Creative Alchemy: An Interview with OK Go’s Damian Kulash
The lead singer reveals the mad musical science powering the band’s unforgettable videos and fresh new album
Even if people don’t know the band’s name, somewhere north of 75 million of those people know “the guys from the treadmill video.” And that’s a creative cross Damian Kulash and his OK Go brethren are happy to carry. When the single-take treadmill dance to “Here It Goes Again” went viral in 2006, Kulash and company capitalized on the accidental momentum and began churning out potentially viral videos—many of which were also single-take, all of which were über-creative.
From the logistically impressive Rube Goldberg Machine in “This Too Shall Pass” to the visually deceptive art installments of “The Writing’s on the Wall,” OK Go’s videos are their calling cards, often over-shadowing the music itself. But, really, the two elements define and depend upon each other—the bold, primary colors that stimulate the eyes merge into more nuanced shades for the ears. That’s the OK Go way. And their new release, Hungry Ghosts, further evidences the efficacy of their mad musical science.
Cuepoint: Hope you aren’t yet tired of talking about your videos…
Damian Kulash: Never!
It seems like maybe you guys are just sitting around and somebody says “dogs” or “treadmills” or “marching band” and you run with it. But what’s the actual development process for the videos?
You pretty much just nailed it. The thing that is unique about it is this: Most people who make films or really any creative projects, the more expensive they get and the more equipment and people that are required, the more likely people are to do a shit-ton of planning in advance sitting in a production office somewhere. And then, they arrive on set with every shot planned out with every contingency covered and everything’s storyboarded and it’s all great. That means you’re very efficient and you get the most production value for your dollar, but it also means you’re limited to the ideas you came up with at a desk.
What we try to do is get the best idea we can at that desk and then get out into the place where we’re going to be making whatever we’re going to be making and play with it a lot. We have a lot of trial and error, a lot of figuring out what does and doesn’t work. Usually, by the time we’re done with that process, the idea is pretty dramatically different from what we started with. But at least we’re doing things that make you think, “How could anyone have possibly planned this?” Well, very slowly. And it means that we waste a lot of money and our production value is… we don’t shoot the world’s most clean and beautiful stuff, but we have videos that no one else could have.
Yeah, you do. They are all creative. What ideas have you not been able to pull off… yet?
Oh, man, that’s like, “What books haven’t been written yet?” I mean, there are plenty of ideas that are just prohibitively expensive that I would love to do. I can not wait until we can go to outer space. You know, we often get asked if there’s some pressure to keep on scaling things up or to top the last one or make it crazier, bigger. And, the truth is, no. We don’t really feel that pressure except that we want to keep ourselves interested. We want to keep it fun and new and fresh for us.
But, if you look at the videos we made for our last record, there are three or four that we knew would be very popular, especially the Rube Goldberg Machine or the dogs. That’s something that little old ladies in their knitting circles are going to get into. Whereas the one for “WTF?” or the one for “Last Leaf”—the psychedelic green screen or the toast one—those who like film will like those, but we didn’t think they’d blow up the Internet. I still think the one for “WTF?” is one of the best things we’ve ever made. It’s fuller and, again, not as poppy. But there are still great ideas that are small, that are a film technique that just grabs you by the nuts and you think, “I could do something really cool with that.” And then there’s outer space.
[Laughs] Right, yes. Well, I love the “WTF?” video and the song continually gets stuck in my head. So, well done sir.
Thank you! It’s hard for people to get a song in the time signature of five stuck in their head. So, if it gets stuck in your head, we truly have succeeded. That’s great.
Oh, it haunts me. Now, if OK Go had been around 25 years ago, you’d have been MTV darlings with multi-platinum albums.
Or we wouldn’t exist.
Fair point. What’s the pay-off for being YouTube sensations?
We don’t make nearly as much money as a band of our level of success would have 20 years ago, you’re right. However, we can do whatever we want and we can continue to succeed and exist. Honestly, we got to make these videos because of, basically, an accident. We made some small, cool thing and it took off on YouTube. Not to slag them, but nothing ever took off from MTV unintentionally. You know what I mean?
There’s no such thing as a surprise break-out hit on MTV because they plan what’s on there. So, 20 years ago, we would’ve had to go through the system which was write music and get it produced in such a way that the gatekeeper at your label develops faith in it—enough faith that they can then take that square hole from the label and get it through the circular hole of radio, which is another gatekeeper. And then you’d have to get through this star-shaped hole of MTV, which would be another gatekeeper. The things that did that were certainly a lot more profitable than anything we’ve ever made, but it’s not clear to me that, if we’d existed 20 years ago, that we would have gotten past the demo phase before some label shut us down.
That could very well be the case. It has always surprised me how much artists are willing to sign away to those gatekeepers, just in the hopes of maybe being a star.
