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The World Is Collapsing Around Our Ears -- OK Go Plays Us Out

OK Go pic #1
It's true that, on the face of it, there are many reasons to dismiss OK Go out of hand like a Click Five that doesn't even have the excuse of having been prefabricated. Their initial claim to fame was the "We Will Rock You"-like stomper "Get Over It," so tailor-made to arena sporting events that it found its way onto Madden NFL 2003. Over the past year, the Chicagoans' dorkily choreographed routines for "A Million Ways" and "Here It Goes Again" (the latter's treadmills adding the enticing spectre of potential injury) have been major hits on YouTube and the like; they've even been known to lipsynch the former in concert, all the better to perform the dance that they spent so long perfecting. And they wear shirts and ties (and sometimes vests and blazers) and have, let's be honest about it, a super-dreamy frontman in lead singer and guitarist Damian Kulash.
But, not to put too fine a point on it, so what? The same allegations, or ones close enough that calling them out would be splitting hairs, could be dropped at the feet of Cheap Trick, and OK Go's second album, Oh No, finds the band dealing in much the same formula of unvarnished power pop combined with a deeply pessimistic worldview. Like Ray Davies' 20th Century Man, Kulash and company don't want to die here, but they just might, and they know that the times themselves could be responsible. So if OK Go can't put a stop to it, then they do the next best thing and dance until it's all over. Space City Rock talked with Kulash about the value of mixing music and politics, the difficulty in pushing sincerity when people think you're being ironic and what it's like to be one supremely crushworthy boy.
OK Go plays Sunday, October 8th at The Woodlands Pavilion (2005 Lake Robbins Drive, The Woodlands, TX. 77380) as part of Buzzfest, along with Alice in Chains, StoneSour, Breaking Benjamin, Avenged Sevenfold, Everclear, Crossfade, Evans Blue, The Panic Channel, Lost Prophets, Red Jumpsuit Apparatus, Boys Like Girls, Hurt, and Eighteen Visions.

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SCR: Hi, Damian, how are you?
Damian Kulash: I'm good. Yourself?
I'm good. Thanks for talking to me.
My pleasure. Thanks for talking to me.
Thanks. You don't know it's your pleasure yet. Let's wait and see what happens.
Get my gun...
First of all, it's okay if I record this, right?
Yeah.
I'm never sure if that's a thing I need to ask or what.
I imagine that legally, you're probably supposed to.
I live in constant fear of litigation.
Yeah, I figured. You're probably sued by people like me all the time. You know, I'm usually offended when people don't record, which is usually high school interviews and stuff, and they have, like, 700 very specific questions that they need to get through, and then they don't record your answers. So you read the thing later and it's just like, that's nothing to do with what you said.
Well, that won't happen now, mister, thanks to the Panasonic VSC Variable Speech Control standard cassette transcriber.
Is that a standard cassette, like an actual cassette?
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OK Go record cover

LINKS:
That's right. I wanna be able to walk into my grocery store and buy tapes. None of this fancy audiophile stuff.
Can you still get tapes in grocery stores?
I have no idea. Actually, you're being recorded over what used to be my tape of Document by R.E.M. But I now own it on CD, so don't worry that you're replacing R.E.M. I just don't need the tape anymore.
[laughs] After a couple more coffees, I could've made a good joke out of that.
Oh. So it's too early for 100% Damian?
Well, I may not be my wittiest right now.
All right.
But I'm honest.
Well, one of the two will be fine.
Thanks.
I'll start out the interview proper with a hypothetical question. If an incredibly lazy interviewer were to ask you how to describe your music, what would you say?
[sighs] Well, this album I think is like disaster party rock. That's what I think it is. I think I had a really good phrase for it a couple nights ago, but I was a little less sober and I can't remember.
A lot of really good phrases tend to come up when that happens.
[laughs] Yeah, yeah, I know. It's a shame. I should carry one of those Panasonic VCU whatevers alongside. I can record my finest moments. I'm really bad at coming up with the quick label for it. The fact of the matter is, it's pretty much rock and roll. But I think the thing that is notable is the party in a shitstorm quality to it.
A few years ago in Amplifier, you said, "We're not apolitical people, but our music so does not fundamentally address politics," and you talked specifically about how you're not really interested in tackling politics with your music. So what's changed since 2002?
