At some point in the afternoon, one of the members of Ought notices there are roughly nine cop cars lining up on the south side of Liberty St. Near the cars, a small group of officers eye the 10-foot-tall Rich Uncle Pennybags puppet that’s looming over the crowd of people gathered at Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park. The puppet’s arms move like an animatronic singer at some anti-capitalist Chuck E. Cheese’s.
A man stands next to Pennybags wearing an illuminati pyramid over his head. Another expressionless man holds up a small sheet of paper that reads, “Shit is still fucked up and bullshit,” a play on the informal motto of Occupy Wall Street, the grassroots movement that sprung from this very spot almost three years ago. Three years ago it felt like anything was possible at the park. The mood today, however, is somewhere between confusing and pathetic.
Tim Beeler, lead singer and guitarist of Ought, nudges an onlooker. “What’s going on here?”
“Oh, Russell Brand is going to speak.”
Beeler contemplates that bit of info for a second. “Are people here for or against Russell Brand?”
The guy pauses. “I think it’s a little bit of both.”
The band waits expectantly for something to happen. Nothing really does.
“You don’t really know what the aftermath will look like in your own life, where you’ll take that momentum and put it.” Beeler’s talking about 2012 Quebec student strikes, a flashpoint for political change in Quebec and across Canada. We’re sitting in the shade of the skyscrapers in Zuccotti Park, a few hours before the Pennybags incident, alongside a few late-afternoon lunchers.
While ostensibly caused by a radical tuition hike in Quebec universities, the hike was really just a small corner of a larger protest, but it was the one that people of various political dispositions felt they could safely support. From February to September, the grievances that led to the strike evolved into broader concerns: pernicious capitalism, alleged political corruption, the province’s growing debt, environmental concerns — the list went on, with all of the accusations leveled squarely at Premier Jean Charest and Liberal Party of Quebec. At the protest’s peak, over a quarter million students flooded the streets, all wearing red articles of clothing, fighting for student rights and a fluid democratic system. The thrill of thousands of people uniting in one voice was powerful, but according to Ought’s bassist Ben Stidworthy, the real effect of the strike was mainly felt in its aftermath.
“A lot of people became more radicalized and got more militant about organizing,” says Stidworthy, “And when the strike was over, you started seeing a lot of people putting their energy elsewhere.”
Ought weren’t formed as a result of the student protest but Beeler says, “We, as four people, all came out of it. So the music that we make is informed by it.”
The members of the group are all keenly aware of their privilege: Four college-educated white males playing music full-time are hardly a natural mouthpiece for the marginalized. The band stumbles around the topic, trying to find the right words to talk about privilege in a way that doesn’t damn them. Keyboardist Matt May acknowledges that he needs to be more aware of the space he takes up. Drummer/violinist Tim Keen wonders if maybe he should just quiet down and allow space for other voices. At the risk of stifling his creativity, Beeler speaks succinctly about how to make music while keeping his advantages in the front of his mind.
“If you’re a person of privilege, it isn’t the most productive thing to just throw that away. [Sometimes] it’s something you can’t just throw away, like your race, or your maleness. Instead you should use your privilege by doing support work. I was thinking about that in relation to making music. If you are born with this privilege, it isn’t that you should just disappear. It’s that you should use it and be engaged.”
Ought is run by committee. More Than Any Other Day, their debut LP released earlier this year on Constellation, is a kind of musical representation of democracy in action. On the emblematic track “Today More Than Any Other Day,” Beeler connects the spark of an activist eager to challenge the system to the mundane routines of a person choosing what kind of milk to buy at the grocery store, using the feeling of an individual to stand in for the feeling of thousands.
As for Ought’s actual sound, the quartet move along the post-punk continuum, from its early roots in the late ’70s to its second and third generations today. The band has never been one for calling out influences, but their elevator pitch could be any combination of bands: Talking Heads, Television, Wire. But their deepest influences come from those around them.
“The thing about Canada is that it’s geographically huge,” says drummer/violinist Tim Keen. Unlike America, it’s often eight-hour drives between major cities, so it’s harder for Canadian bands to just call up a bar in a new town, email a link to their Bandcamp page, and book a show. “That’s good in some ways, because it allows scenes to really stew within themselves without getting too outward-looking.”
Until this year, Ought were largely a hermetic band. They fed off the spirit of friends in Montreal bands like the poppy Mozart’s Sister, the noisy Lungbutter and the now-defunct feminist punk collective Femmaggots. All of those bands shared the stage at the Brasserie Beaubien; a dive bar that served as the hub for the city’s political punk community. Beeler continues to organize shows there with Loose-Fit, a volunteer-run booking collective. Per its mission statement, Loose-Fit “encourages performance and engagement from those who are traditionally less present in independent concerts.”
It’s this aesthetic that contributes to Ought’s decidedly optimistic approach to politics. It’s not for nothing that the LP’s title track ends with Beeler assuring: “Today, more than other today, everything is going to be OK, together, OK, together, OK, together.”
“[The songs] are defined in the positive,” Beeler says, “insofar that it’s about the individual experience. Even further than that, they mostly deal in questions. A question can be something only one person thinks, and it can be something a lot of people are thinking about.”
