“Thank you for being my guinea pig,” jokes OK Go frontman Damian Kulash, at the end of a lengthy, but fascinating new analogy he’s just created, about the way songwriting is like a sonar device. “Now I need to get that down to a one-sentence version.”
Kulash is known best, perhaps, for his music and music videos, a series of clever clips—like the past summer’s “The Writing’s On The Wall”—that have gone viral and helped bring the band’s hook-heavy pop to the collective consciousness. But he’s also very fond of words: not just turning them into analogies, but the way they work in songs, and their inherent limitations. If you didn’t know Kulash studied semiotics (the study of how meanings are made) at Brown University, you might guess it nonetheless.
That’s not to suggest Kulash is an elitist theoretician. He cheerfully dismisses most of his college training as “pretentious academic bullshit,” and is self-effacing to a fault. On an off-day in the middle of OK Go’s current tour, Kulash fielded questions from a Cleveland hotel room. The joy he still takes in the creative process 15 years into the quartet’s career is a good indicator of why OK Go have not only survived their jump from a major label to the Great Unknown, but thrived.
Here’s Kulash on his Chicago-born, LA-based band’s new album Hungry Ghosts, the genius of Elvis Costello, how to succeed in business and the meaning of success.
Treat yourself to this AP-exclusive debut of OK Go's “Another Set Of Issues” from Hungry Ghosts as you read our Q&A with Kulash.
I understand the songs changed quite a bit over the course of recording Hungry Ghosts. In one case, you brought in a song, “The Great Fire,” that producer, Dave Fridmann, said he’d need to “destroy” if it were going to make the record. It seems like it’d take a strong constitution to hear that about something you’ve worked hard on.
DAMIAN KULASH: Yeah, it could take a strong constitution. I have a pretty nice recording studio. I have some decent equipment. I can make a record on my own. And I have a great version of that song. If I ever wanna release that, I can release it. The more finished something is, the less I have to worry about it later. We live in a fairly non-destructive world. As I’m talking to you, my computer is sitting here backing itself up from the last week. I can literally go back in time a week. So it’s really not that scary. Especially working with people that you know so well, and love so much.
We frequently get ourselves into situations where we all know that we don’t know. “Is this better than the version that we had before? I’ll sleep on it and tell you tomorrow, because I really can’t fucking tell.”
As you say, we live in such a non-destructive world—we live in a world that’s post-remix culture, where there’s always that question about when something is really “finished.” It sounds like you guys confronted that head-on with Hungry Ghosts, by recording so many different versions of songs. That must take a lot of trust, too—trying to be sure that the version you pick is the right one, at least for this project. I don’t know if a new band could survive that.
You really never know. We did, like, 10 mixes of some of these songs. Which one goes on the record almost becomes a coin flip at some point. “I like this one because it’s louder, and I like this one because it’s more sensitive, and I like this one because it makes me wanna dance more.”
We really wanna have categories that make sense. We want the music to fit in this box, the video to fit in this box, the art to fit in this one and journalism to fit in this one. But all of those categories are really arbitrary constructs, you know? It’s sort of the same with our output. Is it done? Is the Pachelbel Canon finished? I mean, Pachelbel wrote the Canon, and it’s finished—but how many rock songs are built around those same four chords? How many commercials have you heard it in? And the context changes every time you hear it. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s sad and sometimes it’s glorious. Are any of the Beatles’ songs done? They keep changing around, and the world keeps changing them around. We would love for these things to be stable ideas, but they’re not. You have to pick a line in the sand, and say, “This thing is done, and it’s going out.”
We recently worked on revising part of our live show. We’ve come up with this really crazy production that requires us to go back and listen to our old recordings as a reference point. I’m listening to stuff off our first record and thinking, “Is that really my voice? I don’t sound anything like that!” I’ve probably sung “Get Over It” probably 4,000 times in my life at this point. We play a couple hundred shows a year, and we’ve been around 15 years. But I haven’t listened to the recording in, probably, five years, because I don’t sit around and listen to my own recordings. I hate hearing them. It’s like reading your papers from college—you would never do that! But the truth is, we’ve been working on that song for the past 15 years. And I don’t even remember what the words were about—I sing them every night without thinking about what they mean. It changes and changes and changes a little bit every night. That’s what happened in the studio, just at a greatly accelerated pace.
So your semiotics training in college wasn’t for nothing. There’s some of that in what you say about these old songs, and the way they change meanings over time, and in different contexts.
Certainly. You know, a lot of what I studied in college was just pretentious academic bullshit. [Laughs.] But it did influence my thinking, that’s for sure. And a really key point was that we really wanna lock down ideas and believe that they’re stable. But they really never are.
There’s this incredible David Foster Wallace piece—I think it’s called Authority And American Usage—and ostensibly, he’s writing a book review of a grammar guide. Nothing could be more boring than that. But out of that, he manages to tease the nature of democracy and the fight between the prescriptive and the descriptive. You need to have a set of rules. You need to have things locked down. But the truth is that things are never locked down, and that’s what makes the world so beautiful. Language is different every day. You need to have a set of rules so you can understand it. But it’s also going to change all the time, so that no one can ever really understand it.
I think this is how I ended up in music in the first place. As you can tell by my rambling, I’m a classically logic-trained person. [Laughs.] Logic, logic, logic. What’s so good about music is that it completely refuses to conform to that. When it works, it’s magic. It’s alchemy. I put these two notes together, and instead of two notes, I got fury and lust and melancholy and joy, all at the same time, this insane burst that doesn’t make any fucking sense. That’s what’s so beautiful about music.