09 The Paradox of Damian Kulash

When you think OK Go, you think music videos. Outrageous, mind-melting, single-take spectaculars. But front man Damian Kulash isn’t quite the mad scientist you might imagine—at least, not how you’d imagine. With creativity running through his veins, this big-thinking visionary is also surprisingly systematic and nuanced in his approach. A balance that might seem unusual, but also makes perfect sense in the context of his career. “You have to be an egotist, or a moron, or a dreamer, or all of the above to even try at this,” he tells Angela Jones.

Photo: Rob Loud/Getty Images

Damian Kulash grew up in Washington, DC, completely immersed in the city’s DIY punk movement. The scene unknowingly provided teenaged-Damian with a crash-course in making music, in every sense of the craft. From artistry to grit to business savvy, he emerged from this de facto band boot camp with the skills that would eventually help propel OK Go into the spotlight.

Today, OK Go has become known for its mesmerizingly choreographed videos, but the journey to now has not always been as smooth as their dance moves. Over the past 19 years, the band has dabbled in many different art forms and executions before finding their groove—or rather, finding how to continually reinvent their groove. Throughout it all, Damian provided the leadership of a deeply practical and measured approach to achieving the group’s fantastical dreams.

We caught up with Damian as he was preparing to speak at the TED 2017 conference in Vancouver, British Colombia. He spoke with us about his instinct to always keep an eye on plan B, experimenting with the very beginnings of the internet, the role cognitive science plays in the band’s success, and how there’s no singular right way to make it in this industry.

When you were younger, did it feel like a risk to pursue a career in art and music?
When I was a little kid, no, in the sense that my parents were very supportive and allowed me and encouraged me to do the things that were most exciting to me. And for my whole life, that’s basically been creative projects, or making things and figuring out how they work. A big thing for me was sitting in my basement taking things apart. My parents would give me whatever appliances had broken, and I would just unscrew everything. Ostensibly, the idea was that I would put it back together, but I rarely even tried because it got so complicated. But that was really fun for me. And the flip side of that coin was painting and drawing. The ability to learn a set of tools for building something out of nothing was always super inspiring to me. And of course, music was a big part of my life from a young age, too. So when I was a little kid, that was the context of the world. Creativity was just the air I wanted to breathe.

And did that change as you got older?
As a teenager and through my college years, I was more aware of the fact that it is not a given that you get to have the job you want, or that you get to chase creative things as a job. But I was really inspired by the music scene around me in Washington, DC, where I grew up. There was a DIY punk scene there, mostly under the umbrella of Dischord Records and the great leadership of Ian MacKaye and Fugazi and Minor Threat. The punk rock scene there was very aggressively available to the public, and very aggressively transparent. They were just some dudes who played guitar.

And some of the ethos of Dischord Records was that all shows had to be all ages, and all shows had to be five bucks. And so as a 13- and 14-year-old, I was seeing Fugazi in little churches in DC. I was super inspired by the fact that this is something normal people did. Because up to that point in my life, I had been really into Prince and Run DMC and Depeche Mode, and a bunch of things that I had very little cultural access to, other than that the music was awesome. It was something that came from professional gods out there. But at that point, it stopped being only these otherworldly people—it was just that dude struggling with a guitar to make something that sounds cool.

Around the same time, there was a record label in DC called Simple Machines that published a one- or two-dollar pamphlet that had everything you needed to know to put out a 7-inch [vinyl record]. Like here’s the process, here are the people you call, here are the scams to watch out for, here’s how much it should cost. So by the time I got to college, I was putting out records for my friends’ bands, but was aware that it was a long shot for this to be a job for anyone.How did that sense of reality influence your creative process?
Well, it all sort of leaned me toward this very practical approach to making creative things. Where a lot of times, the ideas I have for the things I want to make seem wildly impractical, and do not seem like sane things to try. But I have a pretty broad set of experiences in terms of how to get stuff from an idea to being out there into the world.

