Damian Kulash explains what makes this video-making foursome different from Rihanna
Damian Kulash didn’t set out to have a band that dances on treadmills or invested part of its profits in color coordinated suits. But OK Go has become a brand, on top of an expression of the evolving nature of the music business. Their reputation for producing forward-thinking and fun-fashioned music videos has allowed them some rare opportunities, like re-making the “The Muppet Show” theme for the new movie, creating a fight song for hometown Chicago’s pro soccer team and penning “The Greatest Song I Ever Heard” for Morgan Spurlock’s “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.”
The foursome was at first on Capitol records and now run their own show, label and publishing; they are their own A&R and advances, which has allowed them to collaborate with companies like Chrome and then turn around to engineers from MIT. Regardless of audiences opinion of OK Go’s variety of pop rock, it can’t be denied they’ve influenced music videos, “viral” videos (whatever the hell that means anymore) and independent marketing.
Late this summer I sat down with Kulash to discuss the band’s goals with the next record, their plans for more videos and what makes them different from Rihanna.
Are you guys ever going to do a full-length movie? I feel like at this point, you’ve got 100 vignettes.
I would love to do a full-length movie. You may have noticed a distinct lack of narrative content in our films, though. And I’m not all that interested in making a 90-minute dance routine… but, actually, I can’t believe I just said that. I’m TOTALLY interested in 90-minute dance…
Only if it’s just one long shot.
If it were, yeah, if we could do a single shot, 90-minute thing, but I think that would be just… that just sounds exhausting to me right now. We’ve made a lot of videos recently and I’m starting to feel a little exhausted by them. We’re writing for our next record right now and so I think it’s time to be in the studio and I mean, we’re going to make maybe two more videos first. I would love to make a feature length film.
I hope this doesn’t come off the wrong… but I really like directing and I feel really good in that role. Not just because I’m a bossy a**hole, but I get a real thrill out of like watching the team and figure out its rhythm and becoming a full, efficient and effective in getting and making something bigger than any of this, you know, any individual parts could even have imagined.
Our film sets are like, they’re… it’s a really magical feeling to me and I would love to do that on a larger scale. But I’m a super perfectionist and I wouldn’t want to feel myself with something that large without having like a good feeling that I knew what the f*ck I was doing.
I have one story in mind, I think it’s years off.
Would it be with a band? You said you were comfortable and happy in that role, but you’re also very comfortable in front of the camera at this point --- or you have to be or else you’re just a masochist.
Yeah, I’m not a very good actor. I wish I was. And I shouldn’t say that because I’ve certainly had plenty of opportunities and would like to have many more… it’s weird, like when we’re playing our set, when we’re performing a routine… a routine is a weird word for it, but when we’re doing a thing, you know, when there’s an event happening and we’re just like part of the it. It’s more akin to performing on stage and playing music. Where it’s like there may be a component of communicating emotion through the way you are being, but for the most part, it’s like watching a person on stage. You want to see them put themselves into what they’re doing and not.
And videos I feel kind of the same way about and acting is sort of the opposite. It’s sort of like, you still don’t want to see affectation or acting, but there’s a skill to that that I’m not sure I know anything about.
It’s also a rock or rock alternative thing, with authenticity. When you see Rihanna and you see Beyoncé and you see like Jay-Z or whatever, they’re playing a role. They’re acting a role in a lot of their videos. In rock, you’re pretty much supposed to be the band and not be anything other than the band if you’re part of the video narrative at all.
Yes, but I am… but that’s also assuming that there’s a narrative. Like ours, we make our videos as art projects, we’re not the band in our videos either. We’re the people who have submitted themselves to the dog routine or to the treadmill routine.
Sometimes we have fashioned ourselves as sort of stage hands to it. Like, the dog video is definitely like that where the stated goal was like because the dogs were dancing and we’re just providing the opportunity, like, we’re just providing the necessary elements for that, but Rihanna… there’s the sort of like the big glossy pop video thing is so unrelated to what we do that I almost don’t know how to think about it. Those are advertisements for CDs. And we’re just sort of lucky that that category exists because it’s almost like we’ve gone through the letter of the law and said no… What makes a music video a music video in the 1995 sense is that it’s super glossy, it panders directly-- well I shouldn’t say panders -- but it targets directly the demographic that watch the TV or the demographic that will buy a certain type of tennis shoe because that’s who pays for MTV. And you know, it’s an advertisement for the music and in a very specific and very tiny bull’s-eye kind of way.
There’s a big pressure within that system, that if you want to be successful to be as much as the last thing that was successful as possible. Sameness is a big plus in that world because the last thing you want to do is take a risk with that much money, and there’s a sort of arms race for who could spend the most… not who can spend the most, but for people hitting that bull’s-eye even harder.
And so what we make, which is like lo-fi and low production value, at least sometimes it takes a lot of work, but like, low gloss and there’s not particularly like a need to show the band off as rock stars, like we’re the f*cking dorks in the backyard. Our videos don’t perform any sort of advertisement functions or promotional functions that are corporate.
