The music of Montreal post-punk act Ought isn’t known for its conceptual stability. Their first two albums—2014’s More Than Any Other Day and 2015’s Sun Coming Down—had more to do with considered existential anxiety than the sort emotional volatility characterizing many of the band’s less clever contemporaries. There’s an ornate dirtiness to their music, and while words like “thorny,” “wild,” or “agitated” come to mind, none of them really do it justice. Ultimately, that refusal to be pinned down almost works as a unifying concept.
Their most recent album—February’s Room Inside the World, on Merge—saw Ought departing from the gritty, live quality of those early records and teaming with veteran producer Nicholas Vernhes, known for his work with Animal Collective, Deerhunter, and The War on Drugs. But rather than sink into sterility, the band reinvigorated their music with additional instrumentation—including a 70-piece choir, on “Desire”—and some of their sharpest songwriting to date.
Ahead of Ought’s performance at Hopscotch on Saturday, September 8, AdHoc spoke to frontman Tim Darcy about the band’s creative process and what it means to make political music in 2018.
You’ve said you think about Ought’s most recent album as having more of a studio sound than the first two. How did you guys achieve that sound without compromising the live, raucous energy you’re known for?
We still ended up doing a fair bit of things live, and I think that really helped maintain that energy. We went in feeling like we were game for anything, thinking we might go track by track and really break every element down. We did a pretty extensive demo-ing process, home-recording all the songs. In some cases, we did like three versions before we went in with Nicholas. I think it’s totally case by case. For us, working with Nicholas was a really good fit, because he was excited about the record. He got the band.
So Nicholas was wrapped up in that process of maintaining the energy?
Yeah, for sure. I think a different producer could’ve boxed things off more. Obviously, he knows how to make a studio record, and that was something that we wanted, having done two extremely live records. I think we found a really nice balance. Having someone who’s a little bit more like, “Oh hey, let’s try this,” or who just grabs some random thing—that type of energy is much more akin to the world of live performance. We don’t really go home and come back with riffs; we’re always jamming, and out of these long jams will come a little pocket of an idea that we then play through [in] all these different manifestations.
In pretty much every interview you do, journalists rehash your origin story in the Quebec student protests — that you guys started jamming together in the midst of this very chaotic political moment when you were all studying at McGill. I’m curious if you think of Ought’s songs as political in the same way you did back when you first started making music together.
I think there’s two sides to this. There’s what the band is, and then there’s what the people in the band are. Even on that first record, there are songs that are directly influenced by that period in our lives, and then there are other songs that are just songs, like “Habit” and even “Pleasant Heart.” In that way, all the records have a pretty similar balance between political and non-political songs. There’s so much in that question: Is a political song one that specifically talks about social issues, or one that furthers things in a different way? Even like, Aretha being a political figure, versus Fugazi.
I tend to feel like a song is political if it has some type of engagement with the world outside of the music.
I like that distinction. I like the idea of having a commentary versus something that’s pure creativity or purely aesthetic. There are Ought songs that are much more directly in that vein. “Clarity!” is an ally song, a consent song, and there are other songs that are more in the realm of aesthetics. As far as how that comes out in the lyrics—going into the third record, for me, there are elements of that that have changed. I think the songs are still very engaged, but with a different set of issues, maybe more interpersonal politics.
Does the “political” label ever feel restrictive?
I don’t think so; I’ve never felt restricted by that. A band, as it should, has an identity, so when we go to write an Ought song, there is a certain aura to the type of song, or even a type of lyric that would come up. But we’re not a genre band, really; we’re pretty excited about experimenting with really different sounds and different types of songwriting. We’re almost trying to come up with song structures that don’t exist while still trying to write pop songs.
I ask about restriction because there seems to be a lot in the music about restriction, or breaking out of restrictive situations. There’s a line on “Desire” that comes to mind: “What’s based in rhyme doesn’t matter.”
I think there’s a relationship between that and the anxious energy that people ascribe to a lot of post-punk, and to Ought. For me, live music is such a catharsis, and built into that is a kind of relief, or a breaking out of restriction. That in and of itself is a kind of political act: Music and art that makes you feel liberated, or makes you want to break out of routines, or established ways of thinking and being.
So is post-punk necessarily political?
I don’t think it’s necessarily anything. There are post-punk bands that seem almost apolitical. But there’s definitely a lineage there—even just in the fact that it’s purportedly [political], coming out of punk. But it is sort of an aesthetic movement as well. There’s Fugazi-type speaking out, and there’s also something political about oddity. Regardless of genre, having art that disrupts the standard mode of being, or that showcases the diversity of thought and people that exist, is in and of itself a political act. Sometimes just seeing something that feels completely fresh, like someone just being themselves—that can wake me up more than a lot of things.
How did putting out your solo record, Saturday Night, make you rethink how you work with Ought?
Working with other people is always an enlightening process, even just touring with other bands. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword, though. It’s nice to get perspective on how other people are doing things, but it’s also comforting to have a bit of severed-ness or naiveté and just be like, “This is my process.” Or “This is our process; this is the weird unwieldy way that we write songs.” And it’s incredibly frustrating at times, but it’s also a program that’s worked for us, because sometimes through the process we [end up somewhere] that none of us expected, which can be a very rewarding experience.
It’d be a complete waste of my life if I spent time doing something and didn’t take something away from it. Matt does ambient music on the side, and Tim Keen has been producing other people’s records and has dabbled in metal, and Ben does electronic stuff. I like to think these other projects filter back into Ought because that’s an exciting idea to me: That other world pooling into a rock band. Even on this record, there’s some electronic drum sounds, and I know that people have dabbled with that outside of the room, and then it was brought in as a new palette to play with. There’s still really direct stuff like that. It’s not like we leave everything at the door, and it’s a Zen monastery where everybody gets no pedals.
I don’t know any other bands that do it completely the way we do it and still write “songs”—[groups] that aren’t a post-rock band or something like that, or operating in a genre that’s much more improvisational. But what I mean by naiveté is we’ve also gotten really good at writing in that way, and communicating [about] things that we want to try, and there’s something to be said for that.
You guys talk about Alice Coltrane as an influence, though hearing your song, “Alice,” you wouldn’t necessarily think of spiritual jazz. How do you take influences and flip them on their heads?
The way I see it is there are these different types of songs or artists that we care about, that come into our group consciousness, and the resulting song is, “What is our band’s take on this?” We’ve never really been a band that would directly engage in mimicry. It’ll be our own because of the chords we choose and the lyrics and all that stuff. We really just close our eyes and walk off the cliff when we start jamming. Especially at the beginning, we were really playing to see what would come out, and I think that’s a really interesting, Ouija board-kind of way to write. And then talking became more and more a part of it, and people would be like, “This is starting to sound like the Velvet Underground—how do we take it in a different direction? How do we make it sound like something Ought would do?”
Alice Coltrane is tough, because it’s obviously really far outside of our wheelhouse, but those Ashram records—Divine Songs and Turiya Sings—are really important to us. They’re two records that—regardless of time and space—I think anyone in the band would punch someone out over. There’s that bit of exultant synth choir at the end that’s a pretty direct homage to her, but what we ended up with is what Ought’s take on some of those tones and some of that energy.
I think everyone has a couple of records they’d go to bat for in that way. For me it’s definitely Alice Coltrane, maybe Laraaji, if we’re keeping to that same spiritual vein.
Yeah, maybe it’s blasphemous to say something like that. Especially about her spiritual records. *laughs* We just care about those records a ton.