Yeah, but it’s basic supply and demand. Everybody wants to do this job and there aren’t very many slots for it. And it’s less and less of the case—but still sort of the case—that the only people with the reach and the finances to give you a real shot are those people you just signed your life away to and they have all the leverage.
I mean, we were on a major label for nearly a decade and, certainly, if we’d been running the show, things would’ve gone very differently. But I can’t complain. We toured the country countless times for nearly a decade and we weren’t shut down. At the end of the day, I know we made that label a little bit of money. If we’d put those records out ourselves, maybe we could have made more, but I don’t know that we would have had the shot. When you go out on your very first tour and no one’s ever heard of you before, even if you’re sleeping on your friends’ floors, you can suck up $30 to $40,000 over the course of several months pretty damn quick. And that’s an untenable proposition for a bunch of 22-year-olds who don’t have any money.
How has having your own label—and running the show for yourselves—informed or impacted the music side? Combining the art and the commerce…
Oh, man, it has changed everything. I don’t even want to think about gatekeepers, but there’s no internal barrier to any particular idea, you know? If we want to put out a video game, we put out a video game. If we want to spend our money on making the most absurdly immersive tour we can, then we’ll do it. The larger group of people you have to convince—for anything—the less likely you are going to be to convince them, especially when those aren’t people you picked for their taste or whatever. When it’s a label, who knows who is making those decisions.
When I listen back to our first album, I still like the songwriting. I still think there are some good songs on there. Everyone cringes a little when they hear themselves from 15 years ago, but I don’t think those are bad records. I do think that there’s a subtle, internal regulation going on. If I came up with a groovy little number or a quiet soul song, before we even reach the phase of demoing it or even figuring out what the words to the chorus were, that little seed didn’t get watered. It was, “That’s not who we are. We’re a rock band. We play guitar, bass, and drums.”
And the last records feel very different to me because we’ve consciously stripped that critic away. It’s like, “If this is the thing that feels best to play right now, then that’s what we are.” There’s nothing about a label that inherently stops you from having that thought, but it’s much easier and more transparent to get past thinking that way when you don’t have all these other people who will receive your baby and have to shepherd it out into the world.
If our fans don’t like our new record because it’s too different from our old records, if radio doesn’t want to play any of the songs off of our record, that’s my business problem now, not somebody else’s. And I’d rather be doing it in the service of things that feel the most fresh and honest to me. Who cares if we don’t fit the radio format? Who cares if it’s not what people were expecting from us? I think it’s subtle, but knowing we’re at the wheel and no one can tell us “no” down the road really lets us be more creatively open from the beginning.
You guys have always painted in broad, bold strokes, both musically and visually. With this current tour, I keep wondering how such small clubs are going to contain your big energy.
It’s been really fun. We’ve been playing all these small clubs on this tour and it’s been so fun to just be way outside for it. The feeling is like a party in a pressure cooker.
It’s funny you say that about the bold strokes in the music. Sort of two ways to go with this… One is the way that we write. Early on in my career, I would imagine something. The song “Get Over It” was a fairly direct process. It was me going, “How come the world doesn’t have stadium rock anthems anymore? Everybody wants a stadium rock anthem. I’m going to write a fucking stadium rock anthem.” [Laughs] And, what you hear is my version of a stadium rock anthem. I like that song just fine, but—sort of like what I was saying about the filmmaking—you are limited to the idea you can have in advance. And now, we do much more playing. We put a bunch of sounds together and, every once in a while, when you add Sound A to Sound B, rather than getting a third sound, you get emotion. You get this alchemical reaction. You have lust and fury and melancholy all at once and you don’t know how these emotions can even co-exist. It’s amazing.
For me, those things don’t tend to come up in the same spots all the time. I envy bands like the Strokes or the Pixies or Elliott Smith where it’s like every song follows, emotionally, right in line with the one right before it. They aren’t the same song, exactly, but albums are one, long mood. You know? My records, on the other hand, hopefully there’s an emotional journey there, but they jump around a lot more stylistically because the moments that resonate for me—where the lust and fury and melancholy jump out—they’re not tied to a style. They’re tied to those sounds. They’re tied to that thing.
And, it’s funny… I made a bunch of records when I was in college. When I got out of college, I had a friend who was working low down at Dreamworks who was like, “I can get your stuff into their A&R meeting and see if they’d be interested in signing you.” The reaction from the A&R people was, “We like this, but we don’t know what it is because it’s going in too many directions. Does this guy write acoustic ballads? Or does this guy write electro-pop? Or does he write Cheap Trick power pop songs? Where is this going?” I sort of thought, as I grew up, that the voice would become more clear and more of a style. But, it’s the opposite. The voice is the connective tissue between all those things, rather than any one of those things itself.