Magazine article The New Yorker

Petri-Dish Pop

Magazine article The New Yorker

Petri-Dish Pop

Article excerpt

PETRI-DISH POP

On a recent Monday, Damian Kulash, the lead singer of the band OK Go, arrived at the Columbia University Medical Center, in Washington Heights, took an elevator to the thirteenth floor, and rode down the hall on his suitcase, which doubles as a foldable scooter. "I got it in Japan," he said. "When I go from Terminal A to Terminal C on this thing, people freak out." Kulash wore aquamarine Converse All-Stars, Mondrian-inspired socks, black sunglasses, and a sweater with "Hello My Name Is" knitted across the chest. He made his way to a genomics lab, where he folded up his scooter. "Whoa, shit!" he said, upon discovering several cages containing black mice. Snapping on a pair of latex gloves, he said, "Never handle music without the proper precautions."

OK Go makes power-pop songs--verse, chorus, bridge, chorus. What sets the songs apart is the way in which they are packaged and promoted. In the video for "Here It Goes Again," a 2006 single, the band executed the choreography on and around eight moving treadmills; recently, for "I Won't Let You Down," it released a Busby Berkeley-esque video featuring more than two thousand Japanese schoolgirls. "We drop a hundred and fifty pounds of confetti during every live show," Kulash said. "If you use enough confetti, you hardly even need to play the songs."

Two years ago, at a conference, Kulash met Sri Kosuri, a biochemist at U.C.L.A. "We are starting to reach fundamental limits of how densely we can store data on microchips," Kosuri told Kulash. "We need new ideas." Given that Kosuri is a biologist, his idea is DNA. "It's information," he said. "Our bodies use it to code for life, but it could be anything." DNA comes in strings of "A"s, "C"s, "T"s, and "G"s; digital files--including music files--are strings of ones and zeros. Translating one code into the other is, for people like Kosuri, relatively straightforward. In 2012, Kosuri converted a book into DNA. Kulash said, "As soon as I heard that they could do this with a book, I went, 'This is how we're putting out our next album.' "

"Hungry Ghosts," OK Go's fourth studio album, was released a couple of weeks ago as MP3s, a CD, and a vinyl record. Later this year, it will be released as DNA. "Legally speaking, it's unclear whether we will be able to sell the DNA to anyone, or how we would physically get it to them," Kulash said. …

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