Interview with OK Go: The Sky’s The Limit

Nothing online is guaranteed to go viral—unless OK Go creates it. OK Go’s songs and videos have been streamed and downloaded hundreds of millions of times, making them the most downloaded band ever. Their 2006 video for “Here It Goes Again,” which won them a Grammy, has been viewed 50,629,115 times on YouTube. And their video for the single “This Too Shall Pass,” from their new album, Of The Blue Colour Of The Sky, saw over six million views in its first six days, becoming the #1 Top Rated (of all time) music video on YouTube and going to number one on Viral Video charts Reddit and Digg.

But it’s not just the band’s homemade videos that spread across the Internet. A Feb. 21 New York Times op-ed piece written by lead singer Damian Kulash had over 500,000 hits in just two days (Kulash was criticizing Epic Music’s move to disable embedding of the band’s videos).

So what’s the secret to the band’s viral appeal? “We make cool shit,” says Kulash. And band members Kulash (vocals, guitar), Tim Nordwind (bass), Dan Konopka (drums), and Andy Ross (guitar, keys) intend to continue sharing that cool shit with fans online. They’ve parted ways with EMI to form their own label, Paracadute. So they look forward to creative life outside corporate confines. And now that they’ve found “magic” in writing music there’s no telling what’s next.

The Aquarian Weekly talks to OK Go’s Damian Kulash.

Will you discuss your viral appeal and the difference embeddable video makes in your music’s success?

I think music videos are something that people put in a category that was largely built by the actual method of distribution 15-20 years ago. Back then, music videos were corporate advertisements made by major labels to advertise the CDs that they were selling. And the videos that we make are obviously something very different. They are like our music or our concerts or anything else we do. They are creative projects—for us, embedding is just a no-brainer. The way the Internet works is that aggregators pick things that they think are cool and the rest of the world takes the lead from there. And aggregators don’t pick things that can’t be embedded, because if you run a blog, you’re not trying to point traffic away from your blog. You’re trying to point traffic to your blog. So having videos be un-embeddable is sort of like sending CDs out with scratches on them. There’s just no fucking point.

That said I’ve always been uneasy with the term viral videos—it has to do with caring about the spread of it more than the content of it. The reason that our videos are successful is not because we’ve made good marketing decisions, it’s because we make cool shit.

OK Go just formed its own record label, Paracadute. Can you discuss that decision?

We need a name for the distribution arm of what we do and I guess it’s called a record label. But the truth is we don’t need a lot of middlemen between us and our fans. The Internet does a pretty good job of connecting us. And when our work doesn’t have to be about making enough money to pay the salaries of hundreds of people at a record company, but rather just the four of us, plus the few employees we’ve hired to help us get things in stores, then there’s a lot less pressure for it to be a big money machine and we can be more creative.

Where did the video concept for ‘This Too Shall Pass’ come from?

Rube Goldberg machines have always fascinated me. I guess when we see something that inspires that sense of deep-rooted wonder or excitement a light bulb goes off. And we’re like, ‘Wow, we should make a video like this.’ I think Rube Goldberg machines just strike at the core of the wonder of human ingenuity. So it’s exciting to see something like that work. There are plenty of great examples. The one that got me thinking actually was a collection of Rube Goldberg machines that were part of a Japanese TV show called PythagoraSwitch. It’s a kid’s TV show and a little Rube Goldberg machine is made with each episode. It’s just unbelievably cool. That fascination of a system working has always been addictive to me.

Of The Blue Colour Of The Sky is named after a book titled The Influence Of The Blue Ray Of The Sunlight And OfThe Blue Colour Of The Sky. How did it inspire you?

I was reading a series of essays by Paul Collins called Banvard Folly: Thirteen Tales Of People Who Didn’t Change The World. It’s these essays about people who have made huge technological strides in their lifetimes only to be leapfrogged by something else the next generation. So they get completely forgotten. Or people who came very close to changing things and then disappeared from the history books—one of them is this crazy writer [A.J. Pleasonton] who managed to get a patent on the color blue. He thought he had proven that blue light is the essential life force, basically. The story just seemed incredibly poetic to me—and the fact that anybody can get a patent on a color—his persuasiveness and his charisma and the sheer power of his belief had actually convinced the whole world, including the U.S. Patent Office. It was really beautiful. And also a lot like what I thought we were doing during the writing of the record. It was really a dark time both globally and personally. Things just seemed fucked everywhere and we were trying to make this record that had a sense of hope to it. There’s something about this guy trying to save the world with a color that seemed equally beautifully.

Can you pick a song from album and tell its story?

The song ‘Skyscrapers’ is the first song on the record that worked to me. We wrote tons and tons of music for this record but just threw away most of it just cause it sucked. We kept making music that sounded like us covering us. After several very depressing months of us not going anywhere, that was the first song that broke through to me. Music is sort of alchemy, you know? It’s magic. You add a drumbeat to a piano sound and you don’t get a drumbeat and a piano sound, you get lust or fury or melancholy or some crazy combination of all of those. It’s amazing that there’s this magical quality to sound and that under very specific circumstances unbelievable things happen. That song is sort of an apology to skyscrapers, which are equally impossible. I mean, how the fuck could that thing exist? Somebody had to have such incredible faith in the impossible to be like, ‘I’m going to build something several thousand feet high because it can be done.’

How has the band evolved on this record?

I feel like this music is much more from our gut than it is from our brains. I think with the records we made in the past, it was sort of the way you write prose. You have a thought and then you have to put it into words. Then you have to figure out how to make those words grammatical. And make sense. And then you put them down on paper. But it starts with the point that you want to make and it ends with a sort of verbal reflection of that. In the past, I think we were making music that way. We’d think, ‘Why doesn’t the world have good stadium anthems anymore?’ Then we would write, ‘Get Over It.’ But this record, I think we wound up learning a new way to write. Which is sort of like just play around with little musical elements until magic happens. And when a little tiny spark of magic happens, chase that where it leads you. And eventually you wind up with songs that go places we never could have imagined in advance. And I think in the end, it’s nice because it reflects more the way we hear music and less the way we think about it. It’s almost like we listened to thousands of songs and picked the ones we liked the best instead of trying to write them.

OK Go performs at Bamboozle at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, NJ, on May 2.

Photo Credit: The Picture Group