With such a pragmatic mindset, how did you make the leap to doing music fulltime?
When I left college, I worked as a graphic designer at an ad agency, and as a radio engineer for NPR. I knew that I had to have a job that could pay my bills, and it had to make enough money that I could take some time off to go on tour if necessary. So I kept my skills honed enough that I could still work if I needed to. I kept one foot just close enough to plan B, and it let me take a lot of risks.

I’ve had to bet my welfare and the band and my future on these creative projects over and over again, where if this doesn’t work, I’m going to have to go get a job at Starbucks. There was that crossover point, where me and all my friends were making our own creative stuff in our free time, while keeping jobs that allowed us to be basically creative, even if someone else was defining the larger agenda. And at some point, you’re lucky enough to get to do stuff on your own… or you’re not.

When we first started the magazine, we had this idea about how it takes courage to make the leap to pursue your passion. But we’ve heard through a lot of our interviews that it’s more of a compulsion, like this undeniable feeling that supersedes any risk. Did you feel that in your experience?
I did. I mean, I would say I am on the more practical side of any of the artists you’ll talk to, in that I was more aware of [the risk] as I was doing it. But what I’m also aware of is that you have to be an egotist, or a moron, or a dreamer, or all of the above to even try at this. Anybody that can do the basic numbers can go, alright, how many people want to be a rock musician? And how many people get to be a rock musician? The numbers are really against you. But I literally could not go work in a bank. I know everything I need to know to be a decent banker, but I could not do it. It wouldn’t be possible for me, you know? Honestly, if this hadn’t worked out, I don’t think I would still be a graphic designer or a radio engineer.

That’s interesting. A lot of people would see those as creative careers.
When I’m writing a song or working on any creative project—the process feels more organic than this—but it’s kind of like a series of very fast binary choices. Do you want this faster or slower? Faster. Do you want it faster or slower than that? Faster. Until it’s just right. You’re not usually aware of these decisions because it’s going really, really fast. You’re looking at things trying to decide good/bad, good/bad, good/bad. And when I was 21 or 22, I was doing that process writing songs at night, and I was doing that process trying to make banner ads for the Pillsbury Doughboy during the day. And with those banner ads, I was given the font, the dimensions, the text… it had basically been pre-planned for me, I just had to make the best version of it. And so I’m looking at a font I don’t like, with text I don’t like, on a color I don’t like, versus some other version of “I don’t like, I don’t like, I don’t like.” At the end of the day, you’re looking at no versus no. And it’s a much, much harder question to solve than yes versus no.

For me, working on stuff that I didn’t like the fundamental chunks of was so much more exhausting and unrewarding than working on my own things, that I don’t think I could still be doing that. So, in that sense, yes, it was a compulsion. I don’t have that same reward system from getting a paycheck, or buying something expensive, or having a lovely house. Those things are all nice, but the addiction to that feeling of accomplishment when you’ve made something that makes you feel good, I couldn’t have gotten it anywhere else. So I don’t think something else could have happened. I might have wound up very frustrated, doing this in my spare time and working at a coffee shop. But plan B probably wasn’t going to work in the end.

With the band, you’re now working with brands from a different perspective. So when you’re making a video, like for “The One Moment,” is there ever a tension between your vision and what the corporate sponsor has in mind?
Yes, there can be. The thing that is a little uncomfortable in working with brands—for the brand—is that in their normal process, they are the boss the whole time. So it’s very uncomfortable for them to wind up in a position where them giving something a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down isn’t the final say. They just need to understand that they’re used to making advertisements, and what we’re going to do is take their product and make a piece of art with it. We set the boundaries very clearly, so once it gets going, they’re going to let us do what we do. We’re super clear about that up front, because otherwise, we will wind up in trouble, where they’re going, “That’s great, now let’s do the version where you hold it up next to your face.”

