Finally, I’m sitting over from Montreal post-punk outfit Ought - four young, well-dressed men, all with a beer or cigarette in hand. I was meant to have met them a few days ago, on their 2015 return to London to play Shoreditch’s Village Underground - a packed sweat-box of a venue - and the ‘right’ place to hear their muscular, glowering music played out. Instead, we’re sat along a picnic table under the boughs of an enormous beech tree, cubbied behind End of the Road’s Forest Stage. It’s sunny, serene, and behind the band is a view of the rest of this Wiltshire woodland.
It feels more like home than the rest of the UK tour thus far, reflects Ben Sidworthy, bassist. “We came from a lot of sun, then we flew into England. We played some amazing shows but just didn’t see the sun for a while and were feeling quite tired.” It’s understandable: the boys have been touring for six months, a journey that’s seen them loop around North America, European festivals and – once they’re done here – more shows on the back of the release of LP number two, Sun Coming Down.
It’s also a common complaint about touring in the UK, for sure, and a feeling that came to a head in Birmingham, a city the band only knew through its “dated reputation” as passed on by some friends in Manchester. “It was a really nice time, though, and a very fun show”, Matt May, keyboards, quickly says. “We definitely didn’t see enough of the place. And Ben got some pants there!”
Sensing a Tom Jones tale of discarded underwear and screaming teenage girls, I ask for the juicy details, forgetting for a second the transatlantic pants/pants divide. “Well, I spent some time going around vintage shops in Birmingham, and found some good pants…” Sidworthy explains sheepishly. Said trousers were similar in style to the very fashionably-cut, three quarter-length numbers he’s currently sporting, but unhemmed and too straight in the leg. “But in the shop there was this guy who was a friend of the owner, and he was like ‘I’m a tailor, and I want to come to the show, how about I bring these in, hem them, and I’ll come to the show and give you them there?’”
The other three, smiles wide, start poking fun. “Were you presented with them on stage?” I ask, but no, it was a backstage transaction afterwards. “He didn’t wear pants on stage just so he could put them on while playing,” says Tim Keen – drums, violin. “Very Red Hot Chilis.”
This lengthy tour hasn’t killed off any sense of ease or good humour between the four – to cope, they’ve “changed members a few times” jokes May – despite some pretty alarming troubles at home. He and Keen, who live together in Montreal, lost their apartment to a fire in dodgy circumstances, the latter explains. “We live in an area which is mostly controlled by the Mafia – they run four in five businesses on our block, and the only one that isn’t was below our house.” A fire was set at about 1 am, says Keen wearily, then spread into this uncontrolled building and the rest of the block. “All as my landlord watched with a cigar,” he imagines.
Despite having to field some worried calls from parents and friends, the two roomies are pretty upbeat about it. Part of that seems to be down to the tight community the band are part of in Montreal, a city that seems to me attracts hundreds of disproportionately talented musicians from elsewhere. Ought themselves are three-quarters USA transplants and one Australian, meeting at college when May, Keen and Tim Darcy, their as-yet quiet lead singer, shared an apartment-cum-practice space. Since then, they’ve become synonymous with the DIY, artsy community that’s set up in the city’s Mile End district, all small labels, loft-space recording studios and home-brew collaborations. A collective called Loose-fit, which booked easy going, pay-what-you-can shows in a bar called the Brasserie Beuabien, was one early and formative influence, as were a number of bands like the Femmaggots.
The band themselves still have their musical fingers in a number of pies: May and Keen run a cassette-based label which puts out “amazing stuff that’s made by folks in our friend group”, explains Darcy. “There are lots of interesting pockets of stuff around – and pretty much everybody is in other bands or has other projects that we pick up when we can.”
“I guess in that sense it’s like a lot of times that bands or scenes set up,” says May. “A lot of our friends are finishing up university and are mixing in with other scenes, or acts.” And, crucially, there doesn’t seem to be any sign of a hipster influx any time soon. “Even though the rent’s quite cheap, there’s a brutal winter that lasts 8 months,” he continues. “You maybe would move if you go to school there, maybe if you live in another part of Canada, but I don’t think it’s at risk of having a massive influx and becoming a ‘cool city’, you know?”
