For once, here’s a band who’s worth the hype. All four members of OK Go—Damian Kulash on lead vocals/guitar, Tim Nordwind on bass, Dan Konopka on drums, and Andy Duncan on guitar—are having a blast doing what they do, and it’s infectious.
OK Go are all of this and more. A foursome from Chicago, they garnered the attention of Ira Glass (of NPR’s “This American Life”) in 2000 and went on the road with him. They’ve toured and shared stages with such acts as They Might Be Giants, Elliott Smith, The Vines, Phantom Planet. TMBG’s John Flansburgh liked them so much, he even co-managed them until he realized he barely had time for his own business; he compensated by referring them to his manager and label, Capitol Records, on which OK Go’s debut self-titled CD was released in September.
For once, here’s a band who’s worth the hype. All four members of OK Go—Damian Kulash on lead vocals/guitar, Tim Nordwind on bass, Dan Konopka on drums, and Andy Duncan on guitar—are having a blast doing what they do, and it’s infectious. All project a comfortable yet approachable stage presence. Kulash is the perfect frontman, with a voice that slips easily into a falsetto purr and a smile to warm a skeptical heart. He’s also a witty and clever songwriter, coming up with killer lines such as “Mediocre people do exceptional things all the time.” Below, get to know the man behind the songs that everyone’s singing.
DK: Happy Friday to you.
LH: It’s a rare weekend where we don’t have a bunch of shows to go to. Not that there’s anything wrong with that—
DK: I like going to shows, but if I had to—if I had to go to eight shows in a weekend, it would sort of ruin a good thing for me. I used to work as a graphic designer, which I always thought as a kid would be my favorite job, because I was really into it. But when you actually have to start doing things you don’t like with the tools and process that you do like, it can really screw it up.
LH: Yeah. My first job was writing property brochures.
DK: Ooh. That’ll ruin writing for you. It makes you start to confuse the fact that you hate your output with that you don’t hate your process. I actually started to think, when I was just composing music on my own and just dicking around with computers and stuff like that, I could do jingles or something like that. And then I realized, no, you can’t just do jingles; you’ll hate this as much as you hate graphic design. It’ll just ruin music for you. I think it’s easy to fall into the trap of creative whorishness.
LH: Do you still do design at all? Did you do the Web site? [www.okgo.net]
DK: I sort of art directed the Web site. The logo that is currently on it, that round logo—I designed that, and I picked the illustrations for that from a bunch of stockI designed our posters for the last few years and stuff. I still get to do some design, but not as actively or as engagingly as I once did. It’s fun, though, because when I get to do it, it’s for myself, so it doesn’t have to also try to sell an Oldsmobile.
People have asked me in interviews before, “What was your worst job?” and I haven’t had to have that many terrible jobs, despite the fact that there have been some menial and annoying jobs. At one point, I had to work on Web ads for the Pillsbury Doughboy. They were too cheap to actually give me real files of the Pillsbury Doughboy, so we had to scan the Pillsbury Doughboy off of packages of things and then try to recreate him. Which means really fine work on a computer, so you’ve got the Pillsbury Doughboy’s double-sized head on a 20-inch monitor for like six months at a time. It was the most horrifying experience, just to have that thing fucking thing blinking at you. Because we had to animate winking, so when you focus on him, he kind of giggles and winks. It was abysmal. It was terrifying.
LH: Can you even eat Pillsbury products now?
DK: The thing is, as much as I rant about that, I do still eat Pillsbury products. Especially those if you put them in the pan the right way, it’s like all of them are touching the pan except one, and then everybody fights over the middle one.
LH: [Laughs] Actually, I usually cheated and made them in a toaster oven so you didn’t have the edges. You just had two rows of four.
DK: Weird. I didn’t know you could make them in toaster ovens. That’s a really good idea.
LH: I’m sure you get this a lot, but I have to ask. You wore a Rick Springfield shirt when you opened for They Might Be Giants, you opened the set with a cover of “Jessie’s Girl.” How big of a fan were you?
DK: I was die-hard about a lot more things than I was him, but I was a fan. I don’t think I had any of his records when I was a kid. It was not important that you buy Rick Springfield records, you listened to Rick Springfield radio, you know? You would have Rick Springfield on, and you would also have Men at Work on.
LH: Mmm, I never had Men at Work on.
