Damian Kulash of OK Go
Armed with merely ten dollars and a dance routine best described as happenstance, OK Go (Damian Kulash on vocals and guitar, Tim Nordwind on bass, Dan Konopka on drums, and Andy Ross on guitar and keyboards) burst on to the musical stage with a stylish bang. Making their initial mark on the scene with their self-titled debut in 2002, OK Go has been drawing in fans en masse with their own unique approach to music with infectious dance grooves and unaffected lyrics. With their follow up album Oh No released in 2005, the band is currently on the road with their high-energy live show and delightfully conspicuous stage clothes.
We recently sat down with lead singer Damian Kulash, Jr. before a show with She Wants Revenge and The Lashes in Clifton Park, New York. If it weren’t for a couple of brief yawns and hair tousles, you would never know this outspoken front-man was recovering from a case of bad salad, suffering from a lack of sleep, and in the midst of preparing to direct OK Go’s next video.
Interviewed by: Julie Zidel and Laura DiBetta | May 2006
You worked with Swedish producer Tore Johansson on your second album, Oh No, who previously worked with Franz Ferdinand and The Cardigans. How was he to work with and how did working with him contribute to the success of the album?
He was fantastic to work with and I think the thing that he brought to it mostly was an overall focus. We tend to get sucked up into vortexes of detail where we go after a kick drum sound for hours and hours and hours. He did a good job of helping us seize a whole record as a single thing. Since our song writing is kind of all over the place it helped up bring lots of wildly different songs into a similar sort of sonic space so that they all felt like they belonged together.
Some of your fans feel like Oh No is a huge departure sound wise from the debut album. Do you agree and was it a calculated move?
It feels very different to me. I suppose it was calculated in a sense that we knew that we didn’t want to make our first record again. It wasn’t so much that we were calculating our departure as we were calculating what we wanted next which was a different concept. A lot of people think it sounds really similar. To me it feels really different because it’s much more loose and organic and has much more to do with us playing together as opposed to us layering up things. Our first record was more about cramming every little space with bells and whistles. This one feels a lot more honest.
[Brief interlude while Damian contemplates the speed of the song playing in the background.]
It’s rumored that there were over 60 songs written for this album. How did you manage to whittle that down to 13?
They sort of whittle themselves down. About half of them the band didn’t collectively like enough to chase after. Some of them were too far upflung from the rest of them to seem that they would fit on an album together. You get excited about something one day you just chase after it until you’re done with it. There’s still some good ideas that didn’t make it on the record but I like to think that the best ones did.
Can we expect to hear the songs somewhere else?
Probably not. Little bits of them maybe. They’re not as good I don’t think but little bits of them may be.
That doesn’t stop some bands.
Yeah. Well it should in my opinion. We only want to release the stuff that’s good. I’m sure bits of them will resurface in new songs. Now that we’re thinking about our next record it’s not exciting to think about old recordings that you already turned down once. It’s like girls, ya know? You don’t want to go back and date your ex-ex-ex-girlfiend.
They do. Yeah that’s a terrible analogy because people do exactly that.
Much of the success of Oh No is given to the dance routine—
Did you ever expect it to be so huge?
Yes. Next question. We didn’t even know it was a video when we made it. It was a practice tape. On the other hand it does not surprise me that people like to see dancing so much.
You recently performed on Jay Leno but were unable to do “the dance” because of strict rules about lip-syncing. What’s that all about???
That was about total bullshit. I guess the person who books the Leno show has a rule about not having lip synched bands on there. We had to try to convince her that it wasn’t technically lip-synching. Rather, even if it is technically lip-synching, it’s more about a dance routine than it is about anything else. I think the thing is they are a comedy show and they do the comedy. When you come on to do the music you do the music. If what you do in anyway crosses over they don’t want to be involved. It infringed on there own territory too much.
You have the ability to change your vocal stylings from song to song quite dramatically.
Yes. [In his deepest voice]
Thank you. I appreciate that.
[nods] We know you have some crazy degree from Brown. Did you ever take singing lessons?
Yes but not at Brown. I took lessons after Brown from this insane man in Los Angeles named Ron Anderson. Who was Bjork’s vocal coach and Axl Rose’s vocal coach. In fact I got his number from Frank Black (of The Pixies) who is my idol. I don’t know that I learned a lot about vocal sounds from him but I have learned to keep my voice alive for 12 months of tour. The way I sang when we first started out, I would not have been able to make it through more than a couple week of shows. That is exactly why I was pointed towards him.
What singers inspire you?
Black Francis or Frank Black, Craig Wedren from Shudder To Think, Roberta Flack, Jeff Tweedy from Wilco, Robert Smith, Ian Brown from Stone Roses, Prince.
You haven’t been shy about expressing your political leanings and opinions like anti-piracy software on cds. How important is it to you to get that message out to your fans?
I don’t feel like a browbeating message deliverer but it is important to me. I try to be perceived as the person I think I am. It’s important to me when I feel strongly about something that I not shy away from talking about it. At the same time our music is not overtly political. I’m certainly not going to write songs about the fallacy of copy protection. I feel like good people are well spoken. Good citizens are involved. I feel like being some of each.
What one word or sentence do you hope your music evokes from fans?
What word or sentence?
