In what will be the most memorable rock video of the year, OK Go's "This Too Shall Pass," begins with a red toy truck being pushed into a line of dominoes that sets off an elaborate Rube Goldberg-like chain reaction of mayhem and pop magic. Pianos fall, TVs are smashed and the lead singer, Damian Kulash, is thrown into a pyramid of cardboard boxes. After multiple viewings (it's impossible not to watch it more than once) viewers are left with the feeling that this is indeed a band willing to work for their dreams of rock stardom. By all accounts, OK Go is reaping the dividends of such viral efforts.
The Los Angeles-based group's fan base, that is probably familiar with their syncopated shenanigans on treadmills in their previous hit, "Here It Goes Again," seems to have found solace in such endeavors. Their latest self-produced album, Of the Blue Colour of the Sky, does not disappoint and their hooks and tricks parallel the innovative nature of a group that is here to stay. ASD took a moment to talk to lead singer and guitarist Damian Kulash about working outside the corporate music machine, how a song is like a good dinner, and unlocking the mysteries of pop music.
Your new album, Of the Blue Colour of the Sky, falls together like a pop flipbook. What do you think you were looking for this time around?
Well, in the past we tried to start off with a unique thought and specific theme when writing songs. We wrote our first big single, "Get Over It," because we were wondering why people weren't making pop anthems anymore. We were looking for a big shameless guilty pleasure. With this record, it started that way, but it was less clear what that goal was.
You sound like there were a few musical roadblocks in the beginning.
Yeah, we set off to make an OK Go record and what we initially got was a few songs that sounded like someone ripping off OK Go. We had our bag of tricks and the hooks people usually associate with us, but it lacked heart. And there is nothing more repulsive to me than to hear my own creation and feel like it is not beautiful.
Like wow, 'I made an ugly baby.'
Yeah, exactly. So we trashed all of that first stuff and started writing again. I suppose we were trying to find something that had some type of resonance and really mattered to us. It wasn't a reflection of how we think about music or how we know how to make music, but rather, what we hear in it or what we feel when making it. That process really wound up being trial and error, and we waited for some type of spark of magic to happen.
When do you know when that spark hits?
What's so crazy about music and the magic of being human is that really intense feelings are not one-dimensional. We all know that love is a broad concept, but when you hear it in a song, it can be happy, sad, bittersweet and joyful. I feel that spark when the emotions are complex like that. For example, there is this one song that every time I hear it, I cry or get a lump in my throat but it still gives me a good feeling.
What's the song?
Roberta Flack's "Do What You Gotta Do."
It's also a very liberated song even though it is a bit sad. When do you feel that liberated as a musician?
I feel that way whenever we are playing slower songs. Usually, the most exciting moments of our shows are the upbeat times when the audience is right there rocking with this collective energy. In those moments, I just feel like I am riding a wave but it is not necessarily coming out of me. However, we have been playing this new song called "Skyscrapers" on tour and it is a very restrained song. I've been really sinking my teeth into it and even though it feels very self-indulgent, it is really fun.
A chef doesn't give away his or her recipes, so how can you explain your art without stripping it of mystery?
First of all, I should note that I would much prefer thinking about music in the same way I think about food. You try to get to a resonate place with people. Culture is changing all of the time and you need new ways to get there, but the very idea of pop music, by definition, is that it is something you recognize and speak the language of already.
So where does the food reference come into it?
Well, like food, it is nice when people push boundaries, but it's also nice when it just tastes right, you know? A great chef might take you places you have never been before, but the point is to take you not just to a new place but rather a fantastic place.
It's funny, because music is often associated with the visual arts.
I don't actually want to watch a movie more than a few times, but I want to hear some of my favorite songs over and over again, like the perfect meal.
It sounds like that if you over think it, you might as well start making music for wallpaper.
I can't tell you why one piano and drum beat might song different than another piano and drumbeat. There is music theory, but it never really gives you a window into the emotions behind the work. If you try to replicate a particular emotion with music than you end up with something devoid of magic or emotion.
A lot has been written about OK Go reaching out to fans through new avenues via the Internet. People are quick to say that this is a conscious decision on your end, but I wondered if it is really that pre-meditated.
I'm trying to think of the honest answer to this. I suppose that life is not full of a lot of win-win situations. Music is one of those things where if it succeeds it is like a double win. Not only do you get to spend your time and energy pursuing something that you love, but what comes out of it is something that also makes other people happy and connected to you. I mean if you are walking down the street and you find a $100 bill, you would pick it up and say, 'Oh my god, look what I found!' Everyone around you might feel jealous, but for some reason if you are walking down the street and you find this incredible song, people will see that and want to party, dance and sing.
Yeah, but that feeling seems to get watered down when big record companies get involved.
I think I have built up so many expectations about the music industry and how it works as corporation, but there are these basic human needs that these things grew up around that are a lot simpler than the industries behind them. When people ask us about spending time connecting with fans, it seems weird only if someone looks through the perspective of a corporation or marketing campaign. We never wanted to deal with a massive set of middle men between us and the people that were listening to our music and if we can create the environment for our fans and have them help us create it, well, I'm not bullshitting you when I say it, but I am just star struck.
There is also a very intimate response from fans I guess.
When I spend six months making a music video, I can be fairly certain that people are going to see it and it is going to be as good as I want it to be. But a lot of the time our fans will spend weeks making things for us. A woman just gave us a miniaturized version of one of our laser guitars. It was a perfect scale model of a wooden guitar covered in leather, with fur and lasers. She just wanted to say, 'You just inspired me to be creative.' She wasn't trying to make a pay check or boost our ego. She was just inspired to do it.
You have been on the road at times for 31 months straight right?
Besides the obvious question of, 'What the hell were you thinking' I imagine that you have seen a fair share of recording studios, stages, and everything that comes with living the rock 'n' roll dream. Is there anything that you still find mysterious about making music at this point?
Well, I was about to say something that would make me gag...
OK go (no pun intended) for it.
Well, I think it gets more and more mysterious the further we get. It sounds new age-y, but I think when we started out as a rock band and were writing our first songs, it felt geometric. You find that you start having a difficult time getting anything out there that is cynical. The more experience we have playing, the more mechanical the day in and out it gets and you realize that that routine does not make you better at getting to a particular feeling. It might make you better at playing guitar, but people with technical skills are not the ones that make art move. When the Beatles played for however long it was, hundreds and hundreds of days in Hamburg, it allowed them to get to a place where they could actually find the magic behind things. I don't listen to a Beatles record and think, 'Oh my God, they are such talented guitarists.' I am more interested in how they got to that land of mystery. I suppose that we are just trying to pick the lock of some much larger mystery.