interview by giua cortassa
photo by jenna ledger
Room Inside the World is Ought’s third album – released in February via the band’s home on the legendary Merge Records. A milestone in the Montreal band’s sonic venture, the record unveils a different sound; softer without ever losing its strength, and defined in our review here as a record that “comprises their most contemplative album thus far and firmly cements Ought as some of the most formidably sophisticated post-punks around.”
A month on from the albums release, with the absorbing new songs still reverberating around our mind, we spoke to the band’s chief songwriter Tim Darcy about this new approach, the possibility of politics in indie music and the importance of art. Check it out below right now.
Where are you now?
I’m actually in Toronto at the moment.
I saw that the new album was written and recorded in Brooklyn, not in Canada this time.
We actually wrote it in Montreal, but, yes, we recorded in Brooklyn.
Actually, when we think about Ought, we link the band and its music to Montreal’s music and artistic scene.
Definitely, that’s still very much home based.
This time though your sound is so different from any of your previous albums and recordings, so I thought that maybe Brooklyn was something of a different inspiration from Canada and Montreal in particular?
In some ways it was, because we worked with a producer there, but we actually came up with a lot of the soundworlds on the record in Montreal: we had a pretty extensive writing period there. It’s more of a project this time around, [we wanted] to think about making a studio record and think about where we want to go next, as this is our third record. It’s a pretty organic part of the creative process and where we’re all at at this moment.
This is your third Ought album, but you, Tim, made a couple of solo and collaborative projects in the meantime. Listening to all those five records of yours, from the older to the latest, it feels like a sort of long and slow transition, from the initial frantic and paranoid sound to this more relaxed, new sonicscape. Do you consider your solo projects as organic to what you’re doing now with the band, or are those separated things to you?
They’re separate in the songwriting style, which it’s very different; yet they’re very connected in the way that everybody, when they go off to work on another project, turn a little better, and when they collaborate with somebody else, they bring that back into the band, because we all write together. In that way, definitely, working on my solo record influenced what I brought into the Ought record. But even more than that, because those solos… a lot of them have been kicking on for quite some time and they just had ever been recorded, it was for me also kind of figuring out, I guess, where I wanted to go next. There’s a lot of experimentation on my record and, in a way, that is really part of the [Ought] record –– like, the diversity of sound and that sort of things. And when I came back, I switched into writing the new Ought album, there were things that I wanted to do: I wanted to sing more melodically, and bring that presence into the band. And, likely, everybody else was very excited about that and all the different possibilities that that would bring in as far as the type of songs we could write.
If I read it right, you worked on your solo album while also working on the second Ought’s album…
Yes, that’s true.
This new Ought record, though, sounds much more reflective and meditative compared to the previous ones, which is sort of unexpected, because you are a very politically active band and the actual situation shifted in a not so positive way lately, so we sort of expected something even more aggressive than before. Instead, you relaxed and toned down: What happened? How did you find this calm and zen approach?
It’s a good question! We wrote the record and completed it before the Trump presidency happened, but I don’t know how much that would have changed, because for us, our politics, even when there’s been more energy behind the things that I’m saying, is to still really believe from a lyrical standpoint in trying to run across things in a Third Way. I’ve always been drawn to thinking about this sort of human element that is what we call “politics”, this sort of abstract idea that we kind of shout some things that we don’t like to talk about into it, kind of trying to break down those boundaries a little bit and mash them more into the way that we think about living –– in the way I think about my life and the things that I’ve learned from other people, as far as how one’s actions and one’s outlook can, very much a part of that, fabric.
The record is still is like a political record and if you put it up against your average indie rock record it still has pretty “political” undertones and overtones, but there is a different energy to it and I think that part of it is longevity and trying to think beyond a particular instance of evil, to use such a grandiose word. And I think about creating positive space but as an individual and in your communities, that will sort of reverberate out beyond the specific moment and hopefully be more long lasting; and also trying to disengage with negative emotions in the South to a certain extend.
As you already told me, you sing more in this album. I know you’ve been writing poetry even before starting with Ought, and your previous records sort of sounded like some performative poetry readings with a music background completing them. This time, instead, it’s like a more “classic” songwriting and songs. Did you consciously change your approach also to this aspect of your songwriting, or it just happened, without considering it before?
That’s accurate, and that became pretty much part of the fabric of Ought, with that sound. Prior to Ought, I had personally been in another band and had made kind of like bedroom recordings –– they were sort of like my solo record but maybe even a little bit more folk-y, that was the thing at that moment. I, with my solo record, really wanted to get back in touch with the idea of just writing a song, even though being in Ought so intensively definitely affected my solo record, and, you know there’s a lot of power in the type of delivery that you’re talking about and I brought some of that in my solo; but I also wanted to just write some songs again, and that, I think, is one vein. Ought has written songs, some of these have a more poetic delivery, incantations that we also do. We just all are very unblurred at the idea, trying to focus on that.
