Since the release of the band's debut studio album, More Than Any Other Day, in 2014, Montreal-based four-piece Ought have been touring relentlessly across the globe, having never really stopped moving since its release. The album's follow-up, Sun Coming Down (released last year), was written and recorded quickly between tours, and the band are now approaching the home straight of almost two-and-a-half years of endless momentum.
The Reprise sat down with drummer Tim Keen and keyboardist Matt May at the band's Glasgow show to chat about life on the road, the making of their sophomore effort, and why the small surprises can have the biggest impact.
I know Ought has been to the UK and Europe often over the past couple of years, but I was wondering how this European tour in particular has been so far?
Matt May: This is probably the most paced tour we've ever had.
Tim Keen: It feels very cushy; it's nice. I've done more tourism [on this tour] than I've done in the past.
MM: ..more tourism than touring. *laughs* Sorry! This is what you get because I've just ran up some stairs - I might go back down for a second. In all seriousness, the other nice thing is that we're playing half places we've played before and half places that we haven't. It's kind of a good mix!
Where have you been on this tour that you haven't before?
MM: We played Istanbul and Athens, Ramsgate and Bristol in England, Cardiff... actually, so far, almost all of them we haven't played!
In a previous interview, [vocalist and guitarist] Tim Darcy described Ought's band dynamic as "four people holding on to a pen trying to draw something." I was wondering if that description also extends to how the band experiences the touring process; do you all experience everything together or splinter off individually?
TK: I feel like this question implies that we generally have an amount of [free] time, which is not always [the case]. On this tour that has been true, and we've actually hung out together a lot of the time. I think it's kind of idiosyncratic; I instinctually venture alone in cities, so it's shocking to me when people want to hang out. Then other people in the band have the opposite thing, where they assume that everyone wants to go with them and it is surprising to them that someone would want to go off alone. Somehow it works out though!
Sun Coming Down was released last September. Given its fast and furious writing and recording process, have you noticed a change in how these songs are performed now, eight months on from its release?
TK: It was weird to play them at first, because we had written them, but we hadn't really inhabited them yet. Whereas, [when it came to touring] the first record, we had a sense of exactly what the songs were doing. I think, at this point, we have more of an understanding of [Sun Coming Down's songs]. None of them have changed in structure or sonic attributes, but I think they're definitely more confident now.
MM: I feel like they're simultaneously looser and tighter at the same time; the energy is better inhabited in them. It took maybe a minute to get there with playing them live, and, like as Tim was saying, the things we were trying to do are better actualised. Structurally they remain the same... I mean, besides the 45-minute jam.
You recorded both albums with producer and recording engineer Radwan Ghazi Moumneh at Montreal's Hotel2Tango Studio. What is it about working with Radwan that you enjoy?
MM: Radwan is an amazing person and musician, and I think we got incredibly lucky to be able to work with him. He's produced some great records and his own music, as Jerusalem in My Heart, is astounding! I would say it's easily some of my favourite music. He was [also] tour managing us for a while, and then he just got too busy.
He's a great person to work with, and I feel very confident in his respect for our aesthetic and for our ideas. He's always more of a fulfiller; he's not trying to impose in any way. I don't know how common that is, but it is such a pleasure to work with someone who is just excited by your ideas and wants to help you actualise the thing you set out to do. He's been great to work with.
Alongside Ought's two studio albums, the band has recorded and released two EPs, New Calm (2012) and Once More With Feeling (2014), which both share songs and feature three parts of song series entitled 'New Calm'. I was wondering if you could tell us a little more about what the correlation is between these two releases and the 'New Calm' songs?
TK: I think we used the Once More With Feeling EP as a kind of clearing house for tracks that we had [previously] recorded but wanted to give more of a studio treatment to. We did the first EP, New Calm, in our living room, and it was very, very low tech. I think [with Once More With Feeling] we wanted to play with the chops we had developed over the last couple of years. As far as the 'New Calm' [songs], I don't know; I think it's kind of nice to label all of our less 'song-like' ideas in the same way.
As the producer of that first EP, would you like to take on more production work in the future, Tim?
TK: I'd love to.
MM: Tim records and mixes tons and tons of Montreal bands!
Are there any acts you've been working with recently that you'd recommend?
TK: We actually have one day off between this tour and the next one, and I have a session with this band Lungbutter. They're really, really good.
