A year and a half ago, OK Go was just another power pop band, but then it made a video for “Here It Goes Again” and that changed everything. The one-take video of the band engaged in an intricately choreographed dance on a series of treadmills has been viewed over 28 million times on YouTube alone. Needless to say, the band’s profile changed drastically.
OK Go’s lead singer Damian Kulash came to New Orleans one weekend in late May with Indigo Girls, My Morning Jacket singer Jim James, Matt Nathanson and performance artist Pamela Z as part of a Future of Music Coalition/Air Traffic Control retreat in New Orleans. The Future of Music Coalition and Air Traffic Control have now brought three groups of politically active musicians to New Orleans for a series of workshops and discussions about how they can put their activism to concrete use, and each has culminated with a benefit concert that put them on a stage with New Orleans musicians. The May benefit at Tipitina’s ended with everyone—including Bonerama and Al “Carnival Time” Johnson—onstage singing “I Shall Be Released.” Johnson was one of the beneficiaries of the show along with Sweet Home New Orleans as people try to raise money for Johnson to get a house in the Habitat for Humanity Musicians’ Village.
Last month, Kulash played Tipitina’s with Bonerama, again a benefit for Sweet Home New Orleans and Al Johnson, but the show was also a showcase for You’re Not Alone, the iTunes-only EP they recorded to further raise money for Johnson and Sweet Home. Kulash and Bonerama’s Mark Mullins talked about the EP backstage after their soundcheck.
How did the collaboration come together?
Damian Kulash: I was here for a Future of Music Coalition and Air Traffic Control artist activists retreat, which is a weekend where they get a bunch of musicians together who are interested in various social justice causes and bring them together to talk about the loftier side of the things we care about and the practical sides. A lot of musicians who care about things just spout off in interviews and occasionally play a benefit show or give some money to someone. We’re all weary of being the people who talk a lot but don’t really do anything, and it’s nice to get together with people who have a lot of experience in making things happen in the world and learn from them.
They put together these weekends, and they were smart enough to put them together in a place where the need for change is really, really heavy. So bring a bunch of musicians who all want to do something good to a place like New Orleans and give them a tour for a couple of days and you’ve got a bunch of sobbing, crying fools on your hands. That’s why we were here, and for the benefit show, they wanted me to do an acoustic set. At first I was like, “Yeah sure, I’ll do an acoustic set.” Then I realized I was playing with the Indigo Girls and Jim James from My Morning Jacket, and these people are acoustic monsters. I asked if there was anyone else playing that I could play with, and they said there was this really spectacular brass band you could play with. I, of course, thought that a band that was four trombones and a tuba would be quaint, jazzy and really soulful and pretty.
Words often used to describe Bonerama.
Kulash: They are really soulful. I talked to Craig Klein on the phone and I was like, “Hey, would you guys mind learning a couple of our songs?” He’s like, “Sure, send me the CD.” I sent him the CD and he picked the two loudest songs. I’m like, “Let’s do something kind of quiet and soulful,” and my famous last words, “I’m used to playing with a really loud band, so this would be a big change for me.” He said, “We are a really loud band,” and he was right.
Their plane was late coming from the West Coast that day, so we never had a chance to practice together or anything. We just jumped up onstage and did it. I had been on tour for two years at that point playing these same fucking songs, and I was so sick of them and I thought there was no way I could ever actually like these songs again. As soon as they opened their great brass trombones’ lips, music was born inside of me again. I was so psyched about it, and we had a great time that night.
Mark, had you heard much or any of OK Go before?
Mark Mullins: I didn’t know much about them at all. We knew we were going to be involved in this Future of Music Coalition benefit, but we didn’t know exactly what we were going to. Then they said would you like to do something with Damian from OK Go? I felt like an idiot because I was probably one of the last people in the world who didn’t know too much about them. I started doing my homework and I immediately fell in love with the material. I thought it was so cool and to have the opportunity to do this kind of music with a brass band from New Orleans. Craig and I were going through the CD listening and there were a lot of good choices. Finally, we decided on these and when we were out on tour, we were frantically doing all these arrangements either on a plane or in a hotel room not knowing when we would get together and get to actually try them with Damian. I’d never met him, and I’d barely even talked to him on the phone. I didn’t want to get too deep in the arrangement without knowing if it’s going to be completely not what he wants.
