Ought's Tim Darcy on Colorado Ties, Endless Comparisons to Great Bands

Montreal's Ought, which headlines the Larimer Lounge on October 23, has only released two full-lengths to date: 2014's More Than Any Other Day and this year's Sun Coming Down. But it's already won more rapturous reviews than plenty of bands that have been around for decades — although such raves tend to be accompanied by descriptions of the music that lean heavily on comparisons to other groups. Great groups, by and large — but because most of them debuted during periods ranging from the 1970s to the 1990s, these references can make Ought seem like a retro act.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The four-piece, featuring vocalist/guitarist Tim Darcy, drummer/violinist Tim Keen, bassist Ben Stidworthy and keyboardist Matt May, may rely on basic instrumentation, but Darcy's declamatory vocals and bold lyrical statements, not to mention the combo's angular, brittle sound, which is capable of generating dynamic tension in short bursts or extended workouts, encompass a sensibility that's as contemporary as tomorrow's headlines.

Our extended conversation with Darcy covers a lot of ground. Topics include his recent decision to change his name; his background in Colorado, where he lived when he was a child; his biggest musical influence (his mom); the birth of the band and its absurdly rapid ascent to critical-darling status; the aforementioned band comparisons, which often involve groups with which Darcy is only fleetingly familiar; Ought's creative democracy; and the challenges of making rock music in an EDM age.

Westword: Let's start at the very beginning — with your name. In a lot of early articles about your band, you're referred to as Tim Beeler. Then you're called Tim Beeler Darcy. And now you're Tim Darcy. What's the story?

Tim Darcy: I changed my name at the beginning of the year. I almost did it right before More Than Any Other Day came out, but then I didn't. (Laughs.) It's a ton of paperwork and stuff, but it's been something I've thought about for a long time, and it seemed like the right time to do it after getting back from touring around the first record — before I've got three albums with one name on it and then I change my name.

What was the reason for the change?

I wanted to take my mother's maiden name. The idea had been marinating for many years, but there was a moment when everything lined up at the start of the new year. The new year's a good time for that sort of thing.

How many questions have you gotten about it?

Surprisingly few. I think this might be the third time I've gotten asked about it. People mention it in articles, but they just mention the change and then they move on. I remember Graham, the PR person at Constellation [Ought's label], saying, "You're probably going to get a lot of questions about it," and I prepared for that. But it totally didn't happen. (Laughs.)

I understand you're originally from New Hampshire.

I was born in Arizona, but I mostly grew up in New Hampshire — although we lived in Colorado for a bit, too. We lived in Haxton from when I was three to six. And I've got lots of family in Colorado Springs and Denver. It's a lovely state. But we moved because of my dad taking different jobs. Both my father and my mom are in the health-care industry. We moved to New Hampshire when I was six or seven.

[Here's a video for "New Calm Pt. 2," from Ought's 2012 EP New Calm.]

Was there a lot of music around the house when you were growing up? And what was the first music that really registered with you?

That's an interesting question. There wasn't a ton of music around our house. But my mom would play her own music. She plays guitar, and she's an amazing folk musician. She doesn't really play or record, not except for tapes for friends and family. A few years ago, I digitized some of her old four-track recordings and put them on a Bandcamp page so she could send them around.

Was her music some of the first music you got into? Was she one of your biggest early influences?

I think so. That was definitely the first music I heard in the house.

At what point did you start playing guitar? And was she your first guitar teacher?

No, that's another funny thing. As soon as I expressed interest, she was very supportive. But playing guitar and making music for her was always a very private thing, and I understand that. I was maybe sixteen when I started playing, two or three years after I started getting into bands. I had been writing poetry for a really long time, and I turned one of the poems into a song that involved two chords over and over again. And then I started looking up covers online. I would print off hundreds of covers, and that's how I learned the guitar. I did have this very stoney guy who was like a Grateful Dead enthusiast who gave me a couple of guitar lessons, but we didn't really vibe. He was very nice, but he was always late for the lessons, and he wasn't very prepared (laughs).

What were the first bands you got into?

I don't think I had anything like discerning taste for many years. I would just listen to anything. I have a half-brother, and I would listen to anything he gave me and anything my friends were listening to. I definitely remember listening to the Flaming Lips and totally not internalizing it at all — just getting excited about sound. And at the time, I had no concept of when things came out. Like he'd give me Gang of Four and Beck, and I didn't really have any concept of when they were from.

So to you, every album you heard was new, because it was new to you?

I guess, but I didn't think about it like that. It just wasn't part of the culture of my friend group. We'd just listen to a CD and be really into it and there wasn't hyper-hysteria about it.

