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Escape Velocity

A Unified Energy: An Interview With Ought
Jazz Monroe , May 20th, 2014 03:38

With their debut album just released through Constellation, Jazz Monroe meets up with Montreal's Ought to discuss protest, packaging, postmodern impotence and human interaction

Montreal's Ought are a contradictory bunch. Debut album More Than Any Other Day, released this month on Constellation, depicts a day in the mind of a furiously compromised and psychologically inbent humanist. On record, they're every bit as lucid, complex, derivative and forward-driving as a bright modern band should be. The music is a righteous clamour pitched between Talking Heads, Richard Hell and, thematically, 'chief shaman of the paranoid' Don DeLillo, whose novel White Noise the bandmembers treasure like a government secret.

But the innovation's in the mechanics of the thing. Under the record's hood is unironic humour, soul-baring sincerity and vanishingly scarce cynicism. Rhythms zip, choruses resound, and there's a nifty undercarriage of reckless optimism. You come away feeling a euphoric sort of lostness.

The four-piece, expats from the States and Australia, passed their McGill university years helping colonise Brasserie Beaubien, an ailing watering hole repurposed for pay what you can gigs from amateur jazz to feminist hardcore. That's where Ought played their first "real shows" after mapping Montreal with covert happenings citywide in basements and lofts and, often, their shared living room, which though creatively fertile proved domestically ill-advised. "Our last landlord came in during a practice and said we were 'not normal'," says drummer Tim Keen, laughing. "He said we were insane, and then he called the cops and had us kicked out of our apartment."

Ten minutes in their company and you quickly know better. Ever democratic, Ought insist on being interviewed together, and they constantly giggle, cross-analyse and mumble in agreement with one another. On album release day the gang assemble to huddle round Skype and discuss supermarket packaging, postmodern impotence, student protest and Montreal's introversion epidemic.

What are the album's themes?

Tim Beeler (vocals/guitar): One place we pinned it down was a feeling of grappling. We noticed there's a feeling of lostness; there are a lot of questions posed on the record. It's trying to feel together in our sense of not knowing where to go, but agreeing that things are not right. Not to say that there isn't an element of hope as well.

Tim Keen: Something else we talked about was coming out of moments of intense collective hope, like the student strikes, and going back to the everyday. You realise the things you do are both very unimportant and very important at the same time.

David Foster Wallace talks about "the conflict between the subjective centrality of our own lives versus our awareness of its objective insignificance", which is maybe a similar thing, and I got that from your music too. To me the record relates to metamodernism, which is a sort of post-postmodernism that rejects irony and cynicism to recover a spiritual vulnerability. More Than Any Other Day does that very effectively.

TB: Yeah, I don't know metamodernism but I'm familiar with post-postmodernism and that definitely resounds. I can safely say that everything on the record is sincere and heartfelt, even the tongue-in-cheek or sillier parts. I think the principle of irony, that you have to augment what you want to do based on self-consciousness, is very dampening. So if you can feel unfettered to express yourself in any way that's a positive thing.

Recent crossover music from Montreal has been introverted, dreamy pop or dance music. Do you relate to that?

[Laughter and grumbling]

TK: I don't think that music... I'm not listening to it, honestly. It has very little to do with my life. I mean, I love Grimes, I don't know if you're talking about Grimes but I think she's extremely sincere and great. There's a lot of other music that sounds like that but isn't as good. I get put off when there's distance between what I feel they want to do and what they're doing, and it feels like they're being moved by a broader movement or a trend. I mean, I have no problem with ethereal synthpop as an idea - this is as true of guitar rock bands as it is of synths. Bands shouldn't get a pass just because they make vaguely 'punk-sounding' music, and shouldn't get written off as not-punk because they don't use guitars. One thing I will say, though, is that the last thing we need is for white dudes to be more "chill" - meaning apathetic - than they already are.

I know you have a sort of community with groups like Fem Maggots, the Misery Loves Co. bands and the Loose Fit booking collective. How do your politics affect things?

TB: There are a couple of facets to that. A lot of people in the scene are involved in activist work - they were people involved in the student strike - and a lot of Loose Fit shows have that ethos written into them, in terms of being DIY and pay what you can. They try not to have entirely white male bills, which is an ethos we share with them.

TK: Something else we share is a generalised desire to engage, whether that's with your own music, other people's or with the community. People are listening very hard, trying to be critical; we discuss the shows a lot, what we like and don't like about them.