Yeah. That’s it. Feeling. Thank you. You got it. I hope we’re not so one dimensional to only evoke a single emotion. What I care about music in general is that it does evoke emotion. That it kick you in the gut in that kind of animal way. That is what’s so great about music that it can communicate things so much more immediately and so much more intensely and emotionally then other kinds of communication. I just hope that our songs have those effects on people. Bad music isn’t much stuff that annoys me a lot. It’s just stuff I don’t care about. Bland. Blah. The one word I hope our music evokes is feeling. Just that people give a shit about it.
Your style has been self-described as awf-some (awful and awesome at the same time.) Can you describe how that came about?
There’s not really a direct root from birth to these clothes. I think the turning point for the band was playing a show across the street from the Republican National Convention in the 2004 election. We wanted to look like stuffy assholes. So, we all dressed in suits. I thought it would make the whole thing seem really stuffy but instead it actually make it really fun. I got into wearing suits in general. I guess in some strange evolutionary niche the patterns and insanity crept into there.
Were you ever t-shirt and jeans kinda guys?
Yeah. We were. Our first record, most of our promos pictures are t-shirts and jeans. It’s a little bit embarrassing. In fact, two nights ago, I was wearing t-shirt and jeans because they were the clothes I had in my bag back at the hotel. We went to see Depeche Mode play in New Jersey. It was a long drive from where we were. I got about half way to the show when I had realized that I had forgotten my real clothes. I was going to have to show up to this Depeche Mode show and meet Depeche Mode in jeans and a t-shirt which to me at this point feels like pajamas. It really bummed me out but I had to go through with it. So, I was a jeans and t-shirt guy once this week even. Accidentally.
You teamed up with iTunes for a successful viral marketing campaign to promote A Million Ways. How important do you think it is for bands to do that kind of thing today?
Very. Record labels will not have a strangle hold on the music industry for very much longer, in fact they don’t really now. The corollary is that there is no money in music anymore. Which can make it difficult to make a living. For people to find you in this sort of new era you definitely need to be actively involved with the online community.
You recently spent the night in jail in FL and after it all went down, the results were the most hilarious blog ever written and a mugshot fit for framing. Can you explain what happened to everybody and how you felt at the time?
Sure, well, I got to jail by standing in the wrong place and not moving when a cop asked me to. A cop who I didn’t know at the time was a cop. It was really funny at first. This woman asked me to move and I didn’t. Then she put some more appropriately dressed cops on me. They were like “What part of move didn’t you understand?”. I actually said, “I understood the whole thing. I just didn’t do it.” They didn’t like that at all. They basically tackled me and cuffed me behind my back and everything. Then sat me right outside the door of the club we were playing. Two thousand people are streaming out of the club. Now, of course, where they were trying to avoid a scene now they just created a huge one. It took 14 cops to get me to the station. They were so excited to play cop. This was all on Disney property but it was real Orlando police. I think that the Orlando police that are assigned to the Disney property never get to do anything because Disney always deals with it themselves. On the way to jail, I got the cop to watch our video in the car. Some girls drove by holding “Free Damian” signs. The whole thing really was just funny. When I got to jail it got pretty depressing. I was in a variety of different cells ranging between 2 and 20 people. From what I could tell everybody else there no had any expectation of leaving within 6 months. When people heard what I was in for they were like, “Wow! You’ll be out in 3 days or less!” Like that was such a blessing, ya know? The complete and total defeat of the people in there was overwhelming and pretty depressing.
Smirking Criminal Mastermind
OK Go is very interactive with the fans via fan interviews, flickr, the blog, etc. Has this been a conscious decision from the get go and do you have any messages for your fans?
It’s hard to say that it was a conscious decision. We are aware that we are like that and we try to stay like that. It’s mostly because it’s what feels right. We want to be at the center of a community of people who care about our music and about the same things that we care about. We want to have a toehold in people’s worlds. That said I don’t have any particular messages today… watch out for disgusting salads you might get really bad food poisoning.
What inspired you to start doing Podcasts? Are you really just trying to see how far your fans will go?
The internet, music distribution and promotion is so the Wild West nobody really knows what works and what doesn’t. It just seems that it’s fun. More ways to communicate with people—As a music fan I am so obsessed with the bands I am obsessed with. I was even moreso as a fifteen year old. I know what the feeling is just wanting there to be an infinite world you can dive into to look for more and more stuff. We’re always happy to provide things so that people can play in the little jungle gym that is OK Go.
If you could trade places with another member of the band for 48 hours, who would it be and what would you do?
I feel like I should have a better answer for this. This sounds really boring, I would probably trade places with Dan because I love playing drums. I would trade places with Dan so I can be really sweet at playing drums for a while. I like playing drums a lot more than I like playing guitar. I would do that just so I could bang the shit out of drums for a little while. I know it’s not a very inventive answer but that’s what I would do.
You did a series of PSAs for the Federal Truth in Music Project. What in the world were those about?
We’re just explaining life. I feel like all those movies pretty much sum up everything you need to know about life. A P.O. needing a dollar amount. It’s important stuff.
We don’t think Jorge is a real person. Can you give us any proof of his existence?
He’s on “This American Life” pretty frequently. So, if you listen to “This American Life” a lot you’ll hear him on there.
Can we expect to hear Tim on lead vocals again on future recordings?
Who’s your favorite boy band and why?
The Jackson Five. Does it need explanation? They are obviously the best.