I’ve has the pleasure of interviewing Damian Kulash from Ok Go recently. The interview was done in partnership with a close friend and Editor in Chief of egmCarTech.com, Omar Rana. After watching the music video for “Needing/Getting,” which was featured during the Super Bowl as part of the Chevy Sonic Campaign, Omar and I immediately fell in love with the creativity behind the video and reached out to the management team of OK Go for the inside scoop. We previously featured the music video on our respective sites, emgCarTech & iheardin. It’s not a common opportunity for a car enthusiast site and an indie music site to be able to work together, so we were thrilled when we locked in the interview.
Before we get start, I recommend checking out the music video for “Needing/Getting” one more time. It’ll really get the juices flowing!
George: How did you come up with the idea for the music video?
Damion: It’s tough to say where ideas come from, but I guess we were just thinking about how you could create music with a car. And with this, it was having the idea that was the easy part but actually doing it was difficult.
Omar: So then did you contact Chevy first or did they come to you?
D: Well, I have a friend who works at Chevy’s advertising department and he knew that we were considering a bunch of different car ideas, so when the Chevy people heard about it and once we figured out that they might be interested we went to Chevy.
O: I understand you had some training for driving on that track you put together.
D: Yeah, I did about 3 days of stunt driving training. It was really fun.
O: Haha, I can imagine. Did you have experience driving like that before or was it your first time getting into drifting and all those other maneuvers?
D: No, that was my first time ever.
O: Wow, you did really well for your first time.
D: Thanks. The thing is that all the drifts and skids and those bits were when we weren’t playing anything so I got to push it and then correct as necessary. But, the hardest parts were that I only had about 2 and a half inches on either side before I start missing stuff or rip the arms off, which I did more than a few times. So, keeping the tempo steady while driving such a tight line was a little rough. The way we paced the video was that before we laid out any of the instruments we played a demo of the song and just drove around the course while people were dropping bean bags out of the car for all the major beats so we could just pace out the course while driving it. So the tempo came together naturally and then we also tidied it up a little bit with the speeds so it all made sense.
O: I’m sure it was tough to maintain the speed with the tempo and keep it all flowing and sing at the same time.
D: It was, but we really matched the music and tempo to my speed rather than the other way around. So there were only a couple of places where I had to really maintain a constant speed and for the rest of the track it was more like between this spot and that spot you have to stay from 12 and 25 miles per hour. We figured out that by far the easiest way to do that was to set up flags around the track that were at about my shoulder. So I could Kind of feel if I’m hitting the flag a little early I have to slow down and if I’m hitting late I speed up. It got to be a lot like playing an instrument actually. After a while I wasn’t really watching the road so much, I was just watching the flags.
G: We heard that you guys used over a thousand instruments. How did you figure out the arrangement? Did you lay it all out yourselves or did you get a sound engineer to put everything together?
D: A little bit of both actually. We spent a month or two just testing out different instrument principles outside of Los Angeles. The challenge was that since you have a lot of kinetic energy when you’re driving a car at 40 miles per hour, it’s really tough to translate that into sound. Obviously, you can only really hit things. Finding things that can make bass notes was particularly tough because if you hit a pipe or something you can get a high clang but we were trying to get something with a nice, low bass note which is how we came up with the PVC pipes in the chorus tunnel. We had the help of 2 musicians. Well, one is really more of an instrument designer and the other is a musician. A fellow from MIT media lab, Noah Vawter, and then from a band called Glank. we had Paul Rudolph. A lot of their instruments are made from things found in a junk yard, so he had a lot of experience with what types of things we could be hitting that would sound musical.
G: That’s awesome. I’m sure it took you guys a while to put everything together, but it sounds exactly like the song.
D: It was a lot of work and obviously the recording is all instruments played by the car, but it’s also pretty heavily mixed. If you just listen to any one microphone on any pass, there’s a lot of stuff you can’t use on there. So, we had a lot of mic’s inside and outside the Chevy.
G: How did you guys set up the microphones to capture that crisp sound then?
D: There were 4 mics on the band members and there were 9 mics around the car on the and then there were usually between 2 and 4 mics in the field depending on which part of the track we were on. So every time we did a pass we were getting roughly 20 separate audio tracks and some sections of the song we did 20 times. There were hundreds and hundreds of tracks to choose from when we were done. We listened for the ones that sounded the most musical and obviously we had a lot of leeway straightening out the sound.
