OK Go, the quartet of Damian Kulash, Tim Nordwind, Dan Konopka, and Andy Ross have perhaps done more to balance the audio and visual impact of their creative expression than any other band. Since the band’s track “Here It Goes Again” followed “A Million Ways” and became one of the first videos with a legitimate claim of ‘breaking the internet’, the band have spent the last decade surpassing each release with a braver, seemingly-impossible set of choreographed videos. With the recent release of their latest EP Upside Out, there is a new video – the mesmerizing “The One Moment”, which brings new meaning to the phrase ‘well-timed’.
This year, aside from another 12 months of writing and releasing new material, OK Go receive the Smithsonian Ingenuity Award for their contribution to the cultural landscape of the United States. ARTISTdirect’s Christopher Friedmann caught up with Damian Kulash to discuss the award, the discipline involved in making the magic happen and the chemistry that binds the band together.
Christopher Friedman: You’re about to receive the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award and we’re celebrating the release of more OK Go music and visuals… how’s the mood in the camp?
Damian Kulash: I’m feeling great. The Ingenuity Award is such a huge honor. We’ve gotten music awards, we’ve gotten video awards, and it’s always a huge honor, but this is a different level because not only is it the Smithsonian, which is sort of mind boggling, but the fact that it is for… it recognizes creativity in general and sort of is celebrating that we are working in more than one area.
I feel like so often what people ask of us is like, “You’re the video band – don’t you worry about your music?” And it’s like why would we feel like our videos and our music were battling each other. They are all part of the same sprawl. And so I understand why the world thinks that way.
For the last 100 years or so we’ve distributed music one way and we’ve distributed film another way, we’ve distributed TV a third way, we’ve distributed journalism another way. Now that all of us sort of live in this stream of 1s and 0s that is more or less undifferentiated, it’s taking awhile for people to get used to the idea that creative ideas can span many of those what used to be separate genres that are basically now one big stream of information.
CF: It’s been 10 years since your “Here It Goes Again” – since then you’ve released a number of videos of varying complexity and expense. As a band you’re always very much ‘IN’ the videos – can you speak a little on the process and how you remain so patient with all the variables that can go wrong?
DK: One thing, as the director of this video I had no option but to be patient. I’ve directed or co-directed all of the last 16 or 17, basically all of the videos of the last 10 years, and the band has been intimately involved with me in that process, and so we’ve gotten very used to this process.
I imagine when you ask that question, you imagine the band sitting there rolling their eyes because the film crew is taking so long, but our band is the film crew for the most part. What we’re really doing sitting there is hoping everyone will have patience with us, because we are the ones who are always trying to come up with these ideas that take a ridiculous amount of time and these kind of, like elaborate set ups.
Our basic process is this… most people when they make a video or a film or whatever, they think out the idea first and then they very carefully, carefully plan it to make sure nothing can go wrong and by the time they’ve got cameras rolling, there is only one way things can happen.
The unfortunate thing with that process is that you’re limited to a very small set of ideas that you know you can shoot. They’ve been done before, they have very low risk factor to them. What we do is, instead of thinking of the idea and going straight into planning, we think of the idea and play with some facsimile of that idea for as long as we can, so rather than just saying we’re going to make something in slow motion and then planning out what each thing is, we go we are going to do something in slow motion and then do a whole lot of testing what looks good in slow motion and by the time we are actually shooting, we’ve figured out, we’ve tested so many things that we have a whole different idea of what we want to make period. I’m not sure if that’s a very sensible way, but basically the process involves a lot of play, so you ask about patience, so much of that production period doesn’t feel like work… It’s like us toying around and seeing what films great.
CF: Was the heavy visual element always an intended focus of OK GO?
DK:I don’t feel like we don’t distinguish between our visual ideas and our musical ideas on a fundamental level. Of course I know the difference between playing guitar and turning on a camera, but Tim and I met in 1987 at summer camp, and we have been best friends for 30 years now, and when the band started, the world sort of required that you pick between different types of creativity in terms of chasing a career.
As the band progressed, we were just lucky to be around in a time where the internet kind of eroded all of those differences. When the band started, we figured the band’s career would just be about making songs and recording and shows, but we did always silkscreen our own posters and design our own t-shirts. The fact is, we enjoyed that part. I think a lot people think of that stuff, or at least thought of that stuff as required marketing, and for us it was always a creative platform. We didn’t think of as a visual. We just thought of it as part of the creative project we get to play with.
