Interview: OK Go Vocalist Damian Kulash On The Band's New Label, New Direction and Yes, Its Videos

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OK Go is at the Old Rock House on Sunday - PICTURE GROUP
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  • OK Go is at the Old Rock House on Sunday

It's not even half-over yet, but 2010 has already been a monumental year for OK Go. In January, the quartet released Of The Blue Colour Of The Sky, its first album of original material since 2005's Oh No. A marked departure from their earlier records' Weezer/Cars/Pixies pastiches, Colour finds OK Go channeling Prince and Parliament-Funkadelic through the filter of producer Dave Fridmann's grandiose psychedelic sound. The result is a funky, danceable album that bears similarities to Fridmann's work with the Flaming Lips and MGMT, but still retains OK Go's pop smarts and peppy personality.

In addition to tweaking their sound, the treadmill kings continued their tradition of making innovative videos with their Rube Goldberg machine clip for "This Too Shall Pass." The video arrived with some controversy, as OK Go front man Damian Kulash voiced his displeasure with the group's record label EMI over their policy that prohibited the clip from being embedded on websites in a New York Times Op-Ed piece.

Since then, OK Go and EMI have parted ways and while both parties claim the split was amicable, a Billboard cover story on the band implies that the separation wasn't entirely on good terms. The band is now operating on their own upstart called Paracadute.

OK Go is currently in the middle of a 33-date North American tour. In preparation for the band's April 18 show at the Old Rock House, A to Z chatted with Kulash about his band's new direction, the merits of starting its own record label and the new album's connection to The Influence of the Blue Ray of the Sunlight and of the Blue Colour of the Sky, a book published in 1876 that posits that blue light has healing powers.

Bob McMahon: Listening to your new album, it's obviously very different from your last two, and I was curious what prompted this new sound/new direction. Damian Kulash: It's a different style of writing entirely. Our first couple of records, I think we made sort of the way you write prose. You like to think of a thing you want, then you parse out the words and try to arrange them grammatically and then out comes a sentence. And those records were sort of goal-oriented. We kind of imagined the song and then tried to get to it. And on this record it was different. We started with very simple musical elements and just played around with it until something emotionally resonant kind of jumped out. In those moments when something like that happened, we sort of chased that down and figured out where the song went behind it. And so instead of having an endpoint we were shooting for, it was kind of like just following where the car wanted to go kind of thing.

So it was more of a conscious attempt to write differently and things came out differently? Well, yeah. We started by writing the same way we had in the past, we just didn't like anything that we had written. We had been on tour for 31 months on our last record and after two-and-a-half years of playing every night, the things that push your buttons emotionally change a lot. We got back in the studio at home thinking, like, "Turn up the amplifier and prepare to get yourselves fired up!" And out comes the windmill guitar and it's just not exciting anymore. We just extended that particular type of catharsis to ourselves.

With that long tour and this exhaustion with that sound, is that why it took five years to release a new album? Yeah. We've been touring for the better part of five years and two-and-a-half straight. And while the first two records are pretty different from each other in a lot of ways, they certainly were written very similarly, a kind of similar songwriting style. It was time for something new. This was your first record you made with [lead guitarist and keyboardist] Andy Ross. What different things did he bring to the table? Did he have any ideas, songwriting or production-wise? It's really hard to quantify because I'd have had to have tried to make this record with someone else [to know]. Everything about this writing and recording process was different for us, and so it's hard to know how much of that was Andy and how much of that was just different choices we made, period. What [former lead guitarist/keyboardist] Andy Duncan brought to the mix tended to be... the sort of signature types of inspired moments. What a lead guitarist can really bring to the recording a lot of times is these spectacular left-turn moments. You think you've got a song together and then what they throw into it, you're like "Whoa! That's not at all what I expected."

And Andy Duncan and Andy Ross both do that, but just in very different ways. They're both very stylized. There are a bunch of sort of like screaming metal solos in weird places, especially in the dance songs. A lot of times we break it down to these guitar solos which I think you wouldn't expect to find in those type of songs. And that's definitely something that Andy Ross brought to the table.

I've been reading lots of websites and news sources that say you based the [concept of the] album on this passage of this book, The Influence of the Blue Ray of the Sunlight and of the Blue Colour of the Sky. But elsewhere, you wrote that you actually had finished most of the album by the time you discovered it? Yeah. It wasn't based on that [passage]. It's just that I found a real sort of resonance with that. When we were toward the end of the record trying to think about what sort of summed up the album for a title and what felt appropriate, I was reading this book of essays and that essay hit home. It really felt like the right thing for the record.

