Damian Kulash , 2005

 

Written by: Jason Perlman

 

So, OK Go is heading into Columbus with Spoon to play a CD101 Low-Dough show. $5 a ticket means sold out fast. As a performer, how cool is it to walk into a packed club full of sweaty people having a good time and do your thing for 45 minutes?
Damian Kulash: It's awesome. I mean it really is what the whole thing is really about. Everything else about being on tour really sucks, except for the occasional chance to feel like you are traveling. I mean most of the time touring is vans and hotel rooms and airports and busses and just repetitive logistical concerns. Just the same thing over and over every day. But all of that is worthwhile just because of those 45 minutes you mentioned.

 

OK Go is getting great press from major magazine, to radio to television. As an artist, how much do you pay attention and take that to heart and how much do you say to yourself that the kudos are great, but you can't let it affect the band?
DK: You can't really pay too much attention to what people are saying. But there is somewhat of a shell game involved because you want to take pride in the praise and ignore criticism, but you can't really do both, so you just sort of have to not pay too much attention. The truth is, is that what we want to do, what any band wants to do, and is what we want. We want to keep on making music for years and we want to not have to worry about what anyone says. So in pursuit of that goal, it is always great to know there are people out there supporting us and like what we are doing. That gives us reason to continue on, but at the same time, the long-term goal is to not have to worry about what anyone says.

 

Recently, a few other Chicago bands came through Columbus, The Academy Is ... and the Redwalls, both who have a bit of that bluesy-based, pop-rock sound, although some could argue The Redwalls is much more in tune with what OK Go is doing. From your experience, is that what the Chicago scene is like or did OK Go and these other bands break out from the true scene?
DK: Well, to be quite honest, I really don't know what the music scene is like in Chicago because we are on tour all the time. And I haven't lived in Chicago for a couple of years now. But I do know for most of the five years I lived in Chicago, most of what was going on locally was very instrumental, kind of post-punk art rock. It was really very arty and insidery. There was some really great music, but it was not stuff that got out of the city all that much. There was a really super-intense scene of kinda hipsters who made music in weird time signatures and disdained singers. So it was easy for us to stand apart from that because our music is so aggressively listenable. It does seem that there is a lot of music coming from Chicago that has that kind of retro, jangly, bluesy Stones influence to it, but I actually didn't notice a lot of that going on there when we were there, to tell you the truth.

 

Although you were maybe more listenable, you were kind of the standout band. Did that make it easier or harder to find and book shows?
DK: Chicago, and especially at the time, was superlative in its support of musicians and music. Everybody in town, whom I knew, had a band. Everyone. It was kind of crazy. I don't know if I was just in that scene, but I probably loosely know 500 to 1000 people, and everyone, I mean everyone, was in a band. So there was this complete overload of bands, but that meant there were shows going on everywhere all the time. There were at least four or five clubs that were booked every single night. So getting shows wasn't that difficult, but that does mean sometimes it is hard to stand out. But we found the whole music scene of Chicago to be really accepting, and there weren't the rules that you find elsewhere that band have to sound alike. A lot of our best shows were opening up for Don Caballero, who is a completely instrumental math-rock band. We sound nothing like them but the shows were great. And because it's so easy to get a show in Chicago, it is also kind of easy to stand out, because they may be used to kind of the shoe-gazery, nerd-rock, and then a bunch of kids jump on stage pumping their fists and clapping along. It was just easier for us to stand out.

 

To tie into that, did the flamboyant look and the stage presence come about to help you stand out, or is that really just a normal look and reaction for the band?
DK: The truth lies in the middle of those two things. We are certainly conscious of our presence and it is certainly a coordinated effort, but it is mostly just fun, you know? The longer we do this the more we marvel at the fact that we have been able to do this for so long. None of us have had a day job in five years, and when you wake up one morning and look in your closet and see nothing but jeans and t-shirts, you ask yourself, "Why do I have to wear jeans and t-shirts?" We don't have to go to a job at an ad agency, we don't have to look like an urban hipster; we can wear whatever we want. So we all kind of just had fun with it.

