OK Go's Damien Kulash: There's a Fire
By
J. Gordon
10/15/2002 6:45:24 PM

"It made me hate a certain part of being creative. It just felt like something you thought was profound and divine is just a cheap commodity."

Curious thing about OK Go’s Damien Kulash: he’s nice. You’d think that becoming an overnight pop star and the hottest boy to soon be gracing every poster in the rooms of high school girls across America, he wouldn’t have time to put up with bullshit. On the day of my interview, he unfortunately had the bullshit of my family emergency--which landed me unexpectedly tending to three toddlers and postponed the interview for an hour. Most rock stars, especially those hip enough to be playing the late night show circuit and touring with modern rock celebrities like the Vines and Fountains of Wayne, well, they just wouldn’t wait around.

“If somebody dropped a whole bunch of kids on me, I would just implode,” he laughs. He empathizes because, he says, in an earlier life as a graphic designer in Chicago, people always dropped unexpected responsibilities and errands on him, thinking that his working from home meant that he wasn’t working.

“When you work at what you love, it can also completely ruin what you love. For instance, I hated working as a graphic designer. What I liked about graphic design was making things that I loved, not making things for the Pillsbury Doughboy. It made me hate a certain part of being creative. It just felt like something you thought was profound and divine is just a cheap commodity. And you make things you don’t really like because you have to, and you make things based on what somebody else thinks will sell their product.”

Now that Damien’s doing the rock-show gig, he seems to keep himself amazingly grounded, despite the lines of adoring girls, and the guys who want to be just like him. That’s got to be a heady experience.

“It’s extremely surreal,” he admits. “Contrary to what you might think, it makes you feel more human. Like you cannot believe they’re doing this to me. Meeting the people face-to-face who are buying your records or sending gushing emails to you reminds you of how human everyone is.

And Damien says he followed plenty of rock bands around when he was in high school, and he is still the gushing, adoring fan to his idols—people like Frank Black from the Pixies, or the DC band, Shudder to Think.

“The Pixies are the greatest band of all time. Some friends in another band, Phantom Planet, just went on tour with Elvis Costello…I’m not even sure how they can keep themselves composed around him!” he says.

Damien says there is little pressure from their label, Capitol Records, to fit into a tightly focused musical vision.

“They [Capitol] let us have total creative control making the record. But it’s a constant battle to try to keep reins on your baby-- really more of a managerial task than an artistic one. We’re working on something that requires many more man-hours a day than anyone in the band has. Now we have a manager, a publicist, a booking agent, and all these other people who represent our interests. The best you can do is hope you’ve delegated those tasks to people who think similarly than you, not some jaded label guy. You wind up being much more of a business than you ever thought it would be. But artistically, we haven’t lost any battles and we’ve been really lucky. It’s an amazingly surreal position to be in. For instance, right now I’m talking to you from a hotel room in Texas, and, in the most abstract and macro-view of things, I’m here because I wrote a bunch of songs. It’s a strange, discontinuous bit of logic.”

Strange or not, it’s refreshing and cool of Capitol to get behind a band like OK Go when most everything current is so aggressive, or else bubble gum. OK Go’s music has wit, intelligence, and hits a lot of marks that others aren’t doing these days, and doesn’t really fit those market-driven pigeon holes. Lucky for them, it’s still getting spun on the radio. I guess they’re just too good to ignore.

“Many labels aren’t putting a lot of stock in their Britney Spears or Rap metal acts now because everybody knows they’ve been around for long enough,” he says. [Damien then gives a genuine yawn. I tease him and he laughs, adding, “exactly!”] “When we started recording this album more than a year ago, all the label people we met seemed to be chanting ‘what’s next?’ I’m certainly not proposing that we are that, but whatever it is, it has to move away from being this very specific, pin-pointed, demographic rock.”

