Canadian post-punks Ought broke into the indie scene with 2014’s More Than Any Other Day, an excellent collection of catchy, cobbled-together riffs and smart, incisive lyrics. The album was declared one of the best of the year by publications like Rolling Stone, Pitchfork and Paste.
Their follow-up, last year’s Sun Coming Down, displayed not only the band’s tireless work ethic — it was conceived during one of the most touring-intensive periods of their career — but their ability to subtly evolve in new, interesting directions.
Earlier this month, shortly after completing a stint touring with the band in Europe, bassist Ben Stidworthy took time to discuss the making of the band’s second record and how the band hopes to evolve going forward.
Weld: You guys have been on a pretty grueling touring schedule since Sun Coming Down was released.
Ben Stidworthy: Yeah! Last night, we played in Nantucket, Rhode Island. We played with Downtown Boys and Priests, which was pretty cool. Tonight we play in East Hampton. After the record came out last September, we did six weeks in Europe leading up to the release, and then we did a four-month American tour. And after that, we did another European tour. We just finished three weeks in Europe, like, last month. And by last month, I mean, we flew out of Brussels like five days ago. So we’re all really jet lagged and our sleeping schedules are weird.
Weld: That kind of intensive touring schedule influenced the way you made Sun Coming Down, right?
Stidworthy: To be honest, we wrote the second record pretty much with the same process we did with the first record, but instead of doing it over a year, we did it over like, three months. Right now, we’ve been thinking about how to change it, because it works for us. We obviously like the songs we’ve written, but now after this North American tour, we’re going to have more time to think about how we write. And I think we’re hoping to change a bit, to grow as musicians.
Weld: What’s your writing process like now?
Stidworthy: The lyrics are all written by Tim [Darcy]. He’s sort of ad-libbing as we’re fleshing out chord progressions and riffs and song structure, and then he’ll go back and refine the lyrics a bit. Everything else sonically is made by someone playing a riff and people adding to it and then jamming on that. And then maybe we’ll stop playing for a bit and talk about ways we can improve the structure. I feel like at least 80 percent of it kind of nonverbal. It just happens naturally, which is cool.
Weld: A lot of your songs sound very much like two very different songs melded together.
Stidworthy: I think that has a very material origin, which is that we’ll have a bunch of ideas floating around, but we won’t necessarily know what to do with them. And so we’ll be like, ‘Well, what if we took this jam and combined it with this jam?’
On the new record, a good example of that is “The Combo,” because that was basically two separate songs. One of them, the end part of “The Combo,” was actually the chorus of another song that we didn’t end up using. We were just at practice, and we were like, “I don’t know what we should do here, so why don’t we just take this and turn it into the second part of ‘The Combo?’’ And it worked because they were in the same key.
Though there are examples of us disregarding the same key. Like, ‘The Weather Song,’ that one just goes up a half-step for no reason except that it’s interesting, and especially because ‘The Weather Song’s’ chorus is so poppy, for it to arrive a half-step up creates this off-kilter feeling, which I think makes it more interesting.
Weld: Lyrically, a lot of your songs are relatively optimistic, especially compared to those of some of your contemporaries.
Stidworthy: It’s tricky. We don’t really have an agenda that we’ve fleshed out in conversation, and we don’t necessarily have a unifying philosophy. We do talk a lot, and we tend to agree about things. We’re writing songs that we would want to listen to. I think that there’s so much going on in the world, and if you’re paying attention it can be quite scary, really. But at the same time, you kind of have to hold onto something. I don’t write the lyrics. From my own perspective, you have to have hope. I think Tim does a really good job of highlighting the things that are disturbing about contemporary living while at the same time looking forward, looking ahead.
Weld: One word that’s been attached to Ought is “hyperliterate.” In interviews behind More Than Any Other Day, for example, you’ve all expressed a pretty deep knowledge of postmodern fiction. What books were you reading while you were making Sun Coming Down?
Stidworthy: For that record, actually, we were all studying French, because we had to apply to a Quebec permanent residency. We’d all graduated from Quebec University, but we needed to be able to stay in Canada. It’s really funny — from probably 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., we would write the record, and them from 6 p.m. until 9 p.m. every day, we’d do French class. We actually didn’t have much time for extracurricular reading.
At the time, I was reading a book on Irish history, which is not postmodern fiction. I actually personally don’t read much fiction, which is a personal decision I made. I’m under the impression that there’s so little time in life that I avoid fiction because I’d rather know more about the world around me. Not to say that fiction can’t give that to you, or that it isn’t very special, but I just have this mental block, where when I start reading a novel, I’m like, ‘I could be reading history or political theory, something that has much more material benefit for me to know things about.’
Weld: In a lot of ways, Sun Coming Down feels like a very different record from More Than Any Other Day. What were the biggest sonic changes between the two, in your opinion?
Stidworthy: I appreciate that you think it’s different. I do, too. Because the songwriting structure was the same, there are parallels between the records. It was obviously not a complete reinvention. But we spent so much time on the road not writing that I think we just relied on our instincts and relied less on conversations about what we wanted the record to sound like in order to move forward. And I think we just put our faith in ourselves as musicians, that we would be able to have a record that sounded different enough for us to be satisfied. I think we got lucky that it did in fact happen.
For me as a bassist, I kept trying to think of ways to strip back a bit and have more punk-sounding basslines — which kind of came through, but then at the same time, “Sun’s Coming Down” has a more intricate, melodic [sound]. I was interested in being a guitarist before I started playing in this band, and I initially wasn’t that excited about bass at all. I wanted to maintain the ethos of someone who writes riffs rather than someone who accompanies chord progressions on bass, which is what traditional punk and rock bass do — it’s much more in the background as a supporting instrument. I didn’t want to be bored. I think my contribution made that kind of clear.
Weld: You mentioned wanting to really evolve your sound for your next album. How would you like to accomplish that?
Stidworthy: I think we’re really interested in moving forward as a band. Obviously, we’re four people who have been making music together for a long time, so I think it will still be an Ought record, but for us, we’re going to try and write completely differently, meaning we’re probably going to write in pairs and pay attention to the sounds we want to make before we set out.
Like, I’m interested in maybe stripping down our sound a bit and exploring what we can do when we focus on chord progressions versus these jammy riffs — you know, going backwards and starting from a chord progression and then adding there. Or deciding what’s making the melodies and harmonies and then adding these different parts so you can kind of create a whole.
Ought perform at the Spring Street Firehouse on Monday, May 16. Priests and In Snow will open. The all-ages show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $8. For more information, visit the event on Facebook.