“How’s the family? How’s your health been? How’s the church? How’s your job? Beautiful weather today.”
So go the lyrics of Sun’s Coming Down, one of a wealth of highlights on the remarkable sophomore album of almost the same name from four piece, Ought. A reflection for the capacity for profundity to inhabit the mundane, Sun’s Coming Down is a display of Ought’s powers in microcosm, this is a band that have not only decided they have something to say but it just so happens it’s something worth paying attention to. With none of the four members – Tim Darcy on vocals and guitar, Matt May on keyboards, Ben Stidworthy on bass and Tim Keen on drums – hailing from Montreal originally, the band were drawn together during their college years by a shared love of free-wheeling musical exchange and a passion for community driven action, be it in the artistic or political sphere.
For Ought, the antidote to modern malaise lays collective reflection on the often terrifying universals that unite us all; struggle, death, the stark reality of individual insignificance. Dense stuff, I think we can all agree, so who’d have thought it could all be unpacked in such a buoyant, thrilling, even celebratory fashion. Despite channeling various greats of the genre, from The Talking Heads to The Fall, Ought’s sound remains as singular as their message, and willingness to have a message at all, is refreshing. We had the pleasure of chatting with bassist Ben about timely re-considering of punk’s parameters and what it means to be a “political band”.
Do you consider yourself a ‘punk’ band?
I think we’re definitely a punk band. Well, punk means so many things to different people, but in terms of being very politically oriented, being self-managed, making sure we surround ourselves with people we care about and care about us that aren’t trying to make money off us, making an effort everywhere we go to actually engage with people like promoters and people we speak with, trying to build relationships, that’s what it means to us anyway.
Because some of the most apparent themes in your work, even down to the cover art on your first record, is the importance of co-operation and what can be achieved when people support one another. Do you think that, in a way, that idea of distancing yourself from snark and cynicism is the modern interpretation of that punk ideal?
I mean, that’s a really interesting way of putting it and it very well could be the case. Community is really important to us.
It’s funny, I have a friend who goes to Goldsmiths [art college in London] and she’s writing her thesis on queer post-punk in the ’70s and ’80s and she keeps saying we are categorically not post-punk, if you look at the historical trajectory. It’s such a weird, nebulous term. It’s almost like it’s the term that been used you describe bands who aren’t stupid indie rock but isn’t entrenched in a punk sound…or whatever [laughs]
Something I found refreshing about you guys is that people hear the word punk, there is a kind of weight of assumed antagonism but for you guy are never baldly abrasive in that way.
I mean there’s nothing wrong with being abrasive, I appreciate that just as much as not. But, for us, the reason identifying with punk makes sense is to kind of break down an assumption that punk has to be aggressive and has to be masculine. We try to show that there are plenty of punk bands out there that don’t engage with that at all but are still punk because of how they’re thinking about things and how they’re engaging with people around them.
So taking that all on board, do you see yourselves as a political band?
Yeah, I’m quite happy to be identified as a political band because it means you get to talk about politics. We know that we’re very lucky to have people listen to us and I’d much rather talk about politics in interviews than be in a boyband where people are talking about who you’re dating. If people want to listen to what you have to say, you might as well be talking about something important.
Does talking about broader issues like that come with a certain weight of responsibility?
Yeah, it’s important to be accountable and well-read and think a lot. I find it interesting, speaking with Matt our keyboardist, he was saying sometimes he hates being called a political band – not because he doesn’t like talking about it – but because there are so many bands that have good politics but aren’t considered political. So he kind of problematised that, I found that really interesting but it just happened and I think it’s a valuable thing. I’m happy about our position.
You write collectively. Do you think the collaborative nature of the writing is reflected in the songs themselves?
I definitely think so. I guess the fact the songs don’t entirely make sense or adhere to convention comes from a desire to not really verbalise too much during the writing process. Sometime there’ll just be like one extra bar and it’s rather confusing why it’s there but it just kind of works and I’m happy with that. Often times Tim Keen will just be playing a challenging drum beat that will match with Tim Darcy and Matt playing noisier stuff, so I try and base my parts off riffs rather than chord progressions, at least that’s historically been the case.
I saw one of the Tims in the band saying you don’t really consider yourselves to be a genre band. You engage with so many bands through the lens of what you expect from them because of the genre framework they work within, whereas with you guys that isn’t really the case.
Yeah, I really appreciate that and we want to continue that principle onto the next record.
So you’re already in talks about what you want to do for the next one?
Yeah, definitely. We haven’t written anything, but we’ve been talking about it since before the second record came out. I mean, the second record isn’t that different to the first [2014’s More Than Any Other Day]. In some ways it is, but for the third record we want to try challenge our process a bit more, see if we can do things differently and still be happy.
Would you say a lot of ideas for the songs come from conversations you’ve had amongst yourselves more so than somebody approaching someone else with a riff or melody?
For the last two records, that hasn’t really been the case. The first record we wrote at nighttime drinking a lot of beer, practicing whenever we could, not talking at all about a sound we wanted. On the second record, we’d just come off the road, got together in a room and started playing. I think that there were some conversations but broadly speaking we just knew we wanted things to be relatively different but I don’t really remember talking about it too much. For this third record we’re actually talking about it. I guess what I’m saying is, I think we were lucky with the second record to be able to stick with the same formula but in a much more concentrated period of time and write songs we were happy with. For the third record we want to change that a bit and show some sort of progression.
I think there’s great value in having a limited amount of time to get stuff done. Because we never write anything down, repetition kind of gets the songs to where they need to be. Though, to be fair, there were a couple of times recording the second record where I didn’t know what I was going to play, in terms of deciding firmly on a riff until we were actually recording it, like right before the take I’d be like, “OK, I need to commit to something,” which just happened to work out. I think another thing that’s really evident in our songs is they have distinct parts and that’s often because they’re coming from two different jams. Tim Keen refers to it as “the Ought Special” which is just taking two things that don’t really relate and smashing them together.
I saw you say that you primarily view yourselves as a live act. Has that changed since you’ve spent more time recording?
Yeah, that’s very important to me. The first time we recorded, I don’t think we were thinking too much about the recording, it just sounds like a band in a room, which I really appreciate. I think we’ve historically conceptualised our recordings as an artifact, a moment in time. The second time around, we actually tried to record with a bit more focus on getting good tones and we recorded to tape. But even if we went full OK Computer on the third record I still would want the live show, even if it was stripped down and didn’t have the same elements as the record, to still be the focal point. Our songs have always kind of come alive in a live context and that’s very important to me. Playing shows, for me, is the best part of being in a band and I don’t want to lose that.
You wouldn’t, say, keeping such a focus on the live thing undercuts your ability to see the album itself as an independent body of work? Or is it just a point at which the live band was recorded?
I think there’s no right answer to that. Some bands put a huge emphasis on the recordings, there’s a lot of records like that I enjoy, then there’s a lot of off the floor recordings that I think are just as good. Whatever way we do it, I think that songs can still be embodied completely stripped down. Say on the record we had full orchestration and piano and, I don’t know, uilleann pipes droning in the background, I think you can still play those songs without any of those elements. I guess, from a punk perspective, I still want is to be four people playing four instruments on stage, no matter what, and have that energy be what drives a song rather than complex arrangements… even though that would be cool on a record!
Ought play Whelan’s on Sunday 24th April, with support from Fierce Mild. Their second record, Sun Coming Down, is out now on Constellation Records.
Words: Danny Wilson
Images: Colin Medley, Brett Davis