[This video is for "Today More Than Any Other Day," the almost-title track from the 2014 album More Than Any Other Day.]

When you first started putting your poetry to music, did you treat the songs like your mom did? Was it a really solitary thing, as opposed to playing them at open-mic nights or that kind of thing?

Not really. I played all the time by myself, but from the beginning, I was trying to learn vocal melodies instead of just scales. And from pretty early on, I would play with other people. And I had already been going to poetry open mics. I would always be the youngest person there by a long ways.

When it was time for college, you went to McGill University in Montreal. Why did you choose to go there?

Well, it was cheaper, and the City of Montreal is an amazing place. But it wasn't like I was going there to start a band. It all happened at the same time.

How early on did you meet the people who would become the other members of Ought?

I met Tim Keen the very first day at orientation, and we started playing music together almost immediately after that. We were in a different band other than Ought, and then maybe a year later, he was no longer in Montreal; he was an exchange student. But then Matt, he and I were in a band, and then the year after that, Matt and I were playing with Tim Keen again, because he'd come back, and we were trying to form song ideas — and Ben we kind of knew through one of our roommates, and we invited him over to play. And the rest is history, as they say.

How quickly did the sound people associate with Ought come together? Did it take a long time to develop? Or was it pretty much there from the start?

I feel like there's a lineage over the time we've made music together of watching certain elements of our chemistry bubble up. But even the very first EP [New Calm, released in 2012], people would remark on our sound. I'm always reticent to view it as a progression. It's just different periods of where we're at. But we're definitely more technically proficient at our instruments now. But as far as the sound that's associated with us, we're always open and excited about exploring new sounds and writing different kinds of songs. When we recorded More Than Any Other Day, I remember feeling, "This record is crazy. These songs are so different. This is not cohesive." But looking back on it, it gelled so much. It makes so much sense to me as a complete package.

Even though your songs do go in a lot of different directions, they all sound like Ought. Do you think that's simply because you guys have spent so much time together that it's become totally natural?

I definitely think that's part of it. Also, everyone in the band has such a strong essence that when I listen to recordings we've made, I hear, in every moment of every song, all four people coming through. We always say that if you're outside the door of the rehearsal room, you can always tell who's playing, even if they're playing an instrument they don't usually play, just because everyone has such distinct essences. And there's also the intimacy of knowing each other really well.

Your first shows were in the summer of 2012. Were they pretty low-key affairs — house parties and things like that?

Yeah, we definitely played our fair share of house shows, and there was a very good venue near us where we played some of our earliest shows. I can vividly remember those early shows. They were very formative.

You started recording very early on. Was that always part of what you were doing?

We had the positive resource of Tim Keen. He recorded a lot of bands in Montreal and had recorded all of the bands I'd been in with him up until that point, which was three, I think. Ben was leaving Montreal for the summer and we wanted to record the songs we had before he left. We had one show in our house and released one EP and then we didn't start playing again until the fall, and then we started playing shows all the time. And as we had more songs, we recorded More Than Any Other Day, the EP version, at a friend's studio. And a few days after we put the EP online, someone from Constellation contacted us, and they came to one of our shows and liked it.

When Constellation put out the full-length version of More Than Any Other Day, the album was immediately embraced by critics. Was that a surprise to you?

Yeah, definitely. As we were finishing the record, there was definitely excitement and acknowledgement of the fact that we were putting it out on Constellation. But the week before the release date, we were reassuring ourselves — like, even if it gets panned and nobody likes it, we were still really proud of it.

But I didn't really have an idea about how many people would review it. There are so many music blogs and press outlets, and it all happened so fast. As soon as it came out, the reviews started rolling in and we tried to book a tour as quickly as we could.

[Check out the video for another almost-title track: "Sun's Coming Down" from the 2015 album Sun Coming Down.]

All of the reviews of you guys that I've read have references to a bunch of other bands: "This reminds us of this band or that band." Is that frustrating to you? Do you wish that critics would be able to listen to your music on its own terms? Or do you understand that it's easier to describe music by talking about things listeners may already be familiar with?

It's probably the single thing that comes up the most. We talk about it a lot. But my feeling is, people are comparing it to bands that they like, so that's a compliment. That's great. So I understand when people go, "This sounds like a mix of this band and this band and this band." But it's really appreciated when people take the time to listen to the nuances of the sound more. It's so rare that anyone will write with a string of adjectives about what a band sounds like. If people are into a band, more often than not they'll talk about how it sounds like this band or that band. I don't think that's a new phenomenon, and it's really understandable. Even I do that. I try to be conscious about how I talk about other people's music, but I'll mention three bands to try and approximate the sound of a new band and it gets the point across.

