Earlier this week, OK Go released Hungry Ghosts, their fourth studio album. As expected, it's a collection of 12 completely infectious indie pop gems that, upon several listens, include layers and layers of both emotion and sounds.
To celebrate the release, vocalist Damian Kulash has given us some excellent insight into the album's songs as well as the band's general writing process. Read his revealing track-by-track commentary below and stream Hungry Ghosts above.
"Before getting into the individual songs, it’s worth saying something about the way we write: It isn’t goal-oriented. That is, we don’t start with a clear idea of what we want to make and then set about trying to make that thing," Kulash explains. "Instead, we play around with the basic building blocks of songs — beats, chords, sounds, little bits of melodies — and look for the unexpected moments when emotion jumps out. Most of the time when you add two sounds together, you simply get a third sound, but every once in a while you get this crazy alchemy, and suddenly there’s this ball of emotion. Usually it’s lots of emotions at once, often contradictory ones, like melancholy and joy and anxiety all pulling at the same time. We don’t usually know where those magical combinations will come from, and it’s pretty surprising where we find them. The songs act a bit like a mirror held up to our own lives; we see more clearly who we are when we see what’s resonating for us.
"However, what this means is that my thoughts on writing most song are pretty similar. It’s pretty much always: We were playing with sounds and then this thing just jumped out. Nonetheless, I’ll try to walk through the album track by track."
"Upside Down & Inside Out"
A lot of our songs over the years have been messages written to myself. Usually I’m trying to convince myself to stop overthinking everything and listen to my emotions more. This song is in that family; it’s me pleading with myself to let the chaos of feeling win out over the safety of logic. As a device, I imagined myself in an insane state that I once witnessed my girlfriend in. She’d taken an Ambien on a plane flight, but was for some reason fighting the urge to sleep, and she went crazy in a super beautiful and poetic way. She complained that her eyes were not doing what she told them to do. I asked her what it was she wanted them to be doing, and she replied, “They should be helping me figure out where I am.” I asked her if she could make any guess as to where she was, and she answered, “On a horse. (long pause) To make bread. I’m on a horse to make bread.” I imagined myself in that kind of logic-free soup of feelings and wrote a song to me, as that guy.
"The Writing’s On The Wall"
Our bassist Tim wrote the initial demo for this song, and in his temp lyrics (we’ll usually put scraps of phrases or gibberish in the earliest versions of our songs and then fill the ideas in more when the song has taken more shape), he’d used the phrase “the writing’s on the wall.” The line seemed to capture the melancholic air of the song, so I tried to write from Tim’s perspective about a difficult break up he’d just been through, letting it revolve around that moment when you feel the end coming. What’s crazy is that less than a month after the song was done, my wife (same woman who was the girlfriend in the song above) left me, pretty much out of the blue. So apparently I was writing about my own life, not Tim’s, and I didn’t even know it.
"Another Set of Issues"
This is one of those songs where the sounds themselves pulled us through the writing process. Across the whole album, we’re playing a lot more with synthesizers, sequencers, and electronic sounds, and this song was one of the early demos that started showing the path in that direction. It’s funny, though; I thought that I was sitting down to write an in-your-face, upbeat party banger, and by the time it was done, it had done a complete 180.
"Turn Up the Radio"
I fought with this one a lot. I remember leaving my studio after the first afternoon of sketching out the basic idea. The line was hooky and fun and propulsive; it seemed so pregnant with possibility. I felt like an itch deep in my brain was being scratched. But the next time I heard it, it went dead, and for the next several months, it was a big struggle to find that quality in it again. The other guys in the band loved it, so I kept fighting with it (or maybe it was with myself?), trying to get back to that place. Eventually I did, but this is one of those songs that took dozens of rewritings and revisions. It’s had six or eight different verses at one point or another, and even the time signature of the chorus shifted a few times.
Normally I dread writing lyrics. It’s because, as I mentioned already, music is most captivating to me when it’s pulling in lots of directions at once, when it’s wrapping up divergent emotions into one paradoxical package. I love music precisely because it can say things that language can’t; it can communicate emotions that are more complicated and more raw. So if a great song pushes your heart one way while pulling the opposite, what can you say over it that won’t screw it all up? Most words just literalize one of the component emotions and collapse the whole thing into a single dimension. It’s a vicious riddle to solve, trying to balance the warring emotions without highlighting just one, or devolving into meaningless abstractions to intentionally keep it vague. This is one of the rare songs where the feeling in the music screamed so loudly that writing lyrics wasn’t such a fight. As soon as we had the basic foundation of the song laid, it was obvious what this one was about: obsession.
"I’m Not Through"
I love when a song turns in the direction opposite of your expectations. I’m not sure what I was expecting, exactly, but the long, legato chorus seemed like a crazy left turn when I first tried it out. And suddenly the song made sense. It’s those moments when it feels like the song is writing itself, and it’s just your job to sit back and listen.
"Bright As Your Eyes"
Hip hop fans will recognize that the groove and baseline from this song are inspired by the Dead Prez song “It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop (Hip-Hop Remix).” The songs couldn’t be more emotionally different, but there it is again: I was just playing around with that groove, and a totally different type of song jumped out. Maybe Dan, our drummer and resident remixer, will make a mash up.
"I Won’t Let You Down"
This is the closest that the OK Go spaceship OK Go has come to the planet disco. The rest of the record was almost entirely done when we wrote this, but it still felt like there was more playing to do, something else to discover. So we were in the sonic sandbox with this groove, and suddenly there was a flash of Jackson Five and Diana Ross — a bright ball of something joyful, and we knew we had to chase it.
"The One Moment"
In advance of the album coming out, we’ve been on tour for a few months and we’ve been playing several of the new songs every night. This one has become one of the most cathartic and satisfying moments of the show for me. The particular flavor of yearning and release feels extra transparent on stage. It almost feels like the sound disappears and there’s just a direct emotional download from stage to the audience. It’s a great feeling.
"If I Had a Mountain"
This one is about the power of details, how the littlest things in life can take on so much significance. The tiniest reminders of someone can be the most evocative, the most tender or the most brutal.
"The Great Fire"
I wrote this song several years ago, and recorded a fairly straight ahead version of it as a piano ballad. When I brought the demo in to play for the band and our producer, Dave Fridmann, Dave’s response was this: “This song is already done. And it’s great. You could put it on the album as it stands, but unfortunately it doesn’t really fit on the record you’re making. So if you want it to be on this album, I must destroy it.” He actually used those words, “I must destroy it.” So each of us took a copy of the vocals and completely rebuilt the song around them. When we were done, we had several radically different versions of the song. We piled them all up and went about excavating a new song from the collected mess of sound. What we wound up with is, I think, my favorite track on the record. I can’t think of anything that it sounds like. It’s its own song in its own universe.
Being apart from the person you love is one of the most exquisitely, beautifully painful feelings we ever have, and being a touring musician means I have lots of opportunity to feel it. I wanted to capture the feeling in as simple and plain a way as I could. It’s sort of like a haiku of a song — just the reduced essence of a feeling.