Don't Ask Me

Is OK Go's Damien Kulash too smart for his own good?

Damien Kulash is getting a little tired of all the questions about semiotics.

Now, this is an issue you might expect from, say, a member of the Académie Française, or a Warhol manqué making silk screens of Osama, or Spielberg toward the end of a Q&A at Berkeley. But it's not the usual complaint of swivel-hipped, bed-headed rockers.

Unless, that is, said rocker's academic background suggests he's more alert to the paradigmatic resonance of swivel hips and hair that has, in all likelihood, been cut to look fucked than your average schmo with a six-string.

"Yeah, yeah, I was a semiotics major," Kulash acknowledges gamely yet wearily. (A semiotics major at Brown University, no less.) But the OK Go front man isn't entirely sure what that has to do with the brash and ebullient power-pop he and bandmates Tim Nordwind, Dan Konopka and Andy Duncan are serving up hot on their current tour with The Donnas.

"I mean, I guess insofar as it teaches you to have a certain...perspective on, well, art, visual art especially, studying semiotics has influenced my music," offers Kulash, who generally handles the band's songwriting duties, with help from lifelong pal Nordwind. "But otherwise, well, I never really know how to answer questions about how semiotics feeds my life in a rock band. Certainly not in the same way that, say, studying medicine influences the practice of being a doctor."

"You know," he continues after a little chortle, "if you'd asked me a year ago, I never would have thought that the inevitable burning question from, like, every journalist, would be about semiotics."

In his offhand way--necessarily offhand because he's conducting this interview while walking his dog--Kulash has made a very intriguing rhetorical move, transforming the conversation into a meta-interview, an interview about interviewing, by turning the tables on the journalist. He asks the aforementioned "inevitable burning question," with his own implied query: "What are your jackass motives here? Weren't you hired to talk about, y'know, rock?"

A full accounting of motives thus seems in order. First, Kulash and his ilk are catnip for a class of people who occasionally need to remind themselves that they are so much more than groupies with pens. They are people who, once upon a time, read books and wrote papers on things like, well, semiotics.

Second, at this precise cultural moment, after all those years of ClintoN'sync, there's something alluringly backward about the idea that the cute guy with the hummable pop songs and video on MTV is more articulate, culturally aware and seemingly thoughtful than the president of these United States.

And finally, and most germane, there's the fact that OK Go's history, and the band's music itself, suggest the dovetail of instinctive artistic production and critical consciousness whose rift semiotics seeks to explore. This is, after all, a group of guys who used to drive the indie girls wild with a boy band-style dance routine they choreographed themselves, whose live shows frequently feature covers of Whitesnake and Toto (!), and whose self-titled debut album features a ballad about a cat. And--not to put too fine a point on it--are co-managed by a member of They Might Be Giants.

So OK Go is nothing if not self-aware--not an unusual pose in the musical circles of the band's Chicago hometown. But what sets OK Go apart from its Windy City neighbors is the intelligence that clings to jams like "Get Over It" and "You're So Damn Hot," Weezer-esque rockouts so adrenalized they neutralize all analytic impulses in favor of more feral behavior, such as jumping around and yelling.

"About midway through recording the album I had this conversation with Ira Glass, the guy who does This American Life on NPR," Kulash says. "And he asked me: 'Do you think of your music as clever, or earnest?' And I was like, neither, man. I mean, the last thing I want to do is make music that's just nakedly 'clever'--sarcastic, smarty-pants music. That stuff does nothing for me.

"Earnest, though," he continues, "that connotes a different kind of disingenuousness--this, like, drippy emoting that always sounds so fake to me. But Ira's question woke me up to a...self-consciousness in a lot of the songs we'd been working on that I was kind of, I dunno, unimpressed with, or at least tired of."

Kulash and his bandmates went back to the drawing board, he says, and about half of the songs on OK Go came out of a second round of writing.

"Elvis Costello once said that you have 21 years to write your first album, and six months for your second," Kulash says. "In a way, I think both those experiences are reflected on the album--there are songs like 'C-C-C-Cinnamon Lips' that are years, years!--old, things we did just for fun and in the vacuum of never knowing if people would hear them, you know?

"Whereas," he explains, "I think the newer songs are less structurally cerebral and more honestly emotional than the earlier stuff. I just got to a point where I wanted the music to sound more...immediate."

Though Kulash's lyrics are no less keen, the difference in the later material is audible. "1000 Miles Per Hour," for example, feeds a sense of urgent yearning through a bouncy backbeat and irrepressible pop chorus reminiscent of The Cars. And nowhere is Kulash more emotionally present and direct than on "Shortly Before The End," a sweetly simple tune washed in reverb and star-shower keyboards.

"I wanted to write songs that people really get," he says of those latter writing sessions. "Songs that you don't have to think a lot about, that you just feel. With art--and music, especially--I guess my attitude is, if you have some kind of statement to make, just write your essay. But the tools that come with music can speak to people in a much more profound way than just toying around with logic."

Kulash is on a roll now, and whether he knows it or not (and the guess is: he does), he's dispensing a lot of wisdom about how music "operates," to employ the semiotical verb of choice.

"The effect that a song has should go beyond reason," his mini-monologue continues. "A song makes you want to jump around, or it makes you want to cry, but ultimately, it moves you. As opposed to just tickling the cerebral part of your brain. Well, if it's a good song, anyway."

One good song, and maybe the best song on OK Go is "There's a Fire." The track, which Kulash, too, cites as a personal favorite, floats along on a beat only a few bong hits shy of dancehall reggae, the perfect musical idiom for its lyrics about syntactical breakdown: "I never say quite what I mean/And never mean quite what I say...And what the hell did I mean to say?/There's a fire, there's a fire." In Kulash's hands, the words come off as a deadly serious joke, a volley straight from the heart of a guy who is trying, desperately, to escape his brain.

Deconstruct that. No, seriously.

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