The M in MTV has, of course, become ironic. Indeed, the television network that revolutionized the music video art form no longer really plays them. Hell, MTV even dropped the "Music Television" tagline last year. So it's something of a surprise when a band becomes popular through such a medium.
Yet that's what has happened with OK Go, a band known more for its conceptual videos than its power-pop music. Four years ago, the video for their song "Here it Goes Again" (a choreographed dance routine on treadmills) became a YouTube sensation and was viewed more than 50 million times. More recently they scored another viral smash with the clip for "This Too Shall Pass," which depicts a labyrinthine, two-story contraption of Rube Goldberg design. It reportedly took some 60 attempts and a six-figure budget to get a good continuous take.
"We just like making stuff," says OK Go bassist/vocalist Tim Nordwind during a recent phone interview. "We thought it would be fun to start a band 11 years ago and chase our craziest ideas in the context of being in a band. And I think what it means to be in a band these days is very different than what it used to be 20 to 30 years ago, or even 10 years ago. There's a broader definition now of what a band is and can do."
Nordwind readily admits he never expected OK Go's videos to become so popular in a saturated marketplace. The fact that MTV doesn't show music clips anymore may work in the band's favor.
"It means people don't necessarily have to make videos to fit into a specific corporate mold anymore," Nordwind says. "You can really make the things you want to make and hope to find an audience online somewhere. Video-making has very much gone back to more of an art form and less of a commercial."
Nordwind is unconcerned that such endeavors will end up pigeonholing his band.
"Our videos go hand in hand with everything else we make in the band," Nordwind says. "It's part of what we do. We do a lot of different things, but it's all under the OK Go umbrella. People often ask us if we're afraid our videos will overshadow our music. But you can ask if you're afraid your live show will overshadow your albums. It's all part of the same thing."
This American band
OK Go have never followed a traditional path. Their first break came when Ira Glass, host of the public radio program "This American Life," asked them to be the house band for a tour of live broadcasts. Lead vocalist and guitarist Damian Kulash worked as a sound engineer for National Public Radio's Chicago bureau. Glass became a fan of the band after seeing their hand-screened posters plastered all over the city.
"It was really fun," Nordwind says of those performances. "It was one of the best times we've ever had on tour. It was great to do something different from a rock show. It was nice to be surrounded by very smart and funny people. It was cool because it was a night of all sorts of entertainment."
Also untraditional: how OK Go created what would become their third album, Of the Blue Colour of the Sky. They started with a beat or groove and worked from there instead of coming up with a chord progression first. In the past they would agree they wanted a song to sound like — say, a stadium anthem — then write with that in mind. The process for this song cycle was shrouded more in mystery from the beginning.
"We would tease songs out of these grooves and sonics that made us feel some type of emotion versus having a structure already worked out," Nordwind says. "What we ended up with were more groove-based songs."
Indeed, the futuristic funk that dominates Of the Blue Colour of the Sky channels vintage Prince, something Nordwind admits all of them listened to in their youth.
"It felt good to do," he says. "More than anything we just wanted this record to feel good. We wanted to completely get out of our heads and trust our guts a little bit more."
Leap of faith
Something else that feels good is the group's decision to part with their label, EMI, and form their own imprint, Paracadute. The move gives them complete control over the circulation of their music.
"What we hope our label to be is distributing all our crazy ideas we want to make," Nordwind says. "There's a feeling that's clearer than ever to go ahead and make the things we want to make, and we'll figure out how to distribute it into the world."
That includes mixing new technology with live performance and, of course, more videos, including the possibility of one for each of Colour's 13 tracks.
"For the first time in a long time, the music business feels a little bit like the Wild West," Nordwind says. "Mostly because people are still trying to figure out how to utilize the Internet to work for them. People are still rewriting the way music distribution is going to work. We're in an unusual position where we're able to leave our label and have a decent shot at starting our own because we're somewhat self-sustaining at this point. Certainly we couldn't have gotten there without help from the machine. We're in a lucky position where we can at least try to go on our own."