We say we're not a genre band. We never said, "Let's be a post-punk band." But if we stop at a gas station and someone asks what our band sounds like, our sound tech and tour manager will say, "They sound like this and this." And then people have an idea and you can move on.

Have you read reviews where the critic wrote, "They sound just like this band" and you think, "I've never even heard that band" or "I hate that band."

Oh yeah. Totally. Absolutely. Other people in the band, like Matt and Tim, they listen to so much music and they've had the bug of being in bands for so much longer. But like if someone mentions the Feelies, well, somebody played them in the van once, but I can't make a connection to music that's playing in the background in the van. I need to be listening on headphones or something like that to really take in a band. And there's a lot of stuff like that. People talk about the Fall a lot, and I know the Fall, and there's one song that our tour tech, Amy, puts on our pre-show playlist that I really like. But that's about it. I probably should know more of these bands....

Maybe it's good that you don't, because it makes you sound more like yourselves.

Yeah, that's true. But the fullest manifestation of self-confidence is that you can listen to other stuff and be inspired by other things and not feel like you're going to get in your own way. If you don't listen, you're intentionally cutting yourself off from the world. But for me, I get overstimulated so easily. On tour, especially, I like to listen to albums I've listened to a thousand times, because it's comforting.

What's an example of an album that you've heard so many times that it's comfortable?

I listen to a lot of ambient music, instrumental music. Anything with really clear lyrics, which is funny coming from our band. (Laughs.) But mostly ambient music and folk music. I've been listening to the Weather Station; they have this one album called What Am I Going to Do With Everything I Know. And I listen a lot to Bob Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home, which is an amazing record. Or sometimes I'll do a podcast over music, because your ears get tired.

When it came time to make Sun Coming Down, did you have any particular theme in mind? Or was it more like, 'These are the latest songs we have and let's see if they play well together?'

It was both. In retrospect we've talked about how the two records feel like sister records in a way. Not that they're concept records or anything like that. But it almost felt like there was a sponge that hadn't been fully wrung out yet. We got back from tour and immediately we started writing songs and they were gelling. We had done so much exploring of the songs from More Than Any Other Day live.. They changed so much — not the actual compositions, but the way we played them and how we grew as players and friends. We lived together, and you can't get much more intimate than that. But then you spend most of a year in a box.

You hear about these bands that can't talk to each other. But I couldn't imagine that. Everyone in the band is a very strong personality, and sometimes making decisions is hard, because we do everything collaboratively. But I'm grateful to be in a creative situation where you have four people with strong ideas and a really strong sense of self, but who are also willing to get into a 25-25-25-25 collaborative experience.

So you don't feel that you're having to reduce yourselves to be in the group? That you can always be wholly yourselves?

Well, to a certain extent, there are moments of reduction. That's part of it. There are moments where you realize this song isn't going to go exactly where you wanted it to go, but because you respect and appreciate where everyone else is coming from, that in and of itself is its own kind of satisfaction.

[This video showcases another great track from Sun Coming Down, "Beautiful Blue Sky."]

One of the things I love about your lyrics is the way one bold statement is juxtaposed against another bold statement. Do you enjoy jamming different ideas up against each other to see what happens when they make contact?

Yeah. We definitely do that in our songwriting a lot. We'll take two ideas that seem disparate and try shoving them together to see what happens. And lyrically, I definitely do that. It's something I react to in other people's work.

When I first stated getting into music, I was sort of self-effacing with my language and my lyrics — burying them, kind of. So it feels really good to push directly to the heart of something. And also, the kind of writing and poetry I'm drawn to is really direct.

The new album is getting reviews just as good as the first one. But we're in this day and age with rock music where it's hard for even the best stuff to be heard on a mass level due to all the pop and EDM and other styles that are getting so much attention. Does that bother you? Or do you feel there's an opportunity for more artistic growth outside the spotlight?

You touched on a lot of things there. It doesn't bother me at all. To me, whatever people like, that's great. If anything, what's tough for me is just the amount of touring that bands have to do if they want to make a living off their music. We were really lucky with this record that we wrote something we're really happy with in a very short period of time. We've talked about wanting to take more time with the next album.

There's so much excellent music out there right now, and that's awesome. People find these little niches and that's great. I think that's a really positive thing — that people can get more specific about what they're into in terms of art. You don't only have to get into Led Zeppelin. Not that people felt obligated to get into Led Zeppelin. (Laughs.)

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts