Dance Crazes and Democratization

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An Interview with Damian Kulash of OK Go

Damian Kulash is confused.

The guitarist, lead singer, and chief songwriter of OK Go wants clarification. Is it true that the publication I write for is called the “Readery”? Like an “eatery?” he asks. “But for reading?”

It turns out that there was a typo on an e-mail he’d been sent. I set him straight (I work for the Reader), but I appreciated his curiosity, and his creativity in coming up with a definition for “readery.” If there’s a constant in interviewing major-label musicians, it’s that the whole promotion process is a pain in the ass, and the less they engage with it, the better. Kulash seemed different.

He’s a Brown University graduate (class of 1998) who studied art and semiotics. He fronts a raucous pop-rock band with indie credibility but a major-label contract with Capitol. As many critics will tell you, his band’s music is smart without being serious and self-important, or (at another extreme) without being cheeky and arch.

While OK Go hasn’t had a commercial breakthrough, it’s certainly had its share of success, with the modern-rock hit “Get Over It” (from the band’s 2002 self-titled debut), a regular gig with the nerdy-hipster public-radio program This American Life, and an accidental Internet dance craze — if such a thing could be said to exist.

Yes, a backyard rehearsal session yielded what has become the video for “A Million Ways,” the first single off the band’s second album, Oh No (released in August 2005). Choreographed by Kulash’s sister, the video has been downloaded half a million times.

In terms of technology, it’s is pretty crude — a single video take on a backyard patio. (You can find the clip on the band’s Web site.) In terms of dance, it’s pretty crude. But as a self-mocking rock-and-roll artifact, it’s spectacular.

“The video is actually just a practice tape,” Kulash said in a phone interview. “We thought it would be wonderful if during our set we could just put down our instruments and break into choreographed dance. It was just planned as a non sequitur for live shows.” (There’s that Ivy League education for you.)

But the video represents a lot more: It shows a rock band that’s not afraid to have fun. While critics fawn over dance-rock and new-new-wave acts such as Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, and The Killers — with good reason — OK Go is simply one of the world’s most enjoyable bands.

Slant online magazine raved: “There isn’t a track on Oh No that couldn’t be pushed as a radio single. It’s ... rare to encounter a major-label pop or rock album as start-to-finish good as is Oh No.”

The album kicks off with a slinky, rubbery, thick bass line, and the track’s infectious chorus and guitar lead make it irresistible.

And that’s just the beginning. The album’s 13 songs rarely relent, dominated by bright, shiny, million-dollar hooks delivered with relish. Kulash and his band seem more committed to rock-and-roll and showmanship than their better-recognized peers, and the music and Kulash’s vocals — even in their quieter moments — have a rough, urgent sexiness that’s missing from many of today’s critical darlings.

The best compliment you can pay the album is that it sounds like effortless fun. Songs such as “Invincible,” “A Million Ways,” “It’s a Disaster,” and “Crash the Party” have such undeniable sing-along choruses that they immediately lodge themselves in the brain.

But that careless catchiness is a lot of hard work. “We wrote a lot,” Kulash said of the process leading up to Oh No. “We threw away a lot. ... It’s always worth throwing away a lot. ... Why play people anything but your best stuff?”

When the band left for Sweden to work with producer Tore Johansson (The Cardigans, Franz Ferdinand), it had 31 songs — a volume that had already been whittled down significantly.

“We do a lot of revision and editing,” Kulash said. “There’s been a lot of working and re-working, thinking and over-thinking.”

Kulash is slyly self-deprecating, such as the way he tosses off “over-thinking.” In our conversation, I didn’t catch much of the gentle self-flagellation until I listened closely to the recording. He has a surprising self-awareness about him, particularly with the band’s first record.

“It was kind of a kid in a candy store,” he said. “Yeah, I loved it at the time, and it was fun to make, but we tried with each song to get something entirely different. And the only thing that’s continuous about the record is how willfully overproduced it is.”

Johansson understood that the band wanted to break away from that. “We really wanted something where the songs all felt like they came from the same place, that had more of a continuous mood,” Kulash said. “Without us saying anything, he had picked up on exactly the same thing. ... And it didn’t hurt that he was like, ‘Why don’t we make the record in Sweden?’ And we were like, ‘Six thousand miles away from L.A.? We’ll take it.’”

Kulash also has a credible explanation for the famous “sophomore slump” that afflicts most bands — but not OK Go. “The first [album] is more like a greatest hits of all of the writing in our lives before that,” he said. “And the second is more sort of a concentrated effort to make an album.”

With OK Go, that was exacerbated by the effects of two solid years of touring. “I was convinced that I had this huge stocked-up creative fireball in me that was going to come charging out as soon as I opened the floodgates,” Kulash said. “The truth was our writing muscles were totally atrophied, and we had no idea how to write a song anymore. It took about six months to get to a song we even liked. In that time I wrote probably 30 or 40 false starts at songs.”

The quartet started in 1998 in Chicago and garnered a lot of local press before it did any recording. Signing with Capitol was obviously a major accomplishment for the band, but one of diminishing utility.

“The value of being on a major label for us has been the financial support to tour for years and years and to have the resources necessary to promote our albums on a broad scale,” Kulash said. But now? “It seemed a lot clearer to me five years ago that we needed to be on a major label than it does right now. ... A large part of me would not at all mind being on a smaller label now.”

He might get his wish. While Capitol has an option on OK Go’s next several records, it’s not required to release anything else by the band. Plus, Kulash added, “unless major labels get their heads out of their asses, they’re not going to last much longer anyway.”

Kulash stressed that the breakdown of the major-label system is generally a good thing. “Democratization of music through the Internet and this failure of the monolithic music industry has left us — not just my band personally, but rock listeners in general — a lot more space for things to creep in from the outside. I hope that’s the space that we’ll get in to.

“It’s harder to buy an audience [today],” he continued, “but it’s not harder to find one.”

OK Go has been exceedingly fortunate in that way. Playing on a This American Life tour was welcome exposure — Kulash had been an engineer at Chicago Public Radio — and the dance video hasn’t hurt, either.

But there have been lost opportunities. I mentioned that “Crash the Party” would have been a great match of material and marketing as a closing-credits song for Wedding Crashers, this past summer’s breakaway comedy hit.

Kulash noted that he was considered for the role of the “gay cousin” in the movie, and then agreed with my assessment: “Yeah, it could have been perfect. No, we were not approached. And now I should go yell at somebody about that.”

(This article appeared in slightly different form in the River Cities’ Reader.)

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