Treading New Ground: An Interview with OK Go
OK Go talks about breaking instruments in the studio, rocking out with musical idols, and the surreal sensation of playing glow-in-the-dark guitars rigged with lasers.
Let's move past the choreographed dance routines, shall we?
That seems to be the mission statement expressed by the sludgy guitar fuzz that kicks off OK Go's third album Of the Blue Color of the Sky. The title of that tensely kinetic opening track -- "WTF?" -- serves as a pretty apt approximation of what fans of the band's punchy power-pop might be saying to themselves after hearing Sky's strange brew of slow-burning strummers and falsetto-filled psychedelic rock.
"As the tracks were coming through and getting finished, I definitely realized that we were making a really different record," says bassist Tim Nordwind, who spoke to PopMatters via phone from his home in Los Angeles. "At the same time, it wasn't that weird for us, since the songs all reference music that we've been listening to for so long." As unlikely as it sounds, the rock outfit that shares musical DNA with Cheap Trick and the Pixies professes to have also grown up on tunes from the likes of Cameo, Michael Jackson, and, most notably, Prince.
Coming up in the mid-'90s punk-rock scene in Chicago, the foursome of Nordwind, singer Damian Kulash, drummer Dan Konopka, and guitarist Andy Duncan built a formidable local fanbase thanks to some choice gigs with They Might Be Giants and on the NPR show This American Life. Their promising 2002 self-titled debut scored a minor UK hit with "Get Over It." 2005's Oh No seemed poised for similarly moderate success when, on a whim, group members choreographed a goofy dance for first single "A Million Ways" and circulated the video among friends; nine million views later, OK Go had catapulted to the national spotlight and even helped give visibility to a little start-up website called YouTube. The band raised the bar a notch higher the following year with the treadmill-assisted "Here It Goes Again," which earned more than 50 million hits worldwide.
That said, don't expect any more wacky dance routines in OK Go's near future. While Nordwind says that the band is genuinely proud of those videos, they are understandably eager to show off more high-minded artistic ambitions. "[The treadmill dance] was just a crazy fucking idea we had," Nordwind says. "I'm glad that so many people enjoyed it, but we're not looking to do 'Treadmills, Part Two'. And that's fine, because we're putting out a lot of stuff in the next year born out of that same spirit."
Since Oh No, the guys have toured the globe, released a Hurricane Katrina benefit EP with brass band Bonerama, and replaced one guitar-wielding Andy (Duncan) with another (Ross). The group's most recent musical experiments have proven less immediate but just as inventively offbeat as their dance numbers. They utilize simple echoed-image technology to arresting effect in the kaleidoscopic music video for "WTF?"; perhaps most intriguingly, this past December the group staged a memorable performance at the Design Miami arts fair, in which designer Moritz Waldemeyer rigged the guitars with light-up fur and lasers coming out of the instruments' heads. "We met up with [Moritz] for drinks a couple months ago in London, and he said he was looking for a project," says Nordwind. "We immediately thought, 'laser guitars!', and that was that."
The colorful visuals correspond nicely with the new album's trippier textures. Sky's psych-pop vibe is a testament to producer David Fridmann, who has manned the boards on several Flaming Lips albums as well as MGMT's Oracular Spectacular. "We've been enamored with him since we heard [The Lips'] Soft Bulletin, which sounded like it was made on Mars," Nordwind says. "We had been writing towards that more expansive, psychedelic sound, so it made sense to connect with him."
Recording in the fall of 2008 in a converted Amish barn in rural New York, OK Go also turned its very songwriting process inside out. "After two albums of sitting down with a guitar to figure out chords and a melody, we got tired of that," Nordwind says. Most tracks, in fact, began with a beat, spawning drums-driven numbers like the stomp-clap meditation "Back from Kathmandu" and the herky-jerky thump of "All Is Not Lost." Past songs nursed a generic one-two punk-rock push; here, the more limber rhythms on "This Too Shall Pass" and "Skyscrapers" allow for multidimensional dynamics previously unheard of to the OK Go catalog.
Not to mention, the quartet unveils a whole new bag of musical doo-dads and effects on Sky, ranging from the Moon Safari-style vocoder on "Before the Earth Was Round" to some mysterious sounds that even the band members can't pinpoint. "[Fridmann] has a guy come in to make sure every piece of equipment in the studio is broken in some way," Nordwind recalls with a laugh. "He's such a mad genius - he knows all the rules of production so well that any chance he gets, he break them."
The album takes its name from The Influence of the Blue Ray of the Sunlight and of the Blue Colour of the Sky, an 1876 book by a well-meaning Englishman named AJ Pleasantton who preached the healing powers of the color blue (and convinced thousands of people in the process). "There was something sadly beautiful about his story that we related to," Norwind says. Indeed, the lyrics on Sky in many ways reflect the innocent pursuit of hope in what may sometimes seem like a hopeless world. "Are you gonna tell me what comes next," Kulash asks on "WTF?" "Or am I just supposed to know?"
If you're OK Go, there's a lot to be hopeful about these days. In our conversation, Nordwind giddily recalls the band's performance at a benefit concert with Pixies frontman Frank Black in December. "It's amazing to not only meet your idols, but actually get to play the song that basically got you interested in rock and roll in the first place ['Debaser']," Nordwind says, before adding with wide-eyed fan-boy adoration: "At one point, [Frank] even called me 'Tim'."
Then, of course, there was OK Go's recent contribution to the New Moon soundtrack, which helped extend its reach to a younger demographic. Selling out? one might ask. In this day and age, call it pragmatism. "Oddly, the hardest way to get your music out there now is by selling records," Nordwind says. "MTV doesn't play videos anymore and radio is a dying medium, but millions of people buy videogames and watch movies and commercials."
Since releasing music videos for "WTF?" and the Notre Dame Marching Band-assisted "This Too Shall Pass," OK Go has been touring Europe during the month of January. Next up? A return to the States to make a second video for "This Too Shall Pass" at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in California. ("I can't give too much away," Nordwind says, "but they're building us a machine in a three-story warehouse that is basically going to dance with us and destroy us"). Even with all these high-concept projects, though, it's safe to say that the success hasn't gone to band members' heads just yet. "I still wonder if people will like our records and come see us play," Nordwind says, with typical self-deprecation. "Our only hope is that more interesting opportunities present themselves, and that we can continue to carve out our own path."