Q&A: Ought On David Foster Wallace, Banning Shirtless Bros, & Their New Album Sun Coming Down
If post-punk speaks the language of disaffection, then don’t call Ought a post-punk band. The Montreal-based quartet wrote their 2014 debut LP, More Than Any Other Day, in wake of the 2012 Quebec student protests after graduating from McGill University, and though the album grazes innumerable themes, its central message is certain: You’re given a life, now go do something with it. Guitarist/vocalist Tim Darcy finds comfort in routine, in the fact that in the end we’re “all the fucking same.” He condemns the sedentary lifestyle even when he falls victim to it, and he does all of this without sounding like a smarmy dude talking down to the masses. Despite their wry tone, Ought are overwhelmingly optimistic; even a winking, lively declaration that “I am excited to go grocery shopping,” manages to sound objectively earnest. More Than Any Other Day is a record about recognizing the power in free will and using it to bring your friends, your neighbors, and yourself a degree closer. Today, Ought combat alienation without resorting to snark. Just over a year after More Than Any Other Day came out, Ought have announced a new album. Sun Coming Down will be released this September on Montreal’s small-but-revered Constellation Records, and the band will embark on a North American tour in the days following. Read our Q&A with Tim Darcy, drummer and violinist Tim Keen, bassist Ben Stidworthy, and keyboardist Matt May on the making of Sun Coming Down below.
STEREOGUM: When More Than Any Other Day first came out, I read a few articles about how Don DeLillo’s White Noise inspired a lot of it.
TIM DARCY: Oh no. [laughs]
STEREOGUM: Is that not true?
DARCY: A couple of us definitely read it, but a lot of the songs on the record were written before anybody read White Noise. Anyway, it’s a good book, we all liked it a lot. And I think there are thematic elements in the book that are in tune with thematic elements on our record … but yeah, I think a very large cake was made out of that small ingredient.
STEREOGUM: I was curious whether or not the references to post-modern lit were at all relevant in your eyes, as recent college graduates.
DARCY: Well, somebody, like months after the record came out, said something about it reminding them of David Foster Wallace, that thing “This Is Water,” you know, that commencement speech he gave? When this person said that, it sorta struck something with me. I bet some of those thoughts made it into that song, “Today, More Than Any Other Day.” Because I definitely remember listening to that speech around the time we were all living together and being like, “Whoa.” Especially the version of him reading it; I found it very affecting.
STEREOGUM: I used to have negative feelings about him, but when I learned a bit about the New Sincerity and how that was such a big part of his fiction, aiming to not to be sarcastic and be very sincere, but still have a sense of humor… I think that your first record in a lot of ways reminds me of that kind of ideology, like the revolt against postmodern irony. It’s interesting that you would bring him up.
DARCY: Yeah I think my feeling is there are instances of sincerity that I find difficult and there are instances of irony that I find difficult. If I want to say something earnestly or whatever, I don’t want to hyper-analyze myself. For my own personal creative voice, that can be the death of what I’m trying to say, if I constantly question every word that comes out of my mouth or every little thing that I’m doing.
TIM KEEN: Fetishizing hyper-intellectual white masculinity is nerve-wracking to me; terrifying. Maybe someone else can talk about the sincerity stuff, because I don’t really have a problem with irony as a way to get to something that you’re trying to say. I don’t think that’s less sincere than anything else. The problem for me is in the way that literary culture will take a style and make it the style, or the style that people should be aspiring to. Take Wallace off of the pedestal of “this is what a good writer should look like.”
STEREOGUM: So many people get frustrated or irritated by him mostly because of his imitators.
KEEN: Yeah, like that Twitter account Guy In Your MFA. It’s so good, every single tweet is just like: “I’ve got this idea for a story, it’s about like a sad middle-class white guy.”
STEREOGUM: Going off of that, as politically-involved white men making kind of abrasive rock music, do you find that you have to sometimes check in repeatedly with yourselves about the type of persona you’re perpetuating or projecting out into the world? Do you ever feel self-conscious about that?
KEEN: I’m always thinking about it. Most of the music that I’m personally interested in is made by people who don’t look like a bunch of white dudes in a rock band, and that is the music that I think is really powerful.
MATT MAY: Yeah, I spend a lot of time on the Ought social-media stuff because that’s really fun and I like doing it. I try to post media that I think is interesting, thoughtful, and careful, and reflects what we’re trying to do with our music.
STEREOGUM: I mostly asked that question because so much of your first record was painted as a political album. I think it’s more nuanced, but so many of the earlier interviews that you did were about the student strikes in Montreal, about gaining a sense of political efficacy, about witnessing young people in the streets demanding something better than what they’re given. So naturally, questions of privilege arise from there when you’re hoping to inspire unity.