If you go back, again, to our very first EP, which is still on Bandcamp – I point people back to that when they talk about how much we’ve changed, because going back to that initial recording it’s just us, playing round, quite young, in a living room, and we were kind of engaging more with softer tones and less intensity before we had really developed this reputation as a live band and also getting a lot of energy from the student protest and that sort of things. Focusing on that, when there is a lot of time and very little pressure, just really getting our hands dirty –– we wanted to have that experience again. we’re very proud of the two studio records that we made, and they really capture the songs at that time, how we wanted to seize them, how there were live to a certain extent. [But now] we were interested and excited at the idea of, as you said, writing some more “classic” songs, I guess, that still carry messages that we care about.
In the press release that came with the album you mention a lot of inspirations and moods that set the tone to the album. I was fascinated by your mentioning Gerhard Richter and Kenneth Anger –– I always considered Ought as deeply rooted in a not just musical scene, but a wider artistic scene, including visual art, and I wanted to know how visual arts inspired you writing this album.
It’s definitely something that we care about, that we all are really interested in, the visual world: just being a part of a scene that is more multi-faceted and that’s not necessarily relegated to Montreal, but we definitely had that in Montreal an continue to have that, it’s… I mean, I guess I’ll just talk about Kenneth Anger, because I don’t want to put a foot in my mouth: that sort of world of sort of avant-queer cinema, that is very much part of the fabric of Montreal… It’s something that’s related to the record. When we made a moodboard, we shared visual as well, and that was very interesting: it’s wasn’t just sending around songs, we uploaded scraps, things from magazines and pieces of visual art.
There’s something about that kind of avant- approach to pop that’s very inviting, like Andy Warhol and his New York scene, like Patti Smith and all, that we are very attached to, we’ve drawn a lot of energy from that. It’s a wonderful vein between being fresh and exciting and experimental but also having this kind of timelessness and this connection to pop and, again, like an avant-pop, it really hits a centerpoint for us. It’s very cool you picked up on that because it’s something we definitely care about.
You worked with a producer, this time, for your album. How did you find this relationship with someone who’s not in the band working on your material?
We had an experience with the first two records, working with Radwan Moumneh –– who’s an artist on Constellation and makes music as Jerusalem In My Heart, he’s really amazing, we recommend checking him out –– but his approach to production is much more hands off, he captures the sounds and in that way he was perfect for those first two records. We knew going into this one that we all wanted to make a more “studio album”, and we had done a pretty extensive demoing all around, and had already started to build up this kind of soundworlds that we wanted to commit to tape.
He [Nicolas Vernhes] seemed like the right choice because he occupied a world, he had made records –– I guess I should say that he had more of that but, also, he was a fan and we thought that he would also respect our vision, and also kind of just get what we are, and we really found it to be the case. He was very energetic and creative when the time was right but also when something did need to be touched or could be simplified – because, honestly, I think one of the most important things in a collaboration is somebody who can tell you when you should simplify. That was very helpful to have, that was a good experience.
I noticed a resemblance between the evolution of your sound and the process that, at the beginning of the ’80s, lead to the shift from post-punk to new-wave ––so now it’s like you more of less reached your new-wave moment. I can hear a lot of ’80s in your new album, the Cure especially. Is that a reference you have, is that something you’ve been listening to and felt inspired by?
Yes, the Cure is particularly interesting because they didn’t appear in the moodboard at all when we began writing, and it was something that I sort of recognized in retrospective, as we were finishing the record –– I was like, “There are moments that really feel like the Cure”. I think that that’s an interesting and cool touchdown for us, because going back to those [Cure] records, there are moments and parts that I discovered being far more ’80s than others, but I think they do a good job of engaging with experimentations and kind of using the studio to enrich slower songs and that sort of thing, without ever feeling, like, super dated, which is something we are all very conscious about.
We like bands like the Clash or Sonic Youth, that used chorus on the guitar, but don’t sound like “Ok, this old track is now covered in chorus and drenched in reverb”. We wanted to engage with some of those tones without burying the sound in. Also, I think the way that the Cure use some acoustic elements is really interesting: there’s acoustic guitar in those records, there’s acoustic piano. So, yeah, I would totally take that!
So it really was cathartic this experience, for you, as you say in the PR “you found a catharsis in the album”…
Yeah! I hope that there’s some catharsis, it’s something I strive for almost universally. In anything that I truly love, things that I’ve been listening to, there’s an active catharsis, and I guess that’s what we’ve hope in the process of making it, that there would be catharsis, because we’re expressing something genuine.
Room Inside the World is out now via Merge Records
Order it here