“It’s also a challenging city to get a job in if you don’t speak French, which puts a natural limit on the speed of gentrification if you have to become a Francophone to even start to get by,” Keen adds. “In other cities it’s different, even Berlin, you can move there and realistically do well just speaking English. That being said, it’s definitely picking up the pace. There are lot of condos going up.”
After Ought’s first few EPs, they were invited to record with Constellation, the big dogs of Montreal’s indie label scene and one time home of bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor or Do Make Say Think. The product was 2014’s More Than Any Other Day, a record characterised by its slow-build, bubbling anger and fiery, cathartic releases which garnered critical and popular attention. The next round in the salvo, record number two, is slated for release just about a week after we speak. I ask: what are they most proud of on their sophomore effort?
There’s a moment of silence. For a second, all that’s audible is the washed-out sounds of Natalie Prass as they filter around and under the stage, her set underway just a few meters away. Keen is first to speak. “For me, I think as a record there’s more attention to specific tone and tone character over different songs. And more attention to the way in which we use the studio, rather than using it for granted or as a recording device,” he explains. “It’s not a dramatic difference, it’s quite subtle, but there’s more attention paid to the effect that recording the music has had on it. I like that.”
The album was also recorded straight to tape – “which was fun”, Keen adds – as well as played to a click track. This is particularly interesting for Ought, who play and stretch time signatures and shift in feel so often during a song, let alone over an album. “The intention isn’t just to get everything in time, there’s an artistic reason for doing it,” Keen adds, pre-empting my question. “I think that acknowledging you’re in a studio is important, it’s like taking the elements of that environment and working out how they make your music sound different.”
At the time of speaking, the first few teases from Sun Coming Down had been put up on Spotify. ‘Beautiful Blue Sky’, the centrepiece of the album, is a drawn-out, spacious farewell list to the trappings of a cossetted, 21st-century existence, punctuated by the worst kind of empty conversation – “How’s the family?/How’s your health been?’/Fancy seeing you here!” Darcy sardonically intones. ‘Men for Miles’, on the other hand, is a far more tightly energetic number, all speed-strummed guitars and swirling sounds, sounding something like Sonic Youth meeting Joy Division in Mark E Smith’s grimy living room. For a band that takes such care in the packaging – both physically and in terms of sound – of their art, does this kind of track-teasing spoil anything of what they’re trying to achieve?
No, is the resounding answer. “I don’t give a shit,” says Keen. “I don’t listen to vinyl or have a record player, I don’t necessarily think that’s the ‘proper’ way to listen to music, and I think artists who care about them are still putting out albums.”
“Pop has always been single oriented anyway,” May agrees. “Now it seems more interesting to think of a Taylor Swift album as being successful as an album rather than a collection of singles, Beyoncé, people like that. I don’t think it’s a destructive force. The compensation side of things is definitely problematic” – the rest of the band nod their heads sagely – “but I don’t think it’s culturally doing any harm.”
On the other hand, says Darcy, there’s something being lost when you have a physical, whole album, with artwork and everything else, even if the work itself might be a collection of singles. “I like that I can come to music through friends, or serendipitously, sometimes and then I actually have it, and can form a relationship with it,” he adds. “But that’s a subjective thing.”
That strikes me as maybe what Ought really give a shit about – forming meaningful relationships with not only their listeners, but their fellow music makers and artists. It’s fitting, then, that Darcy asks ever-so-politely if they can be excused to see the end of Natalie’s set, and in a second we high-tail it around the iron fence to sneak into the front of the crowd. Whether it’s her spellbinding set, the last, warm breaths of an English summer afternoon or the effects of tour fatigue, the men of Ought stand and watch in complete rapture.
‘Sun Coming Down’ is now available to stream, download and buy, via Constellation Records
Words by Laurie Havelock