Damian Kulash:’I want to spend my life doing things that i’m proud of!’
aaamusic | On 11, Aug 2010
AAAmusic met with Damian Kulash, lead singer of the art oriented OK Go, and talked about music industry theories, art, videos and much more!!
AAAmusic: ‘Of The Blue Colour Of The Sky’ is definitely different from your previous records. You’ve stretched your boundaries, exploring 80s synth music and blues funk, leaving out huge choruses. Can you tell me more about this change of direction: what drove it and what inspired the tracks?
Damian Kulash: It Came from a change on the way we were writing music; so the process. Obviously there’s a change in style but the way we used to write mainly… we basically used to write was basically to write a sentence: you have a thought, you picture what it is, you try to break it, you try to break it into a pattern of words, put them in to an order and done. So like the song Get Over It on our first record, I remember specifically listening to.. .can’t remember if it was Cheap Trick or Queen, it certainly sounds like Queen… I think I may have listened to Cheap Trick, but I remember going like “no-one writes stadium rock anthem anymore! We gotta write a stadium rock anthem!” and so we sat down and know what you’re aiming for, don’t know exactly what it is… we did that for the first two records, every time we started a song we knew what we’ve headed for. And when we started doing it for this last record, you know, we went home after touring for 31 months, which, you know, 2 years and half is a pretty long time to not come home… so we got home and it was like “ok, start writing!” and I think that when we started figuring out what the end point was, we started writing like OK Go songs, so we started writing songs we thought it’d be a good OK Go song it felt like us ripping ourselves off, it just sounded like someone covering us, something sort of fake about it all that it didn’t feel it was coming from within it at all. It wasn’t like things we wanted to say or felt; it was like “oh we’d be good at this, we’d be good at that” and it was just awful, it was really bad. So after a few months of writing in that way and just been getting really disillusioned with it, we just sort of threw it all out; and so we tried writing from a different direction, instead of worrying of where it’s gonna go, just start playing with like basic sounds and add things together and hope that you get this moment of magic. I think that’s what music really is, this sort of alchemy where you add sounds together and get an emotion out; it’s like turning sound into human feeling. So instead of trying to get to a specific emotion we tried to play with sounds until something jumped out; and then you chase that and see if you can make it into a song and it becomes much less of a process of “here’s what I think I should make” and more a reflection on how you feel and also how you listen to music; like I’ve always known I’m a big Prince fan but we didn’t sit down and say “let’s do a lot of Prince in this album!”; it was just like, we wrote a 160 songs and when we went and picked our favourite ones it was like “oh, wow, we really like Prince!” I had no idea there was so much of him in here!
AAAmusic: How does touring so much impacts on you being together as a band and your creativity?
DK: It just makes your whole fucking life, you know…that’s good and bad, I mean, there’s no one that I know better and that I’m closer to than the guys in the band… Tim and I have been best friends since we were 12 years old, so we’re lifelong friends… if you get over the humps and we tend to go on very well… It’s easier for us… if you get past peoples egos and figure out their position in the band, solving egos issues and figure out how to let everything be stable, then is actually really good for you, there’s nothing that can come along at this point… with us, we’ve hit every bump in the road at some point, we’re all really mellow and calm with each other.. but it also means that your whole other life disappears, we’re away from our home, loved ones and family for 2 and half years and when you come back everything is pretty much fucked.
AAAmusic: How was it t work with Dave Fridman?
DK: It was amazing. Dave is like a production servant, you know what I mean, it’s a genius. If you really know what you’re doing technically then you can break all the rules and use it artfully fully. There’s so many times where you’re in the studio with an engineer and producer and they want to get it to sound better, sound better, and better is like whatever Peter Gabriel sounded like or something, you know, it’s something like perfect recordings and stuff… Dave knows how to do that so well that there’s just no interest in getting it right to him, it’s getting it RIGHT, like more musical right; and he is also really good musician, and that’s so rare with producers, there’s so many producers are music fans who really love music and they devour music, they listen to it and really passionate but when you say “what chord should come next?” they’re just like “mmmm [chord being played] that one!” and Dave would sit down and play on a piano, he really knows what he’s doing and it makes a huge difference because when you’re bouncing ideas back and forth you have somebody who’s thinking about the feeling of it rather than the sound of it.
AAAmusic: Going back to the tour. How’s the current tour going? What’s the European reception on the album like?
DK: Great, it’s really great! This is just a short run. Our touring life has changed since we left the label, but this whole album was sort of headed off the label anyway… instead of doing a massive tour where we try doing all of Europe in three weeks or something, or in six weeks, we’ve been doing just a week here and a week there, so you come and d like three shows or five and then come back a few months later.. .it’s really nice to actually watch things grow and change because there’s a belief in the music industry or at least the recording industry (who believe they are the entire music industry) that there is no such a thing as slow growth or artist development or the slow build or something?
