Interview: A Conversation with Ought

Coming out of Montreal, Canada: Ought are a post-punk band that came to fruition at the perfect time. Mixing classic punk and post-punk influences with modern sensibilities, Ought have been struck a chord with many a modern punk fan. Their touring schedule confirms this – they very rarely take a break, but when they do they record newest release 2015’s Sun Coming Down.

Fronted by Tim Darcy, Ought is also made up of Matt May on keyboards, bassist Ben Stidworthy and drummer-cum-occasional-violinist Tim Keen.

It’s a sunny day in Cardiff when I meet up with the band: they’d had time to inhale the city and we talk about the Norwegian church in the bay that Roald Dahl prayed at, the gentrification it had recently undergone and the cosy nature of the inner-city.

The weather is so nice in fact that we decide to spend the interview outside on Womanby Street, the independent music mecca of the city, where they later on played at Clwb Ifor Bach, also affectionately known as “Welsh Club” to those a bit scared or not well-versed in the Welsh language.

 

JB: So, Sun Coming Down has been out for a bit now. Did you take any notice of the critical reaction to it or where it was on end-of-year lists?

MM: I don’t really know how to perceive a general response to all that. I think our personal experience is more to how the songs have shifted or come into their own over time. Especially, playing them live and the way I feel like them have always been changing: like the newness of them.

BS: We definitely would have noticed if people had hated it.

TK: I have to – every year – make a list of all our press and send it to a lawyer in the US. So I at least have some sort of list.

MM: Just to check whether it’s good press, bad press or average press. There’s a lot of that.

You guys have kind of knocked it out of the park – Sun Coming Down is your third release in two years. Did you get momentum coming off of More Than Any Other Day and Once More With Feeling? Did you want to do another one straight away?

TD: We had a lot of pent up creative energy after touring the first record, so we just came back and started writing really quickly.

BS: It was also wintertime. We had tour dates booked for like later on – so we thought this was a good time to do it.

TK: It was very logical. We don’t have any tour dates booked this time so we don’t have a logical time period for the next one.

MM: Seven years from now [laughs].

TK: Yeah, like Chinese Democracy.

MM: I think we can get more guitars though. I think they only stacked 100 guitars on top of each other and I think we can do more.

Do you prefer having that sort of deadline? Did you take a while to do the first album? 

MM: Yeah, the first record was written over a year or a year and a half or so. That had mostly been recorded differently. So when we went to record the LP as it stands now, there had been a lot of time where it was left stewing. We already had some ideas to do with recording going into it. The second record, I think, benefitted from the concentration and was very reflective of a concentrated period and had a quick pace to it. We’ve been talking about taking our time and doing it a lot slower with the next thing, just because the last one was a product of something very quick. We’re curious to see what could happen if we take that same creative energy and put it over a longer period of time with more reflection, more experimentation and more ideas.

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Listening to all the records – I know that the first two are sister records, but I feel like the first and third records are kind of like two sides of the same coin.

TK: I think they’re very related. They both came from a very similar writing process, set-up and similar tones. I think that if you put the same thing in you’ll get the same sort of thing out from the “song-sausage machine”.

I’m not saying that the records are the same.

TK: Yeah I’m with you, I agree with you.

MM: I think they were similar in the way they we were thinking about song writing in that they would be coming from the four of us messing around in practice. It makes sense that they feel compatible in that way.

I know that all four of you write the songs, but do the lyrics come first or is it the instrumentation? Maybe both?

TD: The instrumentation.

The lyrics at some points just seem to say, “let’s just go fucking wild over this”. That’s what I really like about Sun Coming Down – it sounds like a live album in that it’s all a performance but you can tell it’s a studio album also.

TK: It’s almost identical. I listened to a board mix in a venue which they played over the PA and it we were just 2 BPM faster than on record.

MM: That was just the process of recording – we were all messing around together at the same time. There were some smaller overdubs, especially vocals where they may need to be done again. The whole thing was very reflective of what it’s like to play live.

Did you think about how it would sound live when recording it?

TK: Yes. I think we wanted to make an album that was in the same fashion of how we play live.

TD: Totally, and even on a vocal performance and vocal melody sense I definitely – because we would always write live – we would always be writing into a vocal mic and in a jam space. I think it definitely affects the type of melody I would write.

