OK Go’s Damian Kulash Shares Hope after Contracting COVID

Music Features OK Go
OK Go’s Damian Kulash Shares Hope after Contracting COVID

Speaking through his computer monitor in his home recording studio, the walls behind him adorned with sound dampening panels, an array of electric and acoustic guitars, cables, and other pieces of equipment, OK Go frontman Damian Kulash tells me he achieved a major accomplishment during the night at 1:30 a.m. “I figured out why my internet was so slow,” he says. “Finally, after weeks of fighting with it. We’ll see how this holds, but video conference stuff like this has been a nightmare. It turns out the cables in my house were literally mis-wired. I don’t know how it worked at all.”

Though he expresses a bit guilt about this early conversation tangent, Kulash’s resilience in re-establishing some tangible connectivity to the world at large actually ties quite well to the latest bit of work by OK Go: a brand new song called “All Together Now.”

Released with just a few hours’ notice in mid-May, the standalone single was recorded from the bandmembers’ individual homes, as they and millions like them across the country find themselves quarantined as a result of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Taking inspiration from their neighborhoods’ nightly cheer honoring frontline health workers, as well as an insightful essay published by historian Rebecca Solnit called “’The Impossible Has Already Happened’: What the Coronavirus Can Teach Us About Hope,” the track was actually written in the wake of Kulash and his wife, author Kristin Gore, contracting COVID-19 during the early spread of the disease.

This being OK Go, the song was naturally given an accompanying music video. However, unlike the high-concept visuals of the band’s past, which have over the years incorporated treadmill dance choreography, a massive Rube Goldberg machine, an elaborate race track filled with musical instruments, and parabolic weightlessness, the video for “All Together Now” is a simple, intimate undertaking, with each member of the group filming themselves in their kitchens, bedroom closets, offices, even children’s playrooms, stitching the edited overdubs into a tiled collage of performances.

With his twin children down for their afternoon naps, Kulash opened up about the toll the disease took on his physical and mental state, developing “All Together Now,” and the strange unease that comes with finding something good and hopeful in such a dire period of history.

Paste: The obviously best place to start is at the beginning. When warnings were just starting take hold here in the States about the spread of this disease, did it seem conceivable that something like this could happen to you?

Damian Kulash: No more so than anyone else. I have to say that the first round of news about the virus fell into a known rut, which is like SARS, Ebola—stuff that happened somewhere else—these horrible things that happen in other places and you get scared about but seems like a long way away, you know? And that news got realer and realer. I won’t give out names but it was late February when I was at a dinner party. And someone there was sort of making fun of the whole situation, and it was that person who tested positive. The reason I got it so early is because that person had just gotten off a plane from Australia. I can’t know for sure that it was that person because by the time our test results came in, there were something like 50 or 60 cases known in L.A., but if the exposure was on the day that I believe it to have been, there were only six known cases in California period. It gives you some sense of how quickly and invisibly it spreads.

I’m trying to put myself in your shoes and I realize that it feels more shocking from your perspective because you hear the end results of the story. You get sick, you know what it is, all these bad things happen. What I experienced was that my kids who are always a little bit sick because they’re two years old, and my wife and I were always a little bit sick because our kids, we got a stomach bug that was weird because we both got nausea and headaches and they didn’t really go away. We kept on getting them on and off for like 10 days. And usually a stomach bug is like a really severe thing for 24 or 48 hours—but then it’s gone. And this was not like that. And of course we thought it definitely wasn’t this weird thing from China because that was respiratory. Officials were saying at the time it was an entirely respiratory thing with sort of flu-like symptoms. And the one thing we definitely did not have was a cough or a breathing problem, right? It was only when this person we had been at the dinner party with very publicly tested positive that we were like, ‘Oh, I guess we better go check.’ And we called our doctor, and we expected our doctor to be like, ‘No, no, there’s no tests for anyone.’ And they’re like, ‘What are your symptoms?’ And by that point we’d started to get a cough a little bit, but it was mostly three weeks of nausea and headache. But they tested us as soon as they could, which was a few days and it was then eight or 10 days till we got the test results back. And by the time we got the test results back, I had gotten to about as bad as I would get. I had what felt like a pretty nasty flu for roughly a week but it was the type of thing where you can still function through. You’re just always kind of in a bad mood and always really tired, and it was capped with a day where I got knocked out really hard. If I tried to move, if I tried to get out of bed I’d basically just fall over.

Then I slept for 22 hours and came out the other side a little bit flu-ish but otherwise fine. Three or four days after that my wife started getting bad and did get much more serious respiratory-wise. She had breathing problems and luckily, when we took her to the hospital she was only there briefly. Even though she had all the symptoms that you’re supposed to go to the hospital for her vital signs underneath that were pretty good. Her vital signs weren’t indicative of something really horrible. Basically after that point, she was locked to the bed pretty much for a week or week and a half.

Paste: Beyond the physical aspect of it all, how would you describe the experience of getting this virus and how it affected you, and then watching it grow and shut down so much of everyday life?

