A New Generation of Devolution: Ought in Bushwick

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It’s the stuff of post-punk legend: On May 4, 1970, as bullets rained down on the campus of Ohio’s Kent State University, a seismic shift occurred in the musical cosmos. Barely out of their teens, Jerry Casale, Mark Mothersbaugh, and Bob Lewis—the founding members of the band Devo—watched as their fellow students were shot and, in the case of some, killed. Many of the victims had been participating in the college’s peaceful anti-Vietnam War protests. Others had merely been crossing the grounds between classes. At the hands of the very same government sworn to protect them, their lives were taken as punishment for the most pedestrian of crimes: being young and perhaps a bit naive in believing that their voices might be heard.

Devo was formed not so much in reaction to, but definitely on the heels of this violent betrayal of idealism. The concept behind “devolution”—the idea that human kind was beginning to move backwards, not forwards—had already been devised prior to the events at Kent State, but the influence of that day on the band’s music has never been downplayed. “That changed me,” Casale later told journalist Simon Reynolds. “I was kind of a hippie until then. That was a turning point.” In another interview with The Vermont Review, he admitted, “I stopped being a hippie and started to develop the idea of devolution. I got real, real pissed off.”

On More Than Any Other Day, the debut record from Montreal four-piece Ought, nobody sounds pissed off. There’s anger, sure, but it’s not the typical punk fury. Instead, the band offers far gentler expressions: words and sounds indicative of the steady unease that’s seemingly swept an entire generation. Ought claim no real influence in angst-ridden post-punk as a genre (“It’s not like I’m going home every day and looking up Gang of Four,” drummer Tim Keen explained), but their own origin story feels eerily similar to Devo’s tragic new wave fairy tale.

In the fall of 2011, the members of Ought were unexpectedly transformed from a group of friends and students into a group of activists. Thankfully, no one was killed in the union labor strikes that engulfed Montreal’s McGill University at the time, but when tuition hikes were threatened and students stopped attending classes, frontman Tim Beeler and his bandmates—all of whom hail from different parts of America and Australia—took notice. “There was a feeling that things were wrong, or that change should occur in whatever arena, but not knowing where it should manifest,” he explained to me. “One of the empowering things about the strike was being with a lot of people, none of whom purported to know what the answers should be, but who all agreed that something was wrong. That seemed like a pretty good place to start.”

The vibe was fairly philosophical during my afternoon with Ought, and these civic-minded sentiments were really just the tip of the iceberg. Clever, charming, and eager to share their opinions on just about any subject, my conversation with the alarmingly well-spoken young men left me feeling pretty strange; as I strolled away from our interview, I felt both puzzled by and satisfied with many of the beliefs I’ve held onto for the past few years. It’s a fitting outcome considering the subject matter of More Than Any Other Day, a stellar collection of searingly thoughtful, unmitigated commotion. “Do you feel it like I feel it like I feel it?” begs “Habit”, the record’s sweeping single and thematic focal point. “Is there something you were trying to express?” More Than Any Other Day asks a lot of questions, but regardless of what the album’s empowering cover art may suggest, the answers are rarely black and white.

When I met the guys in Brooklyn for our interview, it was a rare beautiful day, and we were all feeling pretty optimistic. As pure, unfiltered sunshine beamed through open patio doors, we indulged in Saturday afternoon brunch, an activity that, as we soon realized, seems to have been fostered exclusively by people of our generation. Was the promise of bacon the only sure way to stir our parents on a sleepy weekend morning? Decades ago, was a weekly mimosa (or three) considered as vital as water? From what we could gather, weekend brunches used to be reserved mostly for special occasions; they certainly weren’t the essential dose of medicine that twenty-somethings everywhere swallow just to make it through the work week. Since when did luxury become such an integral part of our lives? Is it because we deserve it, or rather, because we feel like we deserve it?

The complete antithesis of the young band dude stereotype, Ought managed to beat this ever-tardy music writer to our agreed-upon meeting place, Bushwick eatery The Rookery. One-half of the band had reserved our table, while the other half met up shortly (they’d been out buying instruments that would later make their debut at the band’s first ever New York show, opening for Pictureplane at Brooklyn Night Bazaar.) I apologized for my lateness, but the guys assured me all was well. “We were just discussing whether we’d want to have children,” they explained with the light air of friends choosing between a side salad or home fries with their meal.

