Newly independent OK Go has more to offer than viral clips

by Steve Johnson

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

16 March 2010

OK Go answers questions in the press room at the 2006 MTV Video Music Awards at Radio City Music Hall in New York on August 31, 2006. (Gregorio Binuya/Abaca Press/MCT) 

CHICAGO — It’s been hard to miss OK Go lately.

Not only has the power-pop band with Chicago roots taken another music video viral with its jaw-dropping, Rube Goldberg-machine take on “This Too Shall Pass” (youtube.com/user/OKGo), OK Go just shed its major-label affiliations to become a truly independent band.

This came in the wake of a dispute with the band’s former label, EMI, that got to the heart of some of the music industry’s current woes. Despite the 2006 dancing-on-treadmills video (for “Here It Goes Again”) that brought the band to national prominence, EMI no longer wanted OK Go videos to be embeddable on Web sites it did not earn money from, and lead singer Damian Kulash retorted — in a February op-ed piece in a national newspaper — that in the year 2010, letting your work flow freely is essential.

“I imagine dropping us gets a lot more attractive when we start mouthing off,” Kulash said in a telephone conversation from Los Angeles, from which the following conversation is excerpted. “We’re a good band not to be associated with if we keep writing those things for the New York Times explaining how stupid they’re acting.”

Kulash, thoughtful and talkative, elaborated on striking out on their own, how there aren’t really hard feelings toward EMI and why he doesn’t worry about being perceived as a video band. He ended our first phone call by saying, “Can you make me not sound like the pretentious pontificating (person) I was being at the beginning there?” He would later arrange a second call to talk some more.

Q. You said Paracadute (Italian for “parachute), the name of your new company, is your second-favorite word. What is first?

A. Pamplemousse (French for “grapefruit”). But it didn’t really seem as appropriate to a band that’s jumping off the Titanic, you know what I mean?

Q. In a nutshell, why did you go independent — and I know there’s no nutshell answer.

A. Well, there is one nutshell answer, which is because they let us. In the last five or 10 years, the only function that labels productively served was startup investment for bands. You don’t want to put your own money into it because you’re likely to lose all that money, and if you’re lucky enough to get to a point of solvency, the money you’re making should basically be paying back all the bands that are failing. That’s how the risk aggregation of the system works. So if you’re a band that’s already gotten your head above the water, the last thing you need is a label. All they’re doing is using your profits to prop up their new projects, you know? We don’t need their distribution anymore. And we promote ourselves way better than they do. There is no reason to stick with them except you are contractually bound to.

Q. Are you cool with being identified as a Chicago band? Do you think that’s accurate?

A. It’s not accurate, but those things are all sort of loose labels. I moved there after college and I lived there for five very formative years, and if there’s a city we associate ourselves with as our point of origin, it’s certainly Chicago. And now we live in Los Angeles.

Q. What’s keeping you busiest these days? Is it handling the fervor over the video or the announcement about breaking off on your own?

A. Essentially at this point, there are three things. One is press. Two is actually setting up the label. We have a pretty good team in place already, but there are a few things we need to still solve. You make an announcement like that and every single person in the music industry who has some idea for a way forward has written to us. The third thing keeping me busy is we are shooting another video next week, so I am busy figuring it out.

Q. Is that a high-concept one?

A. It’s the same level of concept as you would expect from us. Were going to attempt to do a single take that actually takes 24 hours. It’s not all the same speed, so it goes from extreme high-speed photography to very time-lapsed, all in one take, for the song “End Love.”

Q. Is there choreography involved?

A. Yes, there is. Woo hoo!

Q. Does there have to be choreography involved?

A. No, there doesn’t have to be choreography involved. I mean, it’s funny to see guys who are not born dancers dancing. It’s funny to see a rock band not being cool. But there’s something also genuine and non-ironic and that’s not silly at all about just seeing a well-designed system do something that you sort of marvel at.

You marvel at both it happening and the amount of effort and planning that goes into making such a good system.

Q. When you’re planning a new video now, is there just this overwhelming pressure?

A. It’s only really pressure if you look at videos as advertisements or as stunts. And that’s largely how the traditional music industry has seen them and would like to see them. But we’re not really in the business of subscribing to their models, and it doesn’t work for us when we do. Music videos have been a part of our creative output as a band for a long time, and they’re just sort of part of what we make. It’s kind of like asking if you’re trying to have each of your children one-up the one before it. We love them all. In fact, I sort of see them the same way you do songs. They’re not all going to be singles.

In fact, you don’t want them all to be singles.

Q. You’ve heard this question before, but is having a great video kind of a two-edged sword? Does it make it too easy for people to kind of ignore or otherwise discount the music?

A. I hate to keep playing this semantic game. But if people are stuck thinking that we are supposed to fit into the models of creativity and capital-“C” cool from10 years ago or 40 years ago, that, to me, seems like their problem and not ours.

I’m happy making the stuff. And I’m especially happy that enough people like it that we get to keep making it. Again, this isn’t some Machiavellian marketing plan to get people to pay attention to us. This is the stuff we like making. Imagine if people saw their food as having to get better every day. Do we have to outdo ourselves with the next pizza? No, it just has to taste really good. Or, like, is dessert undoing the appetizer? This is the stuff we like making, and we hope people like diving into it with the same gusto they would dive into a good meal. There are many courses to it.

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