I'm sure we've changed some. I think the world has changed a lot. Or at least the world apparent to me has changed a lot. And while I'm sure I would have phrased it differently a couple years ago, our music still is not overtly political, I don't think. I think it's really difficult to write overtly political music that doesn't just sound trite and didactic. And right now, it seems harder to ignore our political surroundings, to me, than it did a few years ago. I guess I shouldn't even say "ignore," but this setting that our record comes from just seems a lot more dire and more fucked-up right now. You know, so it's ... oh boy, what's the matter with me this morning? I'm sorry... I think that we're more, uh, wleaaaAAAGH. Sorry. Just woke up. I tied one on a little bit last night and now I'm trying to get myself together.
I can start with easier questions, if you wanna start slowly.
No, no, no, it's fine. It's just ...I guess I don't think that our music has gotten more specifically political. Obviously I was more publicly involved in politics in this election than I was in the one before. Not that anyone would have known who I was in the one before. But I guess I don't feel like things had changed that much. I'm still not writing Bob Dylan songs referring to specific politicians. It's just that this whole record comes from more of a setting of fucked-uppitude, which is part political and part personal.
Two songs in particular seem to be heavily keyed into, if not political, at least having a global view. You've said that "A Good Idea At The Time" is essentially a response to "Sympathy For The Devil."
Oh, yeah.
What made you think of doing that, and what made you think that it was a good idea? [laughs]
[laughs] When Tim and I first started writing songs together years ago, at some point we had taken a week off of work and borrowed a friend's van and drove to New Hampshire, where we we wrote for a few days. And I remember at some point during this trip you know, it's like an 18-hour drive or something from Chicago and I remember asking him at some point if he would know if he were the devil. Or rather if he thought I would know if I were the devil. And for some reason, this song, when it was time to start writing words for it, brought out the same kind of feeling. It was just thinking about, what it would actually be like, whether the devil actually knows that he is the devil, you know? And I guess I started listening to that Stones song a lot. And it's obviously one of the best songs ever written, but I do think that it is a sort of simplistic take on the devil, that he would be causing all the evil in the universe. It seems to me that humans do a lot more than their deities ever could, you know?
The other song that seems to have more of the macro view is "The House Wins." I've been listening to that, and there seems to be a strong Ray Davies influence in that, especially songs like "20th Century Man" and "Apeman." Was there any of that that you were thinking of at the time?
Not specifically. You're not far off, I just wasn't. I actually was thinking of "Heroes"-era David Bowie. And there's... do you know the band Space Needle? I think they're also called Reservoir sometimes. The week that I recorded that demo, which actually just wound up being pretty much the recording on the record, I was listening to a lot of Space Needle. Who I know very little about. I think they're from Portland, and I think they're from like ten years ago. And their record covers were all done by the guy who did the album covers for Yes.
Is that Roger Dean?
I don't know his name. It's like that sort of like spacey psychedelic stuff. "The House Wins" is also a pretty specific song. I guess actually those two songs do share a pretty general and similar and dour worldview.
I guess that might have been one of the reasons why I was thinking of Ray Davies. Besides, it hit me in the third verse, your voice really sounds a lot like Ray Davies.
Wow, that's obviously an enormous compliment, but now I'm gonna have to go listen to it. I had never been told that before.
Well, I aim to be insightful.
[laughs] Thank you.
But yeah, both of those songs aren't explicitly political, but they do on some level have a lot of the Ray Davies attitude, like the world is going to hell and all I can do is watch.
I think that's kinda true. I am a pretty stalwartly and unreasonably optimistic person most of the time. But I think that the universal generalizable emotion is despair and fear. I think happiness is definitely swimming upstream. And if you just had to spin the dial and hope it landed... I'm sorry. When trying to encapsulate what it's like to feel or to be or to exist, I think that there's a lot of sort of it's-all-going-to-hell-ness around us. That didn't make any sense. I'm making up nouns that are sentences right now.
That's fine. It's your artistic prerogative.
[laughs] Yeah.
Your debut came out four years ago. Does it feel like it's been a long time since then?
Yeah. We toured on that record for 18 months, and then it took basically a year to record this one. The actual recording was only three months, but our creative atrophy was so great at the end of that 18 months of touring that it took me six months to write a song I could stomach at all. So it feels like it took forever.
How long has it been since the record was completed?
We finished recording in December [2004]. We remixed a couple of songs at some point after that, but the actual playing of it was done in December.
What have you been doing since then?