CF: The video for “The One Moment” pairs so well with song. What inspired you to create a video that captured an entire track in only mere seconds?
DK: The song itself is so much about those moments in life when you feel the most alive. When Tim and I wrote the song, it was very much about the moments, a prayer for those moments when you feel most alive and when everything changes.
I don’t think we had any idea when we wrote it that it would be coming out at this time when everything has just changed maybe not for the better, but it’s still to me… there’s so much treading water in our lives, and then there are these moments when everything changes, when everything goes good or everything goes bad, everything lives inside that one moment.
We’re always trying with our videos to embody the sort of feeling of the song like that, and here it was really wonderful to make that so literal. We made the most chaotic and confusing and almost violent moment we could, so we could unravel it and show how insanely beautiful that moment can be on the inside – how much information can live in such a small spot.
Obviously we did not write this song in reaction to the current political climate, but it is amazing to be releasing this right now with this sort of mirror on just how much has changed in one decision, how much can change in one moment. Everybody seems to have this one set of expectations and then; bang, it all changes. I hope this isn’t reading too much in here, but the feeling of the song… our tone in our videos has so often been very buoyant.
We are always going or joy and wonder and for surprise. It’s usually a slightly more pastel version of that, and it’s the shiny optimistic version of wonder and this one is more of a contemplative, introspective type of wonder and to me feels related in a way to the imperative I now personally feel, like how important every moment is has been put into such great relief by the recent election. It’s also a call to action a little bit, like you’ve gotta use your moments for good, because if you don’t look what happens.
CF: I also noticed on this video you paired with Morton’s Salt. Often corporate sponsorship can be seen as getting in the way of art, but in other instances it allows artists opportunities they couldn’t have otherwise afforded. How did your collaboration with Morton’s Salt allow you to accomplish your intentions?
DK: Morton Salt has devised this campaign to put their resources behind people that are making positive change in the world. And that is first of all, listen to that sentence I just said that is not something you hear from corporations that often, we are putting our resources behind people who are making positive change in the world. That was a really spectacular thing to hear from a corporation, so from the beginning this collaboration did not feel like the normal sort of tradeoff between art and commerce. I think that they were doing something pretty bold and admirable, so it was easy to sign on to be involved with that because we thought they were doing something very good for the world.
They came to us because this song to them felt to them that it connected with the idea they are trying to promote. I think the easiest way to say this is a comparison: If a company like Coca Cola basically sells joy, I was impressed to hear that Morton was like, “What we want to put out there in the world, what we want to show is a sense of responsibility and a sort of stewardship and difference making.” They wanted to put their brand into a responsibility and I hope they’re serious about it, they seem to be serious about it and it was a good thing to get on board with.
Obviously we don’t think this video is going to suddenly solve the world’s problems, but as part of this they’ve agreed to fund a bunch of really great initiatives. One is to bring clean drink water to the areas of the world that don’t have it, which is most of the world unfortunately. One to bring better arts education to impoverished areas of America and bring better music education around the country. One to bring nutrition and health education to young children. One is helping resettle refugee girls. They picked a bunch of young people going around the world making it a better place and put real serious money behind it. It was easy to get behind this campaign because it was such a good one.
CF: Over the course your career you’ve have had a fair breadth of experiences, but I was wondering if you could tell us of the most grounding moment that you’ve had so far, a moment that reminds you why you do all this?
DK: This happens with some frequency and it is always very humbling, we hear from a parent whose autistic child has fallen in love with our videos and our videos helps them get through life. That really really makes a big difference. We get letters from people who are terminally ill and the music we’ve written brings them solace.
I hear these words coming out of my mouth and they feel so pompous to a degree, but it is so humbling to realize… we chase these creative ideas out of a sort of gut sense of, it’s an innate hunger, it’s so fun, it’s so exciting, I don’t know what else we could be doing, we just love chasing these ideas but it can feel like we are in our own bubble sometimes, and then when the thing comes out, what do we make? The songs, the videos; it’s a rock show, it all feels very ephemeral until you get a letter like that and realize someone who is dealing with really serious issues in life you’ve actually helped them and that always puts it in a lot of perspective with me.