, drums] produces and records a lot of our friends’ bands in Montreal, so he’s done a lot of great stuff in that realm. He has his own solo stuff, as Silk Statue, where he plays violin. And then Matt [May, keyboards] makes amazing drone and ambient music. He has a project called Country Ride and a project called Supercooling with his friend Catherine [Debard]. And then Ben [Stidworthy, bass] just started doing his first DJ sets, and he’s getting really good. He likes grime and dub, but he’ll play ‘212’.
Who doesn’t love ‘212’?
Exactly. And I’ve been working on a quieter, almost folk record that might see the light of day one day some day. That’s been really nourishing and fun to work on.
Has living in each other’s pockets altered the creative process?
Yeah. To me, that second record is a much more interpersonal footprint. It really is a product of our relationships, and how we just became much tighter as a band. It’s still staggering to me how we wrote those songs so quickly, essentially in a month and a half. Especially as previous to that it would take us months to finish a song. Everybody’s grown really close. Prior to [Ought], all of us had lived together, and touring is similar to being a roommate, except you don’t have your own bedroom. (Laughs)
Let’s talk about ‘Beautiful Blue Sky’. Structurally, it’s extremely interesting, in terms of the way there’s almost semantic satiation from the repetition of those banal statements. Can you tell me about the composition of it?
Yeah. I mean, the repetition thing I don’t think was as intentional as that: sometimes a melody I’ll build just happens like that. I’ve done spoken word the longest out of anything, so before I even played music, I would go to cafés and do open mic nights. And sometimes to fill out a melody I’ll repeat things.
Whatever the intention behind the repetition in ‘Beautiful Blue Sky’ was, that definitely is what I wanted the end result to be. Theoretically, if you were to look at these Hallmark cards phrases on paper, they should be imbued with this actual nice sentiment, but in many cases they can either mean the total opposite or are just totally void of sentiment. You see it in advertisements, or in people you don’t see very often, who you pass on the street or whatever.
I find it a strangely hopeful song. Was that the intention?
Yeah… It is strangely hopeful. It’s funny, people have said to me they feel this record is more emotionally detached or less hopeful than the first record, and I think in degrees that may be true but I think ‘Beautiful Blue Sky’ definitely doesn’t fall into that category. To me, it’s totally a hopeful song. When we were in France recently, one of our interviewers said that the first song he listened to after the Paris attacks was ‘Beautiful Blue Sky’, and we were really taken aback by that. It’s really thought-provoking and powerful to hear.
You mentioned that you see Sun Coming Down as a sister record to More Than Any Other Day. In what respect?
I think, very directly, a lot of the themes that are present on the first record are in the second record. There’s definitely existentialism in both records, and there’s poking at banality, and the first record has ‘Clarity!’, which is an ally song to ‘Men For Miles’, which is an anti-patriarchy song. It wasn’t like there was a checklist; it’s more that both records were written in a similar headspace.
To me, the first record is always very special, but I think seeing it in relation to other people’s reactions to it, and how it was reviewed, made us think more about how we wanted the recordings [for Sun Coming Down] to sound. And it’s definitely not like we achieved perfection on the second record, but we had a little bit more time so we massaged certain things more, and were sonically a little more exploratory. But I think we’ve always tried to match the production of the song to the song itself, and not think, “This is how we as a band sound.” Which is something that we all struggle with all the time: like, what kind of band are we, even? Because it seems to change song to song sometimes, which is a great thing.
You described ‘Men For Miles’ as an “anti-patriarchy” song. Are you consciously trying to disrupt that patriarchy as a band?
They are things that are important to us individually, and the things that we’re steeped in just based on the nature of the people that we hang out with. I wasn’t that old when my parents divorced, so I was essentially raised by my mom. My mom is a musician herself, so I guess that energy has always been around, and it just feels like something we gravitate towards naturally. We don’t really like playing all-dude bills if we can, even though we play loud rock music so it happens all the time. We get put on bills with Iceage and Viet Cong and it’s not a bad booking – it makes sense – but if we’re in Montreal, we don’t wanna do that.
You formed amidst the Quebec student strikes, so it’s in your DNA to be politically-engaged, right?
Yeah. We were in projects prior to the student strikes, and we’ve all been playing music longer than that, but that was obviously a really formative experience. And the aftermath of it really influenced the lyrical content of some of the songs.
Looking back on your year, what were your hopes for 2015, and how does the reality compare?
Well, the difference between this year and last year is that everything was planned out. When More Than Any Other Day came out, we didn’t even have a tour booked and so we were just trying to jump on whatever tour we could. Whereas this year we knew the second record was coming out, so the last two tours were booked as soon as the album was finished. And now we’re already booking a little bit of next year, so.
How much of 2016 is planned out already?
Not too much, thankfully. I don’t know, we have other things that we want to do next year, like process the last two years of our lives. And really, really take our time with making a third record. That’ll be really great.