“We over-think everything. It’s an art form, I guess.” You’re a music critic, yes, but you prefer to think of it as music appreciation. After all, you were a fan first; the criticism came later, much later, after you’d earned your second writing degree and figured out, finally, what you wanted to do with your life. Your job, as you’ve envisioned it, is less to pick things apart and more to be the spokesperson for that which deserves greater awareness and acclaim. You want to help artists find audiences and, by extension, audiences find music. Well, that’s the better-good part of your position description, anyway.
“Listen to that beat,” your mom once told you. “I like a song with a good beat.” You are, after all, your mother’s daughter; you, too, find you like the beat. Something right away to grab your attention, make you feel. “A good story should have a happy ending,” she also told you, but you don’t quite believe that. Still, with regard to music, it doesn’t even have to have a happy ending, or a happy beginning; it just has to make you think, to feel. And, if it’s one of those songs with a good beat, to move.
You went through those phases, along with everyone else: top 40, rock, new wave, soul, alternative. Now you tend to veer toward the indie side, but that’s the part of you that loves discovery, and sharing. And OK Go, though they are a radio-friendly pop band, to be sure, were your discovery.
Wait. Back up. You didn’t discover them, exactly, as in you weren’t there before they were signed, back when they were just four guys in Chicago, putting on rock shows that incorporated acting skits and mock operas. You weren’t a part of that audience, and that knowledge causes in you tiny stirrings of regret. But you got onboard as soon as you could, and that was March 2002, when OK Go opened for They Might Be Giants at the Pageant. You didn’t even want to go; TMBG, despite being one of your husband’s favorite bands, just never quite did it for you. But go you did, arriving just in time to catch four guys you’d never heard of take the stage with “Jessie’s Girl.”
Now Rick Springfield, he definitely did do it for you—of course, you were in eighth grade, and had frizzy hair and glasses—so you took notice. Come to think of it, the singer’s voice was a bit Springfield-like in its strength and versatility. And the way he played his guitar—there was a definite resemblance.
The band turned out to be OK Go, then consisting of Damian Kulash (vocals, guitar), Tim Nordwind (bass, vocals), Andy Duncan (guitar, keyboard), and Dan Konopka (drums). They were newly signed to Capitol (having released two three-song EPs on their own), but their debut wouldn’t be out for another six months. And the lead singer wasn’t at all familiar with Rick Springfield. (He didn’t even realize the resemblance until people like you pointed it out.)
OK Go’s eponymous debut was followed by touring—lots of it. They recorded a cover of the Zombies’ “This Will Be Our Year” for the (well-intentioned but poorly executed, you thought) Future Soundtrack for America, a fundraiser designed to vote George W. out of office. (Yes, right, it didn’t work—but then, neither did that David Byrne track, “Not so Far to Go.”) Kulash also wrote and published a manifesto, How Your Band Can Fire Bush. (It may have raised awareness—and a few eyebrows—but it didn’t work, either.)
Then in August came the band’s follow up, Oh No. You said it yourself: “With their second release, power-popsters OK Go disprove two long-held beliefs: (1) Music doesn’t have to be mindless to be fun, and (2) The sophomore slump can sometimes be turned into an up-ramp.” While the first album showed talent, intelligence, and fun, the second was somehow stronger, better. This was good stuff, indeed.
What’s the difference? Three years, maturity, a modicum of success under their belts. Kulash, when you speak to him, credits working with über producer Tore Johansson. “He’s incredible,” he says. “He’s a pop visionary. He’s the most serious, dark, broody guy who thinks only about how to make things fun and exciting all the time.
“On every level, it was a different process…We wanted something more aggressive, something that sounded more like our band and less like a studio project. We wanted the process to be more fun and creative. The first record is like a big collage: There’s a different drum sound on every song; there’s different guitars in everything. The sound is carefully designed to not be like the song before. The new record is quite opposite, where we went in trying to set strict limits, so it would have to focus itself into a more singular sound.”
Ah…singular sound. Yes, that’s the word you were searching for. Or maybe it’s just more cohesive, as you said when you reviewed the disc. OK, so let’s assume OK Go are a more cohesive band, then. If that’s the case, what was behind the departure of Duncan?
Kulash is hesitant. “He had not been happy touring at all,” he says, then delves deeper. “I think at some point he realized there’s as much bullshit in this industry as there is in any other. It’s not the rock star dream of doing whatever you want all the time. You have to haul your ass from city to city, doing the same thing over and over again. It can get pretty monotonous; it can keep you far from the ones you love.”
Yet replacement Andy Ross seems to be a dream come true, and you tell him so. “He’s an amazing fit,” Kulash agrees. “We have the same sense of humor, a lot of the same intellectual interests, and he’s a great guitarist.” And he can dance, you point out, in reference to the band’s wildly popular choreographed dance video for “A Million Ways.” “Yeah, good dancer,” Kulash says. “Kind of cute.”
Another thing you can’t help but notice is a change in the band’s attire. They’ve gone from T-shirts and jeans to suits and ties—albeit wacky ones in loud, clashy designs and bright colors. “General boredom,” explains Kulash. “I woke up and found my closet was depressing. It’s more fun to have fun.
“The moment it clicked, we were playing a show across the street from the Republican Convention as part of an anti-Republican affair. We were all wearing suits because it seemed appropriate: They’re having a Republican convention; we’ll have a rock convention. I thought it would be tough to play an entire show in a suit, but it was totally fine. It brought majesty. We went to Sweden and started buying the most ridiculous things we could find.”
So they dress seriously and write songs with intelligent, thought-provoking lyrics—and they’re a pop band. Yet pop itself has such lowbrow, short-lived connotations. You can’t help but ask: What does OK Go do to ensure they are fashionable but not trendy, enduring and not spur-of-the-moment? “I’m going to start sounding really self-serious because you’ve been so very flattering,” says Kulash. “If you are even correct that we make more intelligent music than others, this would be my answer: We make music for particular reasons. Music is the only mode of communication that I have ever been privy to that has been so emotional and immediate. I’m hugely enamored with wonderful writers, those who can speak directly to you—somebody able to communicate and articulate a deeper experience than the normal chitchat and banter of everyday.
“That’s the good thing about music, and pop music in particular: in two and a half, three and a half minutes, you were just trying to kick around some of the stuff that came to mind. You want somebody to want to jump around on the bed or want to cry or want to laugh. You’re going for something that you can really feel as opposed to say. We over-think everything. It’s an art form, I guess.”
You can relate. You have always over-thought everything, your entire life. It’s one of your strengths as a writer: You are able to inhabit other perspectives, to interpret thoughts and feelings and actions where others may just see ignorance. Yet it’s not always easy, being on both sides of a debate. You wish you could just make up your mind, be clear in your beliefs. You’ve never considered this an art form.
Until now. Now you are thrilled to realize music isn’t just a way to idly occupy your time. It isn’t meant to be mere background noise as you’re working or reading or having dinner. It’s something to be considered, savored, dressed up, and taken out for a night on the town. It’s something to inspire, to fill canvases, blank pages, and daydreams. It’s fancy, multicolored, patterned, and frilly. And it’s serious.
At least if you listen to OK Go tell it.