Sept. 24 2014 03:53 PM

Montreal band thrives on the dependence they have on each other

From left: Tim Beeler, Ben Stidworthy, Tim Keen and Matt May
Photo by Victoria Davis

The Montreal-based band Ought is home between tours, but that doesn’t mean its four members are giving each other the kind of space they crave after weeks on the road.

In fact, guitarist and vocalist Tim Beeler answers the phone for a chat with CityBeat in the apartment he shares with keyboardist Matt May and drummer Tim Keen. (Bassist Ben Stidworthy lives just down the street.) And he does so near the end of a “band day” spent together, handling some business and jamming.

“We’ve been doing these really long daytime practices, trying to write new material,” Beeler says. “We’ve been playing the same songs for a long time.”

Many of those songs make up Ought’s debut album, More Than Any Other Day, released in April by the venerable Constellation Records label, which is headquartered not far from Ought’s practice space in Montreal’s artsy Mile End neighborhood. Constellation is best known as the home of sprawling post-rock giants Godspeed You! Black Emperor, as well as free-jazz noisemakers like Colin Stetson and Matana Roberts, which makes More Than Any Other Day—an eight-song bundle of nervy indie rock—a bit of an outlier on its own label.

Across the album, recorded at Montreal’s Hotel2Tango studio, Ought sound more like a machine than a band, the individual parts entering from all sides, interlocking effortlessly and then chugging along in post-punk time. The rhythm section of Keen and Stidworthy is powerful and precise, and Beeler showers the songs with shards of wiry guitar while his wild-eyed yelp recalls David Byrne (a comparison he’s no doubt tired of ) and Alec Ounsworth of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.

“Tell me what to do, when to feel alive,”
he deadpans on “The Weather Song,” which burbles blithely behind its verses before blooming into the album’s catchiest chorus, during which Beeler so urgently declares, “I just wanna revel in your lies” that he often bites off the final word of the song’s signature lyric.

Beeler writes the words, but he doesn’t write the songs. No individual does; every Ought song so far has been composed collectively by the band during a jam, he says. It’s an integral part of how these four guys work. 

“I can’t really envision a time when that won’t be [the case],” Beeler says. “We’re definitely a live band, and most of the energy comes from us all playing together, everybody facing each other, standing on the same carpet in the same room.”

Which brings us back to Ought’s “band day.” Turns out it was the first truly productive such day after a couple of practices that produced little, Beeler says. When you’re committed to tackling the creative process as a team, those kinds of dead-ends are going to happen.

“When you have four people who have good chemistry… you can really go a lot of different places, but you kinda have to go some places you wouldn’t necessarily want to go sometimes in order to facilitate the staying-togetherness,” he says. “You have to be willing to check out avenues that [your bandmates] are putting down. It’s sort of like if everybody’s trying to hold up an egg with four corners of a pillow. Sometimes you walk a direction you didn’t really want to walk, but you do it ’cause you’re trying to keep it all together.”

Ought’s origin story is rooted in Quebec’s 2012 “Maple Spring,” in which students took to the streets to protest proposed tuition increases. It was a movement that Ought witnessed firsthand and drew inspiration from, though More Than Any Other Day is as much about what comes after the high of activism as it is about the activism itself: “Today, more than any other day / I am prepared to make a decision between 2-percent and whole milk!” Beeler sings on the album’s title track.

Ought play Oct. 6 at Soda Bar 

“Coming down at the end of [the protests], you’re confronted with the idea that you can’t access that all the time and that that isn’t a… reality anymore,” he says. “You’re thinking about that bigger stuff but then confronting the small stuff and finding despair and anxiety in that, but also retaining a good deal of the hope and uplift and thinking about how you can tack that onto the shit.”

So, the members of Ought aren’t marching through Montreal’s streets with thousands of their peers anymore, but that’s OK. These days, they find hope and release and solidarity in a much smaller group. So far, theirs is a creative collective that thrives on dependence and produces not only a sturdy bond, but also music that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

“If there were a song that I’d written on an acoustic guitar and I could play that at home or whatever, that’s all well and good. But then... the time when we can all get together and play it isn’t as [exciting],” Beeler says. “If we can only play it together, then you’re excited to play every time.”

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