We’ve done this enough times that working with Morton Salt for “The One Moment” video was really great, because we had everything worked out in advance. We’ve found it’s easiest to say we have mutual creative control. That means if we make something they really hate, then they can stop us from putting it out. But they can’t force us to do anything we don’t want to do, because if they don’t like what we’ve made, and they want us to make it more branded or less classy and more advertise-y, we can stop them from putting it out.

Does the process always go so smoothly?
Every once in a while there’s someone who says they understand in the beginning, then towards the end of the process, start to try to grab the reins and be like, “Okay, now we need the shiny version of this out in front of the camera,” and that can be awkward. But we haven’t had that in a while because we’ve learned how to head that off in the beginning. Most people coming to us are going to say, “We want to do something nobody’s ever done before.” No one really comes to us going, “Hey, we want to rip off that last thing you did.” And so when they say that, we have ways of seeing if they’re serious. We get plenty of calls from people who are like, “We really want to be innovative here! So can you do the ‘I Won’t Let You Down’ video, but instead of umbrellas, you’re holding something else?” It’s like, well, clearly you don’t know what you mean by “we want to be innovative.”

But when you get a sense that they’re genuinely willing to take a risk, when the process gets scary, it’s easy to point back and be like, look, this is the risky part, but I promise we’re all going to wake up a week from now and have something we really like, so don’t freak out. And we’ve been lucky to work with great brands in that perspective. No one’s ever lost their mind entirely.

You guys seem to have had the foresight to ditch the traditional band and album model as that was starting to die off, and move to a more visual format right at the cusp of YouTube’s beginning. Did you feel that change coming, or did it just seem like a cool creative avenue to explore?
I guess a little of both, or maybe those two things are the same statement. I will say that the good and the bad about the digital era are one and the same. We all wish that having a successful song still meant putting your kid through college. Or that there was a stable model where you could make a song and just hand it over to the business world and let them do what they do, rather than being an entrepreneur yourself, or having to think about the distribution channels and the production chain. Nobody starts playing guitar and is like, I really want to rethink the way people distribute music.

But, by the same token, I know very few guitarists who don’t get excited when they see a guitar that does something different than other guitars. When the internet started to reveal that it was going to be good for emotional material, it was sort of like finding a guitar that could shoot light out of it, or something. You could feel that the music industry was drying up, and you could feel something else opening up in the digital world. And the business side of you might be terrified or might be excited, depending on what type of person you are, but the creative side is almost certainly going, what do I do with that thing?

Before our first album, we tried making a series of videos, just something cool for the internet space, called the Truth in Music, where we wrote a bunch of one-liner songs that went along with comedic videos. The idea was that some little scene would play out, then there would be a comedic song about it. So one was a clown showing up at his ex-girlfriend’s house, and her turning him away at the door. And the song that came after was just like, “Sad, sad, sad birthday clown.” And it was done as kind of a doo-wop-y, cutesy song. And we had one that sounded like a Beastie Boys song, and one that sounded like a Prince song, and one that sounded like a Fugazi song. There were 12 of these little things, and we were like, this will be so hilarious! People will love these things, they’ll pass them around on the internet, and it will get people wondering about this band! That was 2002. No one ever saw them. They did not get passed around on the internet. No one passed things around on the internet like that at that time. But we certainly were playing with this in advance. We felt it coming.

"A Million Ways" video
Video for “A Million Ways.”

So how did you eventually find your groove?
For us it quickly became like, just make the shit you really want to make, and figure out if there’s a place to stick it. When we put the treadmill video on YouTube, we had never really heard of YouTube before. We literally chose YouTube because we’d gotten an email from Chad, one of the two founders of YouTube, who saw our backyard dance video and was like, “Hey, you should put that on our channel.” So we were like, “Okay, here it is.” Nobody knew that YouTube would be the one. We were lucky.

As a songwriter whose lyrics are awesome on their own, do ever feel like the music videos eclipse your work?
Yeah, they totally do.

