Ought actually found their band name on a gaffe. Drummer/multi-instrumentalist Tim Keen, in his languid Australian enunciation, jokingly suggested naming the band “art”, causing someone in the band to mishear it as “ought”. The last time DiS spoke to the other Tim (Darcy), the singer/guitarist stated that most art he loves interacts directly with the heart. It’s funny how Ought have been doing just that in their half-decade upsurge, from the moment they formed in Montreal in the wake of the 2012 mass student protest in Quebec. You can go ahead and replace the word “art” with “ought”, at any point during this interview, and Ought ticks off all the boxes.
Ought’s growing profile as critical darlings has been hard-won. The band’s first two albums for Constellation Records, More Than Any Other Day and Sun Coming Down established the foursome’s quick-witted and joyous ilk. Ought’s frantic, feverish noise excursions oftentimes prompted critics to – unfairly – peg them as post-punk revivalists. As Jazz Monroe aptly pointed out in his review of More Than Any Other Day, the band’s existential altruism filters through by superimposing the seemingly banal, playfully winking at lapses of cynicism or dejectedness. In short: Ought celebrate and challenge on equal terms.
Indeed, it’s never felt more wrong to brand Ought as post-punk artisans once your ears meet the band’s forthcoming LP Room Inside The World, their first on Merge Records. As the level of outrage and vigilance in the world seems to climb exponentially, the band opts to carve out a sonic space of benevolence, softness, and compassion. The signature cauterized, brittle forays have dissolved somewhat into the background. They make way for sparkling, warm synths, curved string progressions and yes, even a choir. The album blankets you like a sanctuary, but make no mistake: the group’s restless egalitarianism and acute lyrical thrusts shifted up another gear or two.
Though it takes getting used to some of Ought’s radical stylistic shifts at first, their ever-confident songwriting transcends and bridges whatever unfamiliarities come to light. Their soul is intact and rapidly expanding. They appear to have found grace and comfort in Room Inside The World’s more measured, drawn-out modus operandi. In the past, Darcy would play court jester with sparkle and fire, juxtaposing optimism with dread to open up new wormholes of consciousness. In Ought’s first post-Constellation chapter, both his voice and train of thought breathe out and untether more earnestly than ever, further permeating a sensitivity that was always palpable, even when Ought engaged in their more abrasive sonic incursions.
Instead of easing in the listener in with the more classic Ought-sounding ‘Disaffectation’ the band boldly opted to release ’These 3 Things’ as the first single. It’s a swirling, drum-computer driven track that gives Tim Keen’s deft string arrangements and Matt May’s billowy synths ample maneuverability to design this cherubic, weightless aerospace, recalling Brian Eno and Kate Bush’s Hounds Of Love. Ben Stidworthy’s bass forms a supple, hypnotic current.
As we connect with Tim Darcy for the second time in a year, he refuses to reveal what those ‘three things’ entail exactly. “But…it’s all there, hidden in the song”, he hints. And so we flounder on.
DiS: Last time we spoke you were hanging out in Toronto. What’s the domestic situation now?
Tim Darcy: As of right now I have no fixed address, but Montreal is definitely still the homebase for the band.
Are you the type of person that could see this drifting between places as serendipitous? Do you embrace a sense of freedom in that, or are you more like: “Dammit I need a house, or at least a room.”
No, I definitely love having a home. I’m a “nester” for sure, I like having my books around with me and a place to play music. That is such an essential part of my life. It’s funny, once you come back from a tour, you realize you theoretically have been playing a lot of music, but you haven’t been creative. I mean, some people can be creative on the road. One of the first things I want to do when I get home is play a song I haven’t been playing on tour. So for those reasons, it’s nice to have your own space.
Speaking of bouncing back and forth: you switched your attention between your solo record Saturday Night and the second Ought album Sun Coming Down. What was it like to fully focus your attention on Ought music again?
It was good. My solo record consisted of old songs that predate Ought, whereas other material was written around the time of Sun Coming Down. So after making those two records, this next Ought record found its own period of focus. We’ve spent more time making this record than any of the previous albums. This one had the same intentionality as Sun Coming Down, where we would have sufficient time every day to enter our practice space to experiment and write. And in a lot of ways, our way of working was a similar to the previous Ought albums, with a lot of jamming. Almost everything happened within the same room, with exception of lyrics and vocals. The main difference was the fact that we did a lot more pre-planning and communicating; we made a mood board, we made a big Dropbox and played each other things we would like to hear. I feel, even on a subliminal level, a lot of those things came up on the record in a very cool way.
A mood board, how should I envision that?
We made a visual mood board and an audio mood board. The visual one wasn’t necessarily art, just pieces of visual ephemera. Paintings and stuff like that we wanted to channel. Or spoke to how we saw the band. We did the same thing with audio. For example, we’d point out “this particular Brian Eno synth sound” we liked. We then put all these things on the same playing field. But we weren’t referring a ton back to it as we were actually got around to writing.
