In 2011, four individuals living in Montreal formed the post-punk band Ought, releasing their debut EP, New Calm, a year later. In the time that followed, Ought released their first full-length and began touring. The relatively small band that popped into attention following the Quebec student protests in 2012 became internationally known.
Last Wednesday, The Daily was able to speak with lead vocalist Tim Darcy about Ought’s new record, Room Inside the World and their highly anticipated show with accompanying artists Snail Mail and Fred Thomas at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit.
The Michigan Daily: How do you feel (Room Inside the World) is different from any of your past records, and, just in general, how do you feel you’ve grown as a band since that first EP you released, Once More With Feeling?
Darcy: Well, I think parts of this record … we were much more intentional with it than we have ever been as a band. Even writing More Than Any Other Day, our first full-length, we were just kids in Montreal. We would play when we had time, once maybe twice a week, and play shows and would write one new song and play that at the show. So the process was really drawn-out and there was no real time constraint on it because we didn’t immediately have any end goals besides recording and that sort of thing. Then we slowly started building up organically, like first set recording an EP in our house and then doing it in a friend’s studio and then just kind of the natural way that that goes. Even with those, we had all been in other bands before so we brought a lot of those into the process of making that EP, but there was a lot of experimenting and figuring out what would suit the song and then there was a second record. We toured the first record so hard that when we got back … it wasn’t like an imperative but we had a three month window where we all had to learn French if we wanted to stay in Canada. And at the same time, we also were writing a new record so we were like taking night classes, writing during the day and we just finished the album and then the next day, went on tour again basically for another year. So, for this record we really wanted to move more slowly and also communication was a big part of it. In the months leading up to writing when we were back from tour, we just sent around a lot of music and little ideas. We made this kind of digital mood board and uploaded photos and visual art that we liked as well as songs, or we’d upload a whole record that sounds nothing like us but is fun. We’d say, ‘Oh I’ve been listening to this a lot, everybody check it out.’ That part was really fruitful for us to wade into each other’s subconscious. So, in that way, this record, I think, builds some songs, builds upon things that we were doing on the other records and I think do them in the most full and fleshed out way that we’ve done yet. And then there are other things that are completely new and that’s exciting for us to get to bring that in on our third record.
TMD: So what sort of music were you all passing around during the weeks leading up to the writing of this album?
Darcy: It’s really broad. We all really like ambient music, instrumental music — we talked a lot about synths, particular synth sounds because that was something Matt (May) wanted to experiment more with. We wanted to think about textures that could kind of add extra layers of paint without it necessarily being a distortion. But we also didn’t want to make an ’80s sounding record. We were very particular with those sounds and ended up looking at particular people like Brian Eno, obviously, and also this artist, Amanaz who has a record called Africa. It has some really nice, kind of kinky synth sounds on it. It was very much in keeping with us in that we have such a broad array of taste and we always have and to bring those things together, it’s always a mysterious cocktail.
TMD: You talked a lot about experimenting during the band’s formation and even now, writing this album, there’s a lot of experimenting with different kinds of music and different kinds of sounds. How do you feel like growing up in Montreal, which so many people have described as a Mecca for art and up-and-coming artists, has impacted your band and your sound?
Darcy: Just the city in of itself has such an aura to it. There are very material things like rent is pretty cheap and, compared to other big North American cities, it’s fairly easy to find a practice space that you can afford and there’s a pretty good network of venues. It’s not overwhelming. I think coming in doesn’t take that long to acclimate, which is also another bonus. It’s just kind of a perfect size in that it’s really fertile and there’s new stuff coming in but it’s also not so sprawling that you kind of don’t even know where to start. So in that way it’s really like the physical, tangible elements were really good for us, starting out. Interacting with such a wide array of music, and I remember there’s a Merrill Garbus, from Tune-Yards, quote, and I don’t know if it’s written down, but I saw her do a symposium in Montreal a couple years ago and she was talking about how in Montreal she felt like no one would be surprised or judgmental and she could just be weird on stage. It is hard to shock a Montreal audience, which is great and I think in some ways we … I mean we definitely rank low on the shocking spectrum as far as things I’ve seen in Montreal, but it’s a good environment to not get caught up in being self-conscious or being so caught up in what is specifically on-trend at this particular moment. I think that generates a lot of liberating expressions. And obviously, you know, there’s no perfect place. The winters are obviously horrible. A lot of people are really broke. But Montreal is definitely in the fabric of all three records that we’ve made.
TMD: I find that your music, when I listen to it, it’s very easy for me to connect to it. The lyricism, especially, just seems to embrace the mundane details of life, even though your sound itself is very broad, as you’ve described. This sense of connectability, is this something that you try to purposefully convey or is it something that appears more naturally and organically as you all are creating these different albums?
Darcy: A big part of the ‘Ought-style,’ which we all kind of witnessed forming over several records as we looked back, especially working on this record, because we were more intentionally trying out new things, we would get to the end of a song and be like, ‘Oh there that is, that thing that we do.’ One of those things is that we definitely combine hooks and more accessible rock tropes with things that kind of break those open and ideally rejuvenate that thing and make you think twice about it. That’s just been part of how the four of us think about songs like that. As far as lyricism goes, I think about the lyrics very distinctly from the music sometimes. It really varies by song. There are some songs where it’s much more about the melody… but then there are definitely other songs where I’m really focused on the lyrics. The writers that I like have the kind of clarity that you’re talking about. “Clarity” is the word I like to use because it’s not about simplicity. I really love writing that is adventurous. If I don’t feel like something is coming across, it loses me even if they’re turning a nice phrase. I need to feel like I’m getting something from it, which maybe sounds obvious, but focusing on little things, that comes very naturally to me because it’s very much in the things that I like to read.
TMD: What are some of those writers that have inspired you?
Darcy: So many. I read a ton. I think Joan Didion’s a great example. The way that she visits very iconic and major archetypes in the American psyche, John Wayne and I’m reading the essay on Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco now. She witnesses these things and doesn’t draw any conclusions. I found that a lot of the great thinkers are people who are willing to kind of live with the questions and sort of see things and kind of chew on them a bit but not be like, ‘This is what this is.’