I feel like Sun Coming Down is more leaning towards, to quote Theodor Adorno’s music theory but in a different sense, “body music”. I think it definitely intellectually stimulating, but it’s easier to dance to or just go wild to. You’ve been compared to Sonic Youth a lot in that fashion. Do you agree with that?

TD: I think there are bands that can do that –that’s definitely a cool combination. I guess if a band is going to do something really off-kilter, like our song Around Again, it quite interesting. I really like the particular off-kilterness of that kind of song, which I think is a Sonic Youth move. Or maybe writing in sections: we do that a lot. We do a lot of choruses too, but it’s fun to write like that.

Sun Coming Down seems to have the “millennial” tag attached to it a lot. Do you agree with that term? What are your thoughts on it? There seems to be a stigma around it.

TD: Millennials as a generation?

Yeah. It seems like Sun Coming Down can come off quite angsty – and that seems to be the vibe that media companies use when depicting the stereotypical ‘millennial’.

TK: I don’t know if I can speak to how the translation between the lyrics and the idea of the ‘millennial’: but I can speak about the idea of the ‘millennial’. We were talking today about some stupid think-piece, which had a title that was referring to the Flint, Michigan water supply problems, called “Why are millennials so concerned about safe drinking water?” There’s this idea that this generation is profoundly whiny and can’t get their lives together. To me, the idea of the millennial is to put a label on something: to just say the term “millennial” instead of making an attempt to understand it.

MM: If it’s not majoritive, it’s at least dishonest. The idea that there’s a millennial point of view of something is just absurd. You can go to different places – even in the same city – and there are thousands of opinions on the most minute to most important things. I think it’s mostly used to be dismissive of opinions.

TK: I think that it’s use is to say that things are profoundly easier for this generation. It’s as true as it isn’t true.  It allows the media to spawn a load of shitty think-pieces about why things are easier or harder.

MM: I swear I saw – it’s mildly off-topic, but not really (it’s quite silly) – a The Onion or Clickhole article that had the title “Young person told to be flexible by person who has had the same job for 45 years”. I think that’s the kind of way millennials are referred to: like, “why don’t you just adjust to the way things are?”

BS: It is a question of discourse. Millennials can be used as a generalisation of the people who have witnessed the destruction of the welfare state, being paid less than their parents etc.

TD: I guess as far as the meanings of the songs, we always try not to be whiny. If you’re being whiny you’re just letting air out of a balloon. It’s not disaffect, it’s like other emotions. You can quote me on that [laughs]. I’m gonna’ get that on a t-shirt.

I just get really confused when writers refer to yourselves, or Parquet Courts (or others), as “millennialist post-punk band” [in SPIN]. I get that you wouldn’t endorse millennialism, but what about post-postmodernism? I feel there’s a balance between realism and faith in your music, especially on ‘Celebration’.

TD: Yeah, definitely. The interesting thing about post-postmodernism is that it’s equally conceived as a step forward as it is a step-back. I think that the manifestation of that idea that I like the most is where it’s like letting off the gas for a second. It’s not so much the next trick after being really meta and self-referential is to be sincere again. It’s nice to have it just be a song again. That’s interesting because there are quirky, self-referential moments in our music, and I think that’s where it becomes more like a mirage. I had this interesting moment where I was being interviewed and I was talking about ‘New Calm Pt. 2’, and when they were talking about it being meta I compared it to that Memphis Soul Stew track [by King Curtis] or something by James Brown where he introduces the track at the beginning of the track. It’s not that this is post-modern: it’s just a part of the live-ness of the track. I’m not saying there is a different but I don’t care to think about it much beyond that. However that affect comes across.

MM: The faith thing is really interesting because I had a conversation with a lot of friends at home in Montreal that a lot of people I know – it’s not just in one place, but – are in various degrees kind of into Astrology. I find it super interesting because I am kind of into it too. I’m into it enough that it’s interesting but not enough that it bums me out if my stars say I’m going to have a bad day or something. The idea of a renewed – well, I don’t know if it’s renewed – interest among people in astrology is very telling. I don’t know what it’s telling us but there’s a desire to put faith in something other than ourselves and the excitement (or interest) of seeing something and saying, “yeah, that’s spot on”. It’s reassuring when you’re feeling shitty and someone says there’s reasons why things are weird in the stars, or whatever. Then, you can say, “oh, OK”, and it’s manageable again.

