There’s a lot more to OK GO than dancing on treadmills. Sure, the video for “Here It Goes Again” was brilliant, but the story didn’t begin there. Before the Chicago outfit began work on their new full-length, Of The Blue Colour Of The Sky, and before they released its two predecessors, frontman DAMIAN KULASH grew up in the midst of the Washington, D.C., post-hardcore scene and was trained as a violinist as a child. That’s only scratching the surface of what inspired Kulash and the future music of OK Go. Seriously, did you know there’s only one degree of separation between OK Go and Fugazi?

INTERVIEW: Lucy Albers

What are your earliest memories of music?

“Rockit” by Herbie Hancock was the first song that I actually remember that wasn’t just some melodic background noise. When I was 8 or 9, I stepped off the school bus that took me to summer camp I went to and there was a kid with a boombox on his shoulder rocking that song super-loud. That melody just caused something to change in me. I went home and hummed it to my dad and then–this was pretty cool–he took me to Tower Records and told me to sing the song to the guy at the register. So I did, and [the clerk] was like, “Oh yeah, that’s Herbie Hancock.” He got me the 7-inch, which was the first record I bought.

If you had to make a mixtape from your childhood, which artists or songs would be on it?

After “Rockit,” it would have be selections from [Prince’s] Purple Rain and Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual–which, I think was the first cassette I bought. That was like the seminal stuff. I was also really in to New Edition. The Pretty In Pink Soundtrack was good-it had New Order and Suzanne Vega. One time, I made a tape of that song “Talking In Your Sleep” by the Romantics repeated 10 times in a row so that I’d never have to rewind it. I was really into that song. [Laughs.] That brings me up to about sixth grade. Then in sixth and seventh grade, I got really in to, like, new pop and R&B stuff like Al B. Sure! and Bobby Brown and shit like that. I wouldn’t have remembered to mention those artists but during [the production of Of The Blue Colour Of The Sky], we were basically in the studio all the time and our producer Dave [Fridmann] had these amazing wall-sized speakers. Around that time, something brought me back to 1988 and I stayed there for like a week. [Laughs.] After a 14-hour day, I would drink a little too much and go on iTunes and buy something like, “Oh Sheila” [by Ready For The World]. Then iTunes has that “Listeners Also Bought” feature. So without fail, I’d look at that and be like, “Yup.” One time, I think I bought about $140 worth of R&B from the late ’80s. It’s all really amazing if you’re in the mood, and really terrible if you’re not.

How did you usually discover music when you were younger?

My sister conned me in to joining one of those record clubs with her: You know, where you pay, like, a penny for ten tapes but then you have to buy five or six more at double the price during the next year. Basically, she knew she’d have access to whatever music came into the house. So I ended up just using my allowance to fund her music collection. But it worked out for me because she’s four years older than me, so she was listening to music that I wouldn’t necessarily have found [on my own]. She listened to, like, Depeche Mode and U2 and New Order and things just barely left of center.

Did your parents have a lot of influence on what you listened to?

My parents listened primarily to classical music growing up. I never really paid attention to make a catalog of what I was listening to in my head. Now, it’s sort of interesting to hear, like, Handel and Beethoven floating around in my head. Or, when I hear it, I’ll think, “Oh, I remember this song from whenever,” even though I can’t actually name who it is. I started playing violin when I was in, like, second grade. I was terrible, so I eventually quit. Basically, I’m terrible at playing instruments because I’m too inefficient to practice. My parents were both born in the ‘40s and raised in the ‘50s and ‘60s, so there’s the standard pop repertoire in there. My dad sang to me in the bathtub as a kid. Everything sounded like a country song because he has a slight southern accent and anything he sang had a little bit of a drawl. I remember when I was in like seventh grade, I realized “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” was actually a Beatles song and not a country song. [Laughs.] We took a lot of long trips, and my parents would try to find a lot of things that appealed to the kids, but they were not at all in to the radio pop like Madonna and Cyndi Lauper, so my dad played a lot of Johnny Cash and Hank Williams and that kind of stuff.

Do you think learning to play violin gave you a bit of a step up as far as truly appreciating music?

I think so. It’s hard to know at that young age. I don’t think I was conceptualizing music structurally at all. I don’t think I was, like, playing violin and hearing things specifically. But I do think it gave me a certain sense of music as more than just this thing out there that just exists in your tape deck or CD player, but that someone is out there making it. I knew that by high school, when I started listening to the Pixies and D.C. punk and stuff like that. It was really easy to be convinced that this is all stuff that you can make and your relationship isn’t just a passive consumer thing, but that rock ‘n’ roll is a thing you live and a thing you do. I’m sure some of that was influenced by my early musical experiences, and because I had played violin. Actually, when Tim [Nordwind, bass] and I started a band when we were 12, I was voted the guitarist just because I had played a string instrument before. But that band only lasted like two weeks and we didn’t make another one for 10 years. [Laughs.]

