Damian Kulash Gets (Even More) in Touch With His Inner Child

The OK Go frontman's latest experiments in child's play

A sense of childlike wonder has always permeated the work of OK Go and its frontman, Damian Kulash. The band's infectious, poppy, megaviral videos—many of them sponsored by brands—have always felt like wacky science experiments. It's no wonder they've caught the attention of teachers, who show them in their classrooms. 

And while OK Go aren't exactly a kids' band, lately they've been embracing their younger set of fans like never before. 

In 2018, they launched the OK Go Sandbox, an online resource for educators that uses the band's music videos to explore STEAM concepts. The initiative is a partnership with the Playful Learning Lab at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, led by Dr. AnnMarie Thomas. 

Earlier this year, the OK Go Sandbox launched an "Art in Space" contest. Inspired by the band's 2016 "Upside Down & Inside Out" video, filmed aboard a reduced gravity aircraft (with sponsorship support from Russia's S7 Airlines), the "Art in Space" contest challenged students to dream up their own experiments to send into suborbital space aboard the New Shepard spacecraft. 

Separately, Kulash, 43, did a project with Mercedes-Benz this year that also featured children—an installation that premiered at SXSW called the Stress Inversion Transformer, which takes yelling and stomping and turns it into pure, positive energy. The work fits into the current trend of brands embracing purpose and trying to make the world a better place—though Kulash acknowledges it's more of a "poem" than a serious stab at creating sustainable energy. 

Kulash also judged the Clio Music Awards this summer as part of the Use of Music jury. Muse chatted with him that week—our first interview with him since the summer of 2013. We talked about the evolution of the band, its ongoing work with brands, and why kids—Kulash has two of his own now, 1-year-old twins with his wife, the novelist and screenwriter Kristen Gore—are suddenly pretty central to his creative daydreams. 

Muse: Does The Sandbox feel like a turning point for the band? Are you embracing purpose in a more official way? 

Damian Kulash: It certainly is a turning point, but not so much toward purpose as a natural development of things we've been doing. For 15 years we've been making videos and getting feedback from teachers who use them in their classrooms. That's always been really humbling and exciting—and to have it be something so noble, and more useful than our selfish self-expression version, has been really awesome. Then we just sort of realized, "Why don't we make a set of tools that work for teachers across the board?" 

I remember backstage at a festival we were playing, there was a guy from an up-and-coming indie band that played before us. He was like, "Oh my God, my 3-year-old loves your videos." That happens a lot. Ten years ago it would have been, "Oh my God, I saw your show here" or "We played with you at this place." The ways people find out about us—the thing we are in their life—has changed so much over the years. This is sort of an acknowledgment of that. 

It feels, strangely, a bit like the treadmill video did. We made that after another video of ours had gone accidentally viral. We were like, "If we have this audience online, we would be stupid not to make them something, so let's just make another video." We had no idea it would become what it was. This time it was more like, if teachers are using these in the classroom, the least we can do is help them out a little bit. 

It reminds me of what happened with They Might Be Giants, when they started making children's records. 

They Might be Giants sort of discovered us. Our first manager was They Might Be Giants' manager. We toured with them a lot, and I definitely see that similarity. I always admired and envied their career of doing it their own way and finding value where it was. One thing we did learn, touring with them, is that it's a little dangerous to embrace an identity as a kids' band because it's very hard to ever come back. I don't know, honestly, if we've crossed that threshold or not. To me, we're still not making stuff that's "for kids." It's not kids' music, exactly. They're not kids' videos, exactly. But it's true that we have an awareness of our family-friendliness that we did not have in the past. 

We've put together a live show that we call our "video show," where instead of trying to make a rock show more feel like a video, we screen the videos and play along with them—so it's like making the videos feel more like a rock show. And that is super family-friendly. We do it in sit-down theaters. There's an intermission. There's no opening bands. The door time's really early so kids can come. That's as close as it gets to sort of being a kids' band. But not being a kids' band actually makes it better for the particular age of kids that seem to be interested in us. They're not songs about taking out the trash, or not bullying each other. They're songs about what we've always written songs about. But they're accessible in an emotional way to young teens and middle-school kids. 