TK: There’s a really good n+1 article on Astrology, specifically about where and why we clicked with it. One of the things that it talks about is that – like Matt said – it gives you something that is outside of positivity but still valuable. Also, your choice with identifying or not identifying with astrology makes apparent the kind of arbitrariness of all the other categories you can or cannot identify with. It ends up talking about gender a bit, and at the end of the article it states: “Are they a male or a female? They are an Aries.” Like, it doesn’t matter essentially.

TD: Yeah, that’s another thing. Astrology or a kind of spiritualism of any kind, like Universalism, which I think people, probably in certain times like the current moment, crave this sense of interconnectedness even on a subconscious level.

TK: You don’t have to believe in its empirical accuracy to get something from it.

BS: Sounds like religion.

A little bit. I agree with Ben there.

TK: There’s never been a war about Astrology.

TD: You never know.

BS: The Incas never fought on a full moon because of Astrology, and the Spanish figured that out. That’s how they defeated them.

I read that ‘Men For Miles’ is about patriarchy; I think that linked well to the faith side of things.

TD: To me it’s like less a particular end to something – I think periods are hard to come by – but I can definitely feel that, just in life, we all feel very passionate about empowering people around us and just being around people who are not just dudes. We have all had really strong women in our lives, my mom is an incredible person.

Do you regularly think about this stuff when making music?

MM: I think the way we approach music or the way we talk about stuff is a lot more natural than that. There’s obviously specific things that we have interest in, or want to talk about or have encountered. I think it’s just a lot more reflective of the kind of people we surround ourselves with and the kind of conversations we have. I think it’s very personal that way. It’s obviously reflective of broader social trends but I think the things that find themselves into our music become a lot more personal than planned.

Your earlier music was linked a lot to politics and political thoughts quite a lot. Obviously it’s not like being Dead Kennedys, but did you think about putting politics at the forefront? I think most people like to keep their political views private, or out of the public eye at least.

TD: I think you’re definitely right in that it was a lot more organic for the first LP. I think you can hear that progression in the EP we put out first, and then the second record we put out was definitely more about us making a punk record because that was essentially the programme that we had established: definitely lyrically. It was more in the vein of a sister record in that, this conversation isn’t finished yet. There’s an aura here that has a lot left to give. We wrote 10 songs and used 8. I’m really drawn to art that really opened the heart in a way, and that can be comedy etc. but I like compassionate music and a lot of artists don’t even come across as punk. There’s just a sense of caring for others, which weaves its way into our work, and I think that’s really nice.

I saw that you retweeted Power Bottom who tweeted “While you can’t always be positive about yourself, you can always treat others well, and doing that while you’re sad is ‘punk’”.

MM: I forget who did that but I think it was me.

BS: It’s punk to be badass [all laugh].

MM: I just remember reading that and resonating with that because there’s a lot of really good and complicated conversations surrounding mental health and micro-politics about how to be good to people around you and stuff like that. Sometimes that’s the st important thing you can do instead of a broader attempt at politics.

Do both Matt and Tim [Keen] run the Twitter account?

[All]: It’s all of us.

MM: I don’t think I have that much in my life [laughs], so I like to go on the Internet.

TK: That has a serious parody twist to it.

I like your Twitter because it seems like most bands or artists these days – while you guys do it and kind of have to do it – but they only use it to promote and sell their stuff. Yours seems to have a lot of personality to it. There seems like there’s a person behind it rather than a robot.

TK: That’s good. I seem to see that every band twitter is just ticket links. I’m not even going to read that or click on it.

MM: I really like Parquet Courts and the funny thing about them is that they don’t do online stuff at all. I think that’s great, it works for them and it’s totally sweet. Andrew Savage has been in bands forever and that’s what he wants to do and that’s how he does it. I think that it’s really interesting to see what a band’s personality is like even if it’s just a conglomeration of the members in this case. I’m also interested in social media just to make jokes rather than just a financial thing. I think people will respond more to us just being us than “buy tickets and buy our record”. It’s fine to do stuff like that sometimes, for sure, because then people might not even know what we’re doing. I personally find it a lot more enjoyable to just put out a picture of a big fuzzy dog.