When I first speak with Damian Kulash, the lead singer and guitarist of OK Go, I am immediately struck his intensity. It’s that almost unnerving passion for his vision and clear-cut artistic integrity that make me instantly understand how the band has come so far. For OK Go, it has never been about trying to impress anyone else. In a world of sell-out stars and people clawing their way to the top, they have managed to remained true to themselves, all while beating the industry at it’s own game.
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock somewhere, you’ve probably seen at least one of OK Go’s buzzed about music videos. Their backyard dance routine to 'A Million Ways' and treadmill video to 'Here It Goes Again' pushed the band from success to viral superstardom, almost overnight. And while turning their music into a joint venture of audio and visual artistry was never really part of the plan, it’s certainly been the recipe for their particularly unique success, and one they don’t seem ready to change anytime soon.
“It was a total accident,” Kulash tells me, “The whole video thing started because we used to do dances on stage. To go back to the beginning of the band, 1998-2000, that era, we would play shows in indie rock clubs. People were so self-consciously cool all the time. It was a very image-centric moment for music. We were most inspired at that time by Cheap Trick and Joan Jett, all these things that were brash and excitable. We started doing this thing in our show where we would do a choreographed dance. We were making fun of ourselves, obviously. Tongue was firmly in cheek for this. There's this thing when hipsters smoking cigarettes and shuffling their feet encounter the band that they've come to see drop their instruments and break into dance. There was really only two responses; you have to just go with it and ride the joy wave, or get the fuck out. We filmed a rehearsal for one [dance routine] in my backyard, and it went viral. Then, a month later, when it had been downloaded several hundred thousand times, and we were like, ‘You know what that is? It's a music video. It's like a weird modern music video that used the Internet as distribution instead of MTV.’ We figured if we could do that by accident, we should make one on purpose. That's when we made the treadmill video. We definitely had no idea that it would be as successful as it was, and we certainly didn't think our whole career is going to turn into this weird art project of making increasingly ambitious and elaborate videos.”
When you watch their videos, it’s clear to see why they took off so quickly. It was an era of big-budget MTV music videos, and OK Go’s low-definition home-video style footage was an entirely new concept. While their equipment has clearly gotten more expensive, and their approach more stylized and intricate, they still maintain the same simplistic elements as the earliest videos: just four guys doing goofy dance routines and having fun.
Their newest venture, for their single, 'Upside Down & Inside Out', has been their most painstaking project yet. Shot in a zero gravity airplane, Kulash had to wait years before his vision could become a reality. “I remember pitching it to the band in 2007 or 2008, and I honestly never thought we'd get to do it, because the logistics of it are so challenging. There are only a few planes in the world that are built to do this type of acrobatics. They're not cheap to rent, obviously. Getting access to one did not seem likely. For years, every time we'd find a sponsor who might be interested in sponsoring a video, we ditched the idea. It wasn't until we actually found a sponsor who really made sense.”
That sponsor came in the form of a Russian Airline company named S7, out of Moscow. But even after securing sponsorship, the barriers to completing the project were far from over. With the help of his sister, who co-directed the video, their task then became one of how to move acrobatically, let alone function, in a zero gravity environment. It’s a feat that most people in the world, besides astronauts, never get to experience, and it turns out it takes infinitely more effort than it appears.
“The most aggressively difficult thing is that you get really sick. Almost everybody wants to puke, and most people do. Everyone in the band was on a pretty heavy anti-nausea drug, so we managed to not actually throw up, but it takes a lot of getting used to before you can get to the point where you can really do anything other than just hunch down. The second [most difficult thing] is the fact that every type of movement you're used to you learned in the context of normal gravity. Nothing you do acts the way you think it will. In terms of choreographing a music video, a big challenge was just figuring out what we could do that we could do more than once. Everything looks pretty awesome when it's soaring in the air, but it all looks awesome in the same way, and it's really hard to make things repeat their actions, because you're so unused to working in that environment. Our process was basically to go do lots and lots of tests. What you see actually took about 45 minutes, but you're seeing 30 seconds, and then we stay perfectly still for 5 minutes while the group on the plane catches us, and scoops us up basically, and gets ready to throw us back in the air again.”