MAY: That definitely comes across. I think we talked a lot amongst each other about how sometimes the way that the record gets talked about or the way that maybe in the past how we talked about it has not been necessarily to our liking. One of the funnier examples is labeling us as “art rock.” I just always find that funny. To me, it doesn’t really mean much other than to say that other rock, or other music, isn’t “art.”
BEN STIDWORTHY: Something that I noticed when we were touring was the massive amount of aggressive guys that were at our show. And, as a band of white men, we have to look at who we represent and how that audience behaves, and it seems like interviews are one of the few ways we can acknowledge the problems that exist with that sometimes-bad audience behavior. One thing people might not know is: We’re not a band of straight males. And there was this moment where we were with our friend in New York, kind of early on, and he said to us: “You really need to queer up your act.”
DARCY: I disagree with that though; I think there is some weird stuff that happens when, like, identity politics become a band’s currency. I don’t know if that’s been my experience at our shows necessarily — there’s no way to poll the demographic of a crowd or whatever.
STIDWORTHY: I didn’t mean the vast majority, but there’s this one show that really stuck out for me, the first time we played in London. We started the set and there was a diverse crowd in the front rows and at the end of the show there was a lot of moshing and the demographic had shifted very dramatically. There were no women left in the front and a lot of shirtless guys.
KEEN: To be fair, that was a really specific situation that felt like an unusual show for us, and we spoke up about it onstage. Actually, someone told me that there’s a headline out there that says something like: “Ought says don’t take your shirt off at a rock show.” We played a pretty poorly attended show the next night. After that first one, a lot of people must have been like: “Shit, I’m not going to go, I’ll have to keep my shirt on. It’s not worth it.”
STEREOGUM: You said that you’re not always happy about the way the narrative of the last record was presented. How do you see this new record? What do you think are the overriding themes, and what do you hope other people see in it?
MAY: For me, a lot of the instrumentation was inspired by watching a lot of people I know try to work on themselves in a really significant way by trying to manage and improve issues with their mental health. I don’t know if that’s in the lyrics though, because I didn’t write the lyrics.
STEREOGUM: Tim, do you want to speak to the lyrics a little bit?
DARCY: I think of this record as being the first collection of songs that came out of a period of time that we were spending together as an actual band on the road after More Than Any Other Day came out. Most of the lyrics are related to conversations we’ve had together and I don’t think anyone will listen and be like: “Whoa what is going on? This is very different than the last record.” There’s definitely one very different song that’s kind of like a love ballad, I guess: “Passionate Turn.”
KEEN: I had a joke with Tim that I was going to leak a series of gifs with text from lyrics on the album before it drops so that people are prepared. The “Men For Miles” one, you can put those lyrics on anything and make it meme-able.
STEREOGUM: When you write these songs are you doing it all together in the same space at the same time, or are the lyrics coming into a space and you’re creating the music around them? I’ve read before that Tim [Darcy] ad libs a lot of these songs spontaneously, so I wanted to ask how this record came together and if it was different than the way the first one went.
DARCY: There usually wasn’t a lot of pre-determination. We kind of decided in advance when we wanted to write, like, a long or a short song or whatever, and I wrote a lot of the lyrics at home. It didn’t affect the outcome that much. On the last record there’s only one song that I wrote the lyrics to at home instead of in the jam space.
STEREOGUM: Which was the song on the last record that you wrote at home?
DARCY: “Around Again.” It was the last day of tracking and I was like: “Tim [Keen] you have to, like, stall with violin overdubs.” I sat home in my room writing, then I showed up and had the lyrics. That was such an alienating experience for me. I was initially very, like, “Oh my god, what have I done with the lyrics on the song?” And now I really like them. I wish I could re-record the vocals after having played that song out live, but I still feel pretty content with the lyrics.
STEREOGUM: I’ve actually never seen you play live but I’ve watched a lot of videos, and all the vocal performances are really different in a live setting than they are on the record. I’m curious if you ever played something after recording it and then you were like, “Damn, I wish I did it that way when we were actually making the recording” or not?
DARCY: Absolutely — that is literally the case.
KEEN: The record is a snapshot of the songs at the point in time we recorded them, and then they evolve, and that is kind of a cool feeling. To me, this band is a live band. We recorded the album live, for the most part. When given the choice of overdubbing and playing together, it usually makes sense for us to play together. There’s some element of this band that thrives in that collaborative environment.
Sun Coming Down is out 09/18 via Constellation Records.