They are branding, but you are a brand in the fact that you guys have regularly kind of pushed the boundary of what a music video is or what you can do or what you’re willing to do within that. I mean, that IS your brand.
Yeah, but if you… but imagine this. Imagine 10 years ago, I had been like, “I’m going to get together a bunch of dudes and we’re going to make a bunch of performance pieces in which we do like kind of crazy sh*t with a bunch of dogs or with a rube-goldberg machine and like, and that’s going to be a career.” People would have laughed me out of the room. But as long as you’re able to say, “They’re going to be called music videos,” then everyone’s like, “Oh, I know what those are.” You still wouldn’t have bet your money on me saying that like we’re gonna dance on treadmills and that’s going to make a career is like, you’d have been a fool to put your money on that.
You kind of touched on it when you’re saying that the commercialization of brands, and about monetization. With the Chrome video. How much of that is out of pocket? How much do you get from Chrome? How much of it is volunteer work? I mean, that is a tedious, tedious video.
Yeah. I will… I’m fairly certain I’m contractually prohibited from talking numbers. I will say that we lost money on it, but not much.
How does that look on the back end then? Do you make money off the single album? How does that translate into sales because you’re obviously saying that you’re not advertising for that product?
It’s not so much that they don’t ever perform that function, it’s that the old universe had one locus of value, the CD. You know? And even downloads were a f*cking distraction and probably a cannibalization for that. Right, like the CD was a… was the locus of the value, songwriting is just the elbow grease you have to put in to making the CD, playing shows is how you promote them, making videos is how you advertise them. It’s like all those things; everything had one giant red arrow pointing at the big dollar sign in the middle of the little silver disc.
And now like, I just sort of feel like everything sort of points to everything and as a creative person, we are living through the blessed moment in which, like we can come up with something that we want to do. And it doesn’t really matter if that this thing may or may not make a bunch of money. If it’s really cool, it will make… it’ll help everything. And it’s not quite… it’s not like that it’s a promotion for it exactly, it’s just that like, it’s our job to make stuff and figure out where the money comes out of the thing later. Like, basically like if you have enough faith that you put $100 into the whole thing and $108 will come out somewhere else… As long as you have faith that that’s going to come from somewhere -- which is incredibly naïve business model, but is not failed for us yet.
I mean, like with this last one, basically we made a really expensive video, mostly on someone else’s dime.
We probably lost a little bit of money. But all of us get the coolest thing ever and every time you make the coolest thing ever, there are more people who want to pay you for whatever. It might be licensing fees, it might be ticket prices go up; it might be we sell a whole lot more singles, it might be…
It’s not to say that we don’t get some of that back in record sales. We will likely at some point put all of these videos together in a package of some kind. Like the difference between whether or not we’re trying to push 10 copies of that to indie record stores or in like it’s in every Starbucks in America, it likely has to do with how cool these things are. And so, like where does the money come from? I don’t f*ckin know.
What does that look like, especially since you haven’t always had the happiest relationship with your label, and what’s that look like after publishing it and all that? I mean, can there be that compilation, especially if you guys don’t…
The good thing is, we’ve owned every video we’ve made in the last two years. Capitol still owns everything from the second to the last record. The treadmill video we don’t own. But we’ve made eight or nine since then. We’ve always owned our publishing, so there’s no problems there and yeah, the business side of it gets a lot easier when you start being your own company because you don’t have to… you’re allowed to just take a macro view. After all of the friction we had with the specific choices of our label, it was always pretty easy to see why they were doing it and not be to embittered about any specific choice because like…
But it’s their business and that’s their business model and you were a part of that.
Well yeah. And their business, you have to be able to understand your business as abstractions. That is, if this is a good idea for one band, it has to be a good idea for every band. If it’s a bad idea for one band, it has to be a bad idea for every band. And you can’t… your business model can’t be quality. I mean, you try as hard as you can for that, but our record company, our little, private record company is equivalent of a record company who puts all of their resources into A&R. All you want is the best possible thing.
If you’re us, you see our system is completely sustainable. I know it is because we never made a dime off the record label, not because they were f*cking us, but just because, we signed up to a contract that gives them all…
There’s the model.
Yeah, that’s the model. And so it means that unless you are a fully recouped mega band, you have to figure out how to survive on something else, and that’s going to be touring revenues or it’s going to be licensing revenues or it’s gonna be t-shirts or whatever. But if you survive or eight or 10 years doing that, you know damn well how to survive as a rock band and you might as well run your own f*ckin record company.
Now that you run your own record company what your biggest source of revenue? What has been the most challenging in that role?
