Ought's Tim Darcy talks Room Inside the World
We speak to Ought frontman Tim Darcy about the Canadian band's third album, Room Inside the World
Tim Darcy is a little flustered at the moment. “I’m a little out of breath right now because I just ran up a flight of stairs,” he laughs. The lead singer and guitarist of Montreal four-piece Ought has been out grabbing a sushi roll for lunch, and we get hold of him just as he gets home to discuss the band’s new record Room Inside the World.
It’s a nippy afternoon in Montreal, on the back of a few days hitting -20C, and we’re in half a mind to let the frontman stick the heater on and take a breather. Once he’s settled down a bit, Darcy’s a thoughtful, curious conversationalist – the words ‘interested in’ pop up constantly as we speak – and he seems more than happy to fall down rabbit holes with us.
It’s been two-and-a-half years since Ought’s last LP Sun Coming Down, a gap which Darcy calls "deceptive" as the band have still been exceptionally busy. In that time, the quartet toured the LP for a year, spent time rehearsing and recording then took a bit of time off as they changed label, from the Montreal-based Constellation to the bigger indie label Merge.
While the band recorded Sun Coming Down, Darcy also wrote his first solo record Saturday Night. Darcy saw the aim of Saturday Night as trying to push his comfort zones "in different areas", a challenge that inspired him and the rest of Ought when it came to getting back into the studio.
“The project of the third Ought record was something that we all were very much on board with, as far as wanting to be more adventurous with sound and very much make a studio record, whereas the first two [LPs, Sun Coming Down and 2014’s More than Any Other Day] were much more live and hectic,” Darcy says. “We wanted to take time we hadn’t taken before to write in that really concentrated way. We did lots of demoing ourselves and really thought about the sounds we were getting. I think it’s really evident in the record.”
The first impression one gets of Room Inside the World, Ought’s third album and their first on Merge, is that it’s definitely a fuller work than any they’ve done before. Compared to the sparse post-punk of their first two records, this record pops with cascading synths, ticking drum machines, and a 70-piece choir. Darcy puts this expansion down to how long the band planned the writing and recording process and how the band have grown during that time, both of which he calls pretty organic.
“The process was pretty long – long for us," Darcy says, correcting himself. “We spent five months writing and then recording it. Compared to Sun Coming Down, we did that whole thing in two months. The first record, we were just a band about town and, like, kids, pretty much just jamming whenever we had a minute and writing songs over the period of a year then recording them in three days.”
Ought pre-worked on Room Inside the World while they were dotted in different places, sending each other songs and whole albums to listen to. The band even worked using a digital mood board where they could post anything they found interesting or that inspired them.
“People would just upload everything from visual art to little pieces of ephemera, or uploading a song and [saying] ‘We like this synth tone’,” Darcy said. “It was cool to have done that in a way that we never did – it was communication first and very much with the project of expanding our horizons.”
By sharing little nuggets they’d discovered and bringing those ideas into the recording studio, Ought opened themselves up to influences that haven’t made their way into their music before. Take, for example, the bubbly bass, ominous strings and Kate Bush warble on lead single These 3 Things, or the propulsive Cure-influenced Disaffectation. There’s even Disgraced in America, which starts with guitars jangling like The Strokes and ends somewhere near the moody groove of X&Y-era Coldplay. While the LP has a low-key new wave vibe, Darcy stresses that Ought were keen to avoid pastiche, careful not to knock off particular bands or lock themselves into a particular time period.
“In some respect, I think we had some of those songwriting sensibilities and now what’s present are the accompanying tones,” Darcy says of the album’s 1980s echoes. “There’s a big difference to us between using chorus on a guitar and being like ‘OK, we’re going to make this song like The Cure'.”
The tone of Room Inside the World is a curious point, as the record seems mellower than the band’s previous output, particularly its middle stretch. Standout track Desire sounds unusually soulful for Ought, with Darcy’s yearning croon backed by horns and a full choir. Brief Shield, meanwhile, spends its four-and-a-half-minutes jazzily drifting along like a cloud – a far cry from the jittery release of More than Any Other Day. We ask whether Darcy thinks that’s reflective of how Ought has changed and grown as a unit.
“There are moments that are mellower,” he agrees, “but I think there are other elements that are just as energetically elevated because we took more time and also we’ve just grown as songwriters. The goals of what we wanted to do with the songs had changed a bit, as far as being less interested in being pseudo-improvisational at times [as we were] on the first two records. We want to not lose that intensity but really go deeper and think about craft. Being a little bit more compositional and patient with the parts enabled us to add additional layers of paint without sort of turning brown.
“It’s funny that people talk about the new sound – there definitely is a development. I like to think of it as like if you go back to that first EP that we made [2012’s New Calm EP], the version of the song Pleasant Heart is half-speed and there’s quite a bit more happening production-wise. We just felt like we had a lot of that kind of juice in us as a young band and we sort of stopped messing around with that stuff for the first two studio records. It was more that we wanted to write in a way that would enable us to bring more of that stuff back.”
Darcy names Brief Shield as his most surprising moment on Room Inside the World, calling it a "cult favourite" for the band that many fans will be surprised by. The meandering track is unusual, he says, in how it immediately dialled Ought’s energy back without them ever intending to write a softer song. With the band throwing away more than ever because they had more time to deliberate and see where their experiments took them, this track seems like a particularly unique one to save.
“We really love that song,” Darcy says. “It has a different energy, but I don’t think it is so distinct from something like Pill [from New Calm], literally the first song we ever wrote which has this kind of croon like the softer side of Velvet Underground or Yo La Tengo or something like that – bands we really look to for inspiration based on the way they got their hands dirty and were unafraid to go wherever the song takes them, which is something that I think is a characteristic of how we write.”
The album closes with the song Alice, a track with two distinct parts. The first is built on an insistent off-hook tone and a steamy drum machine, while the second can only be described as an ecstatic odyssey. Aiming for a "transportational, get out of your body" thing, as Darcy calls it, the song shows Ought’s reverence for spiritual jazz – a thing the band also has form for in its older cut Forgiveness.
“We all love Alice Coltrane, particularly her synth records,” Darcy laughs, calling them "out of this world... One is Turiya Sings and the other is Divine Songs. For the most part they’re just synths and voice but they’re completely transporting. Those records mean a lot to us as a band, and I would say, even as a big part of having more synth on this record in general.”
Ever since they formed in the wake of the 2012 Quebec student protests, Ought’s reputation has been that of a political band, albeit on a small scale rather than aiming to show a grandiose state of the world. So how does Darcy think Room Inside the World compares to the band’s previous releases? What does he think Ought stands for now?
“I think it’s as political as any of the records that we’ve made,” he answers unequivocally, saying all that’s changed is "nuances and subject matter... I don’t try to write intentionally political music. It’s very much for us an organic side effect of what we care about as individuals.
“[It] has always been really important to me as a writer but also really important to us as a band to never work in black and white. [It's] not like we have an answer or anything like that, but working within grey areas and the angst that comes from that as a person, thinking about the world and also how to still be productive, still care about people and figure out your own shit.”
Reflecting on Ought in this way makes sense, as we compare an older Ought song like Clarity! – a rollicking assertion of consent that urges listeners to ‘ask her anyway’ – with These 3 Things' lyric ‘I must remember to dance with you tonight’ – a call to enjoy communion despite your inner demons. Small statements like these are Ought’s form of activism, in their own way a resistance against the status quo.
“I think there’s something on this record that’s thinking about creating positive space instead of just creating negative feedback loops,” Darcy concludes. “That doesn’t mean that you can’t stand in opposition to things; it’s more the distinction of trying to grow something that will exist beyond your current moment.”
Room Inside the World is released on 16 Feb via Merge; Ought play Stereo, Glasgow, 22 Apr