Always on the Go

March 30, 2007

BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC

  • Whether you love their quirky power pop or find it too cute and clever for its own good, there's no denying that Chicago to Los Angeles transplants OK Go accomplished something unique on the current music scene, sparking sluggish sales of their second album with two buzzworthy videos that are among the most-watched clips in the short history of YouTube.

    I spoke with guitarist-vocalist Damian Kulash about the unusual path to success he's taken with bandmates Tim Nordwind, Dan Konopka and Andy Ross midway through a tour that brings them back to their old stomping grounds next week.

    Q. Damian, you know I haven't been the biggest fan of your music, but I do think that your success is inspiring, because you refused to give up and basically forced the world to pay attention in a very do-it-yourself way.

    A. Thank you, I completely agree. I grew up in Washington, D.C., and I was a Dischord disciple. I had an indie label that I started with money I borrowed, and I believed -- and still do -- that signing with a major label is getting in bed with the devil. Yet here we are, signed to the company (Capitol) that brought you Radiohead and the Beatles. It's done now!

    I think we were really lucky with our first record: The top-down push that they attempted was at best moderately successful. I think it opened up the vistas for us to do the show we wanted to do, and it put the fire under our a--es. It reminded us that if you are going to do anything you want to do and that you're proud of, you have to do it yourself.

    Q. So you took a different path to promoting your second album, "Oh No," making those D.I.Y. videos (see Reasons for Living). But it still took some time to connect with listeners.

    A. The album came out at the very end of 2005, but at that point, it had been recorded for a while, so it feels like ancient history to me. We felt strongly that we wanted to do something slow and organic: We wanted people to discover us over a year or two; to have them trade our music; to build up our live following; to tour incessantly; to make friends and fans, to bring the thing we do to people and to let it grow the way it would grow. If I can praise the label for anything, it's that they stayed out of our way for a long time and didn't shut us down.

    Q. Whose idea was it to record "Oh No" in Sweden with producer Tore Johansson?

    A. It was ours. I really admired the Cardigans record that he did, and the Franz Ferdinand record, too. We were extremely lucky that Franz record had just come out, because it meant that we could sell the bean-counters on the idea of this producer. If he was in Antarctica, it would have been even better -- we just wanted to be as far away from Los Angeles and the record company as possible!

    Q. I'm not the only critic who's taken a shot at you guys for being too clever and shticky at times. It's only fair to ask how you respond to that charge.

    A. On one part of that, fundamentally I agree. We obviously fight with it being an intellectual project as opposed to an emotional one. To me, what I like about the second record is that the entire thing was recorded live: We put ourselves in a room, gave ourselves some pretty strict guidelines and just did it. Especially compared to the first record, it's so much more human and organic: It's about the push and pull of the rhythm section, and it felt great to me when we made it. Two years later, I feel this push away from it, and I know what I don't like about it and where I want the next record to come from.

    Q. As you look ahead to making the third album, do you worry about the focus shifting from the music and being pigeonholed as "the group that makes those funny videos"?

    A. Yes and no. First of all, we made our next video, and it kicks a--; we're excited about it. It's completely an extension of the others, which were not just about us dancing. They're confusing and homemade, and that's why they work.

    We do really think of the videos as an art project, and it's the same thing as the music to us. I wish I could spend more time writing songs and recording music -- we are entering month 26 of this unending tour! -- but you take what you can get. The reason you are in a rock band is that you want to make cool [stuff] and hope that you don't have to work a coffee job all day long. It turns out that you sit on a bus or an airplane all day long [laughs], but we still consider ourselves pretty lucky.

     

    REASONS FOR LIVING

    Unless you live in a house without a television or computer, you've probably seen the videos for "A Million Ways" and "Here It Goes Again." Here's OK Go bandleader Damian Kulash talking about how these clips went from backyard art projects to Internet phenomena.

    "When we made the video for 'A Million Ways,' with us dancing in the backyard, YouTube didn't exist; that was literally a practice tape for something to do at live shows. We had gone on tour with [Public Radio's] 'This American Life' as the backing band, and basically we discovered how much fun it is to just drop our instruments in the middle of the show and break into dance. It's fundamentally confusing to people who have been to a million rock shows, because nobody does that. My sister, who has been a ballroom dancer for many years, helped us choreograph this thing, and we were practicing in my backyard. The tape was amusing, so we sent it to a bunch of our friends, and then it started to spread on the Net.

    "After six months, we felt we could go to our label and say, 'This is a bona fide Internet success.' So we recorded the 'Here it Goes' video, with the treadmills; we had a week off in Florida, where my sister lived at the time, and we made this thing figuring, 'It's either going to be the best video ever or the worst.' We sat on it for a year; in the meantime, YouTube started to exist and our first video did really well there. And suddenly, this forum just opened up for us."

     

    SNOW PATROL, OK GO, SILVERSUN PICKUPS

     7 p.m. Monday
     Aragon Ballroom, 1106 W. Lawrence
     Sold out

     

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