Kulash: Throughout the whole experience I was a little bit astonished by how it didn’t feel like the apocalypse is supposed to feel. My cartoon version of terrible illness comes in one of two forms. One is the apocalyptic movie where people are scraping to get off the island and it’s like Lord of the Flies and all hell breaks loose and it’s dog-eat-dog and you see exactly how bad humanity is. The other is where a loved one has a terminal disease and it’s the slow sad movie where there’s nothing you can do to get away from this and you just face all these truths about life as it slowly fades away from you. And neither of those were happening for us. It was very real fear and yet it wasn’t people rioting in the streets and the worst of humanity coming out, and wasn’t some resigned ‘Let’s face it, this is the end of us.’ I knew that even in the worst of my wife’s scary moments that statistically speaking it was unlikely that she was going to not survive. Even driving to the hospital and our kids are in the backseat and they’re too young to understand what’s going on and she’s saying these goodbyes to them saying, ‘I know it’s just for a night or two. Daddy’s gonna be with you tonight and tomorrow night …’ The weight of that where she’s really telling them goodbye forever even though she knows she’s not and I know she’s not, but she also is and what do you do? You have these really horrible moments like that, but also at the same time you know statistically she’s gonna be fine. We didn’t just figure out that she had terminal leukemia. So throughout that whole thing, there’s just like this third path, where we’re going, ‘What type of apocalypse is this? And is it wrong to feel this sense of hope?’ It feels weird to even say those words, but ‘Is the fact that there’s anything other than awful darkness right now a character flaw or is it a psychological defense? Is it just that I’m too busy trying to keep these two kids from imploding to deal with my real emotions about that? Or is it something else?’

Paste: When you’re faced with such a sense of mortality, or at the very least a great sense of vulnerability, it’s a lot to take in. And as a parent to young kids I know it can be even harder to process things when you’re just going through the day to day of ensuring their health and happiness. Is that how Rebecca Solnit’s essay came into play for you?

Kulash: That’s when Rebecca Solnit article sort of landed on me, which was that if you step back and look at this logically, all the structures are broken. Everything that was solid suddenly isn’t. As she more accurately puts it, that which is strong continues. It just keeps going and that which is weak, just folds, and then all these things that you didn’t see before start coming to the surface. Things that we believed were impossible suddenly are just totally commonplace and things that you knew to be arbitrary but you couldn’t do a damn thing about—her article helped really situate that for me. It’s not gonna make me feel like, ‘Oh, great. Now we’ll pop out of the other side of this like everything is great,’ but that those feelings of optimism aren’t an absolute aberration. They’re something to grab on to and try to make use of.

Paste: Obviously when you were in the middle of your sickness writing music was the farthest thing from your mind, but did it feel strange to eventually come back to that creative outlet and try to make sense of what you had gone through?

Kulash: I realized during the time when I was on the kids so intensely that my relationship to my studio got really romantic, that I was like, ‘One day I’ll sit back down in there again.’ And when I got a moment to actually just go be by myself I didn’t want to start digging through emails, you know what I mean? I just wanted to, sink my teeth into some feeling, and I think in part because probably unconsciously I hadn’t processed any of this. I guess it also felt a little bit parallel to the point in Solnit’s article that the structures had broken down now anything is possible way. It was like, right now I can just make something. My career doesn’t exist or matter. How you would put out music in the world doesn’t exist or matter. What people expect of you doesn’t exist or matter. And my own bullshit about—I hate writing lyrics. What I love about music is its ability to get past your intellectual brain where it just kicks you in the gut with 10 different emotions all at once. And any point you put to that suddenly reduces it down to this one thing. But in this moment it was like there was definitely only one thing to write about. What I was gonna do sit down and write about the year the Red Sox won the World Series? There’s one thing that matters in the world right now and there’s one overwhelming feeling I’m having about it, which is this this insane feeling of good and bad all mixed together. And so it just kind of came to exist.

Paste: Given your catalog of high-concept music videos, did it feel a bit strange creating something that in many felt so straightforward and simple?

Kulash: It only felt weird if I allowed myself to think of it as a music video. And we had to eventually own up to the fact that that’s what it is. But during it I was like, ‘No, no, it’s a live performance. This is how live performance happens now.’ It was really, ‘We’re making this thing and we’d be fools not to be rolling the camera at the same time.’ It was more like, ‘This is how we’ll play this for people.’ And then as we were putting it together with our editor, it was like, ‘Well, we got to move that screen here, and this screen there so you can see all of it,’ and I just realized my brain’s doing the things that it does when we’re making a music video. And it goes back to that thing that it doesn’t matter what people thought of you, it doesn’t matter what people expect of you. Imagine the pandemic never happened and you get the press release that OK Go, who hasn’t released music in several years has a sort of solemn, somber, relatively organic song that they recorded at home with a homemade video, that’s not spectacularly produced, it’s not on an album, there’s been no promotion, and they announced it was coming out six hours before it premiered. What’s the likelihood you would have given a shit?

Paste: What is it that you really want people to take away from sharing your experience this virus, what you went through, what your family went through, and what came out of it?

Kulash: I will defer to the better writer here, Miss Solnit. I was really moved by her line that change is not only possible but we are swept away by it, that there is so much to fear right now and there’s so much scary stuff but we are learning as a group of 7 billion people to be philosophical and actually think a little bit about how we exist—and not just talk about it, but have to do something about it. Think about it because you’re gonna die otherwise. And while you wish that carrots would get us there instead of sticks. It is not only the stick we are facing like there are many good things to come from the fact that we can actually take stock of our lives.

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