BEN STIDWORTHY grew up around Portland. He left to study religion and classical Tibetan language at McGill University in Montreal. Three years later, he's visiting home as the bassist for an angular, action-inspired, challenge-rewarding band of post-punks.
Ought's 2014 debut, More Than Any Other Day, comes via Constellation Records, a Montreal-based outfit revered worldwide for practicing the radical, anti-corporate politics they preach. (They're also home to such acts as Godspeed You! Black Emperor and the late Vic Chesnutt.) When Constellation offered to release Ought's first LP, the label had one request: no licensing songs for advertisements. Eagerly, the band agreed.
In part and parcel, Ought was born of a student strike at McGill, where all four members attended. Tuition costs were getting out of hand and the kids stood up. The initial protests in late 2011 topped 30,000 participants. A university building was occupied and the riot policed rolled in.
It was Stidworthy's first year. At a party, just before things went haywire, he jammed with some new friends, including guitarist Tim Beeler. It went pretty well. But life—and politics—intervened.
"The student strike happened and I didn't play music for a lot of that time because I stopped going to school completely and just went out doing protests, direct action stuff, and economic disruptions," Stidworthy says. "It was kind of my life." The strike lasted from early 2012 until the fall.
Just before he was to return to Portland for the summer, Stidworthy got a call from Beeler, who wanted help recording an EP. In a few quick days, they—along with keyboardist Matt May and drummer Tim Keen—knocked it out. When Stidworthy returned to Montreal that fall, despite having no place to play, the four picked up where they left off.
"We went to this rent-by-the-hour jam space," Stidworthy says. "And just were like: 'All right, I guess we're a band so we've got to do something.' So we just started jamming."
Through snow, temperatures in the negative teens, and a 30-minute walk, Stidworthy and his fellow expats were compelled. Based on improvisations, they began writing collectively as their disparate tastes and backgrounds—three Americans and an Australian—coalesced.
"We got lucky," Stidworthy says. "You never know what's going to happen with four individuals when you put them in a room together."
Over the next year, Ought hashed out the songs on More Than Any Other Day, a record they recorded and mixed in just six days. According to Stidworthy, no song got more than three takes in the studio. As such, the album is livid and immediate; unaffected but affecting.
In both sound and sentiment, "Habit" is Ought's joie de vivre. Both it and the record at large feature a band that's much more than the sum of its parts, the foursome locked in deep conversation, each song traversing multiple peaks and valleys. It is also a call to arms: to burst forth from the sleepwalking confusion of the status quo.
As Beeler told Impose magazine: "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."
He might as well have been speaking of Ought, who've followed a similar spark on tours abroad and across the US, including their first Portland performance.
"My mom is kind of over the moon," says Stidworthy of his homecoming show, though logistics dashed her hopes of dinner. "She's like: 'Well, I'll just come down and grab your laundry and I'll go home and do it really quick and then come back.'
"We're all going to be staying at my mom's house," Stidworthy adds. "But I imagine after the show, I'll go spend time with friends and then slowly walk home at 4 am."