Like its name, Ought's music is difficult to define, but suggestive of something else just beyond reach. The young Montreal-based band formed in 2012 in the cradle of the Canadian city's eclectic music and art scene. The band's diverse backgrounds and influences coalesce around a shared intensity of performance that clashes together mid-'90s punk, Strokes-era indie and some Velvet Underground to create a sound that is complex without losing its DIY energy.
Each member is an expatriate who was drawn to Montreal for school. Guitarist and vocalist Tim Beeler Darcy, originally a folk singer from New Hampshire, shared an apartment and started playing music with keyboardist Matt May of New Jersey and Australian drummer Tim Keen. They were later joined by Portland, Ore., transplant Ben Stidworthy on bass.
Keen says he originally planned on staying only for a semester in 2009, but he was drawn into Montreal at a haven for artists, musicians and other vagabonds whose community warmth made up for the city's long winters. "In order to move to Montreal, you're inevitably making a sacrifice," Keen says. "You're not going to have a very good job outside of music, and you're going to brave an incredibly long winter."
But that environment also attracts artists who are there for good reasons and take their work seriously, Keen says. "That's a really nice environment to build something in, because you feel like everyone around you cares a lot and is going to respond to what you do."
Ought released its first album, More Than Any Other Day, in 2013 after signing to Montreal-based Constellation Records. Energetic and earnest, it was a practical explosion of pent-up yearning that blew wide like a shotgun, with no particular aim besides leaving a mark. This time around, with their recent follow-up Sun Coming Down, Ought has found a precision in its music that doesn't sacrifice its essential energy.
Keen says Sun is "much more deliberate" than its predecessor. "There were more specific decisions made with regards to production and pushing songs into more specific modes. If a song was going to be fuzzy, then [we focused on] really bringing that out." In contrast, More Than Any Other Day "was just eight songs, and we just knocked them all out."
Darcy's voice is the most notable change. On Sun Coming Down, he's transformed himself from yelping youth to a more even-keeled baritone who conveys an earnest, if slightly catatonic, stare. In the opener, "Men for Miles," a thumping, glassy-eyed post-punk slow burn, Darcy ironically sighs through the line, "Excuse me, did you say there's a chance of bringing this whole fucker down?" A line like that seems designed to be screamed, but Ought is determined to undermine expectations.
That tendency to turn their influences in on themselves makes other songs, such as the noise-rock track "The Combo," such a compelling listen. At first, the band slams through a spastic, feedback-heavy freak-out until, suddenly, it doesn't, interrupting itself with a jangly, syncopated number that finds its most logical conclusion and ends as suddenly as it began. It's as hypnotic as it is jarring.
Keen says each member listens to everything from folk to black metal to underground dance music, but he says their musical influences don't get in the way when they're playing. "It would never come up in practice that we happened to sound like a specific band—even when that is true. We just want to come at it from first principles, based on the pure ability that we have in our instruments and what resources are available to us. That just happens to be the sound that forms."
At the mention of one specific influence, Keen bristles a bit. "I love the Velvet Underground. Obviously, they're a very important band to me." He takes comparisons to the iconic art-rock band as a compliment. How much they influence Ought's music is another story. "I look to them for influence to no greater or lesser extent than I look to my friends, who are in a band and have never had a single review written about them. To me, they're equally as important."
A band like Ought, with its diverse array of backgrounds and influences, can distill that diversity into something wholly original—even if that something may not sound exactly the same over time. To Keen, that's an exciting feeling. "I don't think of us as a post-punk band, really," he says. "I just think of us as a band that happens to have made two post-punk albums. So we'll see what happens. As long as we find a way to keep interesting ourselves musically, I don't feel particularly emotionally invested in a genre."