Since then band members, Damian Kulash (lead vocals, guitar), Tim Nordwind (bass guitar, vocals), Dan Konopka (drums) and Andy Ross (guitar, keyboards, vocals) have continually pushed the boundaries of the music video medium. Beth Ruyak talked with Kulash about how that innovative ethos carries through creating the album, designing the live show and of course the mind-bending videos.
They're kicking off their tour with a sold out show at the Assembly in Sacramento.
Beth Ruyak: When you go on the road I know you take surprises with you. We’re hearing when you come to Sacramento your show will have surprises, can you give us any hints?
Damian Kulash: For the next several months we’ll be playing pretty small clubs. We’re trying to bring things with us that are not supposed to happen in small clubs.
We’ve done a pretty good job of pushing the boundaries of what you can do with music and video in terms of distributing it online and finding people digitally. We’ve always tried to keep our rock shows pushed ahead of us as well. What’s amazing about live shows that you can’t get through radio or the Internet is that direct connection with a whole lot of people at once. You can feel that emotional wave through a room as everyone shares it and I think that’s something people understand really well when they’re straight-out rocking. There’s a lot of that in film and theater and dance – but I feel like there’s so many crossovers that people haven’t explored all the way.
We’re coming with a lot of visuals and a lot of confetti.
BR: Oh Good! People love the surprises don’t they?
D: Mmh hm. It’s a balance between having things like, ‘I had no idea that was coming’ and having real moments of direct connection. It really is such a unique feeling to stand on stage and have 500 or 1,000 or 10,000 people share in an emotion.
There’s a collective trance that people can get into. It really can be around a bunch of different emotions. The same thing happens when people have their breath held because it’s a super beautiful ballad as when they’re all jumping and screaming when there’s a high energy anthem.
Trying to build a live show is a really fun project because you’re sort of trying to build an arc of all those emotions at once. There’s nothing more fun.
BR: We’ll talk about the videos in a moment but when you compare doing a video to making a studio album to doing the live shows; is there one venue that’s more fun for you?
D: No, live shows, videos the music itself, our main method is playing. I remember when we first started out writing songs in a much more directed way, I had a picture of what I wanted and I headed toward it. We have since learned the best stuff we ever make is when we don’t know what we [are making]. When we start out with just a bunch of raw elements and we play around with them until something that‘s bigger than the sum of its parts jumps out.
In songwriting sometimes you add a beat and a chord progression together and sometimes you just get a beat and a chord progression – in fact most of the time that’s what you get. That 1 percent of the time, or even less than that, a crazy ball of emotion jumps out. It’s lust or fury or melancholy, or if you’re really lucky it’s all of those things at once in some totally indescribable way.
Making video for us is sort of a similar process, we get what we think is a very good idea but hopefully a very simple idea, and then we get in the situation and play with all the things that could happen within that set of parameters. And within a week or two weeks or three, you wind up with an idea so wildly different than what you could have thought in advance - because you’re responding to the actual elements, rather actually than having a plan in advance.
Building our live show is a similar thing, what we’ve done is we’ve brought together a group of collaborators. There’s some programmers, some visual artist, some film and theater people and put them all in a position where we all know what the elements are but we don’t really know what we’re making.
Eventually you wind up with these ideas that feel much more robust and sophisticated than anything you could have thought of in advanced.
BR: You're new video seems like the epitome of what you just described. I think it looks like playing in Tinker Toy land.
D: It really is like playing in Tinker Toy land. We knew going in we wanted to do a series of anamorphic illusions over the course of three and a half minutes. Optical illusions are such a big category, and anamorphism, the type of illusion that can only be scene from one perspective (exactly one point in space), is also a very large category of things. So rather than storyboard out what’s happening at a minute and 30 seconds and so forth we had a loose arc. Here’s the large body of stuff we want to play with, here’s 50 references we think are cool and here’s our warehouse.
I was living in that space with the two other directors, 20 hours a day for three weeks. We just had a big ball of stuff to play with. It’s all so incremental; you get to the end of one day and realize your idea is now a totally different idea than you had in the morning and that happens 10 days in a row – until you have something that finally starts to feel like ‘ok we know exactly what we’re doing now,’ and you build it.
BR: The song on this video is “The Writing’s On The Wall,” which is from the new EP Upside Out which is a preview from the upcoming album Hungry Ghost.
Here’s the video:
BR: There is a really cool behind-the-scenes video that I think is a lot of fun. It helps everybody appreciate what goes into that. How much did you have to work on the choreography?
D: Each video is pretty different. This video the choreography is way more intense off-screen than it is on-screen. The band members have to move around pretty quickly from station to station in the video but getting from point-A-to-point-B has a lot to do with a whole crew of people ripping our clothes off and putting on a different costume, cleaning paint off Dan’s face, making sure objects are in exactly the right place and ready to be handed to us, and assisting us in moving the camera around. This is the first video where we, the band, actually also operated the camera.
You’ll see in the video at the very end 40 or 50 people emerge from the pillars of this giant illusion, all of those people are the actual crew and each of them have a really specific role. That behind-the-scenes clip gives a pretty good sense of how intricate the scene is. In a lot of our video’s that’s been the case. The magic is seeing something on screen that seems impossible.
We were in the warehouse for about three weeks working on this, and there’s almost no distinction between the design of the illusions and the choreography that is required to keep the camera moving through them.
The people who built the room in which we spray Dan with paint, as also the people who operated the machinery to spray Dan with paint, and the people who had to clean him up in just under 20 seconds. So as they are building the machine they are learning the choreography. So the quickest answer is about three weeks.
BR: I find myself looking for edits.
D: There are no edits in the whole thing. It’s just one long take. It took us 61 takes to get to that, but it’s just one take.
