OK Go’s lead singer talks college, new music and advice for grads

OK Gos lead singer talks college, new music and advice for grads

OK-Go-credit-Makoto-Kubota.jpg

Indie rockers OK Go will play an all-ages show at The Complex on April 25. I caught up with lead singer Damian Kulash to discuss college, music videos and that one time he got a loan from Ian MacKaye, lead singer of beloved D.C. punk band Fugazi, to produce a record at the ripe old age of 15.

Sam Pannier: Most of our readers are college students from the U, so my first question is about what college was like for you.

Damian Kulash: College was awesome. I think it was probably the best four years of my life.

SP: Did you get serious about your music in college or afterwards?

DK: As a kid, I think I took visual art more seriously. I spent all of my time painting and drawing, and when I went to college I think I figured that was the direction I was headed in. But I didn’t love the art department … there wasn’t a lot of respect for craft. There were people with a lot of crazy ideas but not the skill or desire to gain the skills to achieve them … At the same time, I had always been into music. I actually ran an indie label in high school, putting out my friends’ bands’ music.

When I got out of college, I was working as a graphic designer and a radio engineer, actually, so still a little bit of both [visual art and music]. The band was my main passion at that point, but I’m a little too practical to think that — you know, making a living in music is a one-in-a-million thing. So few people get to do it that I didn’t assume it was going to really work, but I thought, hey, I’ll give it my best shot … luckily within a few years the band was doing so well that I didn’t have to work as a graphic designer anymore.

SP: I don’t know if it’s an integrity thing, but adding a sort of organic nature to the art, maybe?

DK: Well yeah, I had come from D.C. where there is a really, really strong DIY ethic. I worshipped Ian MacKaye and Jenny Toomey [prolific D.C. musician, arts activist and Simple Machines co-founder], Dischord and Simple Machines [record labels]. I actually ran this little label in high school, and when I wanted to put out a CD … I literally walked up to Ian MacKaye’s house and said, “Hey, can I have a loan?” and he actually gave me money to put out a record … This guy is like an international superhero, Minor Threat and Fugazi, and a 15-year-old kid walks up to his door, and he writes him a check — “Yeah, man, if you want to make a record, you go make a record, buddy!”

SP: A lot of the recent stuff you guys have been doing with your videos reminds me of Talking Heads around “Stop Making Sense.” Do you guys consider yourselves visual artists in addition to musicians, or is there no distinction?

DK: I prefer to have to not make the distinction. Obviously, we know the difference between our eyes and our ears, but the truth is … it’s always all your senses. The music industry had a very convenient source of value for about a century there. You could really build an industry around distributing and selling [music], which is a lot harder to do with sort of general experiences. You know music before the 20th century was never locked down in that way. You couldn’t hear music without someone playing it right in front of you. There was no way to hear music without seeing it at the same time.

Yes, sound and vision are different, but you are always working with both in some way, so to me for practical … reasons, we need to have boxes to put things in. They don’t always line up in those neat little boxes — in fact, it’s more fun for me when they don’t. I love the challenge of making something that doesn’t really have a label to fit under.

SP: A lot of our readers are about to graduate, so what would you have said to your about-to-graduate or recently graduated self?

DK: [laughs] Man, well for me personally, I was relentless, and, like, I think I would have told myself, “Listen up, dude, it’s going to be okay.” I was a very hardworking person just to the point of being stressed all the time. But also I think the biggest lesson of our career over 16 years has been a fairly simple one: chasing our best ideas rather than the ones we think are going to fit the bill, and for us at least, that has been more successful. Not trying to make the thing that you think will be successful but making the thing that you love making and that is most interesting to you. There was no spot in the music industry in 2002 for the type of stuff that we make now. If we had kept on trying to make things to fit that industry, not only would we not be very good at it, but we wouldn’t be very successful either, and I don’t think we would be very creatively satisfied. If I could talk to myself back then, I think I would say, ‘Believe in your best ideas, not in the ones you think will be successful.’

[email protected]
@ChronyArts