G: How did you guys go about mixing the tracks at the end?
D: We laid out the several hundred tracks first and for each section of the song it was between 100 and 400 different tracks. For all the sections it was pretty easy to just throw out more than half of them. I mean, there were plenty of them that were useless because there was too much wind or the Doppler Effect was too strong or there was too much clank and bang. So, by the time we got rid of all of that we were down to exactly 189 tracks and then we mixed that exactly like we would a studio recording. We threw a lot of things up and down to try and emphasize the parts that sounded most musical to us. Like bringing down the chorus tunnel to us, for instance. We tried to turn the sound of the engine and turn up the sound of the PVC bass note on the tire so you can actually clearly hear the song more than just the roar of the engine.
O: From an automotive perspective, was the Chevy Sonic you guys drove modified in any way to have all of you guys and your equipment for sound and everything in there?
D: Obviously all those arms are not part of the standard package, haha. There was a pressured air tank in the trunk and that provided the pneumatic pressure for the arms. Tim, in the passenger seat, could control the two bottom arms from a panel in front of him above the glove compartment and between the two front seats there was a column coming down that had four more levers on it that the guys in the back seat could control. So, all of that stuff is custom. Then, there was a metal sheet put on the whole bottom of the car so that during the drifts and skids if I hit any rocks or anything they couldn’t get lodged up and break the transmission or something. And because of the weight of all that stuff and because there were four of us in there, we raised the suspension an inch and a half or two inches so the car would sit back at the normal height.
O: Where did you guys film all this?
D: In California. It’s a ranch that’s about 45 minutes from LA.
O: Is there a reason you guys picked an off-road type of setting rather than a pavement setting?
D: Well, we looked at both, but we really needed a lot of space. Obviously, budget was a big concern with respect to how large a space we could get. It also made a big difference to the budget whether we were within what’s called “The Zone” in Los Angeles since once you get more than a certain amount of miles away from LA, crews have to be paid to stay overnight which we couldn’t afford. So, we limited it to only a few places. There was a giant dam that we tried to rent the backside of which would have been all paved and we thought about that and we looked at some other desert locations. In the end the location we chose just had the most exciting combination of things. And one of the things we considered too was the dust and that kicking up all that dust just added something to the video.
O: How long did it take you guys to film all this from the time the project was initiated to the final cut?
D: It took us 4 months from the time the project was initiated to the time we started filming and then it was a month of editing and mixing after filming, but that was a little bit extended because Christmas happened in the middle of all that. The final edit was the last week of January and the first real meetings about it were in September/October.
G: When we first featured you guys on iheardin, it was a day after the video was released and it was already at 1.8 million views which was amazing by any standards and as of today you guys are at a little over 14 million in just a little under 2 weeks. Did you think it was going to be such a big sensation?
D: Well, we hoped. But, you can never plan on something like that, you know? We made the video with the same audience in mind that we had for our other viral videos in the past, but there are plenty of things we’ve made that kind of creeped out into the world quietly and don’t go mass viral and some do. As it turns out, this has had the best first two weeks of any video we’ve ever made, so it’s pretty huge.
G: Well, it’s definitely our favorite Chevy Sonic campaign commercial out of all the ones they did. It’s the most interesting, especially for someone that writes about music. It was something I’ve never seen before and it opened up my perspective on what you can do with a car and what you can do with music.
D: Thank you. Actually, Brian Perkins, the director, directed another video for us with the Notre Dame marching band that we did about 2 years ago and we did the same sort of thing where we recorded the live sounds for the music video and used that for the music instead of lip syncing. It’s a really different way of going about making music videos. Instead of just making a film to go along with the music, the track ends up being a live performance. With this one, it’s really a live performance in sections. It’s not one continuous recording, of course.
O: That’s awesome how you guys do everything so unconventionally instead of just making a music video and lip syncing over it.
D: Well, it’s a lot more fun, you know.
O: Would you buy a Chevy Sonic or do you have one?
D: I do not have one, but if they let me have that one with the arms on it I would definitely buy it.
O: I actually had it for a test drive for a week. I thought it was an awesome car.
D: Yeah, it really is. I’m obviously not a car critic, but it drove really well especially given the kinds of crazy stuff we were doing with it. I was amazed at how responsive it was.
O: The handling was actually engineered by Corvette engineers from GM, so it definitely handles nice and drives nice.
D: Well, that explains it.
O & G: Thank you so much for your time.