Ben Stidworthy From ‘Ought’

Interview with Ben Stidworthy from Ought. The Montreal band's current album 'Sun Coming Down' is now out


“Yeah, we try to do it as much as we can but as things kind of get more hectic it’s harder to keep up.”

Ben Stidworthy of Ought is talking to me on the phone because they’re a little too busy to be interviewed all at once, what Ought usually does. Ought are a very busy band right now, and one with a lot on their shoulders. For a band’s first major release, More Than Any Other Day, to be heralded as one of its years best by both Pitchfork and Rolling Stone, it’s a big step for any band to take. Going straight from university students to musicians on the road, Ought have in some ways won the lottery that the music industry runs now and again. With their new album, Sun Coming Down, Ought have furthered their sound themselves with noisier, more intense record that continues on the trail of existential discovery and sonic experimentation from MTOAD. I was happy to chat with Ben a few days before their album release.

Graham Caldwell: I can imagine things have been hectic for you as a band. You put out More Than Any Other Day and it just exploded in terms of critical response. Then you guys went on tour after that. I imagine it’s a lot to take in. What was that like for you personally?

Ben Stidworthy: It was interesting because we found out that Constellation wanted to put our record out, the summer before my last year of university, so we had all the songs ready to go and then we recorded in October and we started playing… well we pretty much played one show a month in Montreal which is what we had been doing for like, a year and a half, and then our album launch happened and I actually turned in my final paper for University the day of our album launch. Finished a degree, went to graduation, my grandma came and a week later we were doing our first North American tour.

GC: Your live show is great. As a band you have a great live presence and it’s so unique too. The one thing that really blew me away was how young you guys were, but you all seem like very old souls.

BS: That’s two things that no one’s ever said to us. The “unique-ness”, I know a lot of people like the show, which is really cool, but I’m not sure I’ve ever heard someone say it’s unique which is a really cool compliment so, thank you. Yeah, I’m the youngest in the band as you may have guessed, we’re all 24 and 25 now. I think the show might be… I think we’ve gotten better, we’ve done two North American tours we just finished our fifth european tour, so we definitely know the songs pretty well and are more comfortable so… come see us again.

GC: Oh, I’m hoping to see you when you’re in Toronto. You guys were touring with Dub Thompson and they’re all really young too. What’s it like being eternal teenagers on the road?

Dub Thompson… we didn’t know what to expect. We were kind of nervous going into it because they were all 19 and 17. One of them was 17. So, I think we were apprehensive at first but they turned out to be really really nice people. It wasn’t like a massive party the whole time, they’re serious musicians, as are we. It wasn’t crazy. It wasn’t what you might expect a bunch of 20 year olds and teenagers touring together would be. We had a really good time with them.

GC: To be perfectly honest, when I’ve seen interviews of you guys and I see the way you are, I thought: “I bet these guys just read all the time on tour”. Like, there’s just a giant stack of books next to you in a van.

BS: [Laughs] We spend a lot of time in a van.. so we… I mean it’s actually interesting before a tour we often talk about what books were bringing and in the first couple days we’re looking at the books and kind of talking about what we’ve brought. I think all of us get through at least one book on tour, but then by week three or week four we’ve slowed down the reading speed because you just get in this weird tour headspace where all you do is like, listen to music or chat about absolutely nothing in the van. We do try to make use of that time in the van, writing, reading. Tim Keen mixes bands that he’s been recording on tour, or sometimes communally we’ll listen to podcasts or albums.

Podcasts are good for long car rides.

We’ve actually listened to six Harry Potter books, but we only do that in North America because Amy, who does sound for us and US Girls [ ] she tours with us in North America and she’s really into it but Radwan Ghazi Moumneh, he’s not really into Harry Potter cause it was after his time, so we mostly listen to a lot of Arabic music and dub.

GC: Radwan produced your new record, which sounds great by the way. It’s got a much bigger guitar sound too. Considering MTAOD was done so quickly, what was your idea going into the studio for this record?