Which D.C. band influenced you most?

For me, Jawbox were kind of the guiding lights. There were tons of bands I was pretty actively involved with; I used to put out records and stuff for bands, so the list is pretty long, but Jawbox were the cream of the crop. I was also really into Severin and Branch Manager and I was retroactively into Rites Of Spring. I was also really into Bad Brains and Circus Lupus. I bought, like, every 7-inch that came from a D.C. label.

How were you actively involved with these bands?

I was younger than most of the bands I was obsessed with, but I was socially cordial with them and they knew who I was because I went to so many shows. I wasn’t always allowed out on weeknights, but every weekend, I was out and always at a show. All the shows were $5 and all ages. When I was 13, I could just walk up to the guys in a band and say, “Hi, I really love your band.” I got to know them all moderately well. There are a few of them that I got to be really good friends with. I’m still really close to some of them, like Craig Wedren from Shudder To Think. He’s always supported music and we’ve done some collaborations together. When I was 15, I started a little label by putting out some records by friends’ bands, and that gave me a reason to be around a lot of these bands. [Fugazi frontman/Dischord Records co-founder] Ian MacKaye actually gave me the loan for my first record. It was a pretty good experience for a 15- year-old punk acolyte. I walked into Dischord Records and he looked over my whole business plan and criticized my spelling errors and he gave me a check for $2,000 and said, “Look, I’m not going to make you sign a contract or anything. Basically, I have about $5,000 that I loan out to the community to get things like this started. If you don’t pay this back, then I’ll only have $3,000. If you don’t pay this back, then you will be the kid that effectively killed the music scene. Do you want to be that kid?” Of course I was like, “No sir.” So I put out this record within about three weeks and was hell bent on paying back his money as soon as possible.

What kind of music did you start appreciating in high school?

Well, Tim and I met at summer camp when we were 12 and he used to send me music a lot. Like, he sent me Doolittle by the Pixies, which is one of the most important musical periods to me. All Pixies records are great to me. That’s an amazing record because it’s both beautiful and angry at the same time. It was extremely jubilant, but also, like, broken and angry. It was a time when people weren’t so good at their instruments, but they were so full of explosive musical energy that it didn’t matter. It wasn’t what we were hearing as much as the energy. The Pixies were a huge influence on me, and still are to this day. Tim was really into the Manchester scene in England, so he got me in to the Stone Roses and Inspiral Carpets and Happy Mondays and all that kind of stuff. All the Sub Pop stuff, like Mudhoney and Tad was good. Then, of course, the whole Nirvana thing happened and kind of changed the universe. When I was younger, one of my best friends and neighbors had an older brother that must have been five or so years older, but he somehow gave me a tape when I was in fifth grade that was King Of Rock by Run D.M.C. and I really, really loved it. I could probably recite it start to finish. I sort of compare everything to it. There was almost always something I was listening to hip-hop wise. It wasn’t all the pop stuff that was necessarily accessible to this little 12-year old white boy. In high school, I got really in to Public Enemy and Black Sheep and Grand Puba. I still got into the dancier stuff, but I was really in to hip-hop. I think it was in, like, eighth grade that these seniors saw me dancing somewhere and thought it was hilarious that there was this skinny little pale, blonde-haired kid doing these crazy moves. So they got permission to bring me to the senior prom and put me on this dance floor for entertainment. I guess that’s kind of funny now, thinking how we had this huge hit of a video of us dancing on treadmills. [Laughs.]

Was there a point where you knew music was what you always wanted to be doing?

