OK Go befriends technology in an entirely new way group’s latest album, Hungry Ghosts. Never technophobic, the band has always been ultra-savvy on the digital front, as evidenced by the group’s continual succession of amazing viral music videos. But by tapping into new electronic and synthetic sounds for Hungry Ghosts, the band has made an album that feels completely different than its previous work while still fundamentally sounding like OK Go.
I, however, am not on speaking terms with technology at the moment. When I interviewed OK Go frontman Damian Kulash last week for our Points of Reference series, my recording equipment completely malfunctioned. For the first time in over a decade of writing, I was left without a record of the conversation. Let’s just say that’s not an ideal situation for a Q&A series. Thankfully, enough notes still existed in my brain to at paraphrase most all of Kulash’s points.
So with sincere apologies to Mr. Kulash (and with a thousand foul words spewed at malfunctioning technology), here’s our latest Points of Reference "interview," detailing five pieces of pop culture that influenced OK Go’s latest album Hungry Ghosts.
Kick by INXS
It doesn’t take a musicologist to hear the distinct influence of ‘80s pop and rock music on Hungry Ghosts. It’s the music the guys in OK Go grew up listening to, and Kulash says the pretty much the entirety of that period was in their minds while working on the record. This is most obvious in the way the band incorporated many more electronic sounds on the new songs, which carries the distinct fingerprints of the new wave era. Out of all the music from that era, smash hit INXS record Kick stood out among the pack for Kulash. The diversity of that record was something OK Go aimed to match. To paraphrase Kulash, while he loved their music, every Depeche Mode record sounded like a Depeche Mode record. Every Prince album sounded like a Prince album. But Kick seemed like something different for INXS, a “New Sensation,” if you will. OK Go wanted to tap into the same exploratory sense of songwriting malleability when creating Hungry Ghosts.
OK Go got surprising assist from two pieces of Scandinavian technology when molding Hungry Ghosts. The primary aid was the Teenage Engineering OP-1 portable synthesizer. For part of the writing period, Kulash briefly lived in a New York City, and the OP-1 proved to be the perfect musical tool for the spacial confines of a NYC apartment. About the size of an Apple keyboard, Kulash found stylish battery-powered wonder to be so naturally intuitive that it actually changed his writing process. The problem he sees with most synths created since the ‘90s is that they’re cold machines that have just about every sound imaginable already pre-programed into them, but the OP-1's design actually pushes the user’s own creativity.
The other Swedish-engineered tech OK Go employed was Propellerhead’s recording software Reason. The elasticity of the digital sequencing programing and the plethora of tools Reason provides users allowed Kulash to play around with the new electronic sounds until he found the exact interesting sound that he and the band were seeking.
“Hip Hop” by Dead Prez
It may seem odd to find an underground hip hop track from 2000 on this list, but that’s kind of the point. OK Go really wanted to expand its musical palate on Hungry Ghosts. Up until the band’s previous record (2010’s The Color of Blue in the Sky), Kulash felt the band was restricted both by label pressure and their own self-created mental barriers. He said they hesitated when tyring to break out of a standard pop rock feel because they internally looked at other styles and thought, “Well, we can’t make that type of music.” Once the guys got past that, they finally had the artistic freedom to truly branch out in any direction they pleased. So as a means of finding new sonic territory when making Hungry Ghosts, OK Go attempted to find deep, killer grooves like the ones in this Dead Prez track.
David Foster Wallace
David Foster Wallace is one of the authors Kulash says he can reread over and over and over again and always get something out of it. Wallace may not be the easiest read, but he never panders; he respects the reader. Kulash says he admires the eloquent simplicity in the way explains the things which gives his writing an unpatrolled level of truth. It’s that truth that Kulash strives to match when writing songs. As he bluntly put it, it’s “fucking hard” to write a love song that's genuine and not bogged down with clichés considering how many thousands and thousands of people have already penned similar odes. But the uncomplicated honesty of Wallace’s writing is always there to guide him.
It’s impossible to discuss OK Go without mentioning their music videos and commitment to crafting a dynamic visual aesthetic. It’s at this point where Swiss artist Felice Varini comes into the equation. He works on large scale projects that play with people’s perceptions via optical illusions. As Kulash puts it, Verini creates art that people can enjoy and experience; he's not just an artist creating a thing to be hung on a wall or displayed in a gallery. They play with a viewer’s sense of reality. It’s clear to see how the visual trickery in video for Hungry Ghost’s first single, “The Writing’s on the Wall,” is a direct homage to Verini. But in a more abstract terms, the artist’s open creative approach seeps into OK Go’s songwriting. Kulash says the band doesn’t get together and target specifics by saying things like, “let’s write an arena rock song,” but instead play around with instruments until two or more sounds connect in a unique way and create an emotion.
Mar 24 at 8, Neptune Theatre, Sold Out