Posted October 1, 2014 by Jeff in Tunes

OK Go: Video made the radio star

OK Go photo by Zen Sekizawa
OK Go photo by Zen Sekizawa

The guys in the indie rock troupe OK Go found ways to express their creativity even before they turned to the wildly original music videos for which they’re now known. Singer-guitarist Damian Kulash, bassist Tim Nordwind, drummer Dan Konopka and guitarist-keyboardist Andy Ross just wrapped work on a new studio album, Hungry Ghosts, slated to come out next month. Kulash phoned us from a Louisville tour stop to talk about what has changed and what has stayed the same for this inventive group that has been together for 16 years.

The band formed in 1998, which seems like a really long time ago. Talk about what those early days were like.
In November it will be 16 years. I could tell you that it was a wildly different time or a lot like it is now and both answers would be partially correct. I think the dynamic of the band is remarkably unchanged. We were first and foremost friends who liked chasing creative ideas together. Tim, the bassist and I met 27 years ago in summer camp. For more than a decade before the band started, we were writing songs and doing skits and developing little videos and making art projects together. The creative driving force behind the band and our impulse to chase ideas that are slightly out of balance with the categories that currently exist was there the entire time. The band was known in Chicago where we lived for five years because our posters were like our videos are now. We spent weeks making these absurd four-color silk screens in my apartment in Chicago and would paste them all over Chicago. You get four people who like making things and everybody’s creative lustiness seems to feed everybody else’s. I don’t think Dan our drummer was into printmaking before he joined the band but once we started getting into it, he got into it as much as anybody else. In that way, it’s really similar. In other ways, it’s different. In 1998, the music industry still sort of existed and there was a known model for success. The world has changed so much and we’ve changed with it. We were in our young twenties then and now we’re in our late thirties.

I can’t believe we’re still here. Not many last this long and certainly not ones that stay friends with each other.

How has the technology affected the band?
The world changing around us — how do you separate yourself from that? The incredible changes in digital recording over the last decade have altered the way everybody thinks about music. I was making sample-based dance-y electronic dance music when I was in college, but I would record it to an ADAT with these giant external sampling boxes. Now, you can do more with your phone than I could with the $30,000 in gear that I had back then. Our new album is more electronica than anything we’ve ever made before, and we wouldn’t be thinking that way if the technology hadn’t changed. It’s hard to say this in ways that don’t sound too vague. When I was a kid, the world than I wanted to dive into with respect to my favorite bands was like a jungle gym they were providing for me. It was a pleasure to go digging through crates of 7-inches to see if I could find that one rare Pixies record or that first, unheard of Shudder to Think single. There were other ways to engage. I saw Shudder to Think 12 times in one year. Yeah, I’m a huge fan. There was more than one way to engage but not a lot more than four or five ways. Now, as a musician, I can let people into the jungle gym of my choosing. We have to keep a little bit of a private life, but my Instagram feeds provides more playtime for me and my fans than I had with the Pixies in any given year. It also means that musical subcultures don’t have to be geographic any more. You can find the people you love and they might be in Seoul or Taipei or Moscow. It’s dramatically changed the way we do everything.

And what about the music?
It goes without saying that what it is we think of as music has changed. Most people haven’t internalized this yet. When music went from mono to stereo, it was big change but we still think of it as music. Now, the biggest music streaming service on the planet is YouTube. Whether you like it or not, music comes with three channels. There’s the left channel, the right channel and the video channel. You don’t have to make a video. It will be on YouTube with or without your video. It might just be the album cover or a photo that someone found of you on Wikipedia. All that points out to me is that making ones and zeroes is what musicians do and what journalists and architects do. A huge section now makes ones and zeroes and there’s so much less to distinguish between the different types of creativity. What we think of as music has changed and in ten or 15 years we’ll look quaintly back on it as a time when they were separate things.

I think it’s ironic that MTV, which started the video revolution, doesn’t even play videos anymore.
Yes, what’s funny is that, as you can imagine, I spend a great deal of time answering questions about our videos and especially about whether or not they overwhelm the music. It’s shocking to me. Can you think of “Material Girl” without seeing Madonna coming down those steps or “Smells like Teen Spirit” without thinking of that awful dance they were having in that gym? Videos have been an essential part of pop music for nearly 30 years now. Can you think of “Hound Dog” without thinking of Elvis and can you think of “Hard Days Night” and not think of the Beatles and their mop tops?  The visual component is nothing new and yet people think there’s a major shift. When people ask me about the music video competing with the music I think of the cover of Sticky Fingers. Can you imagine someone going, “That record is good but the cover was so cool that it distracted from the music?”

Talk about this new EP that you recorded last year with Dave Fridmann and Tony Hoffer. “I Won’t Let You Down” has such a great funk beat to it. What inspired these songs?
Increasingly as we have moved on in our careers, we have learned to write without much of a preconceived direction. In the earliest days, it was what we could do to get there. These days, it tends to be playing around with rudimentary pieces of sound and looking for the moment when one sound plus another doesn’t just equal a third sound but equals some unexpected ball of emotions. The record wound up stylistically all over the place but it feels more electronic and more pop and in your face. I feel a lot of ’80s in it but I hope it doesn’t sound like we’re doing nostalgic for the ‘80s. What I want is the feeling I had as a 10-year old listening to INXS or Prince or New Order. I want to recreate that in some way, not going for the sound but going for the emotions.


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].