When Damian Kulash, the LA-based lead singer for the band OK Go, got his positive coronavirus diagnosis earlier this year, he considered at first — are you ready for this? — whether he might be one of the lucky ones.
That was back when there were only six known cases in California, at a time when some politicians and talking heads were still spreading happy talk that this whole thing would die down in relatively short order. Cable news was only just starting to be dominated by wall-to-wall coverage of the COVID-19 virus. As soon as Kulash realized he had it, that left him assuming that okay, as long as I survive this weird thing, whatever it is, I’ll be on the other side of it. I’ll be one of the first to get it, he remembered thinking in an interview with PopMatters, and then after that, he reckoned, he’d “feel like a superhero again”.
That was before the coughing fits started. It was also before the terrifying shortness of breath and the crushing helplessness that followed when his wife tested positive for the virus. She endured a brief hospital stay, then spent several days bedridden at home with breathing problems. Gradually, the couple recovered. “It’s been a while since we’ve had any symptoms, but no one really knows much about this thing,” Kulash said. “We have noticed if we get really run down — like, after not sleeping enough, that kind of thing — some of the symptoms seem to come back a little bit, like shortness of breath. My doctor told me it probably doesn’t have anything to do with the virus itself but rather the damage to your lungs and that it takes a little while to recover. But who knows, man.”
Kulash found himself shaken, changed, and haunted… bereft, even, in a way. Where do you go next when you come back from the brink? Especially when so many others haven’t? As of the time of this writing, some 1.7 million Americans have been infected by the coronavirus. Almost 100,000 have died, and the economic upheaval has thrown tens of millions out of work.
After reading a Guardian essay by historian Rebecca Solnit, titled “The Impossible Has Already Happened: What the Coronavirus Can Teach Us About Hope”, Kulash found himself heading somewhere that seems to come naturally to the guys in OK Go. if you’re familiar with the catchy melodies, big choruses, the singalongs, and the sunny disposition that washes over the viral videos that accompany their best work. To an outsider, teetering on the brink of optimism seems to be these guys’ default setting. So much so, that Kulash decided to convene the band’s three other band members (remotely, of course) and for the quartet to write and record what may be their most personal project to date: OK Go’s newly released and socially-distanced ballad, “All Together Now”.
“All the colors we painted yesterday / They look so different now / And all those harmonies we sang yesterday / All sound so different somehow.”
Granted, they had to write without being in the same room with each other for once. Conference calls made that possible. They also recorded their parts separately, which they filmed and stitched together to form the band’s latest music video:
“In terms of the lyrics … how can I say this,” Kulash wondered aloud to PopMatters. “It is both a much clearer time, in terms of — I knew exactly what I wanted to write about (with this song). There’s no question about whether this is a break-up song or a political song — that kind of thing.
“It was impossible to step outside the boundaries of what felt appropriate for now. It needs a certain recognition of the gravity and seriousness of the situation, but it also needs to encapsulate some sort of buoyancy and hope. We’re not trying to amplify the darkness. We’re trying to connect and offer people an emotional raft. Like, a thing to hold on to in your feelings, not in your thinking.”
“Everywhere on earth, every single soul / Everyone there is, all together now / And everyone alone all together on the precipice.”
Kulash and bassist Tim Nordwind swapped lyric ideas. The other band members — drummer Dan Konopka, and guitarist/keyboardist Andy Ross — chimed in with musical suggestions. All four have recording setups at home, which they made use of here.
“All that mattered then, all that matters now / All that matters when the world shuts down / All of it dissolved, all together in the chrysalis.”
“Right now, it feels more possible and more genuine to just, like, write a song because you need to scratch that itch in your own brain and hope it scratches that itch in other peoples’ brains,” Kulash said. “That the same three chords make all the worst songs you’ve ever heard also make all the best songs you’ve ever heard — it’s some alchemy of those things that touch you, where you know your conscious brain can’t get to.
“I love the videos we make. I love the process of chasing those things. I just have to accept and live with the fact that people will only have a certain attention span for understanding you. But right now feels like a great time just to make a thing and give it to people.”
Throughout the video for this song that was born after Kulash beat the coronavirus, there’s something satisfying and a little poignant about watching the band members working from separate homes, making music while they’re sheltering-in-place, same as all of us. The music video for “All Together Now” ends with all four members of OK Go grabbing the cameras they’ve been using to record themselves and then turning them around, as the final notes fade away. All four phone cameras zoom in on four clocks, to show the current time (8:01 pm).
Out in the night, somewhere in the distance, you hear people cheering and clapping. It’s something we learn that Los Angeles residents do every night at 8:00 pm, to show a little love for frontline health care workers during the pandemic. Cheers. Applause. A roar of approval — and even the sight of some kids banging on pots and pans. It’s a fitting note to go out on. It’s like the band said. We’re all together now.