Tim, I was on an insane research binge and read an old piece you wrote for [student paper] McGill Daily on community during the student strikes.

TB: [Bewildered] How did you find that? Did you find my high school prom photos as well?

Matt May (keyboardist): I can send them.

Tim B: With my Ringo Starr haircut... well, that letter came from feeling detached from the pragmatic result people were steering towards. Quebec has a long history of tuition-related movements, but surrounding that strike, there were lots of other issues to grapple with. [Montreal] was stewing in so many new ideas and ways of seeing. That letter references Walt Whitman, and what kind of positive change would come from seeing our connections with other people. And definitely, some of that ekes into the record's politics. There's a lot of inter-human stuff, feelings of connection to strangers and people in general, this eye-opening sense of how you feel about other people. Even just being in one of those marches one time, with families and strollers, people singing and chanting, that unified energy is something that, coming from the US, I'd never even seen a picture of, let alone been in.

Casseroles - Montréal, 24 Mai 2012 from Jeremie Battaglia on Vimeo.

After the 2011 London riots musicians were virtually invisible, even though the PIAS distribution warehouse burnt down. But in Montreal most major musicians supported the students, even if it was a tweet or blog.

TK: The student strike was very protracted - it's hard to describe how much it galvanised the whole city. Some huge percentage of Quebecois students were on strike, and these nightly marches had thousands to tens of thousands to even hundreds of thousands of people at them. Sometimes outside media portrays it as a small thing, or a bunch of rabble rousers, but it was not that at all. To be a musician in Montreal and to not articulate a position on that was kind of insane. It would be incredible to see that and not relate it to your art in some way.

What happened next?

MM: Well, it was the liberal party trying to bring in the tuition increase. But because there was an election near the end of the strike, one of the issues that [opposition] Party Quebecois ran their campaign on was that they'd discuss the tuition increase. But it was pretty late on - they clearly were doing it for political points. And when they got elected, they held a forum that was a sham with a proposed idea to peg tuition increases to inflation, which is potentially an infinite hike. In the end, that's what went through.

Ben Stidworthy (bassist): And subsequently, they cut millions of dollars from the education budget.

TK: And there was just another election, and PQ lost. Because rather than actually do anything people care about, they made this insane racist charter where people can't wear religious symbols when they work for the government. And they focused people's energy on that so much, to the detriment of anything that matters to anyone, that they ended up losing power. And now the liberals, who initially instigated the hike, are back, and they're implementing the inflation hike and the budget cut. So everything comes back around, you know?

[Everyone laughs.]

TB: [Impersonating David Byrne] Same as it ever was...

I want to talk briefly about Constellation. What was your relationship with the label, growing up?

TB: [Godspeed's] F# A# was one of the first vinyl records I bought. I got a turntable in high school and the record was fucking beautiful. I remember my brother really liked them... BS: I had a similar experience in high school, going record shopping with the kids I thought were the cool kids because they were going to punk shows. I was too embarrassed to get whatever I wanted to get, like Bloc Party or whatever, and I saw them getting Godspeed records and hardcore punk records.

Ought "The Weather Song" from Constellation Records on Vimeo.

There's one thing I want to discuss that I'm not sure I can articulate. Something I love about the record is this sense of dread manifested in mundane epiphanies, which is a surprisingly accurate depiction of dread. If you feel abject terror at some complex system or paradox, it'll often manifest as you stand in a supermarket aisle looking at milk, toilet paper, magazines...

TB: Yeah! I mean, going back to that article... [everyone laughs] I had trouble in university relating with my more radical professors and things we were reading, because even though the idea resounds there's often a petri dish feeling to it. And so then I think about how this theoretical idea might manifest in everyday life. Because for a lot of people, myself included, it doesn't come up when you're reading this or that article, it comes up one day when you're going to buy milk. And you're like, 'What a fucking strange situation this is. Where am I standing? How incredibly terrifying would this place be if music was not being pumped in through invisible speakers? What is up with this fluorescent lighting?' Suddenly analysing all this packaging and all these colours and smells. 'I don't even know how this is made.'

And a similar situation can occur in many arenas of modern life, where suddenly the blinder comes off. And maybe you totally subdue the thought again, because it's a terrifying train of thought to go down. So we're thinking about where those little moments manifest, but also not being nihilists about it. Not being like, everything is fucked until we can change everything. We still live in the world, we still have to reach out to people in the way we can reach out to people. And that doesn't mean we can't be critical of our environment.

Ought's More Than Any Other Day is out now via Constellation