Has the experience of playing locally with so many different styles of artists helped the band feel more comfortable doing your thing no matter whom the audience is? You have toured with Rufus Wainwright and now here with Spoon, does OK Go feel comfortable just doing its thing regardless of what may be expected?
DK: Yea, totally, because to me, there is nothing worse than watching a show where the bands are too similar. Especially as an opening band, because being an opening band is a complete catch-22. If you are too much like the band you are opening for, the mega-fans of that band will think you are a rip-off, "These guys are just a complete rip-off of band X who we just came to see." And if you are not like the band you are opening for, then people are like, "This is not what I paid to see. This isn't what I came for. What is this crap?" Opening bands are in a tough position in general, so to me it just means we need to stake our ground no matter what. But it's not an adversarial position at all, but if your music is good, then people will like it. There is no reason to tailor yourself to your tour at all, you know?

 

Although I am sure a lot of the die-hards know the five-year history of the band, but you have many new fans that read this critical praise and discovered the band. Have you felt any backlash from your die-hards? Sometimes, fans which have been with a band through the thick and think feel a bit betrayed when their band gets more and more fans and become larger than that fan can handle or want to believe that OK Go must have sold out to get that success even though the band did nothing different from day to day.
DK: We have not had that experience yet, but if and when that does happen, I would venture to say it would be because of the overexposure bands can get from commercial radio, generally. The kind of exposure we have had for this record has mostly to do with our homemade dance video and my op-ed in the New York Times, basically things that people find respectful anyhow. I think right now the kind of success we are having is the kind our fans are proud of, and feel like they are a part of it. But I have watched bands that I love and bands that I am friends with kind of get that nod from MTV and K-ROCK and suddenly everyone thinks that they are sellouts. The thing is, not only have we not gotten that nod, but I don't see those bands as sellouts. It's great when people have the chance to move onward and upward. The real danger of too much success is the more records you sell, the more records your financial backers expect you to sell and the more they worry about your every move. So when you see a band sell 750,000 records or a million records or three million records, all of a sudden they are a financial concern to their label and their publishers and managers, so there is a lot more pressure on the things that the band makes, or on their image and the things they say. So what usually comes with success is this tepidity, there is the lukewarm safety that follows. I think really great bands hit that success and it really doesn't matter. But look, there have been some Stones records that aren't great, but there have been some Stones records after their huge success that were great. Or The Cure. Think about when you actually listened to Boys Don't Cry, you would never think Disintegration would come out of this band eight to 10 years later. To me, that is what being a great band is about.

 

A band like Nine Inch Nails comes to mind also, wouldn't you think?
DK: Well I am not sure that they are still testing themselves, but definitely, their music doesn't suck. I think that what bothers people about "sellouts" or I should say, that the only thing that would bother me is if the music would get boring. Kids stake their entire identity almost on the bands the listen to, whether they want to be cool or uncool or whatever, then there is nothing you can do about people jumping ship simply because you sold records. And who cares about those people, frankly.

 

Obviously OK Go hasn't been around as long as the Stones, but what does the band do now to keep from getting bored. I mean even playing night in and night out can get boring it one lets it get to that point?
DK: Well, for us, the live show is never boring. It's the driving. The driving from show to show, the checking into hotels and living out of a bag and having all of your relationships by a cell phone. What we do as a band is try to challenge ourselves in other ways in keeping our brains alive. I mean, it is incredible how much of your critical mind can atrophy in nine months of nine-hour drives. So I write a lot, I have a column in a Japanese magazine, I just finished an article for a car magazine in London and I have an op-Ed in the New York Times, so I have been doing that kind of stuff. We do a lot of on-line things, Andy (Ross) our guitarist, has a blog, Tim (Nordwind) has this radio thing he has been doing on-line, so we do a lot of that stuff and we try to write music when we can, but we are terrible about writing on the road. We usually do pretty well when we have a week or two off at home, but it is almost impossible for us to be musically creative while we are on tour.