MM: Tim just did Wreckage with Stick, which is a really great Montreal band.
TK: Yeah, hopefully that comes out - I haven't heard from them in a while! I did Cheap Wig last year too.
As noted, Sun Coming Down was written and recorded quickly between tours, while More Than Any Other Day came together over a much longer period of time. I know it's early days, but has the band given much thought as to how it will approach a third studio album? Do you foresee its creation being as fast as Sun Coming Down, or do you think Ought will take a bit of a breather beforehand?
TK: Yeah, I'd like to do that.
MM: The time that we had set aside to write and record [Sun Coming Down] worked and it made sense. I think there is a special thing that comes with those constraints, but we're definitely interested in taking more time, having more breathing room, and being able to sit with ideas a little bit longer. It is early days - we haven't even started writing new stuff yet - but we're definitely interested in taking our time with it, and really exploring different possibilities and avenues.
I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit more about Sun Coming Down's cover art, and what it means to you both personally?
TK: I didn't really have much to do with it, but it's by Chyrum Lambert and I think it's really great. I really like it. I think Tim [Darcy] found it on a poetry blog and got in contact with him.
MM: Yeah, it was this website Guernika, which does a lot of poetry and art and non-fiction stuff. Tim was reading the website, and we had been looking for artwork inspiration. He saw this drawing - which I believe wasn't the same one as the one that became the album art - and really liked the artist, so he sent it around, and reached out to him. Actually, when Tim was in LA recently they ended up meeting up.
As for what it means, I don't know. I feel like every time I look at it, I'm very proud of it. I don't know why, but for me it definitely matches the music. Personally I think of music - and especially albums - in colours, and for whatever reason this second record that we put out, feels very red and orange and yellow; these sort of bright colours. Not that it's happy [music] per se, but I definitely just associate the songs with those colours, so it kind of worked out really nice that [the album artwork] matches that energy.
As individuals heavily involved in the underground art and music of Montreal, have you found that being a member of Ought has allowed you to sustain an actual career in the arts?
TK: It's kind of done the opposite, honestly, in terms of time. Local scenes require a certain amount of time dedication; you really just need to be on the ground and our lifestyle, which involves floating in and out for a few months at a time, doesn't really lend itself to that. It has been nice to have a few more resources to give to the community, but again it's just what I've happened to have picked up - it doesn't have that much to do with Ought. I feel like hopefully there will be a settling point within the next couple of years, where we get to spend a little more time in Montreal and be a little more coherently involved with our friends' music.
MM: I made a foolish decision, right before we started touring last year, to join this DIY booking collective that my friends are part of called Loose Fit. I was like, 'Yeah! I'm going to do this - I'll book shows and it'll be great! It's mostly emails anyway, I'll just do it on tour.' I literally haven't booked a single show. I still get emails and I feel terrible, like, 'You shouldn't include me here'. Every time I'm home I always like to have a show booked, just so I don't go crazy. As soon as we get back from our US tour in May, I have a show booked three days later with my friend Catherine. I like to have stuff like that.
How much longer do you have left in terms of touring Sun Coming Down. Is there a big stretch of shows ahead for the rest of the year?
TK: It's not too bad actually. We've got less than ten days left in Europe, then we have one day off and then it's three and a half weeks in the States. After that we have some one-offs, some festivals in July and then we're really done for the year. Honestly, compared to the last two years, it's nothing!
It really does feel like you guys have been on tour for the much of the past two years. Between us at The Reprise, we've seen you play at various festivals along the way: End of the Road, Primavera Sound, Pitchfork Paris...
MM: That was like one long tour.
TK: Holy shit! That was one tour?
MM: Nah, I'm being factitious! Some of those were like a year-apart.
So in those jam-packed last few years on the road, do you guys have any highlights or favourite moments?
MM: I always think of the small moments. I remember the feeling of when we were playing in Poland, we were running super, super late. We couldn't find the festival, none of us spoke Polish, and we were having a tough time getting anybody that could direct us there. Then we go there and the show was just amazing , the food was really good, it was a much bigger stage than I thought we were going to play. That was just really, really fun. So I guess surprises end up being the things that stick out in my mind; things that feel really unexpected.
Ought's latest album Sun Coming Down is available now through Constellation Records.
Interview by Andrew Lindsay and Sean Greenhorn