Even before they jumped on the treadmill for the music video for “Here it Goes Again” and garnered some 22 million views on YouTube, the guys in the indie rock troupe OK Go — singer-guitarist Damian Kulash, bassist Tim Nordwind, drummer Dan Konopka and guitarist-keyboardist Andy Ross — put a unique stamp on everything they did.
“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,” says Kulash via phone from a Louisville tour stop. “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.”
Kulash says the band initially turned those that “creative driving force” to making posters promoting its shows.
“The band was known in Chicago where we lived for five years because our posters were like our videos are now,” he says. “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.”
The band created enough of a buzz that it signed a deal with Capitol Records in 1998, releasing its self-titled debut in 2002. Through all the turbulence that’s taken place in the last decade, the group has continued to deliver indie pop hits. Having the latest technology at its disposal has certainly helped.
“The incredible changes in digital recording over the last decade have altered the way everybody thinks about music,” says Kulash. “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.”
He likens the process of making records to playing on a playground with more than just a jungle gym to swing on.
“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,” he says. “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. 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.”
He says YouTube is like a giant jukebox and even if a band doesn’t make its own video, someone else will make one for it.
“Whether you like it or not, music comes with three channels,” he says. “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. 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.”
And no, he doesn’t think that the band’s focus on the visual side of its music detracts from its appeal. Live, the guys play with frenetic energy and display a good deal of musicianship too.
“I spend a great deal of time answering questions about our videos and especially about whether or not they overwhelm the music,” says Kulash. “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. 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?’”
OK Go, Rollergirl, 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 15, Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $20 ADV, $22 DOS, beachlandballroom.com.