AAAmusic: You just have to watch at Lady GaGa…
DK: Exactly. And they believe that. Since we signed in 2001 everybody has told us all the way like “oh there’s no artist development anymore, nobody is here for long..” everybody who’s in the industry says the same, but they’re the ones making the decisions and yet they’re complaining about the decisions. For us is like our third record is bigger than our second record which is bigger than our first record.. our 1500 show is bigger than our 1100 one which is bigger than a 700 show.. it’s been a pretty steady rise and from the outside it looks like there has been a huge video and other big things but before there was a huge video there was a big radio hit and before that there was a big song in the videogame and a song in the commercial, it’s a the little things, which weren’t internationally known but it’s just a normal build of things… obviously there’s a huge jump when the video hit globally but we’re now five years after that and things keep growing normally because we just tour and tour and we play show all the time and we keep making the things we make and our fans… I mean we have no fans connected through a major label anymore, because we’re not on one, but even six months ago, before we left the label, all our fans connected directly through our website, Youtube videos, Twitter, Myspace… Nobody had the feeling that they got to OK Go by walking to Walmart, buying a CD and going “where are you guys?” That world keeps growing. It was great to go back to Italy (Damian and I first met in Ceccano, near Rome, in 2007) … last summer we were there it was a medium size club show, this time it’s a big festival show, it was awesome, really fun! (The festival is Italian Love Wave Festival in Livorno, not far from where I come from) …
[the conversation somehow goes from Italy to MTV and music videos]
it’s amazing, isn’t it funny that TV so drastically affects our music taste? I can’t tell you how many times in interviews people are asking “are you worried that the reach of your videos is so much wider than your music?” and it’s like that’s been the case since 1981, when MTV started. Madonna was all videos, Bobby Brown was all videos, Prince even was all videos for a while, towards the end… it’s like TV was how you distribute music for 20 years, and now the internet started to distribute music why is it weird that is visual? I mean it seems normal to me.
AAAmusic: Since you mention videos… You had issues with your previous label over the possibility to embed your videos. This considered, what’s your view on file sharing? How do you think it affects your career?
DK: Like everybody in the recording industry I’m ambivalent, in the sense that I obviously spend a lot of effort making recordings and I’d love of people to pay them, but mostly I want people to hear them, and I want to be able to pay my rent. If there’s money coming from somewhere else, then fine. I don’t care where the value in music comes from; we obviously need there to be value in music… I guess to me, getting into the ethics of it or the right and wrong, is sort of trying to getting in to Religion or Abortion.. you deal with what is not with what you think it should be, you know as a musician I’d be stupid if I thought that everybody was gonna buy my records.
AAAmusic: Isn’t that similar to what happen when tapes first came out? You could tape your music from the radio…
DK: Kind of… but it’s different because there’s no decode and the system for getting it is so much easier than going to the store.. I did a lot of research on this when I was in college and we’re first arguing about these things in the late 90s and when phonographs records came out, the live music trade thought that it was going to kill live shows because nobody would come to live shows if they could listen to it at home, which is crazy obviously, and then when radio came out they thought that radio was gonna kill record sales, so they used to sell records with stickers on them saying “Not licensed for airplay” so they were trying to get it not to be on the radio. I mean, think how funny that is! It’s only 30 years before people walking into the radio stations with bags of cocaine begging to play their records! And then when tapes came out they thought they would kill vinyl and kill record sales.. every stage just made the industry bigger and more profitable, but, having said that, now that people can completely go around the system… you know with tapes you hear something on a mixtape and you want to go and buy the album, now it’s like you hear something on a mix and you want to illegally download the album. So there’s no reason ever to pay for it. So it is different. But talking about what should and shouldn’t be, for my perspective, what I wanna wake up in the morning and doing is making things. We have to spend enough time to figure out how to make money off from what we make, so that we can keep doing it, so we have to figure out how to pay the rent, but aside from paying the rent and not being scared I’m gonna starve tomorrow, what I want is to spend my life doing is making things that I’m proud of. So the relevant question to me is not what people should do is why the people are doing it. It’s happening and you have to build your artistic plan around it, or your business plan around it. That’s how the world works now what I do think should happen is if the people left in the recording industry were smart enough about it to stop competing over the tiny market share they have in a tiny dying business and work on a more collaborative system for valuing their recordings, we can all make much more money.
I also think that there’s tons and tons of downloading that doesn’t replace buying… no offence to Snoop Dog, but I’m not gonna go buy his album, but I like that one song so I’ll download the song and I know how to get it for free but it’s worth not deal with the hassle so I just buy stuff off from iTunes. And I think this is on the rise. I also think that people don’t think that we have to figure out things about money, but musicians need to be paid, business people who allow music to happen need to be paid, but music has not always been recorded music. Recorded music is an amazing art form, it’s a way of making it now, and people think that music can only exist in recorded form but it’s a medium, not the boundaries of music. Music existed for millenniums without the phonograph, it’s nice in the way that the music is divers from the physical object… right now, when someone says “oh you got to hear that Editor song” you don’t think of either getting a cd or record, you think of a song, you know, you think about music now and I think that it’s really poetic and beautiful; how people keep their rents paid is a different question, but I think it’s better, songs are songs. Somebody writes a song out there in the world and of course I want that person to get paid for it but I like the idea that in a perfect world I wish all music was infinitely accessible, you know what I mean, just like “oh yeah, let’s listen to that song” and there it is.
