Video Visionaries OK Go; Innovation Fueled by Creative Collaboration
by Curtis Silver
Video killed the radio star. It’s an adage that was popularized in the 1980’s following the advent of music television and the eponymous hit by the Buggles. For a few short decades, video enjoyed a particularly creative rise, peaking with massive artistic efforts such as Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Soon after though, the music video took a backseat to the rise of reality television which was inexplicably showcased on video channels that previously showed videos. To that end, the creativity involved in music videos started to falter, and musical acts were reluctant to put much stock in video spending. Then came the full brunt of the internet and services such as YouTube and Vimeo, and bands got creative again. Then, pop rock act OK Go broke the mold of what our idea of a creative video really is.
For OK Go, the creative process started when lead singer, Damian Kulash, met bassist Tim Nordwind at Interlochen Arts Camp when they were a mere 11 years old. Their combined love of music and the arts created a lasting friendship, and a lasting collaboration. Along the way they added former guitarist Andy Duncan (to be replaced by Andy Ross in 2005) and drummer Dan Konopka. In 1998 OK Go was formed and in 2002 they released their self-title debut. Under the banner of EMI Records, this would probably be the first and last time the band would release a “traditional” video, in this case for “Get Over It.”
In 2005, their second album Oh No produced the single and the video for “A Million Ways.” This backyard choreographed video with bassist Tim Nordwind lip synching the lyrics (as he would do in further choreographed videos) would pave the way for a continued output of innovative & cutting edge videos filled with an over abundance of creativity, humor and deeply conceived and thought out logistics. However, it was the second video from this album, another choreographed low budget affair, that skyrocketed OK Go into the mainstream consciousness and made everyone – from fans to artists to labels – reconsider the value of a well made music video.
The song was “Here it Goes Again” and to date, the video has had over 50 million views since its release in 2006. Though that number is debatable, as the YouTube page still under the EMI label has it at around 12 million. OK Go became, willingly or not, the ushers of a new era of music video. One in which we were returned the artistry and creativity once seen in music video, which had been lost through the years by cookie cutter videos featuring the band on the stage or scantily clad women shaking things.
Now, the video for “Needing/Getting” featuring a fully musicalized Chevy Sonic has been taking the internet by storm. The band recognizes that they not only have the creative swagger, but now the means to realize their creative visions. It also helps when you have a company like Chevy offering a fair amount of financial backing.
OK Go have cemented their place in music video and creative lore, truly innovators when it comes to music video. With that in mind, and with the support for their 2010 release Of the Blue Colour of the Sky winding to a close, I recently spoke to bassist Tim Nordwind about the creative process, severing ties with EMI to form their own label (Paracadute Recordings) and what influence OK Go’s videos have had on the creative community.
Curtis Silver: Tim, things really took off for you guys with the video release of “Here it Goes Again.” While you’ve released many videos between that and your latest video, “Needing/Getting”, what fueled the progression between synchronized treadmills and a fully equipped musical car?
Tim Nordwind: The video for “Here it Goes Again” got a lot more attention than anything we’d done before. That was not our first project together, we’d been making music, videos and art for a good ten years before that. From that video to our latest car video we did with Chevy, everything has been a continuation of us being animated and excited by our best ideas more of less.
CS: That’s right, you guys have been together a while. How does that affect the creative process?
TN: First and foremost we’re a group of people who came together at a pretty early age because we liked each other as people and like to make things together. It’s sort of a unique bond when you can find not just one person but three to four people who you enjoy making things with and you have a relationship where you can work together in these weird collaborative situations.
CS: Speaking about collaborative situations, early on the video focus seemed to be simple backyard choreography, or walking time lapse through the park as in End Love. Was the goal ever to top yourselves, or push to the next level such as what you accomplished with the Rube Goldberg version of “This Too Shall Pass”?
TN: It’s not really a question of topping what we did last time, just that we have projects that make us excited to work on. We’re kind of aware that some ideas are more universaly likeable than other ideas. The nice thing is that about a year and a half ago we left our label and created our own, which has become the distribution arm for our creative ideas. So it’s nice, we have ideas like “Here it Goes Again”, or for “Needing/Getting” where they seem to have this huge mass appeal.
CS: Not everything though, such as the video for “Last Leaf” have had huge mass appeal. That couldn’t have happened under the corporate label could it?
TN:We have other ideas that in my opinion are just as fun, but without the mass appeal and we’re able to make those things for the fans. Five, ten years ago when we were on a major label the focus was to drive record sales. now we can make things that we think are good, that people can enjoy. If it sells records, cool. If it gets us into the public consciousness, cool. If it’s just something beautiful that a few thousand people will watch, cool. It’s nice to have that freedom.
CS: But really, that freedom comes from working with people you can bounce ideas off of, people that you trust creatively. It doesn’t always work that way.
