Ought’s Tim Darcy describes the strange hive mind and shared psyche of Montreal’s hotly tipped post-punk band
Ought know how to keep it tight. The Montreal-based four-piece sound at times as if they’re improvising, on the verge of imploding… only to unite in some kind of glorious, seamless “cosmic sense”, as vocalist and guitarist Tim Darcy describes. Are the band simply superhumanly adept at finding order in chaos, or is there more to it? “Well, I can’t rule it out as a stunt,” Darcy admits, with a laugh. “I’ve said before that people will start clueing into the trick we have: taking two ideas and just smushing them together, and somehow they make… sense.” The way Darcy describes it, Ought find this “cosmic” order by virtue of the band’s extraordinary dynamic. “It’s sort of as if… there’s four people holding on to a pen, trying to draw something. It’s like your interpersonal relationship is the creative relationship, in a way.”
The four pairs of hands, alongside Darcy’s, belong to Matt May on keys, Ben Stidworthy on bass, and Tim Keen on drums and the odd bit of violin. The group, based in Canada, hold Australian and American passports between them, and their shared psyche is part and parcel of living and working in such close proximity to each other: the band’s debut record was written and rehearsed in their shared apartment.
“I generally defer to my mother on all aspects related to my music career” – Tim Darcy
That first full length, More Than Any Other Day, was released in 2014 on famed Montreal label Constellation (home to Godspeed You! Black Emperor) and established the group as the foremost wave-riders of contemporary post-punk, laced with undeniable pop sensibilities. It drew them innumerable comparisons to the dynamics of Sonic Youth and The Fall, but Darcy’s keen to refute these potential “answers” in favour of a greater consideration of the question of influence. He muses, “I have trouble answering that question. So I’ve been thinking about it more in relation to… when I approach making something, I think about what is the thing that I need to get out. That’s often… that’s always what my writing is.”
Lyrically, Darcy’s writing on the band’s follow-up record Sun Coming Down is even more opaque: broad, everyman lyricism which attacks contemporary apathy with a savage tongue. On Beautiful Blue Sky, Darcy chants, “What is that… sensation? How’s the church? How’s the job? How’s the family? Beautiful weather today, beautiful weather today…” before concluding, “I’m no longer afraid to die, because that is all that I have left.” Sardonic delivery and impeccably jaunty guitar work make light of these Nietzschean undertones, tapping into all-too-human anxieties without necessarily plunging the depths. The (almost) title track, Sun’s Coming Down proclaims, “I am talking outta my ass, because my heart is not open.” It’s unclear if the statement’s an admittance or an indirect accusation, but as the track slowly deconstructs, unravelling and fraying, Darcy’s vocals take on the tone of a left-field indie preacher, ordering his congregation into line.
Returning to his earlier analogy, he explains: “So… with four people holding this pen, there’s so much trust that has to happen there, allowing other people to use this creative outlet for what they need to get out. You know that someone really wants to push it in a certain direction, and it’s maybe not exactly where you’d have taken it, but there’s this collective high by witnessing this person get out something that they really need to get out. Vicariousness? And it’s so exciting to play these songs live because there’s a very direct, personal connection… but also this external, communal relationship. I couldn’t play one of these songs alone on the acoustic guitar and get that feeling.”
Put this way, Ought sounds the creation of some kind of hive mind: the productive tension between individual fulfilment and collective reward results in a distinctive, atmospheric quality to their songcraft which certainly feels cathartic. The band’s new record, Sun Coming Down, feels a bolstered, more robust embodiment of this shared headspace: a quality more ephemeral than simple sophomore confidence, it’s symptomatic of Ought’s decision to let the music take the lead. “One thing we were talking about a lot [with this record] is that if a song wants to be loud and fast, just let it go there. If a song is quieter, more open, let it go there. To not have things hang in the middle.” It certainly sounds this way, too. Where tracks like Passionate Turn bubble and simmer, taut and restrained, opener Men For Miles trips and rolls, culminating in an elbows-out riot of competitive, climbing riffs as Darcy demands, “Will you look me in the eye?”
In the making, Sun Coming Down turned out to be the complete antithesis of their previous release. Where their debut was written with a “pretty slow creation pace”, as the band finished school and worked day jobs, this time around the band wrote and recorded the whole record in just two months. Darcy describes the process as “kind of magical in how it came together.” He explains: “There’s been this… interior/exterior thing happening. With the last record, we played so many shows, played the songs so many times before we even recorded them. By the time we were with Constellation, we were pretty sure that the songs were, like… okay. But with the new one, we made it in a vacuum. Straight from being holed up in this jam space, we played two local shows and went straight into the studio.”
This reclusive approach resulted in one or two slightly unstable live shows at the start of the band’s frankly ridiculous touring schedule. On the road since April, Ought will hit UK shores in October having played their new record almost every day, in what Darcy dubs “a kind of early finish line; it’s… mentally closer to home.” He reports that when the band performed at Sasquatch festival in Washington, early May, they opened with a new track they were “so excited about it. But a) people were like, ‘What is this?’ And b) it was only our third time ever playing it live, so… we were like, ‘Ok, that was a mistake!’ But now the singles are out and the record’s announced, there’s no real ‘what’s happening here?’ reactions. It’s been about kneading in a few new ones to each set.”
The band have a reputation for an outstanding live show, crackling with electricity. Thankfully, given their outrageously long summer on the road, Darcy’s confident that they’ll maintain that energy: “It’s more than enjoyment, I mean, the four of us could hang out anywhere. It’s about feeling fulfilled, in a certain sense, and maybe there’s an immediacy that happens more in the live shows than it does on record. I generally defer to my mother on all aspects related to my music career. She really likes the band, and I think it’s genuine because she wouldn’t lie. But she says, yeah, [the record] needs another listen. It’s a deeper listen. Not to compare it on a basis of superficiality, but I think that yeah, maybe you need to be tuned in.”
This acute awareness, or “tuning in” is a common theme when listening to Darcy describe his band. He returns again to the question of artistic influence, musing that “it’s a question which bridges the fan/artist boundary, which is just so blurred. So many people are making music, and surrounded by music. But, let’s just say that I didn’t make any music at all,” he hypothesises. “I hear Sonic Youth, and just as pure fan, I feel really moved… Whatever your art does for you, something has entered my consciousness because of it. And I’m going to think about things, or think about this music, and maybe I’ll write something, or maybe it’ll just… become a special thing for me. Maybe there’s a question of, ‘did this band have a similar experience to me?’ Or, ‘were they also in love with this thing that I’m in love with, and I’m just witnessing the ricochet?’” When you think about it, there’s a simple logic in Darcy’s blurring of internal influences and external catharsis – perhaps we’re all just witnessing the ricochet.
Written for The Skinny, September 2015