AAAmusic: You have great dancing and choreographic skills. How do you create your routines?
DK: We practice a lot, we practice when we’re making the video, but we don’t train in between videos. Once we have an idea for the video we think of how long it’s going to take to learn that and sometimes is a week, sometimes 6 weeks, one time was 6 months, you know. We are coordinated but we’re musicians, can you image if we weren’t?
It is really funny to watch people who are clearly not dancers doing that but at the same time if you come to see our live show and we weren’t hitting the beat at the same time you’d be like “what a shitty band!”
AAAmusic: What do you think of Twitter and Facebook? Are you avid users? Is it more of a marketing tool?
DK: My view of digital space and the music industry – these are like overlapping theories, feelings I have – is that digital space isn’t meant to be distinguishable from real space anymore. Think of any cultural thing: there’s no way to separate out, like this exists in real space and this exists in digital space, you know? Everything is everywhere. Every product has a web page and every web page has a mug you can buy. It’s all connected and we do all of our businesses digitally, all our communication happen digitally, a vast amount of our art happen digitally… Who do you know who’s not wired in at least half a day?
So the idea that online things are somehow just the shell of the real thing and real thing and real space is just crazy. I see digital space as another dimension of real space. We make art that explores that a lot more than some other space. Communicating via Twitter or MySpace it’s like communicating everywhere else. There’s different numbers, one person can speak to many, but that can happen in real space too. It’s just incredibly effective means of communication. So into my theory of the music industry and music creativity, communication isn’t either art or commerce. It used to be that music videos were advertisement for CDs, the value in the music industry is in recordings and that’s how you make money from it , so everything is a commercial for that, and that’s the art and everything else is commerce. Videos are promotion, shows are promotion, interviews are promotion, everything is promotion for that thing, but that’s seems an unnatural state to me. A show is as much of a work of art as making a record is and a video is as much of a work of art as making the record is. All of these things are the art, and all point to the other ones. Obviously I hope that of the millions and millions of people who see our videos a lot of them want to go and get the record or come to a show or read something that I wrote on a magazine, otherwise they sort of become invested in the creative world that we make. Twitter and Facebook are not specifically marketing forces for something else, it’s just communication. It’s like “how do you feel talking from stage?” talking when I’m on stage isn’t promotion for the song, I’m just talking to the audience, its part of the experience. I guess Twitter and Facebook are a way to keep in contact with fans and yes, some of that is promotional, some is making sure they know about things, like information distribution, but that a lot of what record labels existed for in 1930 and 1940: there’s people who play music and others who wanna hear it and somebody is got to connect the two, and now we don’t need record labels to do that because we have Twitter, Facebook, our website, iTunes, we have a million ways to connect with those people, so we don’t need to put so much power on the middle man.
AAAmusic: Going back to videos: aside yours, which ones are your favourites?
DK: Have you seen The Muppets doing Bohemian Rhapsody? So amazing! It’s so brilliant! They filmed that in one day, isn’t that incredible? One day! So that is genius!
There’s a video I really like of Carl Sagan, someone cut and put together parts of his TV show and then vocoded is voice, so it’s just cuts of him speaking on a show, but they made it in to a melody so he’s singing. So they made a video with the actual video generating the song of the video too. It’s an incredible work of art, because it’s like this really beautiful song that’s made of tv clips, it’s really cool.
AAAmusic: Which director would you pick for one of your videos and why?
DK: Michel Gondry. Everything he does is amazing. He seems to love things with a similar sort of structure and interest that I have, like I have very little interest in music videos that explain the lyrics of the song or like advertise how cool the band looks, it think of music videos as an art project and so the vent itself should be like something awesome, and I feel his videos often capture this spirit.
AAAmusic: What’s next for OK Go?
DK: A lot. We’ll have a brand new video coming out in September, we will be releasing the album as a triple album. Basically is the deluxe version of the album, coming out in October, and it has the full album, the full album of demos and alternate versions and interview bits and a third one where you can download the entire thing of 12 remixes. We are playing the MTV awards in Brazil in September, we’ve never been and we’re pretty excited about it, then touring the US in Autumn, then another video and hopefully keep making stuff. We’re doing a collaboration with a Dutch artist, we might do a residency in Rotterdam.. .it’s so fun when you stop worrying about what the rules of music are, and just start making things for fun, there’s so much stuff to do, we’re collaborating with this amazing dance company in New York in August… exciting!
Want to check out the videos Damian mentioned? Then look no further!
Author: Alessia Matteoli