In conversation, Ought frontman Tim Darcy will be the first to tell you that — at 24 years old — he doesn’t have all of the answers. But on record, the Montreal-based post-punk quartet can sound like they’re getting damn close.
Since last April, the collection of expats (three Yankees and one Aussie) have churned out two records that grasp at universals. While 2014’s More than Any Other Day wrestled with self-fulfillment, this year’s Sun Coming Down reflects their initial sonic turmoil outward toward the world around them — replete with invisible Fear of Music-era footnotes hanging off many of the more memorable hooks.
But that stylized resonance is never as front-seated as a ham-fisted David Byrne impersonation from Darcy. If anything, the echo stems from how little the vocabulary of modern anxiety and protest has needed to evolve over four decades of punk in North America. Speaking with City Pages before their Thursday show at the 7th St. Entry, Darcy seems willing to help things along.
City Pages: With all of you being expats, was there a point in time after moving to Montreal that you felt like you could be there for the foreseeable future?
Tim Darcy: It’s hard to say. There was definitely the language barrier thing. I didn’t learn French until like last winter when we all took French lessons together. For me, there would always be the idea of making music and writing and that sort of thing, but it was always like about prioritizing finding a job, so if that wasn’t going to happen in Montreal, it was going to happen somewhere else.
And luckily, I got a job, and then we all did, so we kept making music and kept playing shows. Then the whole Constellation [Records] thing happened, and the record came out, and we quit our jobs and started touring.
CP: So you guys don’t have to try to hold down day jobs anymore?
TD: Well, we’re not really home anymore. We were home in the winter, but we wrote the new record and recorded it. Since that album was finished being recorded, we’ve been back on the road again.
CP: There’s a bit of a contrast between the shows you play in Montreal, which largely take place in DIY spaces, and the U.S. itinerary, which is mainly composed of rock clubs with a few exceptions. Do you guys try to engage with local collectives on the road or is that not really practical?
TD: It’s something we talk about, but I think, fundamentally, we’re all fairly new to the idea of touring in general. Before our first major tour off of More Than Any Other Day, we played no more than three shows in a row and had never played in the United States. But yeah, we’ve had internal discussions about trying to play as many all-ages shows as possible.
Different types of shows are accessible in different ways. I think in places like New York with [DIY collective] Silent Barn or like a house show in Ohio is going to be really amazing, and people who are under 21 are able to come to that but people who aren’t a part of that community might go to that show. It’s kind of a nature-of-the-beast thing, and we’re figuring it out as we go.
CP: Finding that sweet spot for capacity is such a huge part of booking a tour, and DIY spaces can be a bit more limiting in that regard. Does management ever encourage you to avoid those sort of spaces?
TD: No, they’re definitely hands-off. This all makes me think of some Ian MacKaye interview I heard one time and he was talking about Fugazi kind of taking heat and even getting confronted outside of venues and stuff by punks who were upset with them that they were playing bigger venues or whatever. But his justifications were pretty straightforward.
They had these criteria, which was a room that was big enough to meet the demand of people who wanted to come see them. If they played a basement that holds 20 people, it’s not going to be safe, and it’s not very cool that there are all of these people who want to see you who can’t see you. And they had to be all ages, and that’s a bigger space. This isn’t my logic or our logic, but I think it’s all an interesting discussion and more nuanced than it seems at first glance.
CP: The turnaround on Sun Coming Down was really quick for how much time you guys spent on the road last year.
TD: I think we just had a lot of pent-up desire to write. Some of the songs on More Than Any Other Day are pretty old. They’re among the first Ought songs we wrote, like “Pleasant Heart." We had no pressure from our label or anything. We wrote 10 songs, and eight of them we were really happy with.
CP: So were you guys writing on the road then?
TD: No, we really can’t. At this point, it seems like we’re not really a band that can write on the road.
CP: The way that horizons recur thematically throughout it made me wonder if a tour-heavy 2014 lent itself to some of these metaphors on Sun Coming Down.
TD: Well, “Beautiful Blue Sky” was actually written before we toured on More Than Any Other Day. To me, that’s a spiritual center of this album. Lyrically, I wrote all of these songs in a very condensed period of time. It’s not a concept record or anything like that. To me, the two records are kind of sister records in a sense.
Thematically, I think they’re pretty similar. This record develops certain ideas that we kind of tackled in the first one, and the first one I think accomplished certain things that aren’t on this record, which is why I’m very proud of both as a pair.
CP: I think “Beautiful Blue Sky” is one of the more universally relatable songs on the record with the sarcastic pleasantries that are rattled off in it. Do you encounter those often in your daily life?
TD: Oh, totally. It’s kind of like written into the fabric of ad culture and TV culture. The thing that’s striking to me about those phrases — those sort of like Hallmark card things — they’re so imbued with meaning, but something about the delivery is totally the opposite.
They’re innocuous and kind of creepy. That whole song is a double entendre to me. It is optimistic, but it’s still dampened by the weirdness of those sayings and the cold way that people greet each other.
CP: It’s odd that the things people should be saying with the utmost sincerity are just offered up as a cultural formality.
TD: I think the image is that these interactions are always going to be lifeless and awful, and people are always forced to speak in that falsely cheery voice. But then sometimes, you’re able to break through that and have a connection with somebody in this totally alien environment like a call center or whatever. There’s something about the dualism of acknowledging the weirdness while also spurring yourself on to break through that.
CP: I think this album would be a much bigger downer if you weren’t forcing so much jubilance into these lines that most people typically phone in.
TD: I appreciate that that comes across, but I don’t know. Again, I’m always wary of giving myself or us as a band too much credit in the sense of that being something that we’re consciously doing. I don’t know. It just sort of happens. It feels like a positive way to lampoon these things. Like in “Men for Miles,” which in the second verse, I guess kind of does that cheeky, humorous voice.
It seems like a way to get something across without being preachy — something I’d never want to do — while keeping the catharsis. It invites people on board. Even as an artist, there’s something about that connection and the aura of the song that gets created when there’s a tinge of that that comes in. I don’t know, maybe it’s like when somebody draws a mustache on an election poster.
CP: You toe that line of cheekiness and sincerity right to the end of the record when you sing “I am driving a truck filled with everything / This is the high-water mark of civilization.” Are you happy with the times you live in?
TD: That song to me is darker and more straightforward than some of the other ones. In that end section, it kind of is a humorous image, and I’m glad to hear that it came across as potentially a positive. There are definitely a fair few lines that didn’t make it on this record that I had written in a much darker frame of mind, and then I kind of rethought it. It was mostly “I’m not going to feel good singing that every night.”
There was another version of “On the Line” that was much more pointed. It was like a political, gentrification sort of song. It was purely dark, and it didn’t feel true to me and how I try to push myself to interact with the world. As far as the “high water-mark of civilization” goes, it definitely was meant as a lampoon of that ad-culture talk.
There’s an element of that cheekiness. I heard a comedian talking about this the other day where there’s obviously so much atrocity, and if you’re engaged with that type of thing, it feels overwhelming at times how many awful things are going on and [groans] the way people treat each other.
I think it’s easy to lose sight of all of the good things going on like the work my friends are doing. If you have 99 interactions in a day and you have one terrible interaction, it ruins your day you remember that. We roll the dice against feeling positive and happy and ever getting beyond where we are. Sort of.
With: LVL UP.
When: 8 p.m. Thu., Oct. 8.
Where: 7th Street Entry.