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GUEST EDITOR INTERVIEWS

Q&A With OK Go’s Damian Kulash

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This past winter was an eventful time for OK Go, between the release of third album Of The Blue Colour Of The Sky, disputes with EMI over its YouTube videos and an eventual split with the label and the creation of Paradacute Records. But even after all the dust settled, the music is still stuck in our heads—because OK Go definitely still has it. Of The Blue Colour Of The Sky brings us little nuggets of unbridled optimism set to catchy pop beats with Damian Kulash’s funky falsetto soaring overhead—and, in typical OK Go fashion, some of the most awesome videos ever made. OK Go is taking time between dates on its worldwide tour supporting the LP in order to guest edit magnetmagazine.com all week.

“End Love”

MAGNET: Of The Blue Colour Of The Sky is really dance-y and funky compared to your last two records. What were the major influences on this album?
Kulash: When we first started writing this album, we did what we’d done in the past: imagine a song, then try to write it. It’s sort of like how you speak: There’s an unstructured thought that comes first—presents itself as an endpoint—and you then grope around for words and grammatical logic for them, and eventually you piece together a sentence. We’d have this hazy but stable idea of what we were trying to make, and we’d try to connect the dots to get there. That kind of writing has a lot of room for conscious influences; how would Cheap Trick or Pixies or Elvis Costello do this? But it just didn’t work for us this time around. The endpoints we set for ourselves were too reflective of how we saw ourselves already, and there was sort of a self-image feedback loop where we were writing songs we thought we’d be good at—basically trying to sound like OK Go—and it all wound up flat and disingenuous and soulless.

So we started working from the other direction; instead of writing toward a goal, we just played with building blocks until something unexpected and greater than the sum of its parts happened. It was trial and error, playing with sounds until emotions emerged. We’d add a drum beat and a synthesizer sound together, and most of the time what we’d get was what you’d expect: a drum beat with a synthesizer sound. But every once in a while, it was melancholy or lust or fury or hope, and we’d chase those little glimmers of alchemy—those places were sounds turns into emotion—and we’d try to tease songs out of them. Writing this way meant the songs came out more reflections of how we respond to music than of how we’ve learned to write or play. And the influences that surfaced were surprising because we weren’t consciously thinking about them on the way into the process. The obvious one is Prince. I’ve always been a huge Prince fan, but it’s taken him a long time to weasel his way to the surface of my songwriting. There’s also a vein of more classic soul running under everything on the record. I don’t hear specific moments of Al Green or Sly And The Family Stone or Roberta Flack, but I listen a lot to records in that family, and I think there’s some of that bubbling underneath.

The title comes from an 1876 book by A.J. Pleasonton, The Influence Of The Blue Ray Of The Sunlight And Of The Blue Colour Of The Sky, which argues the benefits of exposure to blue light. Why did you choose this as the name of your album?
The US Patent Office gave Pleasonton a patent on blue light. He got a patent on a fucking color. Turns out, he was wrong: Blue light doesn’t heal all of humanity’s ailments, and it doesn’t make crops grow triple speed or livestock get hardy and hale. But when I read the essay, which introduced me to the book (from Paul CollinsBanvard’s Folly: Thirteen Tales Of People Who Didn’t Change The World), I was moved by Pleasonton’s obstinate optimism. And his being wrong only makes his project more beautiful. “Listen up, everyone, we can save the world …with a color!” A lot of the songs on our record felt like they were groping for the same absurd hope. I was writing things like “all is not lost,” “this too shall pass” and “maybe it’s not so bad,” when, in fact, I’m not sure any of that is really true. The cover art for the album is actually data visualization of our lyrics as compared to Pleasonton’s book. The CD booklet is all geometric images that illustrate the similarities and differences in the texts: themes, rhythm, word choice, writing style.

You guys recently split from EMI and formed your own record label, Paracadute. Can you discuss that decision?
We just aren’t a good fit for the traditional recording industry. Record companies have built their whole business around the basic building block of record sales, of getting people to pay for access to the strings of ones and zeroes that they own, and these days that building block is harder to control and monetize than ever before. It doesn’t mean music itself is in danger, but the part of the industry based on record sales certainly is. When digital cameras came along, people didn’t stop taking pictures, they just stopped buying film. From our perspective, along with the bad—there’s no tried-and-true formula for making a living off of music anymore—there is a lot of good. All sorts of creative barriers and restrictions that came with the old system are now crumbling. If you don’t need commercial radio for people to find out about you, then your music doesn’t need to fit into a commercial-radio format. If you don’t need MTV to play your videos, then your videos don’t have to be glitzy and fast-cut and aimed at a specific demographic. If you don’t need Tower Records to distribute your albums, then your albums don’t have to meet any of the norms that Tower Records used to rely on: a certain length, a certain price, certain packaging, etc. The most exciting thing for us is that there are whole new expanses for creative play and exploration, mediums and creative forms that don’t really have names or categories yet. This year we’ve had the best time imaginable collaborating with designers, technologists, writers, artists, physicists, filmmakers, dancers and creative people of all stripes. And collaboration can take so many forms: audio, video, performance, live events and a whole array of digital forms emerging too fast to even have real names yet.

