Damian Kulash Jr.: How Can We Reimagine The Creative Process? Imagine surrounding yourself with images and sounds, in order to set old ideas in a new context. OK Go's Damian Kulash Jr. describes the process that has inspired the band's hits and viral videos.
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Damian Kulash Jr.: How Can We Reimagine The Creative Process?

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Damian Kulash Jr.: How Can We Reimagine The Creative Process?

Damian Kulash Jr.: How Can We Reimagine The Creative Process?

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MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm your new host Manoush Zomorodi.

I want you to come over here and watch these crazy videos.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Yay.

ZOMORODI: The other day, I called my two kids over to my laptop to watch music videos by one of my favorite bands, OK Go.

(SOUNDBITE OF OK GO SONG, "HERE IT GOES AGAIN")

ZOMORODI: All right.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Are you recording?

ZOMORODI: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF OK GO SONG, "HERE IT GOES AGAIN")

ZOMORODI: If you're not familiar with OK Go, they make poppy kind of rock music. And they also make really innovative...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Treadmills.

ZOMORODI: ...Yes, sometimes treadmill-based...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: They're on treadmills just dancing.

ZOMORODI: ...And also science-based music videos.

DAMIAN KULASH: Yeah. We did a dance on treadmills, and that's the one that really turned the corner in terms of, like, the whole world going, oh, there's that video band.

ZOMORODI: That's Damian Kulash Jr., the lead singer of OK Go.

KULASH: Or, at the time, that treadmill band.

(SOUNDBITE OF OK GO SONG, "THIS TOO SHALL PASS")

ZOMORODI: All right, are you ready for the next one?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Yeah.

KULASH: So since then we have done...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Wait. Is this by him, too?

ZOMORODI: Yeah, it's by the same band.

KULASH: We did a big chain reaction machine.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Laughter).

KULASH: The big Rube Goldberg device.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: It's like dominoes, how they just keep on going to - which makes the other thing move.

ZOMORODI: Yes. It's like a crazy machine - right...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: ...That you build.

(SOUNDBITE OF OK GO SONG, "UPSIDE DOWN AND INSIDE OUT")

ZOMORODI: OK Go comes across as whimsical, but they're actually extremely intentional about their songwriting and video-making.

OK, where are they now?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: On a airplane.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UPSIDE DOWN AND INSIDE OUT")

OK GO: (Singing) Upside down and inside out.

KULASH: We did a video in Zero-G...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: What?

KULASH: ...In microgravity, so we're sort of floating the whole time.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF OK GO SONG, "I WON'T LET YOU DOWN")

KULASH: We have done drone shots of thousands of people on robotic scooters...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: On a Segway?

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

KULASH: ...Sort of scooting around a park.

ZOMORODI: Then there's that time that OK Go played musical instruments with a car. They also made a video featuring a laser that made toast.

KULASH: It lets us have a canvas that is both musical and visual, and it lets us play with ideas that range from, like, very nerdy to very, very broad and emotional things. And it's really fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WON'T LET YOU DOWN")

OK GO: (Singing) I won't let you down.

ZOMORODI: Which one did you guys like the best?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: I don't know. I liked all of them. Wait, what - can I see the first one again?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: Which one - the one with the treadmills?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: So as I've been preparing to introduce myself to you as the new host of the TED Radio Hour, I have kept coming back to OK Go and Damian Kulash and how he comes up with these new ideas because he says his ideas actually aren't new at all. They're just concepts that he has put into a new context. And the result is surprise and wonder, which is kind of how I think of what I've been doing over my last 20 years as a journalist. My job is to rigorously collect all the facts and stories, to interview just the right people and then make connections and present them in a way that feels unexpected but just right.

KULASH: To be able to use words that you know but say something that you didn't know or say something that at least feels fresh and touches you in a new way.

ZOMORODI: And that is what I want to do with TED Radio Hour - take this show that you know and love and add my own spin on it - because for the past decade, I've been a public radio podcaster, an author, a TED speaker. I've actually been a guest on this show. And I am so thrilled to now be taking over the hosting duties from the lovely Guy Raz, but reinventing something that has been so consistently brilliant - it's exciting. It is also daunting. There is no map for how to do it, which is why we've decided to make my entire first episode about reinvention because change is hard. Transitions can be tough, but they're also opportunities to explore and discover and reimagine things that you thought you knew. So let's talk Reinvention, starting with the creative process and OK Go's Damian Kulash.

KULASH: So our TED talk was about creative ideas and where they come from, and the best analogy I could think of was this visual trick that I can't help but play all the time.

ZOMORODI: Here's Damian on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KULASH: I have a compulsive habit. I play parallax and perspective games with my eyes pretty much all the time. And it's something I've been doing since I was a teenager, and I think a big contributing factor may have been that this is how I decorated my high school bedroom.

ZOMORODI: OK, so what did your room look like?

KULASH: I was super into the local Washington, D.C., punk rock scene, and I had posters from all the bands on my walls. I reveled in covering my room with stuff.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

KULASH: And being a teenager, what I did in there, of course, was just talk on the phone for staggering amounts of time. And so I was in this, like, visual maelstrom just pretty much usually sitting in one place. And I guess just the overload in general - my brain kind of tried to make sense of it, and I would - you know, if I could move my head off to one side a little bit, like, the edge of the desk would line up just perfectly with that poster on the opposite wall, or if I put my thumb out, I could close first my left eye and then my right. And my thumb would bounce back-and-forth between Jimi Hendrix's left eye and his right.

