The proliferation of red-carpet shows, in which faux celebrities criticize costumes worn by the real stars, is bleeding much of the fun out of such pageantry, since attendees who don't want to spend the next week being ridiculed by cast members of America's Next Top Model are dressing more conservatively out of self-defense. Fortunately, vocalist/guitarist Damian Kulash and the other members of OK Go bucked this tedious trend at last month's Grammy ceremony, appearing in damask wallpaper-patterned suits of the sort they don in their latest video, for the infectious "Do What You Want." This bold fashion statement earned its share of ridicule, and that's fine by Kulash.
"Obviously, they have to go after everyone," he notes from a tour stop in Germany. "What else are they going to do? Go, like, 'She looked great! And so did she! And so did she! And he looked really great!' I mean, aside from looking a little plasticky and overly made-up, these are relatively beautiful people who had the nicest clothes on you can imagine. Of course they didn't look bad. So even though people made fun of us, it felt exactly right."
That's appropriate, since the players' willingness (make that eagerness) to do silly things in public is entirely responsible for their current popularity, not to mention their first Grammy, awarded for Best Short-Form Music Video. The winning entry, made to accompany the power-popping ditty "Here It Goes Again," features Kulash, guitarist Andy Ross, bassist Tim Nordwind and drummer Dan Konopka performing intricately wacky maneuvers on several parallel treadmills, and because the clip doesn't contain a single edit, it's hardly typical MTV fare. However, the absurd imagery was ideal for YouTube, where the video became such a viral phenomenon that music-television networks couldn't ignore it.
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Kulash wanted to make note of this strange path to success upon accepting OK Go's Grammy, the first handed out during a shindig that took place prior to the broadcast portion of the production. However, he says he found it impossible to spit out anything sensible after witnessing the bizarre interactions of the prelim's hosts, guitarist Steve Vai ("He was comfortable and showmanly in a car-salesman kind of way") and Puerto Rico's Zuleyka Rivera, the reigning Miss Universe ("She couldn't read the teleprompter, and she had this weird laugh where the inhale was louder than the exhale: 'ha-ha-ha-GASP! ha-ha-ha-GASP!'"). So the next day, he recorded an acceptance speech for posting on the group's website as he idled in a Los Angeles airport. In it, he describes the moment of victory as feeling "like being shot out of a joy cannon at high speed," adding, "It's so great that the world works this way sometimes, and you don't need a gigantic mega-push from a huge monster company."
Of course, OK Go is signed to just such a mammoth corporation: Capitol Music Group, which comprises the recently merged Capitol Records and Virgin Records imprints. But while Kulash says label honchos "have been kind to us," their version of benevolence "has been to stay out of our way for the last couple years."
An example? The video for "A Million Ways," the first single off the act's still-current CD, 2005's Oh No, was something of a test run for "Here It Goes Again" (the members perform goofy choreography by Kulash's sister, Trish Sie, as captured in one long take), and according to Kulash, "We were solidly laughed at" by the Capitol bosses when they proposed putting it online. "People have since realized it was a really good idea," he adds, "which isn't to say that all our ideas have been that good. But they let us try our stuff, and the truth is, it's as much a surprise to us as it is to anyone that these crazy videos from our back yard, and from our sister's house and so forth, could actually get the sort of exposure they have. It shows that five bucks and a camcorder and a good idea is a lot more powerful than five million bucks and Oscar-worthy camerawork and a bad idea."
As the astuteness of this last comment implies, Kulash has given his brain lots of exercise over the years. A Washington, D.C. native, he attended Providence, Rhode Island's Brown University, majoring in art-semiotics. "It was half production art and half cultural theory and whatever else falls under the umbrella of semiotics, which is basically theoretical navel-gazing for future academics," he explains. Turns out this was better training for a career in music than he realized at the time. "Cultural theory and criticism aren't inherently productive disciplines," he acknowledges. "They don't teach you to make things as much as they teach you how to take things apart and analyze them. But the specific curriculum I followed was trying to address how paralyzing that can be by making half of the courses about production. So a band is sort of a reasonable end point to that. We're thinking about how to make things and then actually making them."
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During the Brown years, Kulash performed with a handful of local groups. Then, following his 1998 graduation, he moved to Chicago and formed OK Go with Nordwind, Konopka and guitarist Andrew Duncan, who knew each other from playing with another combo, Stanley's Joyful Noise. Over the next several years, the four became known in Chi-town for melodic, up-tempo rock and entertaining live shows, and this reputation spread when they served as the house band for a tour mounted in conjunction with the National Public Radio staple This American Life. In doing so, Kulash learned that there are a surprising number of rock fans among NPR's listenership. But when he's asked if bands would be well served to market themselves to the network's audience, he says, "This is going to sound ridiculous coming out of my mouth, but basically, I think no. Obviously, if NPR calls, you don't turn it down. But the effort of trying to position yourself in that respect is probably better spent trying to write a good song."
Thanks largely to the catchiness of his compositions, Capitol signed OK Go, and "Get Over It," from the outfit's 2002 self-titled debut, became a minor hit. The quartet toured so relentlessly in its wake that Duncan left the group after recording Oh No, and things haven't been much easier for his replacement, Ross. "He joined the band just over two years ago, and since that time, there's only been one time when he's been home for longer than four days in a row," Kulash says. "If that were me, I would have quit the band in fuckin' month six. So the fact that he hopped on for the ride and has done such a fantastic job is amazing."
For his part, Kulash has found ways to combine music with social concerns, most overtly with "How Your Band Can Fire Bush," an essay he wrote in advance of the 2004 presidential election. In the piece, he argued that contemporary musicians "are the loudest, most effective voice that the political left has," and passionately encouraged them "to give a shit and make your opinion heard." Most of the responses he received to this salvo were positive, with even people who disagreed with his views offering praise for his anti-apathy stance. But he also heard from what he calls "a few really vehement haters, and some of them were truly funny. This one guy wrote, 'It's us against the Mus-a-lims' -- he couldn't even spell 'Muslims' -- and 'Haven't you ever heard of the Crusades?' And I thought, what a proud Westerner, wearing the Crusades as a feather in his cap."
The trophy garnered by the "Here It Goes Again" video serves the same function for OK Go, and Kulash couldn't be more psyched about it. "The Internet is such a Wild West right now that a home video can get a Grammy," he says. "It's obviously totally backwards -- and totally awesome."