The year is 1991. Grunge is taking an unsuspecting nation by storm in a whirlwind of angst and flannel. Teenagers everywhere are picking up second-hand instruments, penning songs on the perils of adolescence and getting into arguments with band mates. Brown graduate Damian Kulash is no exception.
“When I was 15, I met [current OK Go guitarist] Andy. He was a total jackass when I met him. I had a yo-yo, one of those crazy mechanized yo-yos that keeps spinning. He was like ‘Dude, let me see your yo-yo.’ So he starts swinging my yo-yo around his head and half of it goes flying off into the abyss somewhere. He was like, ‘Oh man, I’m really sorry. How much did that cost?’ And I was like, ‘I think it’s about ten bucks.’ So then he goes ‘Well, here’s five for the half I lost.’”
But there was no resentment in Kulash’s eyes last Friday as he played to a capacity crowd of frenzied fans at the House of Blues. After all, just two weeks earlier, his band, OK Go, released their eponymous first album to resounding critical acclaim. The disc debuted in the top spot on Billboard’s Heatseeker Album chart and their lead single, “Get Over It,” is shooting up through the Modern Rock chart. And he has since patched up things with Andy quite nicely. After the yo-yo incident, he claims, “Andy won me over pretty quickly.”
Kulash’s eyes sparkle as he says this, a hint of mischief lurking about his crinkled lips. Right now he is perched on a park bench, hunched over the tape recorder as if demanding its attention. He is completely unfazed by the screech of the sirens that occasionally fly by, or the couple giving us dirty looks from the next bench over. His enthusiasm is sincere, and he is determined to give his fans one hell of an interview. “It’s exciting. We don’t read a whole lot of music magazines ’cause we spend so much time touring. But it’s fun to do the interviews.” The sparkle glimmers again. “It’s fantastic.”
Kulash is confident, and deservedly so. After meeting future OK Go bassist Tim Nordwind at the age of 11, the native Chicagoans started a band called the Greased Ferrets. Andy Duncan, after overcoming initial missteps, joined the party in high school, and Kulash met current drummer Dan Konopka while studying at Brown. After officially forming in 1999, OK Go finally broke when Ira Glass, host of the public radio show “This American Life,” requested that the band perform with him on a touring version of the show. Their fan base grew rapidly, and they were eventually signed by Capitol Records. The band recorded an entire disc’s worth of material, but then scrapped it in favor of new recordings that now comprise the OK Go album. When asked about this decision, Kulash is quick to defend himself.
“The album was just too self-conscious and arty. It’s not like I don’t like art rock and we obviously tried to make it an artful collection of music. It just sounded over-thought and overwrought and belabored. It wasn’t people’s reactions we were worried about—it was just whether or not we liked it.”
Kulash’s eyes shift to the side as he responds; the last question was too leading and he’s not happy about it. Returning to safer territory, he speaks about the band’s association with the ’80s revival of recent months. “I’m fine with that. We’re not a very retro band. I don’t think we really sound like ’80s music. I think the thing is that rock that’s been on the radio for the last decade or so has been pretty unmelodic and a lot of it pretty un-fun. I think that the fact that we do stuff that’s relatively fun and melodic gets us associated with the ’80s a lot. But I grew up on ’80s pop music, so it feels good to me.” But Kulash is also wary of the labels that critics often impose on OK Go. “I think a lot of times, people will throw in a description of us like ‘they’re part ’60s or part ’80s,’ but we’re certainly not one of those bands that sound ‘new wave.’”
On stage later that evening, Kulash’s words held true. The band delivered an orgiastic set of pure power-pop combustion, with the ’80s-based synth beats so abundant on the record kept to a minimum. They even broke from the rocking briefly to spotlight Tim’s unexpected proficiency at rapping. And at the end of each song, Kulash jumped in front of the mic, a broad grin splashed on his face, and yelled, “Thanks!”
Many in the crowd were female Harvard students infatuated with Kulash’s talent and charisma. They danced seductively, arms reaching for his attention as if it were dangling in the air, unaware of the apparent futility of their efforts. Asked the one question about Brown that Harvard guys are most interested in, Kulash coolly replies, “Smart and foxy. Brown attracts the best of the best, especially when it comes to the fairer gender.” Sorry, ladies.