We've been doing a little touring and writing more. And setting it up, and I'm designing the record cover, and there's just a lot of work. We have a new guitarist, and he's also a computer programmer, so we're making Web toys and things like that.
Do you find it easier or harder to tour in advance of an album versus in support of one?
I think it's easier once the record's out. People know the songs and everything. But it's so exciting when the songs are brand new and people haven't heard 'em before. They're not sick of anything yet. So I don't know, it's just different. But I guess I'd say I think the best time to be touring is about a month and a half after your record's come out, so the whole world knows it but it's not played by rote yet.
When you're touring, do you get much time to actually enjoy the travel aspect of it, or is it just bus/hotel/show/repeat?
Well, right now it's station wagon/hotel/show. But there's not a lot of time. You have to make a Herculean effort to do anything except just the pure logistics of it. But yeah, on our last tour, we managed to have a half a day in the badlands, and about a month before that we were able to spend a half a day at White Sands National Monument. And we have enough friends in most places we go. There's a nice dinner or drinks after the show to be had. But we don't get a lot of time to go trolling through stores or museums.
I saw you guys play a few years back. You were opening for Fountains of Wayne, I think it must have been for Welcome Interstate Managers. You, I remember very specifically, played a cover of Toto's "Hold The Line." I want you to defend that decision.
[laughs] I'm appalled that it should need defense, but I will attempt nonetheless. "Hold The Line," it's kind of a perfect song to cover, because a) it's a great song. It's like, it's really actually a fantastic song. And b) it comes from a band that people don't really want to pay any attention to and probably didn't even then, so you're not treading upon giants. It's almost like a... well, I won't go there. I just think it's a fantastic song, and we can't be accused to ruining something that was formerly great. I mean, we did a cover of the Zombies' "This Will Be Our Year" for The Future Soundtrack For America. And I'm proud of our recording, and I think it's an incredible song. However, I realize we probably shouldn't be playing Zombies songs. I mean, those are like the greatest songs ever recorded, and who are we to touch the Zombies? On the other hand, Toto? Totally fair game, as far as I'm concerned. The only problem with covering Toto, of course, is that it sounds kind of jokey. People think it's ironic, which is kind of just distasteful and annoying. However, I think the song is so good that it's pretty hard to listen to and not get excited.
Right. Well, when you guys started playing that, I turned to my friend and we sort of raised our eyebrows for a few seconds, but I think by the time you got to the first chorus, we just looked at each other and said, "Yeah, yeah, they're playing it. They're not making fun of it. So, good for them."
It's a fine line and a tough balance to strike, and I'm totally stupid for attempting. But I think with a lot of the things we do, we are mistaken for being ironic or pisstaking. Or we could be mistaken for that. We try not to be, 'cause there's really nothing to be gained from being snarky and annoying and poking fun at things. But I'm not a fan of the campy '80s cover. I mean, there's lots of great songs from the '80s that lots of people can cover wonderfully, but taking the one hit from the one-hit wonder and then, you know, making a pop-punk song because you think it's a funny joke... That is the depths of the cavern of poor taste, I think. And we've got this dance routine that we have been doing, and I think during the first ten seconds, people are like, "Oh, my God, they're making fun of boy bands, how completely lame is that?" And then once we're through three and a half minutes of fairly intense choreography, they're like, "They're not making fun of anything, they're just fucking doing it."
Yeah, that's a lot of work to put in to make fun of something.
Yeah. I mean, I think a little bit of ridiculousness is fine. In fact, it is often wonderful. But you have to mean the things you do. If you're gonna make a choreographed dance and do it on stage, it better fucking be an awesome choreographed dance. So we attempt to make awesome choreographed dances. We can even defend our decisions to cover Toto here and there.
I didn't mean to put you too much on the spot.
No, no, it's fine, actually. I'm glad to clear the air.
[laughs] Like I said, we were impressed that it was actually a straightforward, nonironic, sincere cover of the song. It was just, as you said, a song that not a lot of people are expecting.
Yeah, yeah. I mean, what is your personal take on what people are allowed to cover? I'm assuming you're not going to let anyone cover "Purple Rain," right?
It depends. It depends on what they're gonna do with it.
Yeah, I guess there's times. I sort of feel like there's a few greats who it's just like... I mean, I guess there are some people who could do it. I suppose if I heard the Pixies covering "Purple Rain," I wouldn't be complaining. But at the same time, I just don't know why they would.
