By Mark Anthony Brennan
Ought have enjoyed both critical and popular success ever since their debut full-length album was released last year. When a band, seemingly coming out of nowhere, enjoys such a meteoric rise to acclaim you wonder how much of a master plan was in place. Did the band have a vision at the outset as to how the music would eventually play out?
“There was very little forethought to it,” admits band member Tim Keen in reference to how the band honed its sound. “Kind of an incredibly small amount of forethought, actually. Kind of dumb. I think that is a good way to approach the creative process. You do an immense amount of work gathering things that you care about, listening to them, poring over them. Then when it comes the time to doing the thing you just do it. All the things you’ve been thinking about inevitably show up.”
The four members met in Montreal while attending university. They were drawn together by a shared interest in the city’s thriving scene of underground politics, loft parties, and D.I.Y. culture. More importantly, they had music in common, with a predilection for technical prowess.
“All went to McGill together,” says Keen. “We met through mutual friends, people who were playing music with each other all the time.”
The four musicians — Tim Beeler on guitar and vocals, Matt May on keyboards, Ben Stidworthy on bass and Keen on drums and violin — all lived together in a shared apartment/practice space and self-recorded their first EP ‘New Calm’ in 2012. They eventually caught the attention of the Constellation record label, which released their debut full-length album in the spring of 2014. More Than Any Other Day was enthusiastically received, garnering accolades from across North America, Europe and around the globe.
Ought’s post-punk/post-rock music has been compared to CBGBs-era Talking Heads and Television, as well as everything from The Fall to Fugazi. The fact is, Ought’s style defies easy classification into such pigeon-holes as, say, math rock.
“Don’t know that I’d call it math rock,” says Keen. “With math rock there is a deliberate emphasis on the technical elements of the sound and bringing to the front the fact that you are doing something quite technical. I don’t think that our music is as rhythmically or melodically complex as most music you’d call math rock. Also, we have the opposite intention – we aim to obscure the technical stuff. In a practice you’ll very, very rarely see us in high level conversation about chord progressions or time signatures.”
That said, the band does indeed converse during the course of creating new music. Extensively. Beeler may write the lyrics but the music is composed as a joint effort.
“It’s staggeringly, heartbreakingly democratic,” laughs Keen. “It takes a very long time. It’s a drawing blood from a stone process to get to a place where we all like the song. It’s a plus, because all those ideas that do make the cut go through a rigorous set of checks and balances from everyone’s individual artistic perspective. It’s a good thing. This record was made a lot faster, which is an indicator of how much time we’ve spent together.”
With their recently released album Sun Coming Down Ought are picking up where they left off with More Than Any Other Day. Stylistically, however, the sound is more expansive. Singer Beeler also shakes off repeated comparisons to David Byrne by exploring new character in his vocal expression.
“It was intentional to expand the pallet,” Keen says of the new record. “That was partly due to the production process – we had a lot more time on this record — and partly because of the way we wrote it. We wrote it with the idea of making a record rather than a series of discrete songs. And, yes, there’s a lot more vocal variation. The thing that honestly is being missed by a lot of the press is that there is quite a bit more singing on this record, more melodic parts than on the previous one. When I think of this record I think of more interesting vocal melodies. In my view, it’s a better version of what the first record was, with more interesting execution.”
And the Talking Heads comparison?
“I don’t have a problem with being compared to other bands, but whenever someone plays Talking Heads I really think that every element in our band sounds quite different. There are so many other bands that we sound a ton more like. People say we sound like The Fall, and sometimes I think ‘shit, we do sound a little like The Fall.’ Sometimes. But the Talking Heads thing – it doesn’t bug me, it just confuses me.”