DK: Really, no Men at Work for you? Uh oh. Sorry.
LH: That’s OK. I didn’t hate them, I just didn’t listen to them.
DK: I think he did some really awesome things. I’m mostly impressed with the fact that the entirety of that record—as is reported to me, at least—was recorded in like 48 hours. He had a weekend off from being a soap star, and he recorded that record.
LH: I don’t know if you’ve heard this yet, but I think you play like him.
DK: Someone told me that. Obviously, we covered that song for a while, and someone told me that apparently my physical style is exactly the same, which is strange. He’s still touring, I guess; I would so love to see him.
I do have to admit that I came upon most of his material later than I should. He was a pretty substantial musician. Anybody that can pull off music that’s basically about the joy…his music that is just, “You will have fun listening to this, and you can’t deny it.”
LH: Right. And then, back to that TMBG show, you guys covered “Kiss Me Son of God.” I think that’s the first time I’ve seen an opening band cover a song by the headliner. Did you have any qualms about doing that?
DK: No, it’s the most fun thing you could possibly do. Obviously, their crowd loves it. It could be a dangerous thing if you appear to be making fun of the headliner, but we’re big TMBG fans and it was clearly a devotional song and not poking fun at them. Truth be told, we’ve toured with them five times and we’ve asked them to play that song over and over again and they just won’t do it.
LH: So you knew they wouldn’t play it. But did they know you were going to?
DK: I don’t remember; I don’t think so. We’re really good friends with them so we knew it wouldn’t be any problem. But we’ve pulled that many times when it didn’t work as well. We opened for Elliott Smith with an Elliott Smith tune one time; we did a really loud version of “Clementine.” It actually was very, very awesome and his fans, again, just absolutely loved it. He apparently thought it was pretty OK; his manager was sort of annoyed.
We used to do that as frequently as we could. Back when we would only play once a month or once every month and a half, we’d have enough time to pick a song we really liked by whoever we were going to open for, and then learn it. It’s a really fun game. A lot of the reason we so often do covers is because most of the people we’ve played to have been people who have never heard of us before. Being an opening band and being an unheard-of band, there’s a lot of things stacked against you, because everyone has come to the show to see someone else, and is sort of annoyed that you’re taking up their time. If you sound too much like the headlining band, they think you’re a ripoff; if you sound unlike the opening band, they’re like, “What the hell is this crap? This isn’t what I came to see.” So you’re pretty much in a no-win situation as an opening band, and so the best thing you can do is just give people a peace offering: “You like this song, we like this song, we all get along here, let’s just dance to this song.” Of course, if it’s a song by the band they came to see, they definitely know it. One out of a thousand reviews that we’ve gotten for that was bad—this one guy came up to me once and was like, “Man, that ‘Kiss Me Son of God’ is the best song you’ll ever play,” trying to prove to me that we could never write a song that good, which he may be right about. For the most part, people just love it.
LH: It is a good idea; I think it does endear you to everybody.
DK: I remember seeing Quasi, whose name I really disliked prior to ever hearing them; it just seemed like an “I went to college” name. They were opening for Elliott Smith, and I’m a big Elliott Smith fan, and I was so prepared to dislike them and they started with a Breeders’ cover of “Do You Love Me Now,” which we actually have since covered ourselves. It’s this great super-cutesy pop song by the Breeders and they did it so well and so humbly that they completely knocked down my annoyance with the fact that I wanted the night to be 45 minutes hence so that I could see Elliott Smith, you know? It was totally disarming; I shouldn’t take credit for this idea at all, because it was totally theirs. We don’t always open with covers anymore, but for a long time we just opened with covers because it was the best way to cut the circuits on the little time bomb that’s in the audience.
What’s funny is that label people and management, business folk, always are like, “You can’t do that; you’re an original band. Come out and show who you are.” I think that’s just the mindset of somebody who likes to have a mindset or make images and words out of what you’re doing. Straight-up fans, 21-year-olds who came to see they show, they invariably love that, because it is such a peace offering. We have specifically picked songs that aren’t sacreligious to cover—like I can’t stand hearing people try to cover Prince, or the Beatles, or whatever. But we do a cover of a Toto song; most people in the audience don’t listen to Toto on a regular basis but they do like the song, and they didn’t realize how much they liked the song until you played it well for them. It’s the best way to make friends with an unknown audience.
LH: Although, I have to confess: I like Beatles covers.