BR: I’ll have to go back and look again because I saw moments when I thought oh there must be an edit there.
D: We actually worked pretty hard to make sure the traditional edits spots never happened. These days it’s so frequent that people use a bar moving across screen as the wipe. To make sure no one felt that we were cheating the edits there’s a human in front of that bar so you can tell it wasn’t edited.
The post production that we did do… it was shot on a camera that shoots in 4K which is about four times the resolution of HD, so we shot a much larger frame than what you’re seeing so we could zoom in and out digitally. We didn’t want to carry around an actual zoom lens which would have made the camera rig too heavy – so there’s a bunch of zooming and digital stabilization.
Since the camera is being carried by the band and sometimes by a camera operator off-screen, we had to stabilize the image a lot, so it’s a pretty shaky image. If you overshoot that, if you shoot 20 percent or 40 percent more footage, you can kind of move your digital frame around to counteract the shaking of the camera. What you can’t do is undo the motion blur, so you’ll notice at times it has these magical moments where it seems to shimmer a little bit. Those are moments when the camera was moving a lot but we digitally took out the motion but not the motion blur.
BR: Let’s talk about that studio album coming out in October, it’s called Hungry Ghost. We get a preview of the music from the EP, are you done recording the album?
D: Ummm. Yes, I think so. We have not chosen what order all the songs will go in and there’s exactly one song left that I feel the chorus could be a little bit better.
BR: How much are you involved with the strategy for releasing the music, posting the videos, all that happens out there on the internet?
D: Well we run our own record label, and we try not to think of it as a record label we try to think about it as a company for making stuff. While that sounds a little bit naïve, I think it’s important not to get stuck in the modes of last century. I think a lot of the reason the music industry is doing so poorly is because they think they know what their product is. It’s supposed to be 3.5 minute audio strings encoded on a piece of plastic that you can control and sell like any other object. So we started our own company to deal with that. We do our own distribution, which means we’re very involved in it.
If we didn’t do our own business, we wouldn’t be able to do the types of things that we do. The amount of time and effort we put into making our videos or making the app we released last year or rethinking our live show, we would never be able to get the support from a record label because they don’t have an obvious profit model in terms of selling more downloads or CDs.
Our model has always been chase our exciting ideas and try to keep them in a relevant space.
We all live online, we all live in this fragmented cultural universe and it’s much more fun to make artwork and music in that world than try to put your lasso around the world and pull it back to the 20th century.
BR: You identified the two most common challenges that I hear from all the artists coming through this studio, which are how do I get my music out farther into the world and how do I make money from it, and it’s a dilemma for a lot of artists.
D: It totally is. This is fairly abstract way to think about it. I think we’re just stuck in thinking about what music is. Prior to the turn of the 20th century, recorded music basically didn’t exist. The idea that what music is is recorded music and the way it generated value is by selling copies of it is a really recent idea, and as it turns out a fairly short lived one.
Don’t get me wrong I want to sell as many downloads as I can, I want as many people to buy our records as we can get to buy our records. I very much nostalgically miss when collecting records was a way of being physically connected to the music I love, however that’s not the world we live in. The biggest music streaming service in the world is YouTube and YouTube always comes with a visual. So the idea that music is this one thing that existed from the 40s or 50s until around the turn of the century and we’re somehow losing it to this new world of the internet, that’s sort of chauvinism for a different century.
The world that I live in and the world you live in, it’s basically ones and zeros. Journalism and photography and filmmaking and music – and so many different formerly distinct categories of creativity are all being lumped into this one thing – we spend our days making ones and zeros.
Trying to distinguish yourself as a musician by saying “how do I get my music out there” in general we’ve found it’s more fun and easier to just stop thinking about it as “how do I get this one thing out into the world” and just make stuff for the world you live in.
BR: Are you saying music isn’t a song, it’s a package now.
D: I think it’s always been that way. Before Elvis was ever seen everyone thought he was black. Imagine how big the package change was when that guy showed up on TV and was acceptable to the racist world at the time. Had Elvis been black, Elvis wouldn’t have existed in that way. Imagine the package of the Beatles without the visuals.
Music has always been experiential. Two hundred years ago it was a wildly different type of experience than we have now. In fact the experience we can have now with music is pretty wildly different than that of 1985. The music videos that we make, while they have the same title as the music videos that you would’ve seen on MTV in its earliest days, they don’t perform the same function. The old music videos were an advertisement made by a record label. Our music videos are something that we the band actually make ourselves as an extension of the world around the song.
BR: There is so much fun in your new video and all your videos, and it reminds me of the fun that comes from that story of your band’s name. So would you tell that story one more time?
D: Tim, the bassist and I, have been friends for 27 years. We met in 1987 when we were little kids, we were at a summer camp. We had this amazing art teacher, and her assistant was this guy who I’m guessing was probably in his late teens, but to an 11 year old seemed very close to an adult if not actually an adult. He had shaggy hair and this incredibly intense smell, which we later learned was not B.O. but marijuana.
It was a drawing class, we would sit in this class doing something like a still life. We would sit in a circle and the teacher and assistant would rotate giving us help and criticism. He’d come up behind you and he’d be like, “hey man, I want you to like, touch the vase with your mind and touch the paper with your hand and draw the difference,” and you’d been drawing this thing for like 20 minutes so you’d be like “ok, I’ll try that.” And he’d sit over your shoulder for way too long saying “ok… ok… ok... ok go.”
And there was this moment when you were suppose to have this psychedelic opening of the mind at that second, but he was the one that was totally high. Just the idea that you could start an abstract project in the middle of already doing that abstract project was hilarious even to an 11 year old, so he was a big figure in our fictional world at the time. We’d make up stories around him and eventually, 15 years later, we actually started the band and we called it OK Go.