Why was the "Art in Space" idea appealing?

The way I thought about Sandbox was, "What can we give kids that they can't get elsewhere?" I don't think it helps for us to be a surrogate teacher, to have another talking head on-screen saying, "Here's how you do math." Our main skill is resourcefulness and a commitment to our curiosity. We have the same curiosity the kids have about exploring the world—we've done our best to keep that alive, even as adults. 

Most kids don't get to go up in a zero-gravity plane. But they can watch our video, and it looks like magic. The important thing is to show them this is actually the result of exactly what they're already doing. It's not about knowing math better than anyone else, or knowing engineering better than anyone else, or knowing any particular skill better than anyone else. It's about respecting how great all those things are, and chasing your curiosity about them. 

Coming up with challenges that embody that has been tough. We've succeeded in some places and failed in others. But when this opportunity came along, it was sort of the perfect one. I just had a round of critiques with the kids who designed the first round of the project. They ran up against the exact same problems we do. One team's idea was to use measurements of background radiation in space, which of course you can't get on Earth. But they found out that the spacecraft itself blocks those—so they can't do the thing they thought they could do. You watch them struggle with this. "What do we do with this now?" Do you just give up? Do you keep the machinery you have but use it for a different purpose? Do you keep the idea you have and look for a different input? 

Therein lies the unique thing we can teach. That it's not the mechanism by which convergent logic works, where you go, "One plus one equals two. Now, learn that, kid." It's the mechanism by which divergent logic gets you to something better and more interesting. You go, "Alright, if we can't do that, what can we do? What was it that got us here in the first place? What should we respect about this?" It's more about engaging with your own curiosity and creative process.

It's creative problem-solving. 

Exactly. And obviously, part of it also is just a much simpler version, which is that anyone can tell kids a physics equation, but if we can share with them even a hint of the ridiculous things we get to do, hopefully that will go a long way. 

Talk about the "Stress Inversion Transformer." That also involved kids, maybe coincidentally? 

Mercedes wanted to do a bunch of profiles of creative people as a way of launching their EQ electric car. So they approached me, and we settled on doing an art project together. From my perspective, it's easy to align with an electric car because it's making the world a better place. I own an electric car, and I believe it's the right thing to do. So the basic brief became: How do you make an art project that also makes the world a better place? 

As of a year ago, and even more so now, the idea of making a machine that runs on happiness or joy, or is connected to the global smile coefficient, seemed tone-deaf and cynical. Who is happy out there right now? Isn't the nature of Western society right now basically that everybody is suffering incredible anxiety, that everybody's angry at everybody and everything is wrong and the world is going to shit? The idea that you would make something that was smiley, smiley, happy flowers was ridiculous. So I told them, the only thing I can do for you is try to use all the anxiety out there to make the world a better place. How about that? I thought that was sort of funny and sarcastic. And they're like, "Yeah, sure." 

Then I had to figure out if that was actually doable. Anyone who does the basic math can figure out that the machine is not really making the world a better place—just think about the fossil fuels it took to move that from place to place. It's more of a poetic gesture. What I didn't want was to have the cynical thing where a branded art project pretends it's making the world a better place in terms of some sort of virtue signaling, but is actually just a cynical brand activation. 

On the flip side, acting like I was a crazy mad scientist who actually believed this was going to solve the world's energy crisis would have seemed false and dumb. 

So, here I am with this art project that I think is a really beautiful statement but also a poem and not an actual solution to energy crises. The film is about the idea itself being naive and beautiful, rather than pretending like the machine really makes the world a better place. So we decided to get the idea from a kid. We invited 15 or 20 kids and honestly just interviewed them until one of them came up with an idea similar enough to this that we could chase it. 