The stuff on those audio and visual mood boards, was that purely based on aesthetics, or also a way to engage in an emotional reciprocity?
Well, Ought never had a fixed MO where we knew exactly what type of band we were going to become. Like for instance, we never thought: “‘Let’s become a post-punk band and draw from certain established touchstones.” I mean, I think the whole post-punk thing is fair, but we also render different categorizations from different people. I think it depends on where they are coming from, which songs they prefer to interact with.
Our music just sounds like Ben’s bass with Tim (Keen)’s drumming, my guitars and vocals with Matt’s keys and effects. The communication between the four of us and the mood boards allowed all the subtleties to shine through in certain moments. We all agreed on what this kind of sparsity could potentially do. This time we very much wanted to make a studio record, so we thought deeper about the sonic world these songs inhabited.
I’ve always considered Ought to be this self-reliant, insular band. ‘Desire’ sounds like Ought’s take on soul & gospel music. This song such a drastically different, bold departure from the previous stuff. It seems there were no clear limitations set within that musical discourse you just described.
Thank you. We all listen to a lot of soul music. But again, it wasn’t a question of: “How can we go and write a song that sounds like that?” It’s more the idea of what Ought, as four individuals, would sound like doing those type of things. And that works for us. It’s cool that people have responded to that.
The end bit with you howling wordless melodies with abandon is such a nice earnest moment. I half expected it to be juxtaposed with some sardonic plainspoken pronoun, which is what you would often do on previous Ought records. There’s less of that overwrought internal dialogue – if any – on this album. You seem to have completely committed yourself as a singer, reveling in these moments of weightlessness.
That was very intentional. I wanted to sing more…[Darcy pauses to think, then chuckles, in resignation of not being able to articulate why]… yeah, I guess that’s just it.
The title Room Inside The World conveys a plethora of things. I remember in Ravenna two years ago, I interviewed Matt (May) and Tim (Keen). They put great emphasis on bolstering the community and the local scene in Montreal. But now that Ought’s profile and following has gradually increased, has it been a challenge for the four of you to maintain this level of independence? Let’s say Ought wants to do an impromptu house show in Montreal, can you still set your own terms doing things like that?
We all feel pretty lucky to have surrounded ourselves with people who “get it”. They get that this is part of the reason why people got into our band in the first place. I think we’re living in an era where even Top 40 pop stars engage with their fans on this microcosmic level. That’s not something I would want to give up, but I don’t feel like it should always happen through social media. There are different, more direct ways to mediate that type of interaction.
There is a lot of power in fertilizing projects that a lot of people don’t see, but enrich what you do as an artist. Both on the level of getting to do something that’s more in-the-moment, tactile, and hands on. And to interact with different types of artists about what’s going on. So it’s not just about playing club shows and festivals; you can step outside of that mainstream indie rock world as well. The four of us really want to keep doing those things. We often talk about how much nicer it is to do three nights in a smaller venue versus one big show. It allows you to play around a lot more. I know that’s something a lot of bands like to do, but those things are always really enriching
The activity outside of the band is worth noting here. Tim Keen does a lot of recordings for other bands and harvests his fair share of side projects, like Mands. Matt May runs his own experimental tape label Misery Loves Co.. Ben Stidworthy formed Brooch in Denmark with Mikkel Holm Silkjær of Yung. And of course, you did your solo outing Saturday Night. But just this year alone, I’ve spoken to a lot of bands who’ve lost touch with the DIY scene they sprung from after they got signed to a bigger label. Ought appear to pride themselves greatly in keeping their own scene and surroundings vibrant and bustling.
We maintain that activity in different ways. Ought has always chosen opening bands in places we all happen to know somebody in. I think people are surprised by that sometimes, how much we get involved with stuff like that, but we find it to be an amazing part of touring. If you travel all this way, you might as well a) play with a band you believe in and b) give whatever platform you own to someone who wouldn’t receive the same kind of attention otherwise. It’s not like playing an Ought show will bust somebody open in Minneapolis or a place like that, but it’s a nice part of what we do, and it’s definitely something we got to do more in the past years. We have been on the road so much, but stayed very much connected to what happens locally in Montreal. I wouldn’t say that we’ve lost touch, but these days it’s not the same as getting to be “down the street” in that sense. Like with anything, you do have to keep evolving, and figuring out how to bring it all into new realms.
The Ex for instance, have been around for 40 years, achieved critical praise around the world, and are in my opinion one of the best live bands around. But over in The Netherlands they still play in DIY venues and squats. It’s nice to see that a pervasive global profile isn’t per se detrimental to preserving that independent spirit. That’s what I hear about the scene in Montreal as well.
