YOU CAN DANCE IF YOU WANT TO: Best experienced at face value, the debut record from Canadian band Ought was our Album of The Year in 2014. Tom May met them to discuss irony


The area clustered around London’s Kings Cross St. Pancras International station is uncanny in its flows and currents, its unexpected seduction. It feels both tight and loose, abundant and scarce. I wander down an impossibly wide street, ducking into a migrainously-lit Italian restaurant. Inside, people struggle to be heard, straining their voices over the clatter and their tongues against the unfamiliar contours of a foreign language. Suitcases are crammed under tables, held between legs. We’re all about to leave/only just arriving, minds already elsewhere and elsewhen.

Later, in a pub nearby, I seedily watch as a singles’ night gains in anxious momentum. Gestures alternately overwrought and guarded, laughter convincing, the room is thick with suffocating self-analysis – everyone observing, everyone wanting/not wanting to be observed. Collisions of bodies, of eyes, sex like a black hole at the centre of it all: unsaid, unacknowledged, but its gravitational pull irresistible and inescapable. Everywhere the thought: “What the fuck do I do, here, now?”

It’s a grey November evening and I’m killing a couple of dead hours before Ought’s set at the Scala, a majestic 1920s former-cinema and the host, only a few days before, to the 2014 UK Twerking Championships (a real thing). “We looked for the Harry Potter thing, but couldn’t find it,” singer and guitarist Tim Beeler tells his audience later, referring to the luggage trolley lodged halfway into the wall between Kings Cross’ platforms 9 and 10. It’s a bizarre non-attraction, seen by most only through the distorting lens of a viewfinder – a surreal semantic dead-end fracturing the blankness of the station’s hanger-like “wait and consume zone.”

And drinking in the faint absurdity of the Kings Cross area – its weird sense of busy emptiness, its transience and distance – feels like an apt prelude to Ought’s air of mildly amused alienation. “Something that we’re interested in, definitely, is things you can’t really put your finger on but that are, nonetheless, very real and pertinent to how you think about yourself and your life and et cetera,” Beeler tells me during our meeting earlier in the day. We’re huddled in a corridor on the Scala’s top floor, the band sat against the wall as I reluctantly perch on the only available chair. “So an example of that is in ‘Gemini’” – the closing track from the Montreal-based group’s debut album ‘More Than Any Other Day’, our album of the year – “the lyrics are: ‘I retain the right to be disgusted by life, I retain the right to be in love with everything in sight’. It’s like total opposites.”

I ask the group about a song, as yet unreleased but already a regular fixture of their live show, entitled ‘Beautiful Blue Sky’. As the track’s circling beat builds in insistence, its lyrics tighten from an impressionistic string of objects (“warplane”, “condo”, “new development”) to a high-paced repetition of non-sequiturs, a mess of linguistic surplus and refuse (“fancy meeting you here”, “how’s your day been”). And then it breaks, space arrives, and Beeler pronounces: “I am no longer afraid to die, it is all that I have left. Yes.” Later in the evening, this final word is accompanied by a brief flick of his head backwards, his delivery simultaneously coloured by self-aware resignation and sighing contentment, cautious ecstasy. “I am no longer afraid to dance tonight,” his tone now of mock seductiveness, “it is all that I have left. Yes.”

“And that bit has a similar thing in my mind, of essentially polar opposites,” he tells me, referring to the combination of ‘die’ and ‘dance’. “And yet like when you can’t really get at it, when you can’t really find the words for particular feelings, sometimes all you can do is kind of shoot for the other end and know that what you’re getting at is somewhere in between those things.

“Somewhere between feeling we’re, you know, really messing things up. We’re… not doomed but…” Here, he pauses, laughing. “… things can be fairly dire. And yet not wanting to slip into nihilism and total hopelessness and still wanting to transcend that in a sense. Wanting to accept that, sometimes you need to focus on things that are a bit more of the moment, and a bit more related to fun, and joy or whatever. So holding both of those things at the same time is in essence what’s happening in that moment.”

This attempt to accommodate two competing thoughts – or, less concretely, feelings and senses – in one’s mind motivates much of the fraught ambiguity of Ought’s music. During the near-title track of the group’s debut, Beeler announces, with intense fervour, that “today, more than any other day, I am excited to make decisions between 2% and whole milk”. And at this moment, there’s a simultaneity of the meaningless and the meaningful – the banal and the profound – that bestows this decidedly run-of-the-mill decision with an aura of strange significance.

“The joke about the 2% milk thing is that that’s fucking meaningless,” drummer Tim Keen tells me, “that it doesn’t mean anything. But at the same time you do make these decisions, and they do have impact, and there are other things you can do in the world. So how do we wrestle with these two ideas at the same time, and you have to be able to – and that’s hard. A challenging thing to wrestle with – to find what you do have urgency for and don’t, and what is meaningful. And if you do that too long you end up in this circle where you wonder what meaningful things there are. The point is that we don’t have answers.”

