Interview: Ought

One of the youngest members of the Constellation Records family, Canadian post-punk band Ought plays music that makes your heart beat faster. Mehmet Ak catches up with keyboardist Matt May ahead of Ought’s Istanbul performance this month
Soldan sağa: Tim Keen, Tim Darcy, Ben Stidworthy, Matt May

How’s the Sun Coming Downtour going?
“It’s been going well. We’ve had some time off this winter to see friends and family and do some traveling. We essentially spent a year and a half touring, so this time has been wonderful for the psyche. As for the album, I’m still very proud of it and think the songs are interesting, revealing themselves – even to me – more with time.”

Isn’t it exhausting being on the road all the time?
“It can be exhausting, but so can any other job, probably much more so than this one. We’re incredibly lucky that this is the way we get to be exhausted, with most of the energy spent on creative decisions and trying to make the most interesting music we possibly can.”

Constellation is a unique label. How did you end up working with them?
“Constellation is a special place because they are able to put out things they fully believe in and care about. Jerusalem in My Heart’s catalog alone would be enough for them to win me over, but I also adore Matana Roberts, Carla Bozulich, Hiss Tracts, and Eric Chenaux, to name just a few. We came to work with them after one of the people at the label came to see us play and later reached out and said they’d like to work with us on a release if we were interested. And clearly, we very much were.”

You probably get this a lot, but your music reminds us of the ferocious post-punk sound of the ’80s. Do you have a special interest in this period? What are your main sources of inspiration?
“We all care about lots and lots of different kinds of music, and certainly, for me, ferocious ’80s post-punk is one of them. We don’t have a special interest in that period in particular, though. I think we’re all drawn towards people who make music passionately and strangely. Recently I’ve been especially interested in The Raincoats, The Slits, Marine Girls, Selda Bağcan, Sonny Sharrock, Alice Coltrane, Jerusalem in My Heart, Christina Carter (and Charalambides), Fairouz, Mal Devisa and Mitski, to name just a few.”

There’s a song on your album that references David Foster Wallace. Is literature a stimulus for your songwriting?
“Everyone in the band is a much better reader than I am, but yes, literature is absolutely a stimulus for our general creative output in the sense that it gets our mind thinking and exploring, which is invariably going to influence the music that we make. Outside of music, personally, I’m most strongly influenced by film. On tour when I’m in the van or when I’m home, I mostly watch movies (and, let’s be honest, television). I still haven’t seen a lot of the great canonical films; lately I’ve been working my way through Michelangelo Antonioni’s films, Il deserto rosso being the one that has captured me the most so far.”

Who’s the listener in your mind?
“The listener in my mind is myself probably. Perhaps that sounds narcissistic, but I just have a hard time imagining what someone else will be interested in or excited by. We’d like to make music and present ourselves politically with an audience. One thing is for young men to recognize the ways in which patriarchy infects our society and do everything one can to actively work against it. The same goes for all internalized oppression such as racism and transphobia. My ideal listener is actively working on themselves and trying to be really good both to those around them and to themselves.”

Do you think rock music has backed itself into a corner where it’s only involved with the concerns and limitations of the middle class? In other words: has rock music lost its calling?
“That’s a great question. For the most part I think you are probably right: many of the musicians who achieve some degree of success are probably coming from middle-class families, myself included. There’s nothing wrong with being middle class, but the issue is: how radical can a community of musicians be if what they strive for are the same bourgeois goods and comfort we all rallied against? This conservatism is a dangerous force because it depends on the oppression of those who do not want – or are literally unable to live with – things being maintained as they are right now. Conservatism doesn’t just manifest in voting for ‘conservative’ politicians; it manifests in how we treat each other and how we imagine our lives and world should look.”

Your lyrics boldly touch on political issues, and you were quite impressed with the student protests in Canada. How do politics affect your creativity?
“I couldn’t speak to the lyrics particularly, since Tim Darcy wrote them. However, politics absolutely do affect our creativity, but I think friendship does more so, for me at least. I’m so lucky to be surrounded by amazing and kind and funny musicians. Everyone cares very deeply about the art they make but also about each other. Every one of us has deep self-doubt and at times self-hatred, but we also work very hard to love and care about ourselves, our friends and communities. It’s very difficult to always be the version of yourself you want to be, but I think struggling with that is worthwhile, and that struggle absolutely finds its way into the music we make.”

Last question: what do you think about Justin Trudeau and the impact he’s made?
“I hate to draw so much attention to one individual, but I also feel it’s worth stating a few things about Trudeau. The previous Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, was a disaster and absolutely horrible for so many people in very material ways, often through enacting neoliberal austerity. This effect was not limited to just one place, as Canadian mining companies have caused extensive damage to communities globally, especially in Mexico, Central and South America. So Trudeau will hopefully be less awful and cause less damage. I’m not sure we can hope for dramatic changes, but I do sincerely hope that there is enough organization and localized power to push Trudeau’s administration to make material improvements to the most vulnerable peoples’ lives.”

More to explore