Yeah, I’m super into that. It’s also a very organic way to keep rewarding fans of yours who have been sticking around for a very long time. And not just come to see as at some big festival. To play shows that allow you to interact with these people again.
From the very beginning, Ought have incited empowerment and assertiveness on both personal and communal level. Since More Than Any Other Day, the political climate appears to have sunken deeper and deeper. Room Inside The World actually goes very against that grain on a sonic level; the album sounds a lot more benevolent. Softer, more spacious. The spikey armor of noisy discordant guitars seems to have been shed somewhat. Was there a deliberate intent behind that?
Prior to this album, we definitely had an edge and a snarl towards the way politics were done. But no, it wasn’t intentional, on a political level, to sound less jagged on Room Inside The World. That softness is more an organic response, a result of thinking more about sonics and changing my own vocal approach. Lyrically, the themes we tackled in the past are still very much there. Especially on ‘Pieces Wasted’ and ‘Disaffectation’. That being said, I think there is a major thematic shift on this album…
…I’m trying to think of a better word than “love”. There are a lot of different manifestations of love in this record. You have romantic love, but you can also think about love as more a political entity. I’m very reticent about using the term “love” itself. There’s fair reproach against becoming too “all you need is love”-y, so to speak. Because obviously, there are still very concrete admonishments that need to be expressed and mitigated. Systemic changes still need to be made, and they are not going to be solved with love. Looking at the Ought catalogue as a whole, there is indeed an increased softness on Room Inside The World. But if you look within the spectrum of pop music as a total, I think this record still places pretty strong admonishments on patriarchy and capitalism.
As this is the first interview I’ve done for this record, I’m still preparing myself on how to articulate these changes. One thing that comes up whenever the four of us discuss the record is: Room Inside The World is less of a reactionary record than the previous two, at least as far the political undertones go. On this record we’re trying to grow a movement of change, how to nourish that change beyond just the act of responding. Which is something I’ve always cared about when I think about politics. I feel there are threads of that in the other two records too, next to threads of being reactionist. But I don’t mean that in a negative way. When you stick to a movement or an idea long enough, it becomes something worth nourishing and growing. And those actions take a bit more time. But ultimately, these pockets of consciousness need to expand and really take root so that they’re not bound to a much more stagnant system. That way of being, the socializing between young people, can help push things forward in a meaningful way.
There’s actually a beautiful lyric on your song ‘Joan’, from Saturday Night, that alludes to what you said earlier about sticking to either a movement or an idea instead of being fiercely reactionary: “Joan doesn’t have a gun / But she’ll raise the tide to bury you”. To allow certain truths and revelations to surface when they’re due, without the trappings of becoming cynical or vindictive. That lyric felt very prescient to this new Ought record.
That song holds a very special place within me. I was surprised by it when it came out. I appreciate that you picked up on that, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. To let there be a slow build towards overcoming, as opposed to a single point of attack.
Your lyrics always have something oblique about them, but phrased deliberately enough to hit that sensitive nerve. They don’t serve the meaning on a silver platter. It incites me, the listener, to reflect and ask questions on my own: What my values are, what my place in the world is. It’s utterly maddening at times, but it’s the very thing that keeps me coming back to your music. Is that worth striving for as a writer, deliberately or not?
Completely. It’s funny, because I’m not sure if there’s a head-on way to attack this. There are forms of art which are very transportive, that don’t necessarily make me think and reflect. I really value that type of artist or music. On the other side of that spectrum, when you confront it, it makes you rethink and reevaluate. In a way, that’s transportive as well. I feel you need to bring both of those things to the table. The one thing that draws people to art is to be elevated and taken outside themselves. Most art is greater than just the sum of its parts. A book is ink, paper, and words, but the way those elements come together could change your life. That’s an incredible thing to interact with. I’m always drawn to art that makes you feel something new. I hope that people feel that on our new record as well.
One of the standout tracks on Room Inside A World is ‘Brief Shield’, which seems to meditate on the smaller gestures and situations that can boost a person’s morale.
‘Brief Shield’ is definitely one of my favorites. And yeah, it’s those little unexpected ways these things come around again, even if the whole group is together: you step aside with one person, you can have a moment of deeper conversation. The things that keep the candle burning while you’re traveling all the time. It’s a very unnatural thing that we do, when I think about it. A band is basically a bunch of nomads, and if you’re going to be a nomad, you must have a tribe. If we didn’t get to see fans or old friends during our travels, I think that this, in turn, would harm our ability to tour as much as we do. You have to take your pieces of home wherever you can get them.
Room Inside The World is out on 16 February via Merge Records. For more info About Ought, including forthcoming tour dates, please click here.
Photo Credit: Jenna Ledger