DK: I realized as I said that that I’m a total hypocrite, because we have covered a Beatles song before. I’m a big Beatles fan; there’s some Beatles songs that you can kind of cover but there’s a lot that you can’t. Maybe I should say Jimi Hendrix instead or something, but there’s songs that, the first time it was so perfect that hearing someone do it again is just like, “Do you really think you are good enough to go out and play ‘Crosstown Traffic’?”
LH: John Flansburgh comanaged your band for a while, correct?
DK: Yeah, he wanted to be our manager initially until it became evident that he is really a pretty busy rock star himself. He more or less brought us the attention of his manager, who now manages us as well.
LH: How did you hook up with him?
DK: We were lucky enough to get a show opening for them—it was three shows, one in D.C., one in New York, and one in Baltimore—about a year and a half, two years ago. I had covered a song of his called “Letterbox”—it’s a really fast pop song, and a friend of mine and I had recorded an electronic super-distorted, really dirge-y version of it. I gave him a CD copy of it and said, “You’ve got to come check out our band.” The last night of these three nights he actually showed up early enough to see us play, and he loved it. We were very lucky. John is one of the most intelligent guys you will ever meet, and certainly one of the most you will meet in rock ’n’ roll.
LH: He was actually our first interview for the magazine when we launched it.
DK: He is so smart, and in it for the right reasons. There’s a lot to say about him, but he’s a great guy and we’re extremely lucky to have met him so early on and had his help and his advice. There’s a lot of tutelage we’ve gotten that no one else could have given, I think.
LH: “There’s a Fire” is my absolute favorite song.
DK: Good. Good; we love that song. It may be my favorite song; I constantly flip back and forth. I sort of now wish we had put it earlier in the record; I felt that we needed to put it somewhere where it would be a breath of fresh air after you had gone through the thickness of it, you know? But sometimes I wish we had put it earlier. It’s a good song.
LH: I read the Nylon magazine article that said it had Cure comparisons—
DK: Yeah, that song does get a lot of Cure comparisons.
LH: I don’t get that at all. But I’m probably approaching it lyrically rather than musically, so I get the Smiths.
DK: Yeah, yeah. Much more Smiths in its lyrics than it is Cure. There’s a rhythmic similarity to “Close to Me” but not much else. I think a lot of people see it superficially as Curelike, and frankly, I’m not at all bothered by the comparison. I love that song, love that band; no complaints out of me.
LH: I’m the proud owner of three ferrets, so I had to ask: How on earth did you come up with the Greased Ferrets as a band name? [When they were 12, Kulash and Nordwind formed their first band and called themselves the Greased Ferrets]
DK: I think we were 12 and we thought it was funny. [Hey Tim, how did we come up with the Greased Ferrets?] I think it was the similarity to Dead Milkmen that made it; it even has the same meter, doesn’t it? There was something a little bit perverse about it, but we weren’t quite sure what.
I guess we were sure of it. [Were we sure about it? Some kind of suppository, is that what we were thinking? Oh, OK.] Apparently, it was a reference to unspeakable things, but I would not have remembered that. This is the first time that has reentered my brain.
LH: Now the next person who asks, you’re going to have to answer that.
DK: [In a mock-interview voice] I don’t know how we came up with that, but we had this ferret that used to get in the oil can all the time. [back to normal voice] I did not have a ferret, no. But Andy—who was not in that band, but is in this band—had a ferret. It was a vicious little beast, though.
LH: What about the band name—any interesting stories behind it?
DK: Nothing worth printing; I mean, I can tell you but you probably won’t use it, though you’re welcome to. Tim and I were in an art class together at age 12 or something and there was an assistant who basically could only say, “OK, go.” Everything he had to express was expressed through that in different registers and contexts. It was sort of a running joke between the two of us to try to speak only in “OK go” for a long time. In high school, we made a fake documentary about a grunge band called the OK Gos. Years later, when we decided it was actually time to make our own rock band, it just sort of seemed fitting. It’s not a particularly funny joke or interesting story.
LH: How did the tour with “This American Life” come about?