My wife and I directed the film together. She and I are doing a feature film right now, so it was also an exercise to see what it was like to work on a film direction project together. And it went really well.

Is the experience of working with brands on art projects different than when you and I last talked six years ago? 

It does feel like it's changed a lot. I think there's two trends. One is that the industry itself is growing up so fast and is basically now about self-reinvention. A funny advertisement on TV doesn't have to necessarily be original; it just has to make you laugh. But something where the point of it is to go, "Huh, that's really great that a brand decided to do that," there needs to be an element of that that's new. The branded art space, I think, is always more focused on its own evolution. 

The other side is that my personal career, and the band's career, are just in a very different place than we were six years ago. The OK Go videos have continued to get more and more elaborate and expensive, which prices brands out of a certain type of project. But also, I think, six years ago we were probably still thought of as the video band. Now, I think we may be thought of as the creative band. Obviously, that's a very broad brush to be painting with. But I remember when the treadmill video broke. The challenge was to grab that and go, "Look, we're going to be more than the treadmill band—we're going to be the video band." And as that started to work, the challenge was to go, "We're going to be more than the video band—we're going to be the creative band." 

While we're happy for people to think of us as a video band, we don't want drop any creative opportunity to keep pushing this art form into a weirder place. It's what we're telling kids all the time: Chase your creative ideas. Don't care about where they lead, just go there. Can we do things that aren't specifically videos? Can we do things that don't really have a definition? I'm not sure what the Mercedez project was. It's a sculpture, I guess. It's an art project. From a brand perspective, it's an experiential piece, but it now lives independent of me and is traveling around Europe as an art project. I don't know what you call that.

Yet you're still looking to brands to fund your creative exploration. 

Yeah. I would also say that we realized in the last five or 10 years that if we want to still be doing this in 20 or 30 or 50 years, we can't be on tour 11 months a year. People need to see their families. The last time we talked, I still saw the band as the creative mouthpiece for everything that any of the four of us do. Now, our bassist has another band called XXT that he's super excited about. Our drummer does a lot of production work. Our guitarist runs an app company. And I'm making films. We obviously still spend a lot of time playing shows and writing music and being in the studio, but the idea that the band has to be the only publishing platform for any of our ideas has shifted.

The band will take the weirdest opportunities we can find. But it feels more sustainable to not feel like we need to keep the band contemporary and relevant all the time. Which is funny, because I think it's one of those catch-22s, where the harder you try to be relevant, the more you're chasing other people. Recently, I think, we realized that we know our ideas are different than other people's, that we make different things than other bands do. And we're embracing the fact that there will be an opportunity tomorrow even if we're not touring today. 

Brands are capable of looking at the attention we've command and not have it be connected to what's on the charts this week, or what was in the style section last week. Brands have a much more flexible understanding of how art works in the world, and are really good at supporting things where they matter and when they matter.

They're probably more comfortable looking at the ROI differently, too.

Definitely. People understand what we're doing and say yes more easily than they used to. They expect us to be able to pull off crazy stuff, and they see the value in it. It used to be that one out of every 50 or 100 pitches got serious attention. I'd say it's still less than 50 percent. But it's one out of four, or one out of five, not one out a 100. 

I feel like I'm stumbling around a much simpler point, which is just that our band has graduated from a very focused type of hit-after-hit success to a broader set of things we can be relied on to do. That's more comfortable for us. It lets us do more expansive things, and do them on a more reasonable timeframe. 

Let me put it this way: When I was a kid, Sonic Youth was different than other bands. There were Sonic Youth records that were rock 'n' roll records, and then at some point, you realize, "These people are more artists than they are like other rock bands." There's just something about whatever they do that's going to feel like an art project to me. At some point, it stopped mattering whether or not Sonic Youth had an album out this week, or this year, because Sonic Youth were artists. It was just a platform. The same could be said of a lot of bands I love. Why would you go see the Flaming Lips? Do you go see the Flaming Lips because of their new record or because their show's amazing? 

