Few artists rocket from zero to a hundred without a PR machine pumping iron behind them. Ought happen to be one of those rare gems. The Canadian post-punk quartet formed in 2012, spent a year and a half recording their debut LP, More Than Any Other Day, and released it in October of last year to immediate critical acclaim. After that, they were off and running faster than they could have ever imagined.
“When we played Primavera [Sound], I remember feeling so overwhelmed with where we were at,” recalls keyboardist Matt May. “That set was intense. There were so many people. Things started to feel normal after a while, though. There comes a point where you see a massive crowd at your show and you realize, while you’re still surprised, that it has normalized.”
Everything has been a bit of a blur through their eyes, and, as he explains, that lends it all some beauty in time. After that winter tour ended, they spent a few months regrouping daily, writing new material, and entered the studio this March to record Sun Coming Down, their excellent sophomore LP. They were writing on a high, powering through the process compared to their last record.
“We’re the kind of people who don’t know what to do with ourselves when we’re not busy,” May laughs. By that he means eight-hour music-making days became the norm. “There’s a mental difference between, ‘Okay, I’m coming from this phone service job that’s soul crushing,’ to ‘Okay, we see each other all the time anyway and now we’re in a room to see what musically interests us right now.’ I don’t think we expected to write a record that quickly between tours. It’s interesting about what influenced it because a lot of that time was silly: sitting in a van, walking around a city in that half hour you have between sound check and the show, the conversations with friends about adjusting to the weirdness of a different lifestyle. I went from spending most of my time in Montreal to spending half my year not in Montreal. Those experiences probably informed what we made up making.”
Sonically, the album contradicts itself repeatedly. Loud, crass tones in “The Combo” negate the soft, round notes of “Never Better”. There’s space between notes that open up upon repeated listens. Finding a title to represent that took time. “We wanted the name and art to evoke something,” May says, laughing slightly as if the amount of time debating over details embarrasses him. “The four of us decided it feels like change. In a very terse way, it mirrors the way my life has changed. There’s a perception of time that feels a lot different. The last year and a half has gone by in what feels like three months, and the temporal aspect of it sat with me well.”
Of course, Sun Coming Down brings to mind a sunset, which, as it turns out, is more literal than expected to May. “That phone survey job was a 9-5 and the sun going down was a good thing,” he explains. “It meant I could leave, and I worked at home which was bizarre because there was no separation between where I worked and where I lived. I felt like I didn’t see the day for months on end. The night became an opportune time to think in a way that wasn’t repeating the same things over and over. This is very metaphorical, but in Montreal, as soon as summer starts ending, it gets cold very quickly. There isn’t much of a fall of spring. In that sense, summer coming to an end is kind of ominous because you know you’re in for eight months of winter.”
As the four feel their muscles stretch and bones strengthen, they articulate their growing pains with immaculate maturity. The obvious emotion captured is anxiety, though it’s shaped with less joy this time and replaced with a depressing, meditative, nearly hopeless urgency. “Sometimes during a show or practice, we all look at each other and start laughing,” says May. “It’s almost like when everything is tense and then something happens and it becomes hilarious and lightens the mood, even if it’s a negative action. It’s a way for us to deal with things that feel weird or are anxiety-inducing.”
Perhaps Ought’s most endearing quality is the way in which vocalist Tim Darcy’s words jut out of their songs, separating them from other acts, thus making their inspirations somewhat difficult to peg. They’re all obsessed with bands who sound nothing like them—Sheer Mag and Forth Wanderers, for example—except for one: Life Without Buildings. “Beautiful Blue Sky” clearly takes tonal cues from it. “We took one idea and tried to draw it out to its logical end, so it’s a simple structure that we pushed until we got everything that we wanted from it,” says May. “[Life Without Building’s Any Other City] is a record that Tim Keen and I—he’s super nerdy about recording and quality—talk a lot about the tonal aspects of that record and the recording of it. If that found its way into the record at all, that would be pretty special.”
As the four work through the tension of their own songs, they dig deeper to the root of their work and the realizations that come with that. “There’s points in our songs that don’t get me as much, but then one night it hits you out of nowhere,” says May. “It’s a strange sensation, but it’s nice because it means it’s pretty much always a surprise. There was a small period where I felt strange about ‘The Weather Song’. I don’t know why. Then I read an article about it where the author said it feels like what it’s like to handle depression and anxiety. That night, I was listening to Tim’s words and it abruptly changed for me. Everything made sense.” The longer he talks about this sensation, the clearer it becomes that Ought benefit from their live shows as much as a first-time listener. “A part of the song finally works the way we set out to make it work,” he explains. Making life align, even if only for an hour-long set, is the type of magic bands can only hope to create firsthand. Ought just happen to do so on the regular.
OUGHT + LVL UP + DIET CIG. WED 9.30. GREAT SCOTT, 1222 COMM. AVE., ALLSTON. 9PM/18+/$12. GREATSCOTTBOSTON.COM.