Internet neutrality. It’s a thorny, hotly contested issue that’s divided into roughly two opposing camps: those who believe that broadband speed shouldn’t be altered depending on its content or sender/recipient, and those who insist that it should. Naturally, the average recording artist — who views it as a freedom of speech issue — is firmly encamped on the pro-neutrality side. And OK Go frontman Damian Kulash felt so strongly about the topic that he flew to Washington last year to testify about it in front of a Congressional task force. But he needed help preparing his case. Whom could he ask?
Kulash didn’t pussyfoot around. He went straight to the top. As in Barack Obama, who was then campaigning for the Democratic nomination. “He gave me advice, and it was spectacular,” purrs the singer, proudly. “We met him at a P.R. meet-and-greet kinda thing during the Wyoming primary. He was giving this speech and they asked if we wanted to sing the National Anthem before it, and we were like, ‘Yeah! Of course!’ But the timing didn’t work out. But we did get to go to one of his meet-and–greets between his green room and the stage, and he came up to us, complimented Tim’s fashion — ’cause Tim [Nordwind, bassist] has got great fashion — and said, ‘So you guys are from Chicago, eh?'”
And that could’ve been that — end of friendly, surfacey exchange. But Kulash pushed his luck. Obama, he continues, turned around to have a snapshot taken with OK Go, then headed towards the waiting microphone. “And as he’s walking away, I was like ‘Hey — I’m testifying in front of Congress next week! Do you have any advice?’ And you could just watch him start making calculations in his mind, like, ‘What can I say in the two-and-a-half minutes I have here that will actually be effective?’
“His whole tenor changed, and his advice was ‘Remember that you are the person in the room who knows what you’re talking about. The senators will be there to make a point, a point that someone has told them to make, but they won’t know what you’re talking about. So you are the expert in the room, and they’re going to try to convince you otherwise. So all you have to do is speak accurately and don’t let them derail you.’ And I was like, ‘Uhhh . . . O.K.!’ And he also said, ‘You should speak to Larry Lessig.’ He called out the singular guy in the country who really knows about Internet law. I was amazed,” Kulash praises, still a tad dumfounded. “It. Was. Astonishing.”
What does this have to do with Of The Blue Colour Of The Sky, OK Go’s followup to its ’05 breakthrough, Oh No? Everything, answers the loquacious Kulash, who talks even faster than his rapid-fire mind seems to work. The 13-track set, he says, was Frankensteined together from more than 100 song snippets: “They weren’t all finished or anything, there were a lot of little bits. And we’re very critical of ourselves — sometimes terribly so — and we write from all over the place. And to get a body of material that feels like it’s where we’re at right now? That takes a lot of pruning. So half of the record has this back-porch vibe, then half of it feels like Prince’s Purple Rain.”
It’s a playful experimentation made possible by the band’s two camcorder-filmed, home-choreographed videos — “A Million Ways” and the Grammy-winning treadmill clip for “Here It Goes Again,” both You Tube staples. (Hence, the quartet’s passionate backing of Internet neutrality.) For his testimony, Kulash was afforded seven minutes instead of the usual five, he says, “because I showed a video in the middle of it, and they thought it’d be best if I had extra time for that. So I showed a little bit of our backyard-dancing video [‘A Million Ways’] and a snippet of our treadmill video, and basically my testimony was, ‘Here’s the history of my band. Can you imagine that happening if I had to pay my way through AT&T?’
“We wanted a level playing field, we wanted a meritocracy, not an oligarchy, because every big event in our career has been something we’ve done ourselves in small ways, that managed to amplify itself in big ways through the Internet. So when these hearings started to happen last year, they were looking for artists who were articulate enough to make a point, but whose personal story helped prove that point. So we are the perfect band to be talking about how good ideas should win out on the Internet. I mean, we made a video for $5,000 that won a Grammy, and if we had to buy our way in, it never would’ve happened.”
Thus, OK Go can open its Colour campaign with “WTF,” a bluesy, hip-grinding single enhanced by Kulash’s (decidedly Prince-ish) faux-fey falsetto and a surreal, psychedelic acid trip of a video (directed by the group and Tim Nackashi). And there’s more tasty diverse fare on the menu, from the poppy processional “This Too Shall Pass” through a breathy “Skyscrapers” and an R&B/punk-ish “Needing/Getting,” to OK Go’s stock in snarky trade — the ’80s-retro techno-pop percolators “End Love” and “White Knuckles.” The disc was produced by ex-Mercury Rev member Dave Fridmann, who’s also overseen recent work from MGMT and The Flaming Lips. To preview Colour (a title nicked from an 1800s book of quackery that proposed blue light as a panacea), Kulash and company re-teamed with designer Moritz Waldemeyer for a special performance at December’s Design Miami exhibition, which featured futuristic laser-shooting guitars.
Kulash isn’t even certain how many TV/film licensing offers have poured in for OK Go music, both new and old. “I’ll just see an e-mail at some point and say ‘Yep,'” chuckles the ardent DIY-er. “And right now, I think we’re in a lot of movie trailers for a lot of different movies. And the one thing that you wouldn’t notice from the outside is, there’s all this licensing that happens for small, internal corporate uses in places. And they’re small amounts — these aren’t the sorts of things that you send your kids to college on. But a telecommunications subcontractor somewhere will be doing a corporate event for their own employees, and they’ll wanna show ’em a hype-’em-up film about the company, and they’ll put our music behind it. And if they’re good, honest people they’ll actually call up and license it from you.” And if not? Kulash cackles wickedly. “We’ve actually been to trade shows and heard our music playing in someone’s booth. And we’re like, ‘Uhhh . . . pardon me?'”
The 34-year-old vocalist has also penned two op-eds for the New York Times, one on Internet neutrality and another on one of his pet peeves, DRM — Digital Rights Management software, he snarls, “and how stupidly it’s been used. The debate doesn’t matter so much now, because all the labels have figured out what I was saying at that time: Punishing people who buy your music by giving them a hobbled version of it is fucking bad business. They wanted to make us a test case — their thinking was, ‘OK Go is a band that appeals to college kids, and college kids are our major problem with downloading. So we’re gonna put software on their CD that will make it so it can’t be copied.’ Which meant at the time that it also couldn’t be put on your iPod. Can you imagine? I was like ‘Are you crazy?’ So we got around it in a sneaky way — we turned in our record [Oh No] with a 34-minute hidden track on it that was just a recording of my wife sleeping. And when they tried to fit the software on it, there was no space left on the CD, and the quality-control machine kept spitting it back out.” Eventually, it was too late, and manufacturing went forward with an untainted Oh No.
For a long time, the singer adds, he couldn’t tell that story for legal reasons. But OK Go is now on the best of terms with its EMI-distributed imprint, Capitol. “So I don’t want to comment directly on the label,” he concludes. “But I will say that our philosophy has always been that we’d rather make things we like making and do it ourselves. So it’s not like there’s some Machiavellian, manipulative marketing machine at work. It’s just that we’d rather make our own videos than pay someone else to have that fun. If someone’s gonna go make a cool three-minute movie, I wanna be the one having that fun!
“For OK Go, it’s just more fun that way. And it also means that your career doesn’t ride on the ups and downs of somebody else’s marketing plan. Because most of our connections to our fans are direct, we’re very open to them in terms of our Web site, even ourselves. And we make our own things without requiring this massive distribution network. So if the label decides to not work us at radio, it doesn’t mean we go back to our Starbucks jobs!”
— Tom Lanham