I’m not sure I can tell you what our single biggest source of revenue is. It’s a quilt… it’s a tapestry of a lot of little sources of revenue. You know, our licensing does pretty well. We’ve sold somewhere between one and two million records over the eight years and while that’s not like ‘90s numbers, that there’s still plenty of little streams of income that come off of that in the traditional way. We do a lot of big sponsored projects, like we get most of our big projects paid for by someone and occasionally they’re actually profit centers and you know, we don’t tour unless we’re making money at it anymore. I mean, there was definitely years when it was like, it’s gonna get you in front of people…
And now, you know, it’s not worth it unless it’s actually profitable and you know, our overhead is anywhere between three and 20 people, depending on how hard we’re working on something at a given time, which is a lot less than the sort of collective hundreds, hundreds of the record label. You don’t need every check to have you know, seven figures.
It’s not like I just discovered this math. Our long tail went from being pretty thin to being, relatively fat. And once you have a healthy girth to that long tail, you can… it does make a big difference whether or not you’re getting $8.00 per record sale or 40 cents. You know?
We just put out a live record and we put out, you know, you could buy a version with this gorgeous photo book and you could buy a version with one of the suits we wore on tour. There’s only four of those suits. It’s not going to pay anyone’s mortgage, but we sold all four of them, you know?? And there’s only 200 of those books and no one’s going to like get super rich off of one of our $75 packages, but we sold them all.
To switch gears, you guys have supported Obama’s fundraising efforts, and you contributed to “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.” You actions sometimes have a political bent. Is that on purpose? Is it necessary?
No. I never felt like this should be a didactic political element in music, you know. There’s bands that pull it off. I mean, I grew up in D.C. and I worshiped Fugazi but they carry a different size and loudness of stick. Our message is not a political one on a lyrical level. The cultural presence I most admire is like Dave Eggers. He’s an incredible writer, he’s an incredible publisher, he’s an incredible businessman, he’s an incredible educator. He’s all these things, but no single one of those, while each one of them may be a prism or a facet that you can see the big picture through, it’s the collection of all of them, or rather his apparent nonchalance. I mean, I don’t know, I never met him. I don’t know how he feels about all of those things, but the politics of our music don’t come from the lyrics. I feel like if people want to pay attention to the way we go about making things in the world or reading about us in the Wall Street Journal, is there an entree into the things we do in the world, then that’s one way to look at it.
But you know, you don’t read McSweeney’s and then think, It can be the occasional Elvis Costello song or Fugazi… it’s rare that I actually want to hear someone sort of or that I can emotionally connect with someone being didactically and specifically political. Like, “Here is my message from the soap box. “
So what you’re saying is that you want to do a collaboration with Dave Eggers.
Dave, call me.
What I’m excited about our next record for is I have no idea what it will sound like. And I feel more emboldened to truly chase it in weird place than ever before. Our last record was a lot different than things we made before it, and that was more than I sometimes like to admit to myself.
I think a response to how well the videos are doing and stuff, that it was like, it finally gave us I think the space to not, to really not listen to the inner-critic. I mean, we always think you’re ignoring that presence, like no, no, no. I’m going to do whatever I think is right.
And right now, I think the next record is definitely going to be like this big disc, like I know exactly what it’s going to sound like. It’s going to be totally like, complete dance music. But as soon as you think that, I realize that all I’m listening to is Crosby, Stills and Nash.
Yeah. You don’t know what it sounds like, but do you have personal goals that you want to achieve now that that palate is going to open? What do you want to achieve on this next record? Where are you at with it, and when can people expect to hear it? Three questions.
We have a few ideas, but not a lot. I mean, we wrote 108 songs last record and plenty of them weren’t great, but redundant. And so like whether or not those things come back. They’re never that exciting, but then again, when you sit down to write, and you’re like, I love this thing, why wouldn’t I use it. So, but there’s a few new, like the genuinely new things sort of brewing. But Tim’s got two new side projects he’s been working on, so he doesn’t have tons of extra music. I’ve been producing a record with Lavender Diamond.
I haven’t written a lot. We’re going to start recording in the fall, in a much more nascent forum that we ever had before. We usually get things pretty well written before we go into the studio.
Are you producing with the same guy?
Dave Fridmann. At least, that’s the plan right now. So we’re going to start working with him in the fall with almost nothing done and see how quickly it moves. My guess is, things will be ready, like we’ll probably finish it in the spring and have it out by the summer. That’s the hope.
I want it to sound uniquely like us. And I know that that’s like a circular answer, but on our last record, there’s a song called “Skyscrapers,” which to me just… when people ask what my favorite song on it is, it’s my go-to one. But because it just sounds like the itch inside my head that I’m trying to scratch. I can pick out the influences from an objective standpoint, but it doesn’t have a genre. It just sounds like what’s happening in my head. The most inspired records to me are where they don’t really fit into a genre, or even if they do, it’s like the genre just happens to be coincidence. Like, sure Hank Williams happened to be country, but like that’s just Hank Williams, he’s just singing Hank Williams, he’s not singing Country, he’s singing Hank Williams. And I feel like, we got way closer with our last record and I just want it to be that. I want to hear the songs and not hear songwriting, I just want to hear us.