It was sort of a gradual progression. Despite all the things I’m saying, the thing I took most seriously as a kid was visual art. Because of violin, I went to an arts camp, which is where I met a lot of my closest friends. My parents wouldn’t let me keep going unless I played violin. They wouldn’t let me go for my art until I got myself a scholarship for it. So I did, then quit violin and focused on drawing through high school. I was running this label which was really fun, but that was sort of my way of being social. I wasn’t much of a player in bands in high school. I didn’t think it seemed like a realistic goal. It seemed really fun, but it wasn’t until college that I started to think more creative musically than I did artistically. I had spent a lot of money painting and drawing, and I got to college, and the way the art curriculum was at Brown [University] was very heavily conceptual and theoretical, which is inspiring, but it kind of skipped over anyone actually learning how to do these really rudimentary elements of art. It’s kind of a pretentious way to think as an 18-year-old, but it was really frustrating to be in a room full of people that essentially, like, threw a bunch of dirt at a piece of paper and then would bullshit their way through a critique saying what inspired them. I got so frustrated with the process there, and at the same time I got access to a music studio that wasn’t being used very much, so I just started spending all my time making music. I’m not sure if there was ever a time where I was like, “This is now my career path,” because that’s just not how I think. I’m much more the person to think about the reasonable life and, if you have the opportunity, then go for it. But you can’t just sit down and say, “Hey, I’m going to do this and pay my rent for the next 50 years” or whatever. Only a fraction of the people who actually try it, do it. But I did spend all my time in that studio, and I made a lot of recordings in college. I think that’s when I started to think that it was a passion. When I got out of school, I worked as a graphic designer and a radio engineer, but I think by the time I was out, I was pretty well focused on doing anything possible to play music for a living and I worked very hard at it.

Do you still listen to the music you did when you were younger?

Yeah. I mean, now, when I discover music, it tends to be from the past rather than the present. I certainly listen to whatever there is when there’s a big, new craze. I listen to it along with everyone else; it’s not like I don’t know what’s going on. But I’m always meeting musicians who mention records and I’m always the last person on earth to hear about it. A lot of the stuff I’m discovering now is ‘60s and ‘70s pop and soul. Everybody knows the big Aretha Franklin songs, but there are decades of incredible soul music that speaks to me in a very likable way. I could listen to it over and over again for the rest of my life. I do pretty actively listen to most of the stuff I grew up with. You know, with iPods and iTunes and all that stuff, it’s made it so I listen to music in a much more active way. Growing up, I listened to tapes straight through and then picked a new one and listened to that, but now I actively listen to it. So I think that’s really cool. Maybe it’s just growing up and being sick of, like, guitar bands and boy-rock or something. But I always want to go find the old rock that I missed. It’s sort of amazing how easily you can come across something that it seems like the entire world already knew about. alt

OK Go Wouldn’t Exist Without (according to Damian Kulash):

The Pixies: “They summed up everything I felt at the time and simultaneously gave access to those feelings. I think it’s amazing how music can do that, like not only describe and communicate the feeling; it sort of lets you dive into those feelings, like the pent-up rage of a young boy. There’s the music that has you express that, but also lets you feel it as opposed to have it just brew at the back of your throat.”

Prince:Purple Rain is the record that I’ve listened to the most in my life. In fact, the record we just made kind of proves this to me. If you really distilled it down, the melodies that live in me almost all come from that album. That’s where a lot of what pop music is.”

Fugazi: “Ian MacKaye gave me various rules for rock ‘n’ roll and DYI rock that were my guiding light when learning to make and write music. It just became sort of the template that I built my idea of the music business around. Of course, being on a major label, we still do all sorts of things that don’t fit in that, but that was like the gospel of making your own music and we’ve actually figured out a way to be DIY musicians in a major label world. We still do everything ourselves. Without the sort of example of [MacKaye], I doubt I would have even started the band.”

Shudder To Think: “They taught me a certain sense of intentional rock. Their music was decidedly counter-intuitive. It was weird, especially Get Your Goat and Pony Express Record. It was music that refused to resolve something you already knew and was really beautiful and melodic and emotional. Being a teenager, I was like every other rock boy who wanted to do something different and be different and fuck with people and do things you didn’t expect. Most of that music came out very ‘off-ish’ and ‘fuck-you,’ but the person became cool for being so crazy. Shudder made music unlike anything else you ever heard and was still poppy and beautiful and accessible. I think it convinced me that there’s space for music to be interesting and challenging while still beautiful.”

The Beatles: “I don’t think there would be rock ‘n’ roll without the Beatles. All of our songwriting is a rip-off of the Beatles, and if we’re not ripping off the Beatles in some way, we’re ripping off someone who ripped them off.”

Elliott Smith: “I don’t think that I’d be doing what I’m doing without Elliott Smith. In college, I got sick of guitar rock, and sort of felt spent on angst and contortion and the testosterone bullshit of roc. I went into listening to all electronica music like Portishead and Bjork and stuff. Then Elliott Smith came along with the song “Needle In The Hay” and I don’t remember where I first heard it, but I immediately went and got the record. It’s sort of like reliving the Beatles. His melodic and harmonic senses were so incredibly Beatles weighted, but he updated it in this way that made it speak directly to me as a 19-year-old. I can’t think of a single song of his that I don’t like. He was just a genius.”