From the record label’s perspective, all these exciting creative ideas are, at best, untested marketing ideas. The end goal for them is record sales, so anything that doesn’t directly induce someone to go download us from iTunes is a waste of time and money. And even if we could convince them that all these new ideas are good for their bottom line, they still have to stick to business models that can be generalized and replicated for each of the artists they work with. It doesn’t much matter, for instance, if free and embeddable videos are demonstrably good for their OK Go business (and exciting! and fun! and less creatively exhausted than affecting cool in exactly the same way that rockers have since 1965!) unless it’s clear that free and embeddable videos will also make more money for their Beatles and Coldplay and Snoop Dogg businesses.

So actually, it was very good of our label to let us leave without much of a fight. We made money for them, but not enough money to really matter much in the big picture, and I think they were nice enough to see that we were headed a different direction and that it wouldn’t benefit anyone to keep pretending we all had the same end goals. By the way, don’t get me wrong, we very much want people to buy our recordings. But the recordings are just one of many creative projects and one of many business models for us. Now that we are in charge of selling them, they just have to make enough to pay for making more of them.

What are your plans for the future, now that you’ll have more creative freedom under your own label?
The label never really tried to exert creative control over us, so it’s not like we’ll suddenly be a wildly different band. We just have the freedom to do business in different ways and to do what we want with the things we make. Here’s a good example of how things have changed. We record every show, and five minutes after the show is over, fans can get the live recording on a USB flash drive (it looks like a domino) from our merch table. The drive has the full show along with our whole new album, some photos and a little thanks video we made at soundcheck that day, and the whole thing costs the same as a CD. If we were still on a label, they’d technically own any recordings we make, and they’d want a lot of money for what is essentially a double or triple album (one-and-a-half hours of live recordings plus the studio record). If we could even wade through all of the necessary logistics and approvals, we’d have to charge an arm and a leg, and no one would buy them, and we’d just give up on the whole idea.

An interesting factoid, here: Before splitting with the label, when we sold CDs at a show or through our website, we were selling copies we bought from the label at wholesale prices, not unlike a store. And if we wanted to sell a digital download, we had to “buy” it from the label as well, which is to say we had to pay a wholesale rate to them each time it got downloaded. The weird thing is that, despite the fact that our digital downloads incurred exactly zero incidental costs (unlike a CD, which has to be manufactured and shipped, etc.), the wholesale rate we were charged for digital downloads was about 20 percent higher than the wholesale rate for physical CDs. Emailing mp3s to someone cost us more than mailing them a CD, and selling a USB drive would have been astronomical, because we’d have to pay the higher digital wholesale rate and also pay for the USB drive itself.

Since splitting with EMI, you are now able to embed videos. Have you seen an improvement in digital sales since this change was made?
Our digital sales have been way up, but it’s impossible to tell why. In fact, that’s another way of looking at the problem with the traditional model. Big recording companies tend to rely on input being very directly correlated to output; if you spend 10 bucks on promotion, you need to see 15 bucks in sales. But over the past two months, we’ve performed on four national TV shows, played about 40 club shows, four festivals and about a half dozen colleges; done interviews with perhaps 100 blogs, radio stations, TV shows and magazines; performed underwater at Maker Faire; thrown out the first pitch at a Dodgers game; lobbied the White House and the FCC; tweeted a few hundred times; sent two or three email newsletters; posted to Facebook the pictures of the audience that I take from stage every night; uploaded a couple non-musical things to YouTube; got a big shout out from Weird Al during a high-profile interview; and presented an award at the New Jersey HallOf Fame. And yes, as of a couple days ago, the YouTube postings of all the videos from this album are now embeddable, but I think it would be jumping to conclusions to say that the embeddability is clearly driving sales at this point.

The music industry is pretty up in the air right now, which you guys are obviously aware of. Where do you think the future of music is headed?
Who knows. I think there’ll always be people who want to spend their lives making music, and there’ll always be people who want to hear it, but I think we’re going through the a shift in how the world thinks about what music is. On the scale of years or decades, musical style shifts. Disco or grunge or babershop come or go. But on the scale of generations or centuries, the whole concept of what music is also fluid. A hundred years ago, a recording of a musical performance was a technological novelty. By the ’60s, an artist’s recordings were viewed as their central work, and bands are remembered first and foremost for their albums more. Now, live performances are often judged by how accurately the recordings can be recreated. Some live performances are, in fact, just listening parties for the recordings, and I’m not just talking about pop stars lip synching. Daft Punk puts on the best live show I’ve ever seen, but I’d be surprised if whoever’s onstage (which probably isn’t even them) is doing more than just pressing start on the computer. Recordings essentially are the music. If someone asks if you’ve heard a song, they’re not asking if you know the melody or the lyrics in the abstract, they’re asking if you’ve heard that exact audio file. Our band is in a kind of weird position with regards to this, because for a lot of people, “knowing” our songs isn’t just the melody or the lyrics, and it also isn’t just hearing that audio file, but it is actually watching the video. I’ve been surprised, for instance, how few people seem to differentiate meaningfully between the marching band and album versions of our song “This Too Shall Pass.” They have different videos, but they’re also wildly different recordings: One is a blown-out, distorted-drums studio rocker and the other is a live recording featuring marching xylophone and no traditional rock instruments or distortion at all, but people seem to to notice only that there are two videos for the same song.

