UNCHARTED: Ought make art from not knowing

The Montreal-based post-punk band get ecstatically unsettled on their Constellation Records debut.

- Apr 30, 2014
Uncharted is Chart Attack's showcase of independent Canadian artists we think you should hear. This week, we talk to all the members of Montreal-based post-punks Ought about forming their band amidst the 2012 Quebec student protest, the empowerment of mass unrest, and the politics of  “Ahhh!?!?”

Ought are a body, not a series of. Collaboration is what makes the Montreal-based group's post-punk jams so tightly bandaged, meant for both mending wounds and boxing. The group stresses in our interview, with all four members of the band present, that they don't come to their practice sessions with song ideas. "We’ll point at someone and just say 'Start','" says bassist Ben Stidworthy. In lesser hands this would result in unnavigable, functionless songs, but Ought keep going until it's right, which can sometimes take awhile. "It’s awful. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone," drummer Tim Keen admits. "But it works out somehow."

After their initial encounter at "this terrible first year orientation event at McGill University," Keen and eventual frontman Tim Beeler began playing music together, with Matt May and Stidworthy joining in the midst of the 2012 student protests gripping all of Quebec. After much trial and error, songs emerged to form debut album More Than Any Other Day, released initially on their Bandcamp and now pressed by Constellation Records with extra songs.

It's hard to imagine the album any different; its tracks form an utter rejection of complacency and burrow deep into life's labyrinthine developments, without any path forward or back. As such, More Than Any Other Day rings with a rarely unhedged youthful passion, drawing its power from a full-throated awareness that it's only scratching the surface, and a desire to go even deeper, no matter where it takes them. Could be this is first and last Ought record to sound like this, based on what they choose to look at next.

While not pure protest music, the record retains a sense of hope and spirit similar to its cover. When I met Ought just before their biggest show in Toronto yet, they didn't give me a primer in the student protests or tell me what or who should be fixed. They've experienced the tremors of a changing society, and seemed excited that their own worlds were due to shift.

How long did it take you to find your sound?

Tim Beeler: We were fortunate enough to play in our house, which directly resulted in this project. We played everything, and because we could play every day, the stuff would be all over the place. But eventually it formed into something cohesive.

Describe the worst experiments with Ought’s sound, as “x meets y.”

Tim Keen: Surf rock.

TB: I don’t think they were experiments so much as we had no ambition towards a particular sound. And so there was this Roy Orbison-y, sort of sock-hop era of our jams. There would be emo-y kind of stuff.

TK: For awhile it was like if Yo La Tengo made elevator music. But really good elevator music, for really nice elevators. But then it kind of funnelled to a point, eventually. We kind of whittled away the parts that were cheesy or derivative until we got to something that felt more true.

Does your band have a certain set of tenets?

Matt May:  I would say we don’t articulate them in a unified sense, like this is what we are or what we’re doing. We definitely have strong opinions or feelings, and that seeps into our personality and into our music.

There’s a transcendent quality when lots of people acknowledge their lostness together. And that’s definitely something that we channelled from being a part of the Quebec student protests.

Tim Beeler, Ought
TK: When we were making the record, there was definitely a sense of agitation, or agitprop. We were all individually in this state of trying to think about the ways we were living and why. It’s definitely not true that we came up with an answer or that we’re trying to be didactic, but the record definitely came out of a sense of wondering, and taking things you thought were true and starting to question them as individuals and as a group of musicians.

That makes sense, coming out of the student protests, and down to the sound of the record itself. Very tense yet jammy, very free but with these drill instructor vocals. So there’s room for improvisation within a structure that’s whipping everything in line.

TB: That really resonates with me. I’m thinking about us making this record as a time of when we were all grappling with things. I went from a stage of contemplation from within a relatively structured environment, to leaving school having spent a lifetime in the education system. Leaving that and going from thinking about things to directly interacting [with them], and being like “Oh, this is the manifestation of that fear and that anxiety that I’ve heard about.”

To me it’s the same kind of process as the way we write the songs. They start so chaotic and loose and we slowly filter them down. We’ll even start with like four ideas, and they’ll be way too long and then it’ll slowly condense.

TK: When you’re in school you’re thinking about very high concepts or how things came to be, and when you leave you’re like “Shit, these are ideas that manifest in how I talk to this individual or buy this thing or who I smile at on the street.” It’s coming to terms with the fact that your actions are simultaneously a lot smaller than you thought and a lot bigger than you thought. That’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot.

It’s realizing that everything you do is informed by your privilege and gender, and how can you not be a piece of shit all the time.

TK: Exactly, and that’s why we’ve answered your questions about the record’s politics in such roundabout terms. It’s not like “Here’s what we know and let us tell you what we think!” It’s more like us being “Ahhh!?!?”

The poetic lyrics prevent it from coming off as an immediately political record.

TB: There wasn’t a concerted effort to make the lyrics political, but again like what Tim just said, it’s more the “Ahhh!?!?” And I think that’s sort of why there’s a lot of questions posed. Like “The Weather Song,” there’s a lot of rabble-rousing in the verses, then on the chorus there’s a twist of “I wanna revel in your lies” and it’s a joke. It wouldn’t be as powerful to just be “Aaaand fuck the state!” It’s more like acknowledging a little bit of lostness and feeling of powerlessness.

But I feel like there’s a transcendent quality when lots of people acknowledge their lostness together. And that’s definitely something that we channelled from being a part of those student protests. Especially being Anglophones in such a richly Quebecois movement, but feeling so desperately like we needed to be a part of it. It’s a feeling of lostness, not knowing what to do, but knowing you need to do something, and to be a part of this upswell of energy. That’s the most powerful thing. Feeling empowered.

So are you carrying on that momentum with the music?

TK: It’s more like noticing ourselves move with that momentum.

TB: Yeah, it’s not like “And now we have this band!” It’s more like what we are in relation to that. Like being in one of those marches in the streets with tens of thousands of other people from all sorts of walks. You don’t know exactly where you’re going but everyone’s marching with you and that seems to be all that matters, or so reassuring, or at least a good place to start.

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