Music Interviews

Interview: OK Go

OK Go have had a huge year. Since January they have released groundbreaking music videos, split from giant label EMI, started their own indie label, and made time to meet The Muppets backstage at The Webby Awards.

Frontman Damian Kulash, in the midst of a short European tour, is discussing their legacy of hit YouTube videos and their recent run-in with Animal and Floyd of Dr Teeth.

“I just love The Muppets,” he says. “There’s nothing cynical about it, there’s nothing pat and pandering about it. There’s a sophisticated intelligence to the humour of the whole thing but it’s so universal and so fun. It started what I hope will be a long and lovely relationship. (Floyd and Animal) were both on this awards show and they were like ‘Let’s do something funny together.'”

The product was Danimal Vs Animal, a short video on the band’s site starring OK Go drummer Dan Konopka in the midst of a tense staring competition with Muppets drummer Animal, cheered on by Dr Teeth singer Sgt Floyd Pepper and watched by celebrity onlookers including Zach Galifianakis.

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Traditionally a band exists to create music, but with their music videos, online presence, and improvised projects like The Muppets video, OK Go have decided that being an artist means you aren’t pigeonholed into one specific area. “We had a big shift in thinking around five years ago. We’ve always wanted to do things our own way but we believed the basic definitions of the music industry, that the main source of value is by selling albums and by licensing things. But with the success of the internet videos on the last album there was a dawning of ‘Wow, you really don’t have to believe in any of that shit.’ Creativity and that thrill of making things doesn’t have to sit neatly within those boundaries.

“The whole point of the music industry is to build trustworthy structures. They take a wild and boundless concept like creativity and rein it in to a business model. But it doesn’t matter (to us) if what we do works for every band. It doesn’t matter if what we do doesn’t fit inside a set of known categories. The only thing that matters to us is that we like the things we make, that it’s super creative and satisfying and that our rent gets paid. That’s a terrible business plan for the music industry, but we’re not the music industry… we’re a bunch of dudes who want to make cool shit.”

Cool shit like their hugely popular 2006 video for Here It Goes Again, featuring the band dancing across a few treadmills with some impressively inventive choreography. Their flair for devising unique video concepts has only matured over time. Earlier this year they released a video for their song This Too Shall Pass, which sees them team up with the University of Notre Dame Marching Band, recording the live sound in one take.

“The video ideas we have are sort of like ongoing art projects. We’ll call up an artist and say ‘We really want to do this thing with you, do you have any time?'” he says. “It’s a lot of ongoing projects and different ones align themselves with different songs.”

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Kicking around a lot of ideas, the band understands that most of them will die before the final development stage. When they shoot for the moon with two ideas that just happen to come together, the opportunity to do both is too tempting. Just a few months after the marching band effort a second video for the same song was released featuring a massively intricate Rube Goldberg machine laid out in a huge warehouse. It took somewhere in the order of 80 takes to perfect, and it set the internet on fire.

“Those two ideas happen to just need the same song. There’s a kind of anthemic but slightly melancholic quality (to that song) that, if you imagine doing one of those two ideas with any other song on the record, it would feel wrong. I think that (the) Rube Goldberg machine has a quality that watching a single domino fall over is not particularly interesting but watching another hit another hit another has this derivate feeling that the whole thing is planned for some higher purpose. Surprisingly the videos and the dancing feel a lot like making music. They come from a similar sort of place. It’s the joy of the collaborative system where you just can’t believe that when you do this and he does that there is something else, some magical other thing that comes out of nowhere. It’s just an innate human thrill.”

Showing no signs of curbing their output, the most recent video pushes the boundaries of the single take again. End Love sees the band dance and play around a park for the duration of a song. In fact the video is one take over a 21 hour period and features some mind bending time lapse photography.

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Is there a pressure to ensure each video is better than the last? “It’s not so much a pressure as it is an opportunity. When each video succeeds, logistically and artistically they open up new spaces. Without the success of the treadmill video we certainly couldn’t have gone to a big team of engineers and asked them to build a video with us. They just would have been like ‘Who the fuck are you?’ We never thought about topping ourselves, specifically after the treadmill video. That’s as many hits as anything we’ll ever get, so there’s no point trying to top numbers or anything, but it does mean that now there’s all this attention, so we can ask people to do things we could never ask them before, and we can think of ideas that we couldn’t have allowed ourselves to think before.”

Promising to return in a matter of weeks for a more exhaustive UK tour, Kulash explains the live shows are just as fun for people who may only be familiar with the YouTube sensations. “It’s a very visual show; we have video running along with everything and we have confetti and a lot of bells and whistles. I mean we literally do have bells. Right now we’re stopping the set and doing an entire song on handbells, it’s really fun.”

OK Go’s album Of The Blue Colour Of The Sky is out now through Parlophone. The band play various festivals in Europe, including Belgium’s Pukkelpop on 21st August, and in the USA over the summer.

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