“Has there ever been a better time to be alive?” says Tim Darcy, vocalist and guitarist of Montreal-based band Ought. It’s a rhetorical question, and a surprising one at that, if you consider the socially abrasive quality of some of their songs. Then again, it’s lighter moments like this that lift the four piece above your usual introspective rock outfit. By wrestling flashes of exhilaration from concepts like death, gentrification and patriarchal hegemony, Ought briefly turn the static fog of postmodern existence into something hopeful.
Their second record Sun Coming Down, out now on Constellation, continues in the weary footsteps of their critically applauded debut 'More Than Any Other Day'. Sprawling, angst-ridden and existential, with nods to Television and Patti Smith’s 'Horses', it was written and recorded between tours last winter. Reaching the tail-end of their US tour, I manage to get hold of Darcy (formerly Tim Beeler) over Skype.
With a voice slightly cracked from a cold, he reflects on friendship, apocalypse-culture and whether our generation can purely be defined by detachment.
What are the main differences between your first and second album?
There’s a density to this record of how the songs evolved, production-wise, that’s not there on the first one. But they feel like sister records to me. They’re written in a reasonably short period of time and in the same spirit, which I think is a big thing. They feel related to each other.
The first record deals with existential questions. Do you feel like 'Sun Coming Down' provides any answers?
I don’t think there are any answers. But maybe flashes of self-realisation. This record is more interpersonal and a strong indication of our relationships in the band. The fact that we could write it so quickly was only possible because of the way our relationships have changed over the past year. We’re on the same page creatively. They’re both existential records, but the first one in a world-view kind of sense, whereas this one is more focused on people around us.
Your relationship must have changed since you first met at university. Do you feel like your music now grows from the intimacy you share as band mates?
It has definitely changed. The only thing I could equate going on tour with is spending months at sea with people - either it makes you incredibly close or you stop speaking to each other. I hear these stories of bands that tour and they can’t look each other in the eye. I can’t even fathom that. I couldn’t sign up to spending so much time with someone that you don’t get along with, and moreover, being creative in that environment. I feel very lucky to be creative around people that are very open and supportive.
How does that translate to writing songs?
Up until now, we haven’t discussed anything or had any preconceived notion about what we’re going to do. We’ve just played for hours and hours until things bubble up, and that has been great and linked to us discovering what we’re into. It’s an ouija board kind of sensation, where everyone has their finger on it. We went in with more ideas on this record, which I think we’ll continue doing. It means we’ve built up a level of trust, where someone can open up an idea and not have to take over the direction of the song. It’s still a collaborative process, which I honestly think is the best place to be.
What can you tell me about the first song on the record, 'Men For Miles'?
It’s probably one of our bluntest songs, which is cool, I like that. I originally proposed a different title - 'Monument' - but we went with Men For Miles because it’s more direct. It came from something our North American sound tech once said. She was telling this story of doing the sound for one of the outdoor stages at this huge festival and she looked around and she said there were just “men for miles”. The phrase stuck with me.
The song is about patriarchy. The idea behind calling it 'Monument' was to conflate it with hegemony in general and the static hegemonic power that is patriarchy. There’s also some empowered comeuppance towards the end, when it bursts through, so there’s not just a feeling of being stuck.
Many of your songs are built like that, like in 'Beautiful Blue Sky' when the idea of death is turned on its head and becomes a symbol of rebellion.
There’s a similar sentiment in that whole section of 'Beautiful Blue Sky', where you take a downtrodden statement and turn it into something oddly uplifting.
It becomes cathartic.
Exactly. It feels empowering. [I'm no longer afraid to die / Cause that is all that I have left] becomes the antidote to “there’s nothing else to live for”. If you feel uplifted by saying that, there’s something left to live for.
Perhaps death is something we still have control over in our lives?
That’s super-dark, but there’s an element of that there. There’s so much YOLO and “live for the night” kind of stuff in pop music as well as an obsession with apocalypse in cinema and books. It’s fascinating as a cultural phenomenon. I feel close to the way people connect with whether they may or may not be going to hell, while at the same time being inefficacious about it. When you’re confronted with the totalising fear of “if everything is going down, what can I do?”, the idea of hedonism seems like a natural response. I get that. That whole section in Beautiful Blue Sky is an allusion to that and being surrounded by apocalypse babble as well as this seemingly increasingly hedonistic pop-sphere.
Do you think every generation feel like they’re the last generation?
It’s hard to say, since I haven’t been part of any other generations. People ask us a lot in interviews about our generation being a detached one, but I don’t actually have a grasp of what the generation is doing. It’s such a foggy term to begin with. Sometimes I feel so excited about all the engagement I see around me and what people are working on and talking about.
I mean, has there ever been a better time to be alive? There’s obviously monstrosity and inequity, but it’s so easy to be pessimistic. It feels good to be that way, because you can maintain your morals without getting hurt or giving yourself up to anything.
These are some of the themes you seem to deal with on the album, a sense of hopefulness on one hand and a sense of anxiety and stress on the other.
The themes are pretty similar to 'More Than Any Other Day'. There’s a grappling of the existential feeling of dissatisfaction of what’s around you and things you see as wrong, but also feeling inspired and connected with people around you. Juxtaposing feelings of positivity and hopefulness with feelings of ineffability is a strong one for me. It’s a big fear - feeling like there’s nothing you can do. It’s something that builds up and needs to come out in one way or another.
Playing music in this band has definitely been a compass in a lot of ways and I definitely interrogate our lifestyle and who we are as a figure. Then I swing out of it and think I take myself too seriously, which I believe comes across on the record. There are moments of dealing with hard-lined serious questions, but also obsoleting into more humorous moments and direct lightness. There’s still a lot of searching to do and I think the record has been a chronicle of that.
This interview was originally published on Clash magazine's website.