TN: As I get older, er, grow up and meet people I realize how unique our relationship is within the band. It can be difficult to pull off creative projects for so some many different reasons. For personality reasons it can be difficult, for creative differences reasons it can be difficult. For many years I kind of took for granted the fact that we’re just four pretty like minded people. Every once in a while I’ll do a little project with a friend or something like that, and you realize like whoah, all of the sudden you get reminded very quickly when you work with someone that you’re not used to working with that there can be all these different issues involved when you are making something. Even if you agree that the thing you are making is awesome, egos get involved, personalities get involved, creative differences get involved. The more we go on and do these things the more I realize how lucky I feel like we all are to have each other and work with each other. I don’t think I’ve met more like minded people than my band mates.
CS: OK Go’s videos have basically resurrected the art of making the video. It’s been said that your videos have done for the music video as Nirvana did for the grunge movement. Do you ever think about what kind of influence your video innovation has had on other artists?
TN: It’s hard to say from where I stand. We’ve certainly had a lot of people tell us that they think we’ve changed the game as far as how people go about thinking about music videos. At one point we stopped thinking of music videos as a promotional tool to sell records and started thinking of them as their own unique pieces of art, for lack of a better way to describe.
CS: And within that art, bands are finding new life to feel the freedom to create what they like as independents, rather than relying on a label correct?
TN: Yeah, videos, in and of themselves have real artistic value. it’s the kind of thing when people see the video and like the song, then great and they go get the song. I guess the thing is at the end of the day we make our songs and we make our videos, and I have seen more bands take the reigns on their own creative careers and you do see more bands directing videos these days and starting their own labels, taking more control over their general career. I don’t know the part that we’ve done has influenced people or not but it’s nice to see that other bands are feeling confident enough to step out out on their own and take control creatively and even take control of their business.
CS: Of course, none of this would have been possible without the internet, that great cloud in the sky that shares information & art with the world.
TN: Absolutely, the internet has become such an interesting new creative space for people. it’s really kind of leveled the playing field. Now that everyone is kind of making ones and zeros, the best ideas generally win on the internet. It sort of throws away all the definitions of the 20th century of what a book is, what a movie is, what a music video is, what a song is. All of the sudden it’s all turned into ones and zeros and you’re getting writers who are making records and musicians who are making movies and artists who are making music videos.
CS: Redefining the creative space by stepping outside traditional artistic roles…
TN: In the 20th century, by definition you weren’t allowed to do because if you were a musician, writing a book – even though I know people did it – it didn’t fall under the category of being in a band, generally speaking of course. I know there are exceptions to that. Band members being directors of a short film or video, like no, a director directs and the band is the band. So it’s great that with the invention of this new creative space – the internet – the definitions have changed. There’s all these really amazing gray areas, all these weird cracks that people are exploring between like literature and film, music and art, all of the sudden people are just exploring all these places that have never been explored before and I think that’s really exciting.
CS: Speaking about exciting, your new video for “Needing/Getting” is not only innovative, but a logistical auto acoustic masterpiece. How exactly did that idea come to fruition?
TN: The idea came from Damien originally, to set up some musical obstacle course that a car could play. A friend of ours, an old college friend of Damiens, who has shot a lot of documentary footage on us before, works for an ad agency and he came to us because Chevy was looking for an idea and he knew that we had an idea that featured a car. So he pitched that to Chevy. That’s more or less how it came about.
CS: So you had the idea and backing, then what?
TN: We had this idea, and we knew it was going to be expensive to pull off. It was really cool cause Chevy heard the idea, they liked it and said we’ll sponsor it go make your video. It was really nice, cause it was 100% creative control and we actually got to make it. I guess there was a big question mark on that idea, as to whether we’d ever be able to afford to make something like that. It’s definitely the biggest undertaking the band has ever experienced. I can’t believe it’s done, I can’t believe we’re actually talking about it now. It actually seemed at one point it would never get finished.
CS: But you did, and it’s amazing. Though I have to say, my favorite OK Go video has got to be the original video for “This Too Shall Pass” featuring the Notre Dame marching band.
TN: Thanks, it was fun.
CS: So what’s next for you and OK Go?
TN: We’re basically coming to the end of the cycle for Of The Blue Colour of the Sky, we’re sitting down to write again. We’ll go into the studio in the beginning of April, and hopefully come out with a record some time in the fall and release it in 2013. If we’re lucky we’ll get a song out before then. I have a new band called Pyramids, releasing a new video next week. We just put out an EP on our label. Damien is producing an album for a band called Lavender Diamond who we’re also going to be putting out on our label.
CS: Well out here in music listening land, we’re looking forward to the next album for sure.
TN: It’s nice to sit down to write again. I think we’ve made about 10 or 11 videos for this record and it’s nice to get back to some music now, so I’m really looking forward to that.