So there was a lot of anxiety towards the preparation of it, only to be compounded when our plane from California was dreadfully late. We totally missed the whole afternoon rehearsal, bonding, meet and greet and rehearse and if-the-arrangement-sucks session. We ended up coming straight here from the airport, walked right onstage, saw him out of the corner of my eye and said, “I guess that’s Damian.” We’re getting the music together and we haven’t even played the music with Bonerama. This is beyond cramming. The doors are opening and people are starting to come in and the production manager of Tip’s is yelling at me to get off the stage and I’m like, “No, we’ve got to at least try this first.” Basically, we got up there and did it without any rehearsal. It was just one of those rare moments where if the plane was early, the spark wouldn’t have been as big or something like that. It was fun, a really fun night.
Obviously enough fun to feel like you should make a record.
Kulash: It’s amazing when the things you love doing and feel like you should be doing and want to be doing all line up in the same place. So often it feels like doing good things for the world is a distraction from the things you want to do for yourself, or for your music or for your career. This is one of those things were we walked offstage and were like, “Wow, we just played this benefit show and made some money for someone who really needs the money, the music was as good as any other music we’ve ever made and we could set up some mics and have a record we could sell for this guy, too.”
Mullins: [Gesturing to where we’re sitting backstage at Tipitina’s] Damian was standing, I swear to you, right here and I was sitting right there when the idea came up. It was literally right in this exact spot, “Why don’t we record this?”
Kulash: Of course, we thought at the time because that show had gone so well that recording it would mean sticking two mics in a room and be done in half an hour. That’s not actually how recording works, we rediscovered.
Mullins: Al [“Carnival Time” Johnson] was here and the spirit of the whole cause was huge.
Kulash: We figured we’d spend a weekend recording this somewhere, and a month or two later we set the date and Tim [Nordwind of OK Go] and I found the time to come back down to New Orleans. Turns out we were able to come back for the second anniversary of Katrina, so it was another emotional time in the city and a really wonderful time to be here. We went to Piety Street for a week and put all the songs together.
The challenge in the studio was getting it to sound like a fucking rock record without being our fucking rock record again. Playing it live, it’s not at all a challenge; it’s just a whole different beast. So we went in and it was a really fun process because I was figuring out how Mark works and Mark was figuring out how Tim and I work. It was very different but very complimentary. There are whole things I didn’t catch at all on a pass. Mark would come out with his sheet and be like, “You missed this, this, this, this, this, and this” and “You should be playing the third there and the fifth here” and “You were flat on this.” And I’m saying, “Maybe it should go umph umph umph instead of hah hah hah.”
On the EP, you have Al “Carnival Time” Johnson sing “I Shall Be Released.” Based on his sideways take on the melody in the sing-along at the end of the show that night, I had the impression he didn’t know the song.
Kulash: He didn’t. He had never heard of Bob Dylan before that night. As we were practicing up here with Bonerama and the Indigo Girls and all these rock ’n’ roll superstars, everyone is teaching Al how to play “I Shall Be Released.” He goes, “This is a beautiful song. Y’all write this song?”
“No, it’s Bob Dylan.”
“He’s a talented cat, that Bob Dylan. I’ve got to get to know this Bob Dylan.” That night he was all over the place, but he was feeling it.
When we went into the studio, Mark had written this beautiful arrangement for it, this super classy, classic soul arrangement. Even without the singer, you had tears in your eyes. I had been singing with Al as we tracked it and it sounded pretty cool because I don’t have a classic soul voice at all, so there was something really wrong with it in a beautiful way. Al came into sing, and he was so right for it, it almost lost a dimension. It suddenly turned into Aaron Neville mid-’80s because it was too well recorded to be something from the ’50s or ’60s, but too classic to be something more modern. We ended up going to Nashville to mix the record, and by then we knew we had to rebuild the music somehow. Al by himself was so haunting and beautiful that everything else was in the way. We wound up making the track very unlike the rest of the record.
What about the electronic processing on his voice?
Kulash: I ended up mixing it back at my house because I wanted to fuck with it more. It’s him singing with himself as a computer, all the harmonies are vocoders of him. I like the choir Al feel.
At the benefit at Tipitina’s, you also performed David Bowie’s “Rock and Roll Suicide,” which is also on the EP.
Kulash: Talking about suicide in New Orleans seems a little dangerous to tell you the truth, but I didn’t want to do just OK Go songs. We really wanted to do a cover and I couldn’t get that song out of my head because it’s one of my favorite songs of all time, and I just wanted to be able to scream that line, “You’re not alone.”
