“Sharing” used to be a dirty word in the music industry, but OK Go have been instrumental in changing that.
As a band that allows itself to be as accessible as possible to fans, Damian Kulash (lead vocals), Tim Northwind (bass guitar, vocals), Dan Konopka (drums, percussion) and Andy Ross (guitar, keyboards) happily share much of their activities via the Internet. This includes behind-the-scenes videos on YouTube, the live-streaming of concerts, regular tweeting and some prolific Instagramming from the members themselves.
They also seem to have mastered the art of creating content that you just have to share, starting with their garden ballroom-dance performance for “A Million Ways” in 2006, which practically defined the genre of a viral music video. More like visual art projects than music promotion, OK Go videos often involve absurd spectacles or audacious stunts, be it the the creative use of treadmills for “Here it Goes Again,” a warehouse-sized Rube Goldberg machine for “This Too Shall Pass” and, more recently, complex optical illusions in “The Writing’s on the Wall,” which this year won the Best Visual Effects MTV Video Music Award.
But the band’s approach to music publishing is less about self-promotion than it is about broadening the scope of OK Go, re-imagining the idea of a “band” and pushing the music industry in a different direction, something it has been advocating since it ditched EMI in 2010 after the label refused to allow its videos to be embedded on other sites.
Its “Hungry Ghosts” album, released Oct. 14, was made available on the direct-to-fan music platform Pledge Music and was one of the most creative campaigns on the site. Alongside the usual signed CDs, fans were also offered personal, non-music items, including portraits of pledgers drawn by Konopka and one-to-one Google Hangout art critiques from Kulash and Northwind.
Ironically, OK Go’s latest video, and their first one to be produced completely outside the U.S., was made in Japan, a country known for having a notoriously restrictive music industry.
Not that this has any effect on the band’s approach. In July and August, tweets of Kulash’s Instagram account dropped some heavy hints, which included mentions of a “Tokyo Dance Crew,” a machine that “makes OK Go videos,” plus images of Japanese choreographer Air:man, a high-tech drone, acrobatic dancing and even a pair of “Mondrian Soxks” that Kulash comments will be “coming soon to a video near you.”
Two months later, and the result lives up to the promise of techy geekiness combined with imaginative choreography.
The video for “I Won’t Let You Down” — an infectious track with a ‘70s disco/funk vibe (think The Jacksons skating with Rick James and Prince at the roller rink) — could be the best ad for Cool Japan thus far. It involves the band looking like salarymen, thousands of school girls in uniform, choreographed Honda Uni-Cubs, a flying drone . . . and an understated cameo from J-pop sensation Perfume.
In a Skype interview before the final shoot, Kulash shared a little about his experience in Japan and future plans for OK Go.
How did this video idea come about?
I met the creative director of the video, Morihiro Harano, in France two years ago. When I saw his forest xylophone video (an advertisement for NTT Docomo Touch Wood), I thought it was the most amazing thing. Then I saw his other work, and it was all amazing stuff. So, he and I have been looking for the right project to work on for the past couple of years. He also works with Honda a lot, and he’s the guy who connected the dots between us two.
You’re known for the DIY quality of your videos. Were you worried that working with Honda would make the video too slick?
Hopefully this one is really slick. And if we get it right, it’ll be really nerdy. We are dancing with a lot of Japanese school girls. All in uniform.
Is it aimed at a Japanese audience?
It’s made there and it’s a collaboration with a Japanese company, so I’m sure we’ll give it a big push in Japan. It’s really hard, though, because the music industry is so closed.
The market is 85 percent domestic, and it’s actually still quite profitable, so there’s very little room left for Western music. In the rest of the world no one really sells records any more. But in Japan they still do, which means the record labels still have that stranglehold power that they used to have in the U.S. 10 to 15 years ago.
So it’s a very rigid system, on top of which, it’s Japan — where everything else is also extra rigid. Everything is so organized. It’s very hard to break into Japanese pop culture with so many corporate overlords.
But you’ve worked with Japanese collaborators before for your “All is Not Lost” video.
That was shot in the States but it was sponsored by Google Japan and many parts were produced in Japan. So I’ve had some experience with meetings with creative teams from Japan. It was really fascinating. Everything has to be really clearly spelled out.
When you’re working with the right people, the quality is unbelievably high. When people have an idea, they actually make it happen. With so many collaborators I’ve worked with in the past, even the really great ones, you hear, “Let’s do this!” But you only really get 10 percent of that.