Do you feel bad about that?
No. The truthful answer to that is that, yes, they do, in other people’s eyes. And it’s not worth pandering to how people will see things to not make the things I want to make. The best thing I can give you is an analogy where I feel like our restaurant got famous for desserts, and a lot of people come just to have the ice cream sundae. And it turns out, I think we make really great steaks and pastas, too. There’s plenty of people who come and eat the full meal, there are even a few people out there who will come in just for the dinner and don’t care about dessert. But the fact that this restaurant is famous for desserts will probably never change. When people say OK Go, people are mostly going to be like, “Oh, that video band, right?” I know that’s true. But when I’m writing the songs, I’m not thinking about the videos, I’m thinking about making a great song, and later on there’s a video.

The only part that actually worries me a little bit is a slightly deeper cognitive science thing. Your ears connect to your brain stem directly, so when a bang goes off, you jump before you even know you did. You have a very different relationship to sound than you do to visuals. However, your brain is mostly wired to think visually. The relationship people have to music absolutely changes when it comes with a video. When you hear a song, there’s an expansive world that’s full of imagination and emotional evocation, but it gets boiled down significantly [with a video], where now you can only imagine this one space. I don’t love the fact that once we put out a video, like with “Here It Goes Again,” there’s no way to hear that song without seeing the treadmills in your mind. That’s not about our videos eclipsing our songs, it’s about how people’s brains work.

Photo credit: Vitalijs Barisevs / Shutterstock.com

So when we make these videos, and they are so successful and they’re so evocative, it changes that music permanently and we’ll never get back to the open playing field that the song was in someone’s mind. But it also brings that song to tens of millions of people who wouldn’t otherwise know that song, and some small percentage of those people go hunt down the rest of the songs that don’t have videos.

Plus, I also just love the videos, so it doesn’t really matter to me that much. If I have to look at a world in which “Here It Goes Again” existed just as a song, or “Here It Goes Again” existed with that video attached to it, I would pick the latter.

With that, do you guys think of yourselves as strictly a rock band that makes cool videos, or more of a creative collective?
We are definitely in the latter category. It’s a daily struggle to keep the music business stuff going, because it’s just not interesting to us. If you take away the creativity element, a rock band is a business that performs a whole bunch of activities. There’s a couple of those activities that we love, which are playing shows and writing songs and recording songs, but there’s another 50 activities that are just part of operating the business, and none of those are particularly interesting to us. So maintaining the rock band part of this takes an actual concerted effort because we just want to be playing, making a movie, making a science project, experimenting. We just like making the stuff, and it’s kind of a drag that you have to do the business end because that’s how you keep food on the table.

What is your best advice for someone just starting out?
The first thing is to make awesome shit. The most common mistake people make is thinking that their B+ stuff is still pretty cool. You’re not expected to be the world’s best singer or songwriter right away, but if you don’t think the work is good enough yet, you can be damn sure other people aren’t going to be interested. Of course there’s a problem with perfectionism, I have it myself, where you can’t be so mean to yourself all the time. Just remember that other people are too fucking critical, so you better make something that they really want.

Now, this will sound completely opposite of that, but these two things have to coexist at the same time. The second is, really trust your instinct. Now more than ever, there is no system by which things can be judged. When we started in 1998, it was still more or less the case that if a band was going to be successful, they had to be on MTV, and to be on MTV they have to be on the radio, to be on the radio they have to be on a major label, to be on the major label they have to had wooed the head of that major label, probably by having wooed the A&R [Artists and Repertoire division] guy, who has to themselves be impressed with what’s going on in some local scene somewhere in the world. But now, those channels are bullshit. And anyone who tells you there is a system by which it’s all going to happen in the future is fucking wrong or fucking lying.

In general, most 16- or 18-year-olds understand the way culture moves throughout our world much more clearly and more intuitively than I do or anyone at a label does or anyone on YouTube does. People can study this stuff with numbers and metrics, but they don’t feel it. Someone just starting out has to realize that they cannot copy the model that somebody else has, they just have to really follow their gut in terms of the way the world works, and then be super critical about whether the shit they made is good enough.

Conversation edited for length and clarity.