Yeah. I understand your attitude, because I used to play in a band in college, and I had loud arguments as to why we should not be playing "Sunday Bloody Sunday." Because there are certain songs that you're pretty much going to sound stupid when you cover them. At best you'll sound just like the band that did it... I feel like somehow the tables just turned.
[laughs]
I feel like it's a question of, are you gonna be glad you're listening to me playing this or am I just gonna be making you think back to the version that you like better?
Or am I gonna make you sit through my version? Which is even worse. I think there's another reason to do covers, too, which is that it's a really good training. The Beatles are the Beatles largely because they were playing someone else's music for three years, whatever it was. I think it's a great idea to sit in your practice room and learn how to play "Sweet Emotion" and "Black Dog," but I'm not sure that it's such a good idea to be playing "Black Dog" in front of people. And then when you come to the crowd's viewpoint, covers are sort of an ingenious weapon for the opener. Opening bands have just the worst position in the world. Because people came to see somebody else, they want to see somebody else, and if you are too much like the headliner, you are a ripoff. If you sound too dissimilar to the headliner, you are a fucking annoyance. It's like, "This isn't what we came to see." So you already have a hostile group of people you're dealing with when you're an opening band. And a really great way to disarm them is to just start with a song they already know and like. So, yeah, often you're dealing with a hostile group of people, and if you can disarm them with something they know and love, it's a great way to break the ice. The problem is, if it's something they know and love and you ruin it, you've completely galvanized their hatred for you. So yeah, I've thought a lot about covers. We are not playing any right now, though. Strangely. Our new guitarist doesn't even know how to play "Hold The Line." I guess we better teach him pretty quick.
I realize that I'm stepping back a little bit but I'm looking at my notes, and I noticed that I wrote that "The House Wins" starts out like it's gonna be a Zombies rip.
Really.
Yeah, I think I was thinking of "Care Of Cell 44." The piano intro just sounds like you guys are doing something there, and when you talked about "This Will Be Our Year," it took about five minutes for me to actually spark and make those connections. But there is some Zombies stuff, I guess, is the point of bringing that up in the first place.
You know, the pile of songs we didn't use for this record, which is probably four times the size of the pile of songs we did, about two-thirds of it is attempts to rewrite Zombies songs. The Zombies have this incredible ability to write things that sound just obvious and really simple. You're just like, "Oh, yeah, I know that song." It's exactly what you wanted. And then you try to do it, and it's impossible. There's something about the recording quality of their drums. Like, their drums always sound so heavy and so groovin', but also really small. They don't take up any space and there's nothing bash-you-in-the-face obvious about them. And then the chord progressions and the way everything fits together... It's like they're basically just really simple soul songs but they're not obvious. I don't know, once again I'm completely stammering and not making any sense. But I never would have thought of that song as being Zombies-like, but were I not more ashamed of them, I could play you 30 wannabe Zombies songs that we didn't put on this record.
Well, that'll be your B-sides record.
Right, exactly.
And that'll be the title: 30 Wannabe Zombies Songs That We Didn't Put On The Record.
Yeah, yeah, totally.
"Get Over It" is probably your best-known song so far. It sounds very sports-arena. Was that intentional? Were you trying to come up with a "We Will Rock You" for whatever you call this decade? The Aughts?
The Aughts... Yes, I wanted to write a halftime anthem. I think that our last record and this new record are pretty fundamentally different in that the first one, a lot of it was written before the band even existed, and then what we wrote... I mean, the whole record basically was a studio project. It was this gleaming, overproduced... like, we wanted the whole thing to be teeth-rottingly perfect. And because of what was happening in the larger rock world, what, three years ago, whatever, was so dour and so self-consciously masculine and sad and, I don't know, kind of like dreary and diary musicky, that we just wanted to do something that had the fun and the exuberance and excitement of the records we loved best. So that was sort of the aim of that record. And I like it, but of course I'm sick of it, it's our first record, you know? Everyone's sick of their first record. The new one is really more the sound of the band. It's not songs that we wrote in a vacuum and recorded in enormous production facilities in Los Angeles. It's songs written to the strengths of the band and recorded all in one room and one time. And I think it feels a lot more raw and energetic and rockin'. Was I answering some question or am I fucking spewing bullshit again?
Both.
Yeah, good. So yeah, anyhow, that song, "Get Over It" was definitely our sports-rock anthem.
Did it work?
Yeah, it did. It was on EA Sports' Madden 2002 [Madden NFL 2003, actually] or whatever it was. And we have so many sports fan rock fans now because of it. It definitely brought a lot of arena sportsters into the arena rock world.