DK: Ira Glass is a good friend of mine and he just asked us if we wanted to do it. I used to work at NPR, so we all used to hang out. He used to come to our shows and get excited about how varied the styles were, especially because we used to do a lot of antics on stage: rapping and doing scenes from musicals and stuff like that. He just really likes the smorgasbord effect of it all. I remember one time we were at this party at another NPR host’s house and he got sort of drunk and gave me this mini-lecture on the difference between earnestness and cleverness in music, and it was right on. He nailed exactly what I perceived to be the problem with the first songs we had recorded, which was they were just a little too self-conscious. I really don’t want to be either earnest or clever; I think earnest has this sort of dubious, over-sincere thing about it, and clever is just kind of annoying. That discussion actually spawned a whole new bunch of songs because I think he had so nailed a real problem. So he’s been a big help and a good friend and it just sort of made sense; he needed a live band and we were around.
LH: The piece he wrote about you guys is beautiful.
DK: Yeah. He’s a fantastic writer. And that’s natural; I mean, the great thing about the way he writes is he can talk that way, as if he was just chatting with you.
LH: Your whole Web site is just really well-written: it’s funny, it’s humorous, it’s intelligent. I appreciate that after looking at countless band Web sites.
DK: For some reason, bands I think tend to think that, when it’s time to publish something about themselves, they should make it have the tone that band promotions have always had: just tons of over-indulgent modifiers that don’t mean anything to anyone. It’s super-embarrassing to see young bands proclaim their own genius that way. We’re lucky that a friend of mine helps out a lot with the Web site; he does a lot of the copywriting. He’s a super funny, super smart guy, and he has taken on, for the most part, the mantle of getting that stuff together.
LH: What was it like touring with The Vines?
DK: It’s fun. We’re a very different kind of music, but almost exactly the right difference. Remember before I was saying that it sucks to be too much like the band you’re opening for and it sucks to be too difference from them? This is almost perfect middle ground; like our fans would be the same people, but for different reasons. We have a very different type of stage show than they do so it’s a really good night. And they’re super nice guys; we’ve been friends with them for a while. We met them when we were doing the video last summer. The only problem at all is that they’ve got a bus and we’ve got a van so they’d wake up in the next city every morning after having been professionally driven there while we’d have bused our asses through the night, drinking coffee.
LH: Explain “Hello My Treacherous Friend.”
DK: That’s probably the oldest song on the record; it was written several years ago. I was living in Portland and it was about two friends of mine who had screwed me in really annoying ways…that, mixed with that weird, sort of surreal excitement that you get when you move to a new city and don’t really know anything about it. The smallest things take on this unrealistic significance. Walking around downtown, some particular restaurant or—in Portland, there’s these really gigantic rose bushes that have roses the size of softballs—just the strange significance of these otherwise meaningless things because I was sort of resituating myself. The whole spiders thing is about how my girlfriend had found a spider in my house and refused to kill it. She later claimed, “I told it to leave and it just didn’t.” Surprisingly, I had a nest of spiders in my room for the rest of the summer, which I always blamed on her. Whenever I’d get mad about them, she told me I wasn’t allowed to be mad because they were our children.
I love that city. The weirdest thing is I was in the middle of writing a whole bunch of music but I only saw two shows that whole summer. Especially then, years ago, I was a frighteningly over-social person. I used to go out and see shows all the time, always want to go out to clubs and stuff like that. For some reason, that whole summer I didn’t do anything. I just kind of sat home and looked at the amazing sunsets there. It’s like when you go on vacation or something. We were just in San Francisco yesterday and I was marveling at how this woman was on the trolley there with her video camera, just videotaping anything. I don’t live in San Francisco, either, but I just can’t imagine this woman’s going to go back and look at this videotape of boring things: “Now I’m going up a hill.” But, to her, that will have this crazy significance because that whole weeklong vacation has to stand for so much to her. When you move somewhere for a summer, each little signifier takes up a space that would take years to develop anywhere else. It was a weird and really fun time.
LH: Five years ago, did you envision yourself in this place now?
DK: I don’t know; more or less. Part of me thought that, the other part thought that it was a stupid pipe dream and I should go get a real job.
LH: I’m trying to get out of the real job and follow the stupid pipe dream now.
DK: I encourage you. I got a job out of school—at the time, the economy was really good, and I got a really high-paying freelance job doing graphics stuff, which freed up a lot of time to do other things. And then I just realized that I had to decide to be poor for a long time and just do what I wanted to do. It’s the kind of thing your parents should tell you not to do and your friends should tell you to do, you know? So I’ll side with your friends on this one.