Ought: Day In, Day Out Interview | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Day In, Day Out

Jul 02, 2014 Ought
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“Today!/Together!” Tim Beeler repeatedly yowls on the title track of More Than Any Other Day, the full-length debut from Montréal indie upstarts Ought. More a battlefield rallying cry than a utopic declaration, the couplet rides an exhilarating emotional crest that suddenly dives earthward when the song’s momentum halts and singer/guitarist Beeler bows out with a shrugging “We’re all the fucking same.”

Out of all the quote-worthy words found on this record, these potently simple lines may best encapsulate the desperation and hope living in the album’s heart. Right down to the huddle formation found-photo that graces More Than Any Other Day’s cover, there’s an overriding sense of “we’re in it together” earnestness, though it’s constantly undercut by a piercing, real-world anxiety.

In an attempt to needle away at the prickly uncertainties that populate the album’s narrative concerns and stark, shadowy sound, we caught up with Beeler by phone. Whether going in-depth about the complexities of Ought’s lyrical themes or responding to nagging Talking Heads comparisons, he was contemplative and engaged. Often, his answers began with phrases such as “We usually tell people,” alluding to beliefs shared with his bandmates. Even when detailing his own contributions to the LP’s sound, his thoughts invariably circled back to Ought’s other members.

But this is hardly false modesty. Ought runs on an engine-like energy, each player (drummer/violinist Tim Keen, keyboardist Matt May, and bassist Ben Stidworthy) instilling their instrumentation with a pensive, inquisitive quality perfectly correlative to Beeler’s searching lyrics. Should one of these pistons suddenly stop firing, the whole machine just might collapse. Shortly, they are indeed all in it together. Collectively figuring out what that “it” is, of course, turns out to be a terrifying, enlivening process. And it’s one which Ought is only just beginning.

Michael Wojtas (Under the Radar): Can you talk a bit about the band’s formation, and maybe how the Quebec student strike played a role in this?

Tim Beeler: Maybe [our] formation story isn’t terribly riveting. Matt, Ben and myself all went to McGill, the English university in Montréal. Tim Keen, who’s actually Australian, was the first person I met of the four. We met at orientation, a McGill orientation thing, and Tim was coming for one semester on exchange. We started playing music together then, but he left. Later, I met Matt and then Tim Keen came back. We were all sort of living together at the time and playing a lot in our house. Playing a lot of stuff that was not Ought but had the same basic instrumentation. It started becoming more cohesive, like “Oh, it feels like we might have a set of songs here, maybe we should try to find someone to play bass…” We’d met Ben through friends, and he’s very good at the bass, so it was a good fit.

So I don’t know if that’s much of a creation story. But as far as the student strike, something we always say is it gets so much attention because it was in our press release. And in parts it’s fair enough, because it definitely was very important in situating our politics. But more than that, the thing we usually tell people is it was kind of this up swell of energy. None of us had really experienced anything like that previously. Ben, Matt and I are all American, and before, none of us had even seen a picture of a march like that, let alone been a part of one with families, and strollers and kids banging on pots and pans and people singing. It was this really indescribable experience. You can find some videos that kind of hint at it, but I think it’s one of those things where just being a part of something like that, with a very large group of peoplesome of those marches where 100,000 plus peopleI think that really opened up our minds as far as finding another kind of outlet for politics. For wanting to enact change, and not necessarily knowing what the answer is or what we should do, but still having a large mass of people together, acknowledging that something is wrong, and that something should change. Even though in this case, it kind of went around full circle, and things are essentially the same as they would have been had nothing happened on a really pragmatic political level. But how it impacted us on a whole other personal level is immeasurable. And that’s how it kind of filters into the music, for sure.

Since you mentioned the press release, there was a focus on “the Montréal DIY community” in your promotional materials. Is that something that resonates with you?

I think it’s hard to say “Montréal DIY community.” It’s not like all the do-it-yourselfers together, but it does seem like there’s so many people making art in the city. And in a really quiet way. I don’t know if I really know a lot about it, but I’ve kind of lived near there and spent time there. Something I get from other places is this sense that there’s a need to be a star in the center of it all, or that everybody is trying to play ball in this big game, the show. The arena of the “music biz,” I guess you could call it, the music industry or whatever.

And it does seem like because of language, politics, and where Quebec is, that could play a part of it. But it also does seem like there’s this “making for making’s sake” spirit. There’re so many one-off performances, or collaborations. There’s even a really rich heritage of musique actuelle, which is really experimental improvisational music that’s really big in Quebec. So it does seem like there’s a lot of creativity that’s happening. And of course, thinking about DIY, before we were doing Ought stuff, Matt, Tim and I started a tape label. And now, Matt, Tim, and a bunch of our other friends from The Femmaggots and other bands that we play with a lot have started a tape label. And there’re tons of instances of small-run tape labels, or people who make zines and zine fairs, that kind of thing. So I definitely think there’s that kind of spirit, for sure.

In the reviews there’s been a lot of emphasis on your lyrics, but to me, somehow the record somehow feels democratic and really group-minded. Do you have a specific process for writing lyrics?