For "Do What You Want," were you guys a little leery about using a cowbell? Is there that fear that you can't use a cowbell now without sort of instantly becoming self-parody?
No. I think cowbell's great.
That's just in my mind, then. I think it was used well, but it was one of those things where I'm afraid that everybody automatically thinks of Christopher Walken when they hear one.
Yeah, well, obviously that Christopher Walken thing is hilarious. But I feel basically like the larger context for that argument is, is rock and roll entirely academic at this point? Is it just a matrix of reference points to older rock songs and movies and TV shows and advertisements? The thing is, I think a well-used cowbell just makes you wanna jump on your bed and pump your fist in the air. The last record, for some reason, we got this question all the time about handclaps, 'cause like half of our songs have handclaps in them, maybe even more. And they just feel good. They sound good. They're fun to do. I think trying to decide what instrumentation you can use based on a Saturday Night Live skit, it's a bad state for rock and roll to be in.
Speaking of handclaps, on "Oh Lately It's So Quiet," is that T. Rex, the groove there?
There's definitely some T. Rex in there. There's a lot of T. Rex across the record, because actually during the time we were touring on the last album, Electric Warrior was kind of our soundtrack. So I think there's a lot of references to T. Rex all over the place. But that song, I thought it was gonna be really loud. Like, there's a highly piano-based groove for that song that I thought was going to be this really stomping, heavy, big, enormous thing, and I kept trying to record it that way, and it kept on giving me the fucking finger. You know, it was like, it wasn't right, it wasn't right, it wasn't right. And then it just sort of fell out this way. I had a whole different lyrical idea for it, and I was just gonna do a completely different song until the lyrics just sort of popped out of thin air one night which has almost never happened to me and sort of gave the song a direction. And I guess it is kind of T. Rex. People keep saying Prince, but to me, it's too white to be Prince. It's like, you know that falsetto-ey song on the new Spoon record ["I Turn My Camera On"]? You would never call it a soul song, really. 'Cause there's something too angular and white about it. And I sort of feel the same way about this song. So maybe it is T. Rex. Maybe you are dead-on.
It's funny you mentioned Prince, because the thing that came to my mind was, if Prince was singing "Mambo Sun," this is kinda like what it would sound like.
Wow. You see, there's a cover I would fuckin' love to hear. Prince singing "Mambo Sun."
What do you feel has changed the most since the release of your debut?
In the world or for us?
Either/or. Whichever one seems more interesting.
Boy oh boy, what's changed the most... Well, I think the world has gotten significantly more fucked up. I'm back to stammering about politics, aren't I? I think the world's gotten significantly more fucked up, and, for us, I think we have found a more comfortable place in it, in a way. I think this record is a lot more focused and has a much clearer vision to it than our first did. In general, I feel that way. I feel like I know what I'm doing a lot more now than I did three years ago. And I feel like our country knows a lot less what it's doing than it did, I don't know, I guess five years ago or something. Things have been pretty fucked up for a while, but they're definitely getting worse.
As far as you guys as band, how have the last three years been?
Oh, they've been great. I think we have a much more realistic view of the world. Our first record, it was just such a crazy rollercoaster ride. We were this kind of tiny indie band in Chicago, and now we're making like this huge major label record, and I think we were in the studio for six months on that record. Just like a long perfectionist spiral. And I think we know what we want a lot more, and I just think that we're a lot more focused. I don't know, we're more us than we were then.
You ranked #17 in Elle Girl's "The Hot 50" [last year.]
Oh, yeah.
So my question to you is, how do you plan on enjoying your summer of cuteness?
I'm obviously gonna have to spend most of it primping. I mean, there's another one of these coming up next year, right?
Well, yeah, and you've got 16 slots that you need to move up.
Yeah. Geez. I, uh, you know, I'm obviously terribly, terribly flattered. But I guess I demand a recount, is all I can say.
[laughs] Do you know who ranked above you?
I saw it, but I forget. I remember feeling like the choices they made made me think that perhaps this whole thing was backwards. I think I was above Jude Law or something like that? I was really like, "Come on, give me a break." And if I'm not mistaken, somewhere in the top ten is that red-headed kid from Harry Potter. And it's like, in the abstract, it's wonderful to be known as the 17th cutest boy in America. But if the 6th cutest boy in America is that [tape cuts off] END