Whether it’s their well-attended show at New York’s Bowery Ballroom or the gig they played in Salt Lake City for all of six people, Ought try to reach everybody. When they play “New Calm Pt. 2,” in New York, late in the set, you can see the determination in Beeler’s eyes. It’s one of the first songs the band ever recorded and in it, Beeler dryly intones cliché frontman banter like a used-car salesmen accidentally cast in a rock biopic: “Now’s the part where we all sing together now!” and “just a little more to the left!” and “I have the microphone but you can sing it as well!” all performed with his tongue mostly in his cheek. But the chorus, repeated over and over, is something Beeler pulls from his heart: “Hear me now that I am dead inside!”
“New Calm Pt. 2,” as it turns out, is a big key to understanding Ought. They hold these two contradicting ideas up at the same time. They know things like “I think we’re all feeling this together now” are cliché and silly, but the song’s impassioned performance indicates its true message: activate yourself past cynicism to get to the choices that lay on the other side.
“Ought grabbed that punk flag with punk ideas and pushed it forward. Their instruments sound really good, their vocals are high in the mix, and it’s more accessible. They’re mining the political, and taking aggressive steps with it.”
That’s Marie LeBlanc Flanagan, executive director of Weird Canada, a music site that serves as an online nexus for the creative scenes across the country. Flanagan and founder Aaron Levin call me from Halifax Pop Explosion, the music festival where they first saw Ought at a year ago at Gus’ Pub. Like everyone, seeing the group’s live show was all it took to become fans. After their set, they invited the band back to Flanagan’s aunt’s house for tea.
“Geography plays such an important role for the artist,” says Levin. “No one grows up in Vancouver, hears D.O.A. and just starts playing hardcore punk. There’s a community there, and that produces a kind of spirit.” All four members of Ought are expats, hailing from Jersey, New Hampshire, Oregon and Melbourne, Australia, but like Levin says, they made for themselves a new, collective identity in Montreal. The Brasserie Beaubien where they played their first shows, the tiny apartment they all shared, and unity of the Quebec student protests of 2012 all were vital ingredients in making Ought the band that they are.
“If you are challenging an accepted view, everything will be trying to push you back,” says Flanagan. “I find it wonderful that Ought is pushing forward… And people can say, ‘Well you can only say that because you’re privileged.’ In the case of Ought, they would say, ‘Yes we can say that, and yes we are privileged’ and just stand there. If you can say that and allow for others to come into the space, that’s wonderful.”
Backstage at the Bowery, May talks about the importance of Weird Canada. The site provides an outlet for bands from New Brunswick all the way up to the Northern Territories, where their recently launched Wyrd Distro arm stretches. They even held a party for bands in Yellowknife, a city about 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle.
As we chat, the band takes full advantage of their hospitality rider; real hedonistic, the stuff of legends: carrots and celery, hummus, some kind of healthy potato chip and Kombucha.
“In the tedium of tour, sometimes the thing I look forward to most is picking out a Kombucha flavor.” Says Keen. I laugh, but I think he’s serious.
May tells a good Freud joke; (“Sometimes a crush on your mom is just a crush on your mom”) which lands like a grenade. Of everyone in the band, he’s especially excited to play Bowery, as he’s been coming to see shows here since he was a kid growing up in Jersey.
Stidworthy’s voice has a Pacific Northwest stoner inflection, inferring a “brah” at the end of every sentence. He says he used to be in a graffiti crew in Portland, but won’t reveal his tag for fear the “Portland Vandal Squad” would arrest him. He’s worked on how to write “Ought” but “the G-H-T just doesn’t flow very well.”
The unfortunate typography of Ought follows a day of the band autocorrecting anyone who asked their name.
“What’s the name of your band?”
Without fail, every time.
Vocal warm-ups and stretches are all part of the pre-show routine. At the show, Beeler sips tea out of a travel thermos on stage, wearing a tucked-in button down and black jeans, his eyes wide. He looks like a healthy, cheerful Ian Curtis, but as he plays, he’s stoic, magnetic, and unrestrained.
The amusing circus at Zucotti Park lingered with me during the band’s set. Today, it’s a bad Rich Uncle Pennybags puppet, some crust punks loitering around smoking a joint, Russell Brand, a shell of a movement, all easily mocked as ineffectual. Tomorrow it can be a naïve but well-intentioned hashtag, or a poorly attended community meeting. But that sign the expressionless old man held up — shit it still fucked up and bullshit — is not wrong, even though it can feel pat and cliché. I picture Beeler in front of a crowd, singing those words, trying to get us all to feel it together now. On the other side of the cynicism aimed at the motley crew in Zuccotti Park who still believe in change, there exists, however small, a possibility. When the hashtags untrend, when the crowds leave the street — what do we do with the absurdity of life when the eyes of the world are averted?
“When you take these feelings to heart,” says Beeler, “it’s not like you need to spend an hour today thinking about it. It kind of works into the fabric of who you are. The biggest part is acknowledging that the limit of what you do not know is nowhere in sight.”