After a very surreal hour or so of waiting in the craft services area of Mad TV Studios while the cast geared up for their season premiere, I sat down with OK Go to discuss their latest album, Oh No, bold fashion choices, and whirlyball. Earlier that day, lead singer Damian Kulash’s dogs ate a bottle of prescription antacid and needed to get their stomachs pumped, leaving the band stressfully behind schedule. OK Go is a busy band indeed, as the past few days have seen nightly club shows, as well as a taping for the Tonight Show and this Mad TV appearance, for which they performed their now famous, thanks to internet buzz, dance for “A Million Ways.”
The dance, which premiered on the internet via a video shot in Kulash’s backyard, has taken on a life of its own, garnering appearances on Entertainment Weekly‘s Must List and NPR’s All Things Considered. The choreography, created by Kulash’s sister Trish Sie, is cutesy but culturally punchy, incorporating well-known choreography from all over the board. At one moment, bassist Tim Nordwind is mouthing along to the vocals and jiving to the hustle while the remainder of the band does the horah. They move on to pay respects to West Side Story, The Matrix, hula dancing, and “the Heavyweight” from Sweet Charity. Because the band finds the rock tradition of curtain calls to be tired and meaningless, they perform the dance at the close of each show in lieu of an encore.
The dancing is among the many quirky attributes that make OK Go stand out in the crowded realm of cute, poppy, rocker-boy bands. A group that has long done its own graphic design, they have extrapolated their artwork to their clothing. Kulash tells me, “Basically like we were sort of a jeans and tee shirt band and I just woke up one day and was like, ‘If I have to fucking pick another tee shirt to wear today…’ It had just become such a uniform.” OK Go has transformed into the height of pimp-chic, wearing three-piece suits with clashing bold prints, pointy-toe ankle boots, and cuff links. “We ended up with something really ridiculous and awf-some. That’s awful and awesome at the same time.” Clothing is indeed such a big deal to the band that my time with them is punctuated by wardrobe crises, the direst of which is the need for new guitarist and keyboardist Andy Ross to get a new jacket. After he leaves for the store, Kulash huffs, “It’s like the store is a block away, go outside and buy the damn jacket. We don’t need six people to talk about this” before returning to his usual dryly amused demeanor.
Photo by Jodie Janella Horn
Perhaps the most distinct aspect of OK Go is that they’re smart, and they’re not about to let you forget it. When I ask them about a gig touring with This American Life in 2003, Kulash says, “This American Life was just awesome because all those people are smart. I love rock ‘n’ roll and I love rock ‘n’ roll shows but it doesn’t always mean hanging out with smart people. There’s a lot of people in rock clubs not all that smart.” As eager as OK Go is to manifest their intellectual side, they are equally careful to temper it with rock ‘n’ roll ribaldry and humor. While they respect the intelligence of the folks at This American Life they are quick to point at that they “fucking wasted those nerds” in a game of a whirlyball, an alcohol motivated game of lacrosse in bumper cars.
Kulash, formerly a semiotics major at Brown, and the rest of the band have created a number of short videos circulated on the internet, including a hilarious Ping-Pong instructional video and a series called “Truth in Music” that features a hyper-esoteric deconstruction of government informational shorts. Another of the band’s tricks is abusing audio blog technology to send gift requests to fans to bring to their shows. They’ve asked for everything from old sneakers decorated in homage to the band to candy artfully arranged in tribute. That night’s show at a club on the Sunset Strip is to be met with clip-on earrings, a comparatively simple request. Because they’ve been getting into gambling recently, Tim Nordwind in particular, they bet on the right item to ensure fifty-two gifts per show. For smaller shows, they chose easy to procure items. The gambling in LA is confounded by the notoriously aloof crowds, but as Kulash points out, “there’s a lot of gaudy jewelry around here.”
After touring on their first self-titled album for two years and coming home to “four inches of dust” and “a lot of girlfriends broken up with” OK Go abandoned Chicago for Los Angeles. The lone east coast holdout, drummer Dan Konopka, will be joining the band in LA soon. After settling in, the first round of songs they wrote for the new album were all deemed unusable by the band. Once the album was finally recorded last winter, Kulash says with some bitterness, “then our label [Capitol] ruminated upon [the album] for a little while. Pondered about how good it was. Tried to decide exactly which the single should be. How many times they should master and remaster it.”
Photo by Jodie Janella Horn
Oh, No was recorded with the band’s previous guitarist, Andy Duncan, who left the band because of the overwhelming travel schedule only three weeks before the start of the new tour. That meant that OK Go had three weeks to find a new individual who could play both guitar and keyboards and dance. Kulash visibly brightens while recounting the anecdotes from their search saying, “I’m just kicking myself that we didn’t videotape it because it was so funny.” Highlights included a man who tried to convince them that “whoop dang” spelling backwards is “poontwang” and another who interpreted their simple keyboard melody into an avant jazz space odyssey. Andy Ross was selected from a field of thirty-five musicians and managed to learn the set in time for the tour. He is a full-fledged member of the band, right down to the self-depreciating humor that defines them. While the rest of the band recounts the audition process, Ross gloomily interjects that they “didn’t get much to show for it.” “That’s right,” Kulash good-naturedly responded. “[She] asked us what we thought of you and we said a twerp and a fucking asshole.” Konopka added, “You forgot dipshit.”
The album curiously closes with a thirty-minute inaptly named “bonus” track that consists of little more than white noise and the occasional giggle or the faint sound of breathing. I asked Kulash about the track and he quickly responded, “It’s awesome isn’t it?” I answered that there’s not a lot on the track, to which he deadpanned, “Good point.”
Getting frustrated, I asked him what is being recorded. His puzzling answer: “Some stuff. I’m not going to talk about it. Okay, it’s on our record for a very, very good reason, but a reason that if were known would stop operating as it does. Does that make sense? It’s a very good reason but it’s a secret.” I’m just speculating, but I think that OK Go likes the idea of imaginations running wild with the mysterious sounds on that track. Either that, or it’s audio of a sex act. Or both.
It would follow reason that a band that so relentlessly thinks about every element of their cultural presence down to the number of gifts they can garner from fans in each city would be intellectually removed from the experience of performing, but despite time spent coordinating their outfits to match the patterned slide projections that back their set, they still honestly brought the house down that night. When covering the Violent Femmes’ “Prove My Love” Kulash disappeared from the stage only to make a flamboyantly triumphant march from the back of the house, sweating like he just created another bonus track. As Ira Glass of This American Life has said, these boys are human catnip, and their set, closing with the “A Million Ways” dance, moistened even the most hardened of the Hollywood hipsters.