Bonus Q&A with Damian Kulash of OK Go
OK Go has come a long way since their "A Million Ways" days.
I spoke with OK Go's Damian Kulash at length about the band's music videos, and about 2 percent of our conversation made it into this story. Which is just the way it is sometimes.
But, he said some really interesting things about their creative process (and also made what they do sound really fun), and I couldn't bear not to share them. So here are some bonus excerpts from our interview:
Did you intend from the beginning to be so heavily involved in making music videos? No. Not at all. The "Cinnamon Lips" thing was really a response to an opportunity which was that friends who worked at a local TV show in Chicago — it’s a cable access show roughly modeled after "Soul Train." They asked us to come be on the show but they didn’t have the technology to record any performance so we’d have to lip sync. Being the contrarian indie band we were, we were like, “If we have to lip sync, the last thing we’re going to do is shuffle our feet and look like we’re not actually playing. We’re just going to f---ing swing for the fences and try to out-Timberlake Timberlake.”
So we came up with this ludicrous routine and figured it would just be for that show. But we had asked a bunch of NPR hosts to be our backing band [including Ira Glass.] Later when we were on tour with [Glass and "This American Life"], he finally nagged us into reproducing the dance. … We realized as we were doing it that there was a certain charm to it that made a lot of sense at a rock show. Especially when in rock shows when it gets sort of stiff, like the audience has to look cool and the band has to look cool and everybody plays their role. It’s hard to communicate real emotion in those circumstances. It became almost an aggressive way for us to force people in the audience to choose whether they were going to let down their barrier and have fun or basically leave.
We did that for years and it was a lot of fun, but when it came time for us to make our second record, we didn’t want to continue doing this dance from our first album. That’s when we came up with the "Million Ways" choreography. But that was intended solely for live shows at that point and we didn’t think of it as a video until we filmed a practice session and realized that the resultant video was itself pretty wonderful. The whole history of the videos is that we’re always chasing whatever idea that seems most absurdly exciting to us.
Having built your career like this, do you sometimes feel like part-time filmmakers as well as musicians? Very much so. I’m not even sure I’d say part-time. There are lots of good things about the videos we make and functionally one sort of bad thing, which is they take a s---load of time.
What’s good about taking a s---load of time means that a lot of our creative lives are not spent just touring. If we want to make a video, it’s going to take two or thee weeks of off-time, if not more. Whereas last album, we did 31 months of non-stop shows and by the end of it I never wanted to see a guitar again, this time we’ve been on the road about 18 months, and we’ve never had more than five or six weeks that haven’t been interrupted by some art project that was a lot of fun. ... Every time I go to the set of one of our videos, I can’t believe that I get to call this a job. It’s like, “Really? Playing with puppies is my job today?” And that’s really great.
When you started out, did you consider yourselves dancers? We still don’t consider ourselves dancers. … A big part of our whole project is coming up with experiences that we think are going to be realy fascinating and really fun. [And] learning a totally over-the-top dance for the sake of learning a totally over-the-top dance, I would recommend it to anyone who is willing to try. It’s actually it’s just really, really fun. Like you learn a lot about yourself doing that kind of stuff. We certainly didn’t think, “OK, let’s become dancers,” or anything. And we haven’t since, although we spend a lot of time in our lives choreographing stuff.
Your videos are all incredibly technically involved. Does that come from the band, or from the people you bring in to work on the videos? That’s just sort of our aesthetic. You can clearly get a sense of what our tastes are by looking at them as a whole. There’s things that run through all of them, and of the last ten videos we made we’ve worked with five or eight groups of people that are all very different, so whatever is connecting them is coming from us.
We keep our exposure to real film professionals very low. There’s a few DPs we works with, a few directors, a few producers. But the requirement is that they understand that what we’re going for doesn’t have anything to do with how music videos normally look or what the normal production process of a film is.
Takes as an example, what the dog trainers for “White Knuckles” video. These people all have experience on film sets of working with dogs. What you do with animals on film sets is that you train them to do one thing and you shoot it from 4 angles and then you go onto the next thing. You have a very tight shot list, you are the least important person of the shots that need to get done today because the one with Tm Robbins is coming up next. So they're fairly low on the filmmaker's totem pole and they have a very tight schedule. [They] work with us and we say, “We don’t have a shot list. We want you to help us devise this routine and we’re just going to spend two weeks playing.” It takes a very specific type of person to thrive in that environment, and not to just be like, “Well, tell me what you want me to do. What did you hire me for?” So we wind up collaborating with poeole who are interested in that process of discovery, whether it’s physicists or computer programmers or dancers or dog trainers.
For "This Two Shall Pass" you built a giant Rube Goldberg-type machine, and there's seems to be a vein of Rube Goldberg videos on YouTube. Were you aware of that when you made your video? I’m certainly aware of how thrilled I am with Rube Goldberg machines. We don’t plan things around existing internet memes, but by and large those memes exist because they tap into some pretty universal human fascination.
It’s funny you should say that, because the reaction from the art world — when people look at what we’re doing, it’s sort of a universal reaction right now, which is, “Wow, this is contemporary art.” I don’t mean contemporary art, like the snooty term “contemporary art,” but actually when people look back at this decade that it’s much more likely that people are going to remember what was happening on YouTube than what was happening on canvases. — So the intellectual high art world has greeted us with two very wildly different responses, one of which is, “Can you come do that in my gallery please? This is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen.”
And the other one is, specifically only in respect to this one video, there’s a Fischli and Wiess piece from the '70s that’s a thirty-minute long Rube Goldberg machine. I’m only responding to the fact that you’ve sort of noticed that there’s a whole Rube Goldberg thing online, and it’s hilarious, the high art world doesn’t seem to notice that Rube Goldberg machines pre-existed the ’70s, and believe that they were invented by Fischli and Weiss. We’ve actually been accused of ripping off this '70s film. Which is an amazing film, but the only resemblence is that it’s in an industrial space and there are wheels involved. It’s kind of back to that thing about professional filmmakers versus other people: In the engineering community, people are aware of a histry of Rube Goldberg machines that dates back to the middle of the 19th century. And in the art world they go back to 1975.