They're on a different level than how Top 40 works. 

It's very different than the hit band of the summer, where you want to go because you love that song or because everyone's talking about them right now. I'm not saying we're as cool as Sonic Youth. I know we're in a whole different universe than that. But something happened to us in the last five or 10 years where we've become about an idea that is not dependent on album cycles or a promotional cycle. That makes it much easier to take on something like the Mercedes project, for instance. Ten years ago they would have said, "Do you have an album right now? Are you promoting something? Are you on tour?" All the cycles of pop culture matter a lot more if you're measuring stuff based on music industry metrics, or if you're relying on the promotional arm of a major label to get behind you. 

You were on the Use of Music jury for the 2019 Clio Music Awards. Do you pay a lot of attention to how brands are using music generally?

You would think this would be an area of great study for me, but actually I stream most of my entertainment. I don't get as much one- and two-minute advertising as other people do. I get the pre-roll ads. I occasionally hear a song and I'm like, "Wow, what is that?" I actually asked to be on this jury, as opposed to the Music Marketing jury. I feel I know a lot about the promotion of music. I don't, as a filmmaker, spend very much time thinking about how to use music—because the films I make always start with music. 

Moving into narrative film, which I'm doing with my wife, I was excited to watch the Use of Music entries—300 or 400 minutes of material—just to see what would surprise me. Mostly, the surprising stuff had more to do with the relationship between the product and the music than it did between the film and the music. A lot of what was submitted seemed to be tonally predictable. The pickup truck running through the countryside has an American anthem behind it. The video game warrior has dark, orchestral music. I was more surprised by interesting activations of music. Like the Apple music videos with the memojis. You get this sense of, "Wow, because of this little technological change, the world now has a new art form in it." There's a bunch of things in that zone where I thought brands engaged with music culture better than they engaged with the songs themselves. 

You've directed some commercials lately. Will you do more of that?

I did the Asus commercial. I did a Kia commercial last year. I'm represented by Park Pictures for commercial directing. I turn down a lot of opportunities, mostly because the band is just busy. What I like about commercial directing is it offers me the chance to spread my wings and learn about other stuff—things I haven't done a million times in OK Go videos.

It's also nice to work with people who have budgets and their own ideas and not feel like I have to viciously defend my territory. The OK Go videos have to represent my brand as well as the other brand. In commercial directing, there's a little bit more freedom to be like, "Look, it's your project. I'm just here to serve what you guys want to do." 

What else is on the horizon? Another big OK Go video coming soon?

I really hope so. We have three big videos that are in various stages of planning. The sponsors in each case are still mulling it over. So, of course, if any of your readers feel like making an OK Go video, we have very good things in the works. 

We'll let them know! 

The one I'm most excited about could be done as soon as March. I can't say more than that right now, but it would be extraordinarily exciting. We have a bunch of new music that's in various stages of production. Depending on how quickly we get videos together, it could be an EP, it could be a full album, it could just be a single. There's definitely enough music for an album. 

And my wife and I are working on a narrative feature about—I guess I'll just say it's about the birth of the commercial internet. It's about specific things other than that, but I'm not allowed to talk about it. It's an Amazon project, and we're turning in the most recent version of the script in the next two weeks. So, we could be in production as soon as this spring, but who knows? We hired a new creative director for Sandbox, so hopefully it will become more focused and consistent, and expand into projects like "Art in Space" more frequently. We have a few more video shows in the fall. I suspect we'll do some rock shows and video shows next spring and summer. And I have two 1-year-old twins. So that's really what I'm doing. 

How do you ever sleep? 

I work from home, and I tour less than I used to. So far, it seems to be working.

Tim Nudd
Tim Nudd is editor in chief of the Clio Awards.