In the year since EMI issued OK Go’s acclaimed third album, Of the Blue Colour of the Sky, the Los Angeles quartet has gone from being a rare young light on a major label to arguably the world’s most bleeding edge independent outfit. You probably know the bit about the treadmills by now (if not, you can read Ira Glass’s account below), but one can authoritatively say that those trusty treadmills shot the band into both better health and a technicolor zone beyond the hoary indie-versus-major debate.
Billboard called them “trailblazing,” the head of Apple’s marketing said they were “the first post-internet band, the first band to use the internet as a medium of art, not just commerce.” BusinessWeek praised their new model of “proactive creative types… looking beyond traditional parameters to get support for their work.” OK Go’s project is one of the modern age, of unlimited possibility, where infectious songs, inventive videos, surprising live shows, and an articulate, forward-thinking back-end combine into a total work by a defiantly do-it-yourself band without a shoestring budget. The band says they just like “making stuff.”
In a series of surprising partnerships, companies like State Farm, Samsung, Flip Camera, and Range Rover have stepped into the role that major labels once occupied: investing in the band’s berserker videos (like the 18-million-views-and-growing /UK-MVA-Best-Rock-Video-winning Rube Goldberg-esque masterpiece for “This Too Shall Pass”) and sold-out tours. Moreover, the band have emerged with an unprecedented level of independence, simultaneously bypassing a dying industry’s gate-keepers with creative aplomb and forging the kind of three-dimensional band/audience relationship only fantasized about by social networking consultants.
The band’s very public dispute with EMI about fans’ rights to embed the band’s videos landed them square in the crosshairs of contemporary culture. Kulash has penned editorials for The Times of London, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. “I’ve heard about nerdy being hip, but I’ve never known that just plain boring can be hip,” Stephen Colbert noted of the deal with the not-known-for-their-non-boringness State Farm, which funded the assuredly not boring “This Too Shall Pass” video. “This is a new level of hipness!” Colbert concluded.
As befitting any band that recently parted ways with a venerable multinational corporation with their master tapes intact, OK Go also recently launched their own imprint, Paracadute. Not surprisingly, there’s a new version of Blue Colour loaded with the expected demos, covers, live jams, and 12-track remix set, but also access to an online database where the band will continue to expand the album, still a breathing, growing entity.
Recorded with longtime Flaming Lips collaborator Dave Fridmann and named for a gorgeously quacky 19th century text, Of the Blue Colour of the Sky is not to be forgotten. Entertainment Weekly praised it as a ”sing-along for hipsters who remember how to party unironically” and The Onion’s AV Club called it “mature, compelling, and totally unexpected.” MTV’s Newsroom went as far as calling it the “best album of the year (so far).” Nothing but blue ahead.
Biography Part II By Ira Glass
Okay, let’s just get this part out of the way. Most people know OK Go from their videos, especially those treadmills. Any video that’s well enough known to be parodied on The Simpsons is a cultural force in itself and, checking the YouTube rating right before sitting down to write this, I was amazed to see that the number of views on the band’s YouTube page alone now stands at 47,788,229. That’s a lot. That many people and a brother who’s the Governor of Florida is pretty much enough to win you a presidential election. Add the zillions who’ve seen it elsewhere, and you might not even need the brother.
So if you’re reading these words, you’ve probably seen that video. I find even more endearing the video dance to “A Million Ways” that hundreds of amateur foursomes – kids and adults and church groups and school groups – have imitated in what certainly must be the world’s first international YouTube dance contest. If you haven’t had the pleasure, Google it right now and prepare to lose two hours of your life.
But I am here to say that OK Go is more than those videos. The band’s frontman Damian Kulash sometimes makes big declarations like “We’re trying to be a DIY band in a post-major label world” or “Our whole bag is having good ideas and making cool shit.”
I find that convincing.