The city has lost so much, and it’s very easy as a person living elsewhere and never having much to do with New Orleans, it’s easy to fall into this very cold, hard rationalist rut about a city that’s under sea level and a city with a fucked up government and a lot of poverty and a lot of things that seem endemic to the problem. When you start to think about it in terms of more human things like what happens to a whole culture and type of music and existence that is nowhere else, that’s when the icy exterior of all that rationalism breaks down. All I think of is, how can all this wonderful stuff exist here and people think, “Ah shit, that’s lost” or “Well, they really suffered bad, on with life.”
The anxiety about whether or not anyone knows what we’re going through is one that has been on my mind since Katrina.
Mullins: You see your neighbors starting to move away, you wonder what’s going to happen with the schools. Can you raise your kids in the area of this country anymore? Is the whole area of this country going to be a vacuum, what’s going to happen? Does anyone even care anymore? You hear about the Katrina fatigue. I flew out one time, I heard some guys behind me talking at the New Orleans airport on the runway, trashing the city saying they’ll never get it together. It was just so upsetting. I was getting the vibe that a lot of people may share the same view. It was disturbing.
Kulash: Certainly a lot of people proved how they feel about it. The Bush administration has given the loud, clear signal that you are alone, and so for those of us elsewhere in the country that don’t feel that’s the case, it’s important to do something in our little ways.
Does that include benefits out of town? Because as much as I like seeing benefits to help worthy causes, it always seems a little weird to take money from the people here, where the help is needed.
Kulash: We’re doing another one of these in D.C., and I think it will be a much bigger version, actually. We’re doing a pretty big club and have a little more time to promote. D.C.’s a city where we do very well as a band, and we can make ticket prices a little more. There are a lot of politicians and people in D.C. who should have been paying attention to New Orleans when they weren’t, so we’re happy to take their money and give it back here.
Mark, do y’all raise money for New Orleans when you travel?
Mullins: It’s hard enough to pay the bills when we’re out there. We raise money for the city by getting it there and spending it here.
The awareness, though, that you see when we’re out there. That’s what’s cool. Especially right after, you could tell people just wanted to come out and support it just because it was attached to New Orleans. They didn’t even know that much about us, they wanted to do something they had been watching it on TV for a week. They never say anything, but you could tell. You saw a lot of people you’ve never seen before at our shows and you could tell they were there for that one reason. They wanted to contribute not just at the door, but wanted to be there.
I saw Rebirth in Tucson last summer. People from New Orleans were there, but the guys of Rebirth were a little rough with them, badgering them to come home.
Mullins: You see a lot of people that aren’t coming back and are settling and making roots in other places and that’s kind of sad. Then you see a bunch of other people that think they are making roots and say, “I just want to uproot these roots and get home as quick as I can.”
Damian, what have you taken away from your time in New Orleans?
Kulash: Aesthetically speaking, I feel like I understand horns a lot more. I hear a lot more horns in my head a lot more when I’m writing, and I think about things not just in terms of guitar chords and beats. Much more important than that is that it’s a model of music that I hope we can shift ours more towards, which is a more communal thing and a more expansive view of music where it’s not about the perfection of a particular recording or moment, but rather the whole process of making it. When we were at the Black Men of Labor second line when we were here recording, you see this band fucking shredding in the streets, and our bassist was like, “We have to get battery-powered backpack amplifiers and we’re touring like this.” When we tour, we’ll take a day off and do a rock parade in the streets. Whether or not that can actually happen and thousands of people will actually show up to party with us, I have no idea. That’s the important stuff to me. I’ve heard this type of music before and these types of solos, notes, and arrangements before, but it doesn’t change you until you see how it works as a culture.
I knew very little about New Orleans music as a kid. I can’t honestly claim this is where my influences come from. “Mr. Big Stuff” and “Iko Iko” changed the world, so they changed my world somehow. But as touring musicians, when I came down for that first artist retreat and we played that show together, I had been on tour for a little over two continuous years with my band, and you’re in a different city everyday, and the country is essentially reduced to its lowest common denominator. You see shitty hotels and shitty food and shitty strip malls around shitty malls in shitty suburbs around basically shitty downtowns and it’s all the same. Perhaps the world is a much more interesting place than this, but when you stop somewhere and it happens to be New Orleans, you realize that music is not just a series of iPods or ringtones or car stereos, but actually people enjoying each other, playing of music and people dance in the streets. That is unfathomable to a professional musician. I really don’t know any other place in the country where it’s a normal thing to do on the weekend to take the day off and go party in the street with music.
Published February 2008, OffBeat Louisiana Music & Culture Magazine, Volume 21, No. 2.