Damien says, “It’s funny, lately I turn on the radio all the time --because we’re on it!” He chuckles. “But we’re sandwiched between Nickelback and Dave Matthews or something. I’m sure this is nine parts nostalgia, but it seems like people used to make rock and roll that was both intelligent and accessible, fun and melodic, and not pandering or silly, or stupid. Nowadays, it seems for rock to be [he drops his voice] serious, it has to be masculine and either aggressive, or either sappy, moan-y, and over-sincere. The rock that we listen to, from the 60s to the 80s and beyond, there was a lot of good stuff that was fun. I mean, who would say that Prince makes stupid music? Prince made vastly accessible music that was smart and really exciting. So did Cheap Trick. So did the Beatles, for Christ’s sake! It seems only recently that dumbing down is only what’s accessible.”

Ira Glass, writer and host of that cool and smart NPR show, “This American Life” has been a long-time pal of Damien’s whose helped the band out considerably, taking them out on tour with his show and winning OK Go lots of new fans.

“The most helpful thing he’s ever done for us though was this: he and I were just less than sober after a dinner party one night, and he asked me, ‘do you think your music is clever-- or sincere?’ he said, ‘No, really. Think about it.’ Clever, to me, implies this silly, wink-wink nudge-nudge, annoying, self-conscious, ironic wit-thing. Sincere, on the other hand, implies the drippy, disingenuous, emotion thing. I didn’t want to be either. It was right about when we finished recording the first version of our album, which we did long before we were signed, and I think it suffered from falling somewhere in that kind of very self-conscious, safe and protected, overly-artsy stuff. That conversation inspired a bit of an identity crisis [for me] in writing songs. I went and wrote another five or six songs that wound up on the [Capitol released] record eventually. We never released the other one, but many of those other older songs still made it on to the Capitol recording.”

But even after pounding some of those songs out on niteclub stages for six or seven years, the songs don’t feel old to the band, and they don’t get tired of playing them.

“A lot [of the songs] have faded from memory in terms of being totally vital to me now. But the record itself feels pretty fresh to me and I’m very excited about it. In general, the [new] album is much more energetic and much more rocking than our first attempt. That was a lot more naval gazing, over-wrought, over-thought.

“Every night is a new crowd. Our excitement in playing isn’t that the songs are brand new and fresh. The people are brand new and fresh. There are little bits of things we play around with, change, and keep fresh.”

Damien Kulash met his partner Tim Nordwind (bass, vocals) in summer camp when they were in middle-school. The two remained very close friends and worked on several musical projects together, including a band when they were twelve. “For one practice and one show!” he laughs. The two lived in different cities: Tim in Kalamazoo, Michigan and Damien in Washington DC, but they visited when they could and traded mix tapes a lot. “We had a profound influence on each other sharing music,” says Damien. “I was heavy into the DC punk rock scene and he was really into Brit pop and Stone Roses and the Manchester thing.” Damien moved to Chicago three years ago, and that’s when they picked up Dan Konopka on drums and Andy Duncan on keyboards and guitar, giving OK Go the green light.

Their video, “Get Over It,” directed by Francis Lawrence (Garbage, Nelly Furtado, Incubus) is now all over MTV2 and getting a good response, lighting up website bulletin boards and getting press everywhere. Songs “Don’t Ask Me,” and the cheeky-sexy,“You’re So Damn Hot,” are most likely the next in line to grace the airwaves.

Damien says the highlight of this past year was playing the Cheap Trick song, “I want you to want me,” in the studio, for Cheap Trick. He also got the opportunity to meet and play with Wendy Melvoin, the guitarist on the first ten Prince records. “She came and fiddled around on our record a little bit, and it was one of those experiences where I couldn’t be more effusive. It was like, ‘Man, I can’t tell you enough how you’ve changed my life!’ She loves our record, which is like God coming down and telling you you’re doing well.”

So there you have it. OK Go’s Damien Kulash. He’s incredibly talented, with his cool, smooth-and-rowdy voice and gifted songwriting. He’s cute, with his long, lean body, his shaggy head of golden brown hair, perfect skin, aquiline nose and dreamy, naughty eyes. He’s disgustingly humble, bowing down to the greats and always focused on the importance of the fans. And now you also know that he’s patient, working around this writer’s schedule.

Would you believe he’s even got gorgeous teeth? He’s so damn hot.

 

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