Some of the other cool shit they’ve made lately: a record accompanied only by trombones, a play, an essay in the best-selling collection Things I’ve Learned From Women Who Dumped Me, op-eds in the New York Times and Huffington Post. They’ve testified before Congress and played in the Senate chambers. I repeat: they played music in the chambers of the United States Senate. They’ve been commentators on All Things Considered. They interviewed a member of N’Sync in the bathroom of Radio City Music Hall. They have a project where they walk the streets with fans handing out burritos to the homeless. They raised most of the money to buy a house for soul legend Al Johnson, so he could move home to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
All these extracurriculars make a great story, and this is the story that gets the space in The Wall Street Journal and USA Today: OK Go is the polymath band who – with only five bucks and a camcorder – did what none of the giant record labels could, inventing a new way for a band to connect with fans and changing the way people think about music and the Internet. Great story, though it overlooks the most important thing about the band: its music. What makes OK Go great is that they write and perform great songs.
With this new record they seem determined not to let us forget it. Of the Blue Colour of the Sky is adventurously, emphatically musical – intricate, emotional, completely self-assured while it stakes out new musical territory. The ear-worm catchiness of their earlier records is still there, but the writing is more focused and sure-footed and the guitar sound broader and more dimensional.
The album’s named after an 1876 book about the healing power of blue light (is it necessary to point out here that blue light has no such power?) and the lyrics are mostly about brave attempts at hope in the face of hopeless situations, which makes it fantastically upbeat and also very sad. The album’s last line sums it up: “Every day is the same, we’re praying for rain.”
That said, it’s mostly a dance record. Way more Prince than Leonard Cohen. Apparently some really sad stuff is happening in the guys’ personal lives – perhaps fueled by their ridiculous 31-month stint on the road, away from loved ones – and the way they’re expressing it is with infectious melodies, a sense of rhythm I can only describe as much feelier than before, and lyrics that seem either cheerful or trying-desperately-to-be-cheerful, depending on your frame of mind. The rule of thumb in pop music that great records come after heartbreak seems to be at work here in spades, and while that only makes me worried for the marriage of lyricist Damian Kulush (who sings mournfully in the barest moment on the album, “Can’t you love me?”), even the upbeat songs are about love collapsing. “I’ve been trying to get my head around what the fuck is happening?” goes one of the catchiest hooks. “I’m trying to make some sense out of what you’re doing with my head.”
I listened obsessively for a couple weeks, and my favorite song – the one that would stick in my brain – kept shifting, which says good things. Right now it’s “Back From Kathmandu.” I love how forcefully and confidently and slowly it goes about its business, with a yearning pop melody, scraggly loose guitars over a loud slow beat and that “is it cheerful or is it sad?” thing in spades. Dreamy verses lead to noisy, boisterous choruses about the power of love. What else could you want from a pop song?
This is supposed to be a bio, so here are some of the abc’s of OK Go: Damian Kulash (vocals, guitar) and Tim Nordwind (bass) met at summer camp when they were eleven and promptly formed a band called The Greased Ferrets that featured folding chairs played as drums. They claim not to remember any of the songs they wrote at the time. “Claim” would be the key word in that sentence. They met Dan Konopka (drums) in college, but somehow didn’t form into OK Go until 1999, even though they all believed someday they’d have a band together. Figure. Andy Ross (guitar, keys) joined in 2005 after he met them through college pals.
A few years ago, OK Go performed at some live shows our radio program This American Life was doing onstage across the country. They were like human catnip. We had huge crowds and people of every age—high school sophomores to senior citizens—just LOVED them. The band simply overwhelmed the audience with this exuberant buzz of fun and happiness and youth and rock ‘n roll. They were sexy in a way that had a kind of well-scrubbed pop innocence to it, but that also moved a friend to murmur backstage, “I want to fuck all four of them.”
Judging from the crowds at their shows these days, the reaction hasn’t changed much. They’ve been doing their thing – making cool shit – and thanks to the videos, that exuberant buzz has spilled across the globe. But don’t let that distract you, the best part of OK Go is still the music.