His passion and pride on completely such an astounding visual feat are clear in his voice. And why wouldn’t it be? With nearly two million YouTube views for 'Upside Down & Inside Out' in the past month alone, over thirty-one million views for 'Here It Goes Again', and with multiple songs written for films (including Spider Man 2 and Hot Tub Time Machine 2) under their belt, the band has a lot to be proud of.
But their success of today has been far from simple to achieve. Before their first viral videos were released, OK Go was just another moderately successful band struggling against the oppression of the tightly controlled music industry of the time. It was finally, after their unanticipated Internet fame, that the band felt a freedom in their artistic expression not previously experienced in the seven years since their inception.
“To have success, you have to be on the radio. To be on the radio, you have to sound a very certain way, and you have to play into a very particular set of political games. You have to say yes to the right people, and sign the right deals, and all that kind of stuff, which just had so little to do with the impulse behind our music,” Kulash says animatedly. “None of that had to do with what our career felt like, in terms of what was and wasn't successful. We approached writing that next record like, ‘We're just going to make whatever seems most exciting to us, because that's what worked with the video. What we learned from the videos was like, ‘Oh right. We totally fucked the industry. Let's take our best ideas and that will be what works.’”
Since then, their method has been to follow their guts, and consistently create material that not only challenges them as artists, but also maintains the strong hold on artistic integrity that they started with.
“Music, in general, is so magical to me is because I don't know anyone who can really explain how or why it works. No matter how well you know your music theory, no matter how much you know the physics behind the relationships of various frequencies, and the interactions they may have psychologically, no one really knows why when you hear this one chord progression played by one band, and the same chord progression played by another band, one of them makes you feel utter bliss, and the other one makes you feel nothing at all. To me, I'm a very left-brained rationalist person for the most part, and so I really relish that music. I really love that feeling like when I'm playing with sounds and suddenly you add one sound to another, and instead of getting a third sound, you get a wave of emotion. It's rare, but every once in awhile you just get this ‘holy shit, what is that?’ Whether it's working on music for a film, or working on one of our albums, I'm always thinking that. Increasingly we've been trying to figure out how to take that set of instincts into other types of creativity. Can we apply that to filmmaking and make the videos have that feeling? Is there something you can do where you just get a wave of emotion from watching it?”
Clearly, they have achieved just that. Listening to OK Go, it’s impossible not to feel something. From their catchy riffs and dance inspiring beats, to their over-the-top tongue in cheek music videos, they’re nearly impossible not to like. But they are also a band that seems to welcome natural progression and change, evolving, not only creatively, but also as individuals. With Dan (bass and vocals) and Tim’s (percussion) electronic side project, Xia Xia Technique, about to release new music, and Andy (lead guitarist) about to have his first daughter, they have quite a bit on their hands in addition to working on new music for OK Go.
However, Kulash doesn’t seem too worried about how they’ll juggle it all. In fact, the thing that’s on his mind currently is his newly diagnosed gluten sensitivity. It’s a discovery that’s ironically tragic since his grandfather invented fish sticks. “I loved fish sticks as a kid, and now I can't eat them anymore,” Kulash muses, a hint of laughter in his voice. As if to come full circle, he found out about the allergy after getting a blood test in preparation for the 'Upside Down & Inside Out' video. “It sucks because I miss bread. I fucking miss pizza.”
It’s an admission that is candidly humorous, wistful, and utterly relatable. There’s a duality to Kulash, as well as OK Go that’s hard to put a finger on. They are a band that truly emote, and that’s a rare quality. And whether it’s Damian's intensity, or enthusiasm, I can’t help but get swept up in the excitement and feel inspired. Whatever these multi-faceted musicians come up with next, it’s clear that they aren’t done taking us all off guard with their brilliantly artistic creations.