Their connection was instant, and their harmonies spellbinding. Together everything began falling into place.
On the strength of just two full length releases and one EP over the span of three years, Montreal’s Ought have established themselves as one of the best young rock bands going today. As the oft-repeated story goes; Ought was formed amid the tumult that accompanied the Canadian student protests in 2012 over Quebec’s massive proposed tuition hikes for college students. The energy synonymous with those protests in Montreal and across Quebec at the time seems ingrained in the music on both Ought’s auspicious debut, More Than Any Other Day and it’s recently released and equally excellent follow up on Constellation Records, Sun Coming Down (which you can order right here).
Ought will be bringing their frenetic live show to Bunk Bar this Friday (10/16, grab tickets here), and I spoke with bassist and former Portlander Ben Stidworthy about the band’s rapid ascension, the weight of expectations, Portland vs. Montreal, and how a lot of what passes for music journalism these days contains a great deal of lazy bullshit.
ELEVEN: Well let me start off by asking you about your Portland background: you grew up here, did you move to Montreal straight from here?
BS: I was living in Europe and then came back for a year and went to Portland State so I could prove to my parents that I could do well academically (laughter). I majored in communications for a while… I got bored with that and started to going to house shows. Half my family was from England and half was from Portland – so I had been exposed to all these things – and I kind of couldn’t wait to get out of Portland, nothing against Portland itself. The opportunity to get out and explore new spaces with new people was a big thing for me, and starting anew… and as soon as I got to Montreal the strike happened, and that’s when I met the guys and started playing music with them.
ELEVEN: How did you settle on Montreal? Was it always a city you were always intrigued by?
BS: The true story of it all is that I got really interested in Tibetan Buddhism, and I found out that McNeill had a really good program; I saw it as a sign that that’s what I should do. Instead of going deep into Buddhism I guess I started getting into academia and playing in a band (laughter).
ELEVEN: How would you compare the two cities? I’ve never been to Montreal but it seems like a great place to foster creativity and all that…
BS: Well, first of all: I think you should go. The fact that it’s a very bi-lingual city makes it a bit more cosmopolitan as opposed to Portland which is very mono-lingual… and Portland is also obviously a pretty white city…
ELEVEN: Ha, yes. It most definitely is.
BS: (Laughter) You know: people are more political in Montreal, and not just the scene we came up in – the early and mid-90’s Constellation Records scene in general was very politically aware. But Portland has always had this great house show scene that’s kind of impossible in Montreal because the buildings are older and you might have a café or something downstairs that would complain about a crazy rock show going on at all hours. While there are a lot of loft or DIY venues (in Montreal), it’s rare that you’ll play a show in someone’s house or flat.
ELEVEN: Ought was birthed at a very tumultuous time politically and socially – it seems like that momentum hasn’t really stopped at all. It’s been such a whirlwind it’s almost hard to believe you guys were able to cut another record in the midst of everything. The new record sounds very much like a band on the run, but in a good way – it’s very urgent sounding. Was there ever a desire to stop and take a breath and reassess things? Or did you guys just want to keep it going and “ride the lighting” so to speak?
BS: Um… (laughter) very good question. The thing is – just before Matt and I had graduated school… in our last year at university, I had basically turned in my final paper, and we had our album launch, and then we were touring two weeks later…
ELEVEN: That’s amazing.
BS: Yeah the response to our record was just so… great, and it opened up so many opportunities… I think all we really wanted to do for a long while was tour. And then we all took a little time off the road… and after that year, I think we took a look around and realized this country still didn’t have much for us. And I think other people started to express this, but we felt we had something to say – and in our own way – and luckily the song process came out naturally and it felt right, and felt like we weren’t compromising our vision, plus we all wanted to keep touring. We were still figuring out our way as a band, our limitations: how much can we tour, who are we as a band, what are we capable of – that sort of thing.
ELEVEN: Well it’s interesting you bring up not wanting to compromise things and stick to the clarity of the band’s vision because I wanted to mention something that struck me when researching you guys. Even though Ought has such a straightforward story that lacks pretense and bullshit, the music press still seems to want to ascribe a certain narrative to you guys. For instance I read an interview from this year where you guys were laughing about all the talk in the music press about Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise inspiring the band’s first record so much, when in fact you guys weren’t really that familiar with the book. One writer even said you guys “kept it scared and guarded it like a government secret”. Is that frustrating? You guys are such a no bullshit, totally about the music act, and yet it’s found a way to creep into the Ought narrative somehow, whether it’s things like the book or comparisons to other bands.
BS: Yes it definitely is. While that’s great book and we’re glad to be mentioned with something like that – we weren’t that familiar with the book when the songs were written. And yeah, you’d think the story in and of itself would be enough, with the strike and all that, and while I’m glad we’re associated with it, there is more than just that going on. I’d say what we’re most proud of from all that is raising awareness about that very real issue, because a lot of people had no idea about it and still don’t – it was barely covered by the mainstream media in this country. I remember coming back to Portland the summer after the strike, I had a job working maintenance at PSU and one day these kids were walking across campus wearing red squares and they asked me if I’d heard of the Quebec student strike (laughs). I ended up talking with them for quite awhile and giving this group of kids the inside scoop on what it was actually like. It was a really cool moment. One thing I will add about the press… getting compared to other bands is annoying because it makes it seem like we’re standing on the shoulders of giants instead of just four individuals who listen to very different music and who built a sound through jamming and very organic means. I understand when people talk about music they want to reference other bands but… I mean, I wasn’t listening to Talking Heads when we cut the first album. I hardly knew any of their songs, and yet here are all these comparisons…
ELEVEN: Well it’s laziness in the place of journalism in a sense. A shortcut to thinking.
ELEVEN: Why really dig deep into a band’s sound when you can just say “It sounds like so and so”.
BS: (laughs) Right!
ELEVEN: Alright I just have one more for you: since this is a home coming show for you, do you have anything special planned for the night?
BS: Ha, well the last time we were hear the show was really great… but to be honest I drank a bit too much (laughs). One thing that is definitely cool is that when we’re back I not only get to see all my old friends but we get to play with them, which is always the best. That’s one of the best things about being on the road in general: that communal sense you get when you play with your friends in different cities. I can’t wait!