“Oh, yeah? So what’s the consensus?” I asked, curious.

After a moment’s deliberate pause, Beeler, a slim, boyish David Byrne type who doesn’t speak until each of his thoughts has been carefully formed, offered his feelings: “I don’t think I’m vehemently against it, but I’m not vehemently for it, either.”

Procreation, protest, post-grad melancholia—both on their record and in person, Ought expertly touch upon all of it with an eloquence that supersedes their ages. Maybe the kids are all right, after all.

Later, when we relocated to the restaurant’s patio post-breakfast sammy, Ought further explained how activism shapes their music. While discussing the protests at McGill, bassist Ben Stidworthy seemed to light from within. “It was a really incredible moment that felt like one we hadn’t experienced before,” he gushed between drags of his cigarette. “It felt like the only thing that mattered to us at the time was the strike.” Matt Mays, who plays keys, described the overall vibe on campus as “tense” and “immediate,” adding that “the emotional response to it was very strong,” whether that was positive or negative.

In 2012, as ongoing negotiations went nowhere, Ought began recording their debut EP. “There was this sudden sense of unifying energy,” Tim Keen revealed. “It’s not that the band is a response to the strike, but we were definitely informed by it.” Although each member has since graduated, it’s clear that McGill, the strike, and the small, wonderfully weird setting of Montreal, have all significantly impacted their music making. Still, Ought fear being labeled a “political” band, and rightfully so.

“There’s no such thing as a non-political band, or a non-political entity,” Beeler claimed. “We aren’t ‘political rock,’ because that’s diminutive. It’s more that we’re just making our art, and expressing ourselves as we’d like to.”

Tight, steady, and stirring, the sounds that permeate More Than Any Other day are often clawing their way out of the darkness in search of light; tracks range from the extremely stark (“Forgiveness”) to the instantly catchy (“The Weather Song.”) The band’s live show is surprisingly buoyant, where shady minimalism meets fierce rhythms and deep intensity. Clearly, Beeler’s lyrics are politically inspired, but they also speak brilliantly to the minutiae of everyday life. When he boldly proclaims that he’s “excited to go grocery shopping” on “Today More Than Any Other day,” Beeler speaks to what some might call a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other mentality. “Some days it’s just exciting to do something banal,” May explained, and it’s not difficult to relate. The track concludes with a simple repetition, “we’re all the fucking same,” but somehow, the sentiment evokes brightness, not bleakness. We’re all breathing the same goddamn air, you know?

But what about the feelings of doubt and hopelessness that pervade so many young people today? According to Ought, these concerns are valid, but not wholly inescapable. “There’s definitely a generalized anxiety among people our age,” May expressed. “But when you’re 20, things are just strange.”

“The more that I don’t feel pressure about the future, the better about myself I feel,” Keen admitted, before Beeler added his own pearls of wisdom. “It could be a very positive thing, to shed that feeling that you have to nestle down into a career, or into a very static identity…the feeling that you have to decide who you’re going to be for the rest of your life sounds like a uniquely terrifying proposition.” As we all agreed, simply having the time and energy to think about these things is a privilege in itself. Perhaps that’s why these troubles—which seem to inhabit the minds of ourselves and our friends while deeply worrying our parents—might be better laid to rest. At least for now.

As Ought understand, there’s dissatisfaction to be found everywhere, whether it’s on a politically-fueled college campus, or just inside our own minds. These feelings live within all of us, but especially young people, who don’t always know the best method for dealing with them. Usually, they just want to feel that their voices are being heard, and to not face criticism—or violence—because of it. Better than most their age, Ought understand that the best methods for change don’t involve a clenched fist, but an open hand.

Before we parted, Tim Beeler revealed that someone once approached him after a performance with the dramatic claim that “your [Ought's] songs sum up what it feels like to be alive today.” Laughing, he soon added, “I think he was pretty drunk.” Still, this inebriated fellow couldn’t have been too far off. Filled with compassion, political leanings, and yes, undeniable optimism, Ought seem primed for whatever future lies ahead.

Ought's More Than Any Other Day is out now on Constellation.