Matt May, the group’s keyboardist, elaborates: “I feel like lots of musicians write in that very small, or quotidian, very experiential, personal style. So it’s sweet that we get talked about as doing that, because we do do that. But I think there’s quite a hidden history of people doing that, for aesthetic reasons, or for political reasons, or it’s just how they write songs. So I think, yeah, those things are simultaneously significant and insignificant. Like which milk you buy… Sorry to harp on that one,” he says, looking across to Beeler, “we need a different example.” Beeler interjects in a singsong voice, smirking with a semi-feigned fear of failing to top this much-quoted lyric: “Se-cond al-bum…”

“Those kind of things are these small moments, but those are the things you actually do,” May continues. “These big ideas and big crises – and fears and anxieties – are super real, and very much affect the way that you live on a day-to-day basis, but that’s very much like a material sense, manifested through how you treat people, and what you buy… So in the sense of things being very everyday, very quotidian, very small, for me that     just makes sense in how I interact with the world.”

It’s key to the band’s lyrical appeal – we all make tiny, inconsequential decisions that mean the world to us.

“I don’t interact with global capitalism, I interact with the store around the corner and conversations with friends,” concludes May.

“I feel like irony is one of those words where in my head a blinder goes up,” Beeler tells me, reacting to my first use of the word as I attempt to describe the ambivalent sense of detachment – bemused observation – that pervades the group’s music. Perhaps flowing outwards from, or at least gathering around, the elements of pastiche often identified in their fidgety post-punk (not least in Beeler’s wired, David Byrne-like vocal delivery), this supposed layer of self-awareness is something the group are keen to downplay, if not dismiss completely. “We’ve been asked stuff surrounding the irony question before and I’ve thought on it – for me it boils down to your direct connection into the thing. Something which can look ironic or whatever – it could be a silly artefact which you present exactly the same way – but you totally dig it.

“Like two posters,” he says, “one of which is collage-based and ’80s style, and one is like ironic ’80s. The other is essentially the same artefact so they’re hard to differentiate. I feel weird describing, or talking about, the moment between the person who made the thing and how it came out. Because really all that matters is: are you excited about it, is it fulfilling some creative desire, or do you enjoy having it around? I definitely understand bringing something in for its kitsch factor, if it’s not something that you’re attached to or actually enjoy, for me that supersedes whether or not it’s ironic.”

But aren’t these two artefacts – the ’80s poster and its ironic pastiche – created, circulated, experienced in specific cultural contexts? They might be the same artefact in a material sense, but surely the meanings of these signifiers – these styles, genres – change according to the time and place of consumption?

“At some level you either like the thing or you don’t,” says May. “As you said, everything exists in this world of signifiers, so the reason you like something is complicated. But I don’t necessarily think there is that much value in going, ‘oh, okay I like this thing, do I like it because it is a referential thing to this thing?’, and boiling it down to all the reasons. Maybe there’s a certain self-consciousness – and a fear-based self-consciousness – in irony. Again, we really don’t experience this that much in our world.”

Despite the group’s vocal resistance to the idea that irony is a concept particularly relevant to discussions of their music – claiming on numerous occasions that it’s not part of their “world” – it is difficult, as a listener, to ignore the presence of the often humorous, knowingness that surrounds even their music’s most earnest moments. ‘More Than Any Other Day’, is, after all, a record so clearly influenced by Talking Heads, The Velvet Underground and Pixies, at various points, to varying degrees. So as the conversation returns from this detour around the meaning and value of the term, I ask explicitly: is there any pastiche in Ought’s music?

“I think it’s complicated, because of the difference between… not eliteness, but knowingness and cheekiness,” Keen tells me, but only once we’ve briefly wrangled over the meaning of the term pastiche – a word that, just like “irony”, the group seem cautious to adopt themselves. “I think you can do something which is rooted in a very apparent genre and do it with a wink, without necessarily being entirely mocking. I think there’s this very complex duality: it’s not so much like ‘oh here we are making fun of this thing, or mastering it,’ or whatever. And it’s not so much the other way: ‘look at us we’re completely original, we have no reference to anything.’ There’s some sort of middle path you have to take, and if you can do that with a sense of humour, I find it helps negate the scary end of it.”

“I would just go back to what Tim was saying about it,” says May, “in that what we do is sincere in that it’s not meant to poke fun at, or see how funny it is that we can do this. And it comes from a place of music that we like, and like playing, so in that sense it’s sincere. There’s also a cheekiness in it. You could take it too seriously – and to present everything straight-faced and deadpan would be disingenuous and insincere. The cheekiness to me is just like a part of the fact that this is… We take it seriously but we don’t think it’s this grandiose thing, like we’re doing this totally unique thing that nobody else has ever done. I mean that would be preposterous. And really silly in a different way.”

As happens so often in our conversation, we return again to this sense of dualism that exists in numerous guises throughout Ought’s music. Of course, any pastiche, or indeed irony, within the group’s work is present only as a foil – a countermelody – to its simultaneous directness, its immediacy: neither sufficient, both necessary, these competing registers combine into the resulting fullness, arresting and beguiling in its ambiguity.

Later that evening, the group introduce ‘Beautiful Blue Sky’, the final song on the set-list, with the announcement that “this is the dance track”. And as we’re told “you can dance if you want to… leave your friends behind”, the cleverness of the reference to ’80s band Men Without Hats is held in taut counterpoint with the deeply felt desire to do just that.


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