BS: The first one was done in three days and then like, three days mixing so the maximum we did was like, two takes… I think one song we did three takes… Going in I think we spent 10 days on this record. One thing going into the studio that we really wanted to be conscious off was actually taking the time to hone a tone so trying different – for me – bass heads. I got a couple new pedals. The tone was thicker. I think we did a lot less doubling on Sun Coming Down than we did on More Than Any Other Day, the guitars are doubled on almost every track on MTOAD. We wanted to record to tape which we did, which made the drums sound really good. I think the drums are a lot louder in this one which was an aesthetic decision. We kinda wanted a bit noisier of a record. I think this took a lot more time especially in the mixing process. We really did a back and forth with Radwan, who’s always open to ideas. Especially, from Tim [Keen] who has been recording bands for like, years now, and that was super helpful in helping us navigate the hotel, Hotel2Tango [], which is a pretty incredible and intimidating studio.

GC: The Almighty Hotel2Tango. Yeah it looks like a pretty cool place.

BS: It’s pretty amazing.

GC: How’d you get there? Was that a place you guys picked, were you approached?

BS: No, I mean, they share a building with Constellation so they have a pretty close relationship. It’s owned by… um… Radwan owns a fourth of it. Howard Bilerman isn’t really affiliated with Constellation but the other two are Thierry Amar, and Efrim Menuck from Godspeed You! Black Emperor[] and Silver Mount Zion [ ]. So when Constellation was talking to us they were like: “We want to put out your record. You can record at Hotel2Tango with Radwan. We think Radwan’s amazing” and of course we really wanted to do that. The second time around we wanted to go back because Radwan’s got some pretty amazing ears, he’s really talented.

GC: Yeah. I could almost see your stuff taken care of by like, Steve Albini, I don’t know if you have a dream producer or a dream place you’d like to record.

BS: For us we quite like the idea of sticking to Montreal. At least speaking for myself, I like the idea of not looking externally for someone to shape our record’s sound and actually just looking to doing it with someone who really knows us and then the focus is really on the songwriting and like, making the changes we want to hear so other people might have different answers, I know Tim Keen really likes Steve Albini, we saw Shellac together which was really fun, really cool band, but personally if anything we would do the record ourselves as opposed to going to some bigger name producer.

GC: I did want to ask this question: I heard about this show in London where you specifically were freaked out by how many bros there are in the audience. Do you find there’s a split in your audience? This art rock crowd for your band and this other group that’s more interested in showing up and going off?

BS: There’s less of a binary, like a duality, there’s so many different types of people at our shows, especially this last tour we did. At festivals people from 18 to 60 and 70, from all walks of life which is really cool. That show was really specific; it was really packed. We as a band had talked about what I had said and that I think what I realized that I was paying really close attention to these drunk kids who were not making the situation great for everyone around them, but I wasn’t paying attention to all the other people at the show. There were definitely nerds there, dads who read Rolling Stone [Ought is #13 on Rolling Stone’s Top 50 Albums of 2015 [ ] ] who are excited about our band, other musicians. It’s a ton of different people. The more diverse the better. It’s nice having older people at our shows as well. I think that says something but I don’t quite know what it is.

GC: If I may, I think it’s because you guys are like a reincarnation of Television.

BS: [laughs] Thank you!

GC: I did not realize this, that none of you are Canadian but you’re all living in Montreal. Are you still there right now?

BS: Yeah we’re all living here right now, we all have flats here still, and we’re applying for permanent residency so we’re all staying.

GC: So you don’t really have any plans on going anywhere else?

BS: I absolutely love Montreal, I think we’re all really happy here. I definitely don’t want to move to the States.

GC: You’re from Oregon right?

BS: Yeah, I grew up in Portland [ ].

GC: You wouldn’t want to go back to that?

BS: Yeah, I wouldn’t want to go back to that. I spent so much time there that leaving was all I wanted to do my whole life. I”m lucky enough to be able to stay here in Montreal. It’s a pretty amazing place despite the fact that none of us are Canadian a lot of people like bringing that up, I really and truly believe we are a Montreal band and I feel completely comfortable identifying as one. Because if not you start to get into weird questions of like, passports and borders and that kind of citizenship which I don’t think is fair. Any band that’s Canadian that moves to Montreal; they’re a Montreal band. And that’s, what that’s because they have Canadian passports? The idea of us being CanCon or not CanCon… I just kind of find it problematic because without Montreal we wouldn’t exist. And we’ve been here from 6 year to 4 year to 5 year depending on which one of us. So, no Montreal, no Ought. Our label’s Canadian and we feel quite proud to be a band from Montreal so I think that’s important.