Anyway, I’m certainly not saying that the world will wind up following the same path we have, but I think the radical change in how music is distributed and how it’s listened to will fundamentally change how we think of what music is. In the short term, social networks and interactive distribution and collaboration and the equipping of everyone everywhere with an audio/video recording device on their phone will shift how we see the basic parameters of creativity and songs and experiencing music. Where we’ll be in 20 or 30 years, who knows.

OK Go will be touring the world this summer and hitting several music fests. Do you have any big plans for your live performance?
Our live performance is always changing, but the goal that doesn’t shift much is our desire to get the crowd into a mass, collective, conjoined emotional state. When we first started playing shows, years ago, we basically just tried to whip the crowd into a frenzy. Nowadays, there are more peaks and valleys in the energy of the show, but the hope is still that we can get everyone resonating together. Everyone goes on the emotional roller-coaster ride together. What we want to see from stage is people sweating along with us and laughing along with us and going dark or melancholy with us and smiling with us. It’s like “suturing” is in narrative film. We just want people to get lost in it with us.

This wouldn’t be a proper OK Go interview if we didn’t address your music videos. What’s your process like for coming up with ideas for videos?
There’s no systematic approach. We just chase good ideas when we have them. I guess the process is to think of projects that sound like awesome ways to spend a few weeks or months. Wanna direct a marching band? Yeah! Wanna play with marbles and pulleys and physics in a warehouse? Yeah! Wanna collaborate with someone you admire? I think our videos also come out like they do because they’re not advertisements. Traditionally, videos have been commercials funded by labels to promote their recordings, but we see them as creative projects, as challenging and thrilling as writing songs, recording albums, playing shows, designing album art, etc. So when we’re planning them, rather than ask ourselves what’s going to make us look cool or what will get played the most by MTV, we ask ourselves what three-and-half-minute film we want to make, given that we already have the soundtrack.

A lot of your videos have to be taken in a single shot (“Here it Goes Again,” “A Million Ways,” “This Too Shall Pass,” etc.). On average, how many times does it take until you get through the whole thing perfectly (specifically, the “This Too Shall Pass” video)?
The Rube Goldberg machine video for the album version of “This Too Shall Pass” took 85 attempts over two days, but we’d been planning and building it for nearly six months with something like 60 other people. The live version of “This Too Shall Pass” was recorded with about a third of the Notre Dame marching band, and we got about 20 takes done in a single day. It took a week of advance work in South Bend, plus months of planning and set up before that. The kaleidoscopic video for “WTF?” took two days of shooting plus about four hours of tests and a couple weeks of working with Jasmin Shokrian (the fashion designer) and buying and dying clothes and shopping for stuff at the dollar store. The most recent video, the time-warp one in the park, was done in just two takes, but each take was about 21 hours long. The intensive work schedule was about 10 days, and there was a lot of advance work before that. The wallpaper video for “Do What You Want” was shot over two days after about a month of non-stop work getting the costumes and the people lined up. The treadmill video for “Here It Goes Again” was shot in just under 20 takes, although we only got through the whole routine two or three times. There were eight 10-hour days of choreography and practice leading up to the shoot. The backyard dancing video for “A Million Ways” was shot in about 20 minutes. I think we ran through the dance three or four times. The dance itself took about a week to choreograph and learn.

Is there pressure to keep outdoing yourselves with each video?
I guess that depends what you mean by “outdo.” We don’t feel pressured by numbers. View counts and marketing metrics rarely correspond with our sense of creative satisfaction, and they don’t even correspond very directly with our income. So when we’re writing songs, we’re not thinking about whether KROQ will play them, and when we’re shooting videos, we’re not wondering whether your grandma is going to forward them to her whole email list. But we do try to push our creative limits, and when things succeed (and, in fact, even when they don’t), the parameters shift. Five years ago, we certainly couldn’t have gotten a few dozen top-shelf engineers to volunteer their time to work on our massive Rube Goldberg project, but with the treadmill video as a calling card, it didn’t seem so crazy. The marching-band video required me and Brian (co-director and longtime collaborator) to direct nearly 200 people, which would likely have overwhelmed us three or four years ago. So yes, we are always trying to challenge ourselves, but no, we don’t judge success by external benchmarks.

—Emily Costantino

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