Cool, that’s awesome that comes across. Every song on the record is written totally collaboratively. There’s no principal songwriter or anything, not even so much as somebody coming in with a bassline or something. I did write all the lyrics, but I kind of see them as my contribution to the whole sound, and most of them come out of these really long practices that we have. The longer it is, the better we usually do. We’ll play for 30 or 40 minutes, and maybe it starts off kind of silly, then it enters somewhere else, then 30 minutes in something interesting will start happening. Then we’ll start writing from there. Sometimes it takes us four months to finish a song, then there are other songs on the album that seem like they were done the first day we wrote them.

So the lyrics usually come out of the jams, adlibbing the whole time, or a few times I had way too much stuff, and I had to pare it down. It usually wouldn’t happen until we recorded. We’ve recorded three times now, and each time the curtain dropped for me being like “Okay, should I have to finalize these?” Not that they feel finalized. We like to change things a little bit live. We like to play things a lot live before we finish them, so I think they stay kind of living and breathing. We play them a little bit differently every night depending on the room and the people in the crowd and stuff like that.

One thing I really liked about the lyrics is the way they seem to try to address day-to-day concerns. Was conveying this sense of urgency about everyday banalities a theme you were consciously working with?

Yeah, I mean, definitely. A huge part of that was graduating from university and sort of going from confronting things on a level that’sI don’t want to say detached, because it’s not like people don’t have anxieties at different points in their lives. But then there’s really confronting the life manifestation of this anxiety or fear. Or having to worry about this thing that’s happening in my daily life. I’m not just thinking about it, I’m not being told about it. Also grappling with this general anxiety about the state of things.

There are songs on the record that are like concerns directed at a problem. But there are also concerns like the thing that’s probably brought up the most, in “Today, more than any other day.” It’s encapsulating that feeling where you’re in the grocery store, and you have this total moment where you’re like, “What the hell is all of this, how did this stuff get here, what am I even doing.” And you can’t really put that feeling into words, it’s not like it has to happen in the grocery store. It’s a moment where you feel really alienated or this idea of “what is this feeling?” and grappling with that. I also think on the record our politics are pretty day-to-day. Like how human interaction and interpersonal things aren’t even just connected with the bigger stuff, they are the bigger stuff. Because, at a certain point, so much of what you regularly encounter is just that kind of daily stuff.

I think also coming out of the student strike, there was this idea that we’ll march in the streets every night and people will voice their dissent and there will be this pragmatic kind of end result. Then it doesn’t really happen so you think what can you do, how can you bring about positive change in the world in the way that you get to interact with people? It can’t be that every day, but we do get to go through our lives and maybe shape these little moments, or at least think about them. And engage with day-to-day stuff in a different way that isn’t just complacent or being afraid, or feeling anxiety or aloneness. And it’s also a personal thing, this is how we were feeling, and we got the sense that other people were feeling this way. On the record, there’s no sense of “This is the way forward!” There’s definitely questions and just trying to glean some power from acknowledging that a lot of people have these questions or concerns.

You guys self-recorded the New Calm EP prior to making the full-length. Did a lot of thought go into the decision to record the album in a studio?

The record was recorded at Hotel2Tango, which is the studio underneath the Constellation Records building. So many of their members have been recorded there that it seemed like a really natural fit. But we’re really happy with how the EP came out. We did all the tracking in a small studio and Tim Keen, our drummer, mixed and produced it. We were really happy with what we put out, and I think Constellation just offered us the opportunity to re-record it. So I guess it didn’t feel like we were being put up in this huge, fancy new studio and everyone was like “Okay, now we’ve made it!” It was still really close to the chest, we were working with someone we knew really well and it was the studio they built. Obviously it’s not the same thing as recording at our house, but it didn’t feel too wildly different, other than having really nice equipment.

I don’t know how much attention you pay to press, but critics are typically discussing the record in a post-punk context. Do you guys see yourself as part of, say, any kind of post-punk or indie rock lineage? Also, to be frank, David Byrne and Talking Heads have been a reference point in just about everything I’ve read about Ought. Is that weird? Are you a fan?

I think, to be honest, before we made the record we would have never described ourselves as post-punk. This record is definitely more cohesive than the New Calm EP, even though there are definitely a lot of different sounds. But we weren’t really worried about that because the one thing we always said was we’re not really a genre band or anything, and we’re not worried about sounding like a post-punk band or whatever. We all listen to really different types of music. There are a lot of things we all agree on and like.

Everyone says early Talking Heads, and I would say that I am a Talking Heads fan, but I’ve never even listened to some of the records they’re talking about. I’ve never heard The Feelies. Not to say that stuff can’t work its way into your creative output. Everything you listen to, everything you take into your consciousness goes in there. It’s the same as how you talk or anything; you hear words and they work their way into your vernacular…I don’t really know what I’m saying.

I guess the short answer is there was never a point where we set out to sound like another band. With any new band, people use comparisons to quickly convey a sound and a general vibe to people until you can just reference that band in and of themselves. I don’t know if that’s a satisfying answer.





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