(LAUGHTER)

KULASH: It was not, like, a conscious thing, of course. This is just kind of the equivalent of doodling while you're talking, and it's still something I do all the time. This is my wife, Kristin. And it's not uncommon that we are out at dinner and, in the middle of a great conversation, then she'll just stop midsentence. And when she stops is when I realize that I'm the one who's acting weird because I'm, like, bobbing and weaving, and what I'm trying to do is get that ficus back there to stick out of her head like a ponytail.

And to me, that's sort of what the feeling of coming up with ideas is like. Like, I have never been the type of creative person who generates something out of thin air. It's like, I put myself in a position where there are all these things flying around me. And then I just - I pray that I can line something up - you know, that I can get something unexpected to click.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

KULASH: So what we do is we try to identify some place where there might just be a ton of those untried ideas. We try to find a sandbox, and then we gamble a whole bunch of our resources on getting in that sandbox and playing because we have to trust that it's the process in the sandbox that will reveal to us which ideas are not only surprising but surprisingly reliable. So some of the sandboxes that we've started videos with - let's play with optical illusions. Let's try to dance on moving surfaces. Let's try to make toast with a laser cutter. We're just trying everything we can think of because we need to get this idea space filled up with a chaos like the one in my high school bedroom.

ZOMORODI: I mean, it sounds like what you're saying would make you think, like, oh, my God. This guy cannot stop coming up with ideas. But based on your talk, I would think that you would disagree with that statement.

KULASH: I do. I do disagree with that statement. It doesn't - I am happy to let the world continue on with the charade that I invent any of these ideas or that my band does, but it just doesn't feel that way. It really does feel like mining - you know, like you're just digging and digging and digging, and then suddenly, there's a giant diamond or, you know, stripe of gold. And it was just there. Like, music is somewhat unlike the video or visual parts of this. It will never really succumb to reason, and that is why it's so magical to me.

You know, if I add yellow and red together, I know what color I'm going to get out the other side. If you add this chord to that chord, I can tell you what chord will happen, but I can't tell you what emotion will happen, you know? It's scratching an itch so deep in your brain that doesn't have a set of sort of, like, reasons attached to it. It just is. And, you know, my favorite songs ever are the same chords as so many of the songs I hate the most, you know? It's not...

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

KULASH: ...Like, you can't break it down that way. It's just - there's something about it that touches you that way. And so I think that's why I will probably chase it for the rest of my life - is that it's so magical and you're, like - you're throwing sounds against the wall, and they all just come back as sounds. And then all of a sudden, one of them is this huge ball of emotion, and then you have to, like, try to figure - how do I get the song out of this? You know, it's a wonderful, wonderful feeling.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: So can you just apply that to one of your songs? Can we talk about one moment?

KULASH: Yeah, absolutely. OK, yeah. So it's basically the same process over and over again in sort of, like, onion skin layers. So the first version is just Tim, our bassist, alone in his little home studio just playing around with instruments. And, you know, he's just trying out different things, and he stumbles upon this sort of, like, evocative, melancholy feeling attached to a particular set of chords around a particular beat. You know, it's like, there's something about this thing. It's only really three chords. We've heard those chords a million times before, but something about doing it with these instruments in this way touches him some way. So he brings that along with, you know, 10 other songs over to my house, and we start the sort of next onion skin layer, which is, like, if you have this set of feelings, now can you pull and push and line things up such that you can actually get lyrics attached to this that - and a melody attached to this that gives it depth and that doesn't flatten it? And with this one, it became about sort of, like, that feeling of intensity - right? - that feeling of being overwhelmed by both the beauty and sadness of life at the same time, that this life you are leading will end.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE ONE MOMENT")

OK GO: (Singing) There's nothing more profound...

KULASH: Somehow, that gives it all value.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE ONE MOMENT")

OK GO: (Singing) ...Than the certainty...

KULASH: If we were infinite, nothing would matter.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE ONE MOMENT")

OK GO: (Singing) ...That all of this will end. So open your arms to me. And this will be the one moment that matters. And this will be the one moment that matters at all.

ZOMORODI: And that's a sentiment that has been said millions and millions of times, and yet, to be able to say it in a fresh way - that's the talent. That's the skill. That's the joy of your job.

KULASH: I'm pretty sure we're the only people who've ever said that, so...

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

KULASH: I - so given the things I make, you'll be - this will sound off. But I don't think originality is itself all that important. I think communication and connection with other humans is the real sort of brass ring, golden egg - what is it? - one of those things - because you can go and try to make a piece of music that has literally never been made before. You can go and try to write words that have never been done before. You can make pictures or images or experiences that have never been done before, but that's almost definitionally going to put you in a territory of just uncomfortable or arbitrary. Like, language is a perfect metaphor for this - or analogy, I guess - because you can't just make sounds. You have to use the same sounds everybody else is using and then make them yours, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF OK GO SONG, "HERE IT GOES AGAIN")

ZOMORODI: I am going to take these words forward and try to play the parallax game with all the segments of TED Radio Hour.

KULASH: You have a perfect sandbox because...

ZOMORODI: I really do, right?

KULASH: Right. It's like connecting the dots between those, lining them up so that they're fresh and new and they communicate in a new medium and in a new place. It will be one of the most satisfying things you have ever done with your life. You will be so happy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HERE IT GOES AGAIN")

OK GO: (Singing) Oh, oh, here it goes, here it goes, here it goes again.

ZOMORODI: Damian Kulash Jr., lead singer of OK Go. And here it goes again but different with the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Our show today is Reinvention. I'm Manoush Zomorodi.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HERE IT GOES AGAIN")

OK GO: (Singing) I should've known. I should've known, but here it goes again.

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