Q&A: OK Go’s Damian Kulash
The frontman for the viral video phenoms talks about the band's new album and answers your Twitter questions!
Five years after the L.A.-by-way-of-Chicago quartet’s tart, catchy Oh No found success on the strength of the charmingly low-budget, treadmill video they filmed to accompany the punkish single “Here It Goes Again,” OK Go is back with the decidedly Prince-ly Of the Blue Colour of the Sky, out Jan 12.
“I’d always been a fan of Prince’s,” says frontman Damian Kulash, speaking on the phone from L.A. “Something about his voice and songs touches me in a profound way — and this time around his music made it from my life into the band’s music.”
Kulash has a lot of practice letting people into his life — the band’s Twitter following is over 300,000 strong. So in addition to answering our questions about the new album, he took the time to respond to questions sent to SPIN via Twitter.
The new album has a very different, more layered sound than your first two. What prompted the change?
A lot of that has to do with working with [MGMT and Flaming Lips producer] Dave Fridmann. We’ve been fans of his for ages. Actually, we’ve talked to him about recording every record that we’ve made but it just never happened. Mostly because the music we were making didn’t fit the sonic universe that he lives in. He can do this massive, expansive, 3-dimensional surreal beautiful world and the music we were making would not have benefited from that kind of treatment. Back then, we were looking to make music that was immediate and in your face. But as we were making the demos for this record, we realized we were making a poor man’s version of Dave Fridmann productions. We had, like, 80 different demos that all had swirling synthesizers and massive drum sounds. It was clear that we were making something that would live very well in his world. And that’s where we decided to go.
You had 80 demos? Is it normal for you guys to have that much material when you go in to make a record?
I don’t know what’s normal for other bands but that’s normal for us. It used to be the other way around. When I wrote [2002 single] “Get Over It” I remember thinking that I wanted to write a stadium rock anthem because there wasn’t enough of those anymore. But I think there’s a limit to how far you can go with that method of writing before you start sounding like you’re just imitating things. So now I write by making scraps — a demo might be just a drum beat or just a chord progression. Then we build from there. That can result in a lot of false starts, but it’s been working for us lately.
Speaking of building things, I’ve heard that you’re working on a Lego Taj Mahal.
[Laughs] I was just working on it not that long ago! It’s not done yet. I have the outer ring and the turrets all ready to go. And the middle dome is finished, but the building underneath the dome isn’t done yet. I love Lego.
I can see how doing Lego would be kind of a Zen activity.
It totally is! I’m such a manic person and a spaz that doing something very paced and rote is good for me. With Lego, you just kind of follow directions and put things where they’re supposed to go. It engages your sense of creativity without actually engaging your brain. It’s the best feeling. I love it. The only toys I ever asked for were Lego. I never asked for Transformers. Only Lego. It’s comfort food for my brain.
Our readers Tweeted in some questions for you. Do you mind if we ask some of those now?
Let’s do it.
@thelowedown wanted to know: “What is your favorite city to play on tour?”
I should say that superlatives in general are very difficult to me. I very rarely have a best or most of anything, but I have cities that are regularly wonderful. I don’t think we’ve ever had a bad show in Austin, Texas. Probably not in Washington, D.C., either. I always look forward to playing London. More often than not the best shows are a total surprise. There’s just a certain magic that happens when a crowd decides they want to go for it as much as the band does. When the crowd is good you can’t have a bad show and when a crowd is shitty, the best you can do is perform your music competently.
I know you’ve got some European tour dates lined up, but do you guys know your American touring plans for 2010 yet?
Not really. We’re in Europe for the next month. Then Australia. Then making videos for most of February. I believe in March and April we start carpet-bombing the U.S. It’s weird for us because we’re used to doing such endless touring that to have a record coming out with only a month or two of shows planned feels strange.
Good strange good or bad strange?
Good strange. I think the business people have finally come to the realization that it doesn’t matter how many records sell in your first week. The world doesn’t operate in this top-down bullshit scale any more where people in their highback leather chairs decide what will be popular this week. The things that make a difference to individuals are the things that creep through culture in their own way and at their own pace. We’ll tour when it’s right. We’re not going to force ourselves down people’s throats — until the spring anyway!
Back to the Twitter questions. @NathanPOPPE asks: “In what way can a music video make a song better or worse?”
Oh boy. That’s a really good question. I think a video works best when it gives the song an extra dimension as opposed to just illustrating the lyrics. When a video can hurt is when it seems like an advertisement for coolness, or the band, or ideas that are explicit in the song anyway. I’m shocked when people take a sad love song and then do a video that’s a narrative treatment of a break-up. Those kinds of videos are almost implying that the song was a failure because it didn’t communicate what the song was about. What we want to do with our videos is have a short burst of feeling; to give you a cool little world to live in for three minutes. That’s what we’re going for.
Along similar lines, @ebrown03 wrote in: OK Go is known for wacky original music videos. What’s the most fun the band has had making one?
Most fun? That’s like asking which of your kids you love the most. They were all fun in such different ways. Making the treadmill video [for “Here It Goes Again”] was one of the most fun weeks of my life. Then we just finished a video [for the new album’s “This Too Shall Pass”] that we made with the Notre Dame marching band. That was a hell of a lot of fun. There were 200 kids from the marching band and local elementary schools making it with us. That was a real high.
Last, @AlSwearengen asks: “Who makes the stripey sweaters you and [bassist] Tim [Nordwind] wear in the “WTF” video? Where can I get one?”
We got them in an army surplus store, so I assume some army somewhere made them. If you want your army surplus sweater to look like mind did, then you have to putt some gaffer tape on the sleeves. And if you want it to look like Tim’s then you have to dye it pink. Also, I should add that the clothing in the video was a collaboration between us and a designer named Jasmin Shokrian. All of this is explained, by the way, in a video called HTF?, which you can find online.
I hope you’re prepared for fans to show up at your shows wearing lookalike sweaters now.
I definitely am. I’m just hoping they don’t think my responses to their questions were too over-caffeinated!