By all accounts, I’m unqualified to write for Gozamos’ music section. I am definitively not a music snob. My iPod is full of singles, I don’t collect backstage passes like baseball cards, and I’ve never said anything along the lines of “Man, you should have heard them before they sold out.” In fact, the last album I bought was TLC’s CrazySexyCool (a fact that earned quite a few laughs at our last contributors’ meeting). That is, until I heard OK Go.
The reason why Gozamos was kind enough to let me interview OK Go’s singer and bassiest Tim Nordwind is because I’m an enormous fan. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, OK Go made me love music in a way that I never had before. Oh No (the band’s second album) was the first CD I bought in over a decade. It spoke to me in a way that felt like falling in love. I am still utterly convinced that the first track off the album, Invincible, was written with me in mind. It remains the unblemished, most perfect song I’ve ever heard. I consider it my theme song and any time I need to feel ten feet tall, I listen to it over and over and over again until I’m ready to take on the world. And so, armed with a shaking voice and a handful of questions that I labored over for weeks, I had twenty minutes to talk to part of my favorite band.
My rabid fan girl love aside, OK Go is an ultra-successful band who have testified before Congress, written op-eds in the New York Times and the Huffington Post, had their songs featured as playable tracks in ‘Rock Band’, played in the Senate chambers, had a single on the New Moon soundtrack (a cultural milestone whether you like it or not), and won a Grammy. They also have a new album and are embarking on a tour that you should already have tickets for.
OK Go’s third album, Of the Blue Colour of the Sky, heralds a new era for the band. While hidden away in an old converted barn in upstate New York buried under a few feet of snow, the band set out to create and record an album unlike anything else they had done before. “I think what really made it different was the process,” Tim explained to me. “Part of it was where were were but also was the fact that we had toured for two and a half years on Oh No and when we got home from that we were pretty burned out and, you know, a couple of years older. We had grown up a little bit. When we sat down to write again. . . all the things that we looked to to inspire us four years prior. . .they just didn’t get us excited again. . . We had to figure out again what made us happy and what made us feel things and what got us inspired.”
Singer and guitarist Damien Kulash found lyrical inspiration in the writings of David Foster Wallace as well as the social and political climate of the country. Tim explains, “We wrote a lot of this record at the end of the Bush administration. Even though help was on the way with Obama, a lot of people were sort of struggling to stay hopeful and happy and that’s sort of the theme of our record- how do you stay hopeful in hopeless times? A lot of the lyrics explore the struggle of that.” In fact, the album is named after an 1876 book about the healing power of blue light- an optimistic, but ultimately false, promise of hope for a desperate audience.
It’s a heavy theme but Tim is quick to reassure us that, “It’s a much dancey-er record than we’ve had before.” Some critics are likening Of the Blue Colour of the Sky to Prince’s legendary Purple Rain album. OK Go’s creative process was much more personal this time around and the new songs instantly (and easily) evoke certain emotions. “Sometimes, if all the elements are right, you can make an alchemy out of this combination of rhythm and melody,” Tim says. “We made a lot of bits and pieces of these sort of rhythm vignettes and if they made us feel a certain way- if they made us feel happy or sad or joyful or lustful or some kind of multi-dimensional feeling of all those things, then we would deem that chunk of music as worthy of continuing on and making it into a song. . . We took a lot of chances with the songwriting.”
Besides being known for their can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head rhythms and hauntingly literary lyrics, OK Go is probably best known for their music videos. If you’ve been on the Internet for more than five minutes in the past five years, you’ve seen the video for Here it Goes Again- a choreographed, treadmill-hopping triumph of memes that was immortalized as a pop culture touchstone on ‘The Simpsons’. While other bands and singers rely on slick video directors, glittering back up dancers, and the occasional explosion or blurred nudity to visually represent their songs, OK Go reinvented the genre with small scale, one-shot viral videos. Their latest video (and my current personal favorite) for White Knuckles features a blue backdrop, some Ikea furniture, and a whole lot of wagging tails. Proceeds from the sale of the video are donated to the ASPCA. “Almost all the dogs in the White Knuckles video are rescue dogs,” says Tim. “We’re all animal lovers and most of us are pet owners, all of us have rescued our animals at one point or another. It just seemed like the obvious angle for what we wanted to support with this video. The animals make the video and they’re such a pleasure to be around and such a joy to be with. . . just the thought that it was even possible that we wouldn’t have worked with any one of those dogs because either they would have been put to sleep or whatever else could have happened to them is just so sad. . . We wanted to do something for the ASPCA. . . If we can make a small difference in some dogs’ lives, we’re happy to do that. It’s sort of the least we could do.”
OK Go is once again (lucky us!) ready to tour. “That hour or hour and a half of playing (live) is the time of the day I look forward to the most. That is what makes the rest of touring worth it.” Tim had plenty of opportunities to play on the last 31 month long tour including an overwhelmingly rock star moment abroad. “We just played in Barcelona, Spain. It was in the middle of the city and we played for like 20,000 people. That was amazing. I couldn’t even see where the crowd ended. It just went back and back and back.” It isn’t just the huge shows that thrill the band though. “Some of my other favorite shows are (playing) the Empty Bottle in Chicago- I really like the shows where you can just see everyone’s faces and you feel like you’re all in it together.”
Chicago is a special town for OK Go. Though currently based in LA, the band started out in the Second City. “It’s still my favorite city in the United States, I just can’t take the winters any more,” jokes Tim. When I asked what his first stop in Chicago always is (besides visiting with friends and family, of course), he said that, “Almost every time we come down to Chicago, we go do Maxwell Street for sausages. . . that’s just where you get the best Polish and Italian sausages in town: on Maxwell Street.” Kuma’s Corner is also OK Go-approved. “I never thought that heavy metal and hamburgers could go so well together, but they really do. There’s so much to do food-wise and culture-wise in Chicago.”
OK Go’s signature dance moves were honed in Chicago. “There are also Chicago-specific cultural things that you can’t do anywhere else like Chic-A-Go-Go, that public access TV show. . . When we started, we were asked to come on and that’s actually where we started experimenting with choreographed dance routines and stuff like that. You can’t actually play live on that show so we had to lip sync. Instead of just playing air guitar, we had a choreographed dance routine. . . That only exists in Chicago and it’s made by Chicago-people. . . stuff like that doesn’t exist anywhere else.”
As the interview winds to a close, I ask Tim about his success with OK Go and his reflection is shapely self-aware and appreciative, “Certainly winning a Grammy award was pretty crazy. We performed our shitty little dance on the MTV Video Awards which was also pretty nuts but a lot of my favorite memories are us in the first van we ever owned. . . playing music off of iPods for each other, you know? Those little moments of just the experience that isn’t necessarily related to being on stage or playing or making a video but the sort of personal band experience. Some of my favorite and unique moments are driving through Nevada at 5:30 in the morning and seeing the sunrise and just being like, ‘Holy shit, this is what we’re doing for a living.’ It’s crazy. . . Doing what you love and, for us, that’s making things. . . Sometimes you have to pinch yourself. . .With all the good comes some challenging and difficult times, but at the end of