GC: I feel like you guys have a you guys have a “Mile End” sound [pretty good area of Montreal]. There’s talk of a Calgary sound that’s being developed right now, and you guys have been compares to the band Women who sort of started that label. Do you feel like there’s Montreal sound? A sound based on the geography of the scene?

BS: I definitely know what you’re talking about. I’m hesitant to paint in broad strokes just because there’s so many different things going on in Montreal that all of us are listening to so just to point to one thing that’s like a Montreal Sound I don’t think I could. I know what you mean by a Calgary sound the influence of Women [ ] and the jangly guitars and weird melodies that continued with Viet Cong. Then the more Mac Demarco chorus-y guitar, you definitely hear resonances of that in Montreal with other bands, but I’m not really sure where we fit into that. I actually found the comparison of Women to us, quite odd to me.

GC: Why was it strange for you?

BS: I don’t know. I don’t really see that much of a parallel, yeah us and Viet Cong are grouped together because we’re Canadian Post Punk bands but I don’t we sound that similar. Viet Cong has a good sound and they’re talented musicians but I don’t really see the parallels. I don’t know, it’s difficult to say.

GC: I once read that Parquet Courts, who I would say you have a lot more in common with, made a comment about how they were a very lyrically focused band [ ] . Would you say it’s the same for Ought?

BS: No, and I don’t think Tim [D’Arcy] would either. I get what Parquet Courts are saying when they say that. For us, we spend a great deal of energy trying to get chord progressions and song structure we liked. Tim is in his head writing and ad-libbing in songs, going over in his head. Especially for this record, he would go back to his flat, or wherever he went, and continue working on the lyrics. His lyrics are great and it’s really great to play in a band with him, but I think that we all place a great emphasis on what the lyrics are singing in unison with, if you will.

GC: So before we go, what are the books you’re bring along on tour?

BS: Oh: Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism [] . I forget who wrote it. It’s basically this massive book documenting the history of anarchism and theories and people of anarchism it’s not perfect it’s definitely got some problems in it. But it’s like a big overview like there’s a lot of really cool stuff in it… I’m bringing Paradise Lost by Milton [] , John Milton obviously. I’m reading that. It’s quite funny we were in a while we were writing the album we took a french course because in order to apply for permanent residency in quebec you have to pass that French test. And so while I was doing that I was reading the third book of the His Dark Materials [ ] series. You know it?

GC: Yeah Phillip Pullman

BS: Yeah, so I was reading the third book in French and I took religious studies in university and there’s a lot of religious things in it that are quite heretical and really interesting and I learned that Phillip Pullman got a lot of inspiration from Paradise Lost so I really wanted to read that. Those two… are quite large though… Probably studying a bit of french and reading . I normally bring one or two London Review of Books [ ] with me cause theres’a lot of really good articles and essays in there and it’s fun because you can just pick up run and read it in 20 minutes to kill time… I’m planning on bringing a laptop too to work on my music, my own music.

GC: Do ally you guys do side projects or just yourself?

BS: All of us. Mine’s just under my name it’s on bandcamp [ ]. I’ve got a lot of stuff but I just recently released this, it’s about time I released something. Yeah matt have a bunch of pretty great side projects. Tim Keen plays in a band called Mands [ ], so like hardcore, post hardcore. They’re really cool It’s obviously hard for them to practice because Tim’s away so often. They have recordings. Matt May has this pretty great noise project called Welter and Associates [] and this solo stuff called Country Wide [] and he actually plays with a band called Nennen [ ] which is on Misery Loves Company [] which is the tape label that Tim, Matt and other friends run which is with Nennen for our album launch. Tim D’Arcy just finished recording the project with AJ Cornell, who plays in Le Fruit Vert [ ], they don’t have a CD yet, but he also has this solo stuff called Isle of Pine. Kind of a lot but there you go.

GC: Well thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me. Good luck on your tour!

BS: Thanks so much! You’re welcome