I’ve never had a Japanese collaborator offer something that they couldn’t do. They’ll say something that sounds totally impossible and they will actually do it. It’s a very surreal experience.
In August, you gave a presentation at FAB cafe in Tokyo with sound artist Yuri Suzuki. Are you working on something with him?
Yuri and I have known each other a while, and he needed to come up with a syllabus for his class at the Royal College of Art in London. He thought it would be cool if we were like his students’ client. So I Skyped with his class a few times and gave them a brief, which was: “We want some new interesting ways to perform on stage.”
Korg was the sponsor for the course (Hack n Roll). They donated a bunch of synthesizers and said, “Hack these, see what you can do.”
I gave them a very broad creative freedom. The class came up with amazing projects — flying keyboards, inflatables, really cool stuff. One has a big crank you spin that has electrical contacts all over it so it plays the song.
Will you use those on stage and integrating art into your stage performance?
I hope so. They’re all in a prototype stage; it’ll take a lot to make them show-worthy. But their ideas are great, so I hope they keep going with it.
We’re really building up our live show right now; we’ve spent a lot of time re-inventing it and we hope to do more. We have kabuki screens; we show films in the middle of it; we sample the audience and build songs using the samples; I walk out into the audience and play songs out there; bits from our videos come into play. We are trying to make it as far as from just four dudes standing there (and playing instruments) as we can.
Is all this some part of a new business model for music and concerts?
Our business model is very naive. Which is, we just make stuff and keep making stuff. You figure if you make 10 good things, one of them will pay for the rest. You don’t always know where that money’s going to come from. Some comes from licenses, sometimes it’s from ticket sales, sometimes record sales. We never really know and it’s been really fun to chase that.
Andy (Ross) wrote a social gaming app last year that has nothing to do with our music and nothing to do with our videos, but the band released it as our own project because one of the band members made it. And why not?
So are you redefining what a band is and does?
Actually, we are trying to start a Maker festival. We want to partner with Maker Faire to do a traveling Maker Faire music festival next summer, which would allow us to do even more crossover between technology, live show and music, etc. And we are working on a TV show (“Say the Same Thing”) right now.
If we are able to, the end goal of all of this, if we could possibly get there, would be have the band grow past our four members. Right now, something can only be OK Go if it’s the four of us standing there. But the spirit of the things we make doesn’t necessarily have to come from just us.
The TV show and the art project stuff has started to blur the boundaries a little bit. We have an art director, Mary Fagot, who works with us full time now. She helps out on the video, the album, and she comes up with cool ideas. Is she a member of the band or is she not in the band? I love the idea that OK Go could become a little bit more porous. It could be a set of ideas that comes from around here, instead of a set of people.
Will any more of those collaborations involve Japanese artists?
There are three Japanese artists who I am obsessed with: Yuri Suzuki, Daito Manabe and Maywa Denki. But we have no set plans. Yuri recently introduced me to Maywa Denki and I saw them perform and we’ll try to come up with some way to collaborate.
What is it you like about these artists so much?
I love their sense of discovery. To me the art world is really boring, despite the fact it’s supposed to be so creative. The moneyed art world, the fine art world — it’s a commodities market.
Pretend for a second we’re not a rock band and what we make are not music videos. If you look at them as just art projects, they’re free to the whole universe. Everyone gets to watch it, everyone gets to enjoy it the same way. There’s no way to collect it. There’s no way to make any money off it. It’s bad for the art world, but I think it’s good for art. People get a sense of joy from it, or inspiration. It makes your day better, or makes you think a different way. It gives you faith in humans that we can do something.
That’s the spirit I get from Daito, Yuri and Maywa Denki. Aesthetics and art as an experience. Maywa Denki is about absurdity on the one hand, but it’s incredibly beautifully crafted. It’s not silly, not goofy. It’s light spirited and it’s funny, but it’s also intensely beautifully made. It gives me the sense of somebody breaking the rules just so that they can give me this one thing, that moment of OMG that’s so awesome. That to me is the highest form of art. Making people fall in love with the world.
Related: Click to read more about the making of the video for “I Won’t Let You Down”
OK Go will play in Japan in February 2015, with shows currently scheduled at Tsutaya O-East in Tokyo on Feb. 17 and at Umeda Club Quattro in Osaka on Feb. 18. For more information, visit www.okgo.net.