Damian Kulash, lead singer of OK Go, has his interviewer in tears of laughter as he describes the first time a fan ever threw a bra on stage at one of their shows. "A female friend of mine picked it up and said, 'Man, you guys are pretty awesome. This is a C-cup!' "
The woman approached Kulash after the show and asked for the bra back. "I was like, 'Isn't that a gift? Don't we get the bra? I'm going to gild this bra!' " he remembers. "I was considering the arc that it should have on its little stand so that it would look like it was flying through the air." The woman left the show without her bra, which was ultimately lost to the rigors of touring, and the band was left with the fleeting image of rock stardom.
Rock and roll is all about image, what is projected from the stage or the screen as a musician sneers, swivels his hips and does herkies in the air to punctuate a particularly juicy guitar lick. The confident front man on stage may very well be a sniveling wreck of a human being in real life, but it's what sells a record that ultimately counts. Authenticity is not the name of the game in rock, and it's that falseness that Chicago's OK Go both flirts with and takes potshots at as it comes into the spotlight.
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The quartet, which comprises Kulash on vocals and guitar, guitarist Andy Duncan, bassist Tim Nordwind and drummer Dan Konopka, got its start a dozen or so years ago, when Kulash and Nordwind met at band camp. The two preteens formed a little punk band called the Greased Ferrets, wanting to emulate their heroes, the Dead Milkmen, and had exactly one gig, which was confined to band-camp grounds. "The girls' side and the boys' side were segregated, so we couldn't cross over to where the girls lived," Kulash explains. "There was this chain-link fence between the two, so we played right up against the fence and there was this mob of girls on the other side -- a mob being, like, ten or something; we thought it was a mob. And Tim got to climb on the fence and scream at them. It was the punkest thing we've ever done."
Geeky, yes, but refreshingly honest in its unself-consciousness. Kulash is keenly aware of the constructedness of rock, and seems bent on turning it on its ear. "When you're in a rock band, aren't you supposed to say that you met at a menial job?" Kulash asks, rhetorically. "I think you're supposed to have met at a fast-food place or in line for the dole. All the British bands always seem to have met while they were waiting in line for public assistance."
As primary songwriter for OK Go, Kulash has been lauded as one of the smartest young writers working today. His lyrics are like candy-coated medicine, their outer layer of sugar disguising bitter critiques of materialism and poseur-dom. "A lot of it is about being able to convey something succinctly in a way that's memorable," he says. On the band's modest radio hit, "Get Over It," Kulash sneers, "Gotta job, gotta life / gotta four-door and a faithless wife / Got those nice copper pipes / Aren't you such a catch?" Ouch.
Kulash continues his scathing social commentary throughout the band's eponymous debut, to be released by Capitol in September. From "kiss kiss, let's meet for breakfast" ("Don't Ask Me") to "compassion's just a nicer way of looking down your nose" ("What to Do"), Kulash pokes at the fakes, his statement set to pleasing power-pop chords.
Which makes a certain recent hometown-gig review from no less a personage than Jim DeRogatis of the Chicago Sun-Times that much more interesting. DeRogatis writes that OK Go "was embarrassingly shameless in flaunting their own show-biz slickness and a rabid desire for yuppie pop stardom on the level of Barenaked Ladies, a band they resemble much more than Weezer, who Capitol probably had in mind when signing them...Sorry, fellas, but authenticity isn't quite as easily purchased as major-label hype."
But is it a lack of authenticity the boys are exhibiting, or a calculated irony? Kulash admits to a certain amount of artistic searching that he and the band endured before landing on their current sound, the one that got them the record deal. "Right about the time that we started, I was doing a lot of samples, computer-based stuff," he says. "I'm not really into that now, but for a while our shtick was to do stuff with a lot of samples."
So is OK Go's smart, power-pop sound the real deal or just another shtick? And doesn't everyone have a shtick? Sure, these guys have shaggy hair and wear thrift-store chic, but Britney Spears fondles snakes on stage, for chrissakes. But whatever it is, it works for the band and it works for their audience, which developed by word of mouth on the Chicago music scene.
"Our first show in Chicago, a few hundred kids came. It's wasn't because they knew who we were; kids just go to shows," he says. From there, the group gigged more and more, including guesting on Ira Glass's This American Life radio tour.
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"It was like traveling with living catnip," writes Glass in the band's bio. "We had huge crowds and people of every age -- high school sophomores to senior citizens -- just loved them."
Before signing with Capitol, the group released a handful of EPs to keep fans satisfied until September 17, when the record will finally be on shelves. Capitol's marketing push has been enormous, even featuring OK Go on the bill at a label-sponsored party at this year's South by Southwest.
Next the label will trot the boys around the country in support of the Vines, another next big thing. It's grueling work, but if people love the band as much as Glass proclaims, it won't be long before OK Go is headlining its own tour and can graduate from tour van to tour bus -- all the better to attract groupies, another one of those rock-star clichés. "I think that not having a bus is a serious problem," Kulash jokes. "We tour in a van, and it's way stupid to say, 'Hey, baby, wanna come to the backseat with me?' We also don't have a driver, so there's a lot of driving and not so much groupie-ing."
In the meantime, OK Go will continue to walk the fine line between keeping it real and living the rock-star life, waiting for the day when there are more C-cups than slings and arrows hurled their way.