Did you really want a thematic unity for this record, or for that matter any record you've done, or is this just something where it seemed like a perfect fit? It just felt like a perfect fit. It wasn't like a theme that informed the making of the record so much as the making of the record felt like it was of a piece with the idea in that book. There's a sort of absurdity and a sort of poetry in this, in the "hope in hopeless times" sense. And it wasn't that I wanted to collect the record into a contained theme so much as I felt like the world of that book and that writer seemed like the right setting for thinking about this record. The new thing that's said when people talk about OK Go, including a recent Rolling Stone article, is that everybody knows you more for your videos than your actual music. What's your reaction to this sentiment? I mostly feel like the distinction is a pretty arbitrary one. There's a lot of talk about the demise of the recording industry. Things are changing very fast, but it's only a demise if you care about maintaining the categories and the terminology and the way of thinking from the old system. People want to look at what we do through the lens of 1995 or 1985, when a music video was somebody else's advertisement for your music, when a music video was something that the record label paid some filmmaker to make so they could sell your CDs. But our music videos are our own babies. We make them with the same passion and love and intensity that we make our records and it all feels like one project to us.

The idea that the music videos are somehow overshadowing the music is sort of like saying that our recordings are overshadowing our live performance. It's kind of like getting mad at Orson Welles for acting just because he could write and direct as well. To us, it's all one creative project. What we do when we get up in the morning is chase down our most exciting creative ideas. It all kind of starts from the music in the traditional sense, like in the beats and chords and lyrics, but it doesn't end there. The idea that our videos should somehow be at odds with our music, I mean it's like they don't detract from one another, they add to one another, I think.

I guess it is all you, when it comes down to it. From a larger perspective, think of it this way: People have this sort of weird, antiquated idea that rock & roll is just a bunch of beats and chords and melodies and lyrics, that music has these very definite edges to it. It's sounds, and that's that, that's all. If that were true, then why would it have mattered how Elvis shook his hips? While Elvis did have the greatest voice ever, it wasn't until he started shaking his hips that people started giving a shit. And what's the most rock & roll thing Jimi Hendrix ever did? He lit his guitar on fire. That wasn't beats or chords or lyrics or melodies. That was a performance art or film-making or showmanship, but it certainly wasn't what everybody wants to call music, like sound.

You look at what made something popular in 1988, it was the MTV music video. For 20 years, from the early '80s to early this century, the only way to have success in the music industry was to have a huge video made by somebody else. So the idea that people suddenly when they're talking about us want to talk about this distinction between our videos and our quote-unquote "music," our quote-unquote "rock & roll," it's all one project for us -- the same way it was all one project for Elvis or Jimi Hendrix or anyone. We haven't had music that's distinct from the digital elements of it since the early '50s. You guys recently left EMI and started your own record label. What does starting your own label allow you to do that you wouldn't be able to do with them, aside from posting embeddable videos? Everything. Especially for a band like us, we don't particularly subscribe to the set of definitions that people want to use for music, much less the music industry. Like I said, what we want to do is have the opportunity to keep chasing down our creative ideas, and it doesn't really matter to us where the rent check comes from as long as it's coming from somewhere. So whether or not we sell records or we sell the concepts from the videos or we sell the books we've written essays for or we sell the tickets to our concerts or any one of a million other things, we don't need a record company, what we need is a way to pay the rent. And that could come from any of the creative things we do.

The record business is just very limited by the fact that its only revenue stream was for years the sales of copies of recordings of your music. We make those recordings, we also write the music that is embodied in those recordings, we also play concerts, we also write things, we also design things, we also make films, we also do performances... There's a whole world of stuff that we do creatively and starting our own company allows us to make a living off of all of that instead of trying to just eke a living out of one tiny corner of it.

Are there any other goals that you have for the label besides pursuing your creative ideas, or is that mainly just a way to support that? Right now, it's just a way to support that. If our model of thinking about music and creativity and the business necessities behind that works out for us, then it's conceivable we will try to expand that to other people as well. But for now, it may be a little selfish but we're not in this to make a lot of money or to try revolutionize the music industry, we just want to be able to make the things we want to make. If this company can stay small and flexible and nimble and let us just do whatever it takes to stay afloat creatively, then that's all we need to do.

With your new musical direction, how hard is it to reconcile your old material with your new songs? I thought that would be difficult, that it would seem like night and day between the two bodies of music. But it turned out to be a lot easier than I thought. I think when you listen to the recordings back-to-back that you're listening very purely just to the composition and the recording. But in a live show it's much more about the kind of collective energy of the room. A successful live show I think has more to do with everybody being on the same emotional wave than it does with specifically the particular composition. I don't know if that really makes sense. What differentiates a live show from listening to a recording is that connection between us onstage and the audience. And regardless of which songs we're playing, that connection stays pretty constant. And so where I thought we would find these big, weird sort of phase shifts in the show from one type of music to another, it feels actually pretty continuous. The show feels a lot more consistent than it does if you listen to the music just the recordings back-to-back.

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