The members of Ought (l to r): Ben Stidworthy, Matt May, Tim Keen and Tim Darcy (Photo: Jenna Ledger)


They came to study, they stayed to rock

The critically acclaimed post-punk band Ought is a mainstay of Montreal’s booming indie music scene. Its four members met at McGill.

Story by Brendan Kelly, BA'85

April 2018

One thing that is often overlooked in discussions of Montreal’s vibrant alt-rock scene is the key role that the city’s universities play in that milieu.

Many of Montreal’s most acclaimed bands – from Arcade Fire to Half Moon Run to Braids – feature members who originally hail from other cities and, often enough, have made the trek to Montreal to pursue a university degree.

Once done with their studies, they frequently decide to stay, thanks to Montreal’s affordable rents, its cool vibe and, most importantly, its booming indie music scene.

Ought is the perfect example of this phenomenon.

The four-piece post-punk band is made up of three Americans and one Australian, all of whom first came to Montreal to study here. The Americans are singer-guitarist Tim Darcy, BA’13, bassist Ben Stidworthy, BA’14, and keyboardist Matt May, BA’13. The Australian is drummer and violinist Tim Keen. They first met at McGill.

The four musicians formed Ought in 2012 and at that point the three U.S.-born members were at McGill and Keen was studying at Concordia. Stidworthy was completing a degree in history and religious studies.

“I turned in my final paper the day of our album launch,” says Stidworthy. “So it was very down to the wire. I wanted to drop out, but my mother insisted that I finish and I’m happy she did. I got the degree and then two weeks later we were on tour and it’s just been that life ever since. It’s been kind of intense.”

Stidworthy notes, that “there is a great tradition of musicians studying religious studies at McGill,” a list that includes Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler, BA’04, Devon Welsh, BA’11, from Majical Cloudz, and Brigitte Nagar from Common Holly.

Ought’s first album, More Than Any Other Day, was released in 2014 to immediate critical accolades. Critics around the globe – from taste-making music-criticism web site Pitchfork to the venerable Rolling Stone – were lavish in their praise for the album, which featured a driving punk-flavoured sound that recalled great late-seventies/eighties bands like the Violent Femmes, Gang of Four and Talking Heads.

The album’s songs were written during the 2012 student protests in Quebec and the anarchic energy of those street protests coloured the feel of the album.

The band followed that up with Sun Coming Down in 2015, and they recently released their third album, Room Inside the World, on Merge, one of the U.S.’s leading indie labels, and on Royal Mountain Records in Canada.

It’s a more melodic, less frenzied, less jarring record than the first two albums, featuring a somewhat more accessible sound.

“We let it be a pretty organic process, but we definitely knew we wanted to shake things up,” says Darcy. “Some of the ideas were building on things we were doing in the other two records. We just perfected some of those ideas and presented them in a new context. But this is really a studio record, where the others are really live portraits. They were made in a studio, but the energy was different. There was definitely a push to try for different types of songs.”

The new approach surprised some longtime fans, but the critical reaction has been generally enthusiastic. British music publication DIY Magazine called the album Ought’s “richest, greatest work yet.”

The band members all journeyed to Montreal from different places. May comes from northern New Jersey, Stidworthy is from Portland, Oregon, Darcy was living in New Hampshire before moving to Montreal, and Keen is from Melbourne. Stidworthy says it is no accident that musically inclined students are drawn to Montreal.

“Definitely I can say I came to McGill thinking I can study what I want to study and Montreal is a great city, but also they have an amazing music scene and I want to play music more than I want to do anything else.” His thought process at the time was that “hopefully [going to McGill] can be a stepping stone to doing music without freaking out my mom too much.”

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