While the three Yanks and one Aussie in Montreal-based Ought were recording More Than Any Other Day, inspiration could be found just by looking out their window. It was spring 2012 in downtown Montreal and tens of thousands of students and supportive demonstrators were protesting considerable hikes in tuition rates proposed by the Quebec Cabinet.
“[Seeing] people marching in the street each night, it definitely felt like something real was happening,” drummer Tim Keen recalls. “It profoundly affected the way we make music. I remember this subtle shift. It’s hard not to recognize that when we talk about the record or what we are as a band. Not that we are a direct response to that.”
Keen is from Melbourne, Australia and his accent charmingly slants the pronunciation of Ought’s name when he meets new listeners (he often has to spell it.) Tim Beeler (vocals/guitar), Ben Stidworthy (bass) and Matt May (keys) are from the states, growing up in New Hampshire, Oregon, and New Jersey respectively. Each came to Montreal for school, and you could say the rest is history, but these protests set off and…
“And it’s not so much that our music was directly changed but we as people were changed,” Beeler says. “The way I thought about things changed. But we weren’t making a political record. We write everything collaboratively. Nobody comes in with even as much as a guitar lick.”
But if you take a step back, Beeler admits it’s tempting to trace the uniquely rousing energy of the record to “that momentum and the feeling we’ve all been part of.”
The opening track’s rhythms set this strangely groovy march—something anthemic, something one could almost dance to—while these rustled guitars clang out tight resonations spurring the vocalist’s very first lyric, presented as a forceful grunt, something like the clearing of the band’s collective throat.
“Pleasant Heart’s” opening arrangement of intricate rhythms blend gracefully erratic drums under funky-smooth bass licks. There’s some dissonant, John Cale-esque violins sawing in the background for added eerie atmosphere, and the lyrics really are some of the most poetically thought-provoking words we’ve been walloped with in a while.
“But it wasn’t like, we’re in the strike, so we have to start writing this type of song,” Beeler says. Set the strike aside. It was the musical dialogue sparked between the four of them, the jam, right there, in the moment that held the greatest sway over the songwriting.
May says it all comes from improvisation, whether “casually or very seriously jamming; all very off the cuff, finding parts we like and focusing in. From where I’m standing, these things just coming out, there’s not, generally, any logic that I see…” Keen laughs at this. “It’s mystical,” May continues, “Beeler can speak to that…”
“What?” Keen inquires for us, mid-interview. “Whether there’s logic?”
May: “Just, having freedom to work things out as they’re happening. It’s really important. We could wander into atrocious places, just having fun, playing 90’s alt-rock riffs and then suddenly [Stidworthy] will do something cool on bass and everyone can lock in…”
And those lyrics? Any logic?
“If I had more of an intention to write a rebel-rousing, anti-authoritarian song,” Beeler says, “then it’d be so clear which words to write. But, I’d wait for lines to come to the surface, because, again, everything comes out of our jams. This is just what we’re all thinking about, it wasn’t like, I need to write a political lyric. But we were experiencing it deeply and we’re all very passionate about these things in our lives outside the band.”
The song “Habit” hit us the hardest with its minimalist arrangement of jangled guitars and a shuffling rhythm, where Beeler lurches his wavering voice from a whisper into a poignant wail. “Is there something you were trying to express here?/ Express it with me / Is there a weight that you’re trying to unload here?” And then those warm keys chime under the cold violins, the whole song starts to swell and Beeler starts to sing as hard as he can: “Do you feel it like I feel it, like I feel it? I feel a habit forming…” It crescendos, finally, into beautiful noisy catharsis and you’re definitely looking inward as it subsides.
The album’s full of these questioning lyrics. It gets you thinking hard about some things in your own life (even as you’re simultaneously grooving to those post-punk inclined rhythms or musing on the intertwining timbres of guitar and violin). Like, are your habits just an externalization of your limitations and your dependencies? Huh…
“There’s nothing keeping you from shouting out,” is the lyric building into the chorus of the very next track, the lead single “The Weather Song,” which kicks it up with a startling tempo shift from “Habit” into much more jittery, cymbal-shearing percussive pace.
“I think community’s a huge part of it,” Stidworthy elaborates on their influences. “That support that comes playing with—and for—people that care about you and are interested in what you have to say. The groups and people around us have been very inspiring and huge supporters of us. I hope we support them equally back. It’s important to be a member of a community. We can be so outward looking that we don’t see what’s in front of us.”
Keen furthers this sentiment when he talks lovingly of “this dive” called the Brasserie Beaubien, in Montreal, and the non-profit show-production group Loose-Fit. Ought’s shows at this venue were some of their most formative moments. “It goes from literally no one in the bar to being filled with a bunch of people who’re very interested in music. And, our friends The Femmaggots were important in getting people who weren’t playing music into the community and making it into a lifestyle.”
And through that lifestyle, Ought bonded. Keen says that no matter how wide-ranging their tastes or influences are, their music always winds up with them “meeting in the middle. Those hairpin-sharp turns we have in some songs become an excitement for us, to figure out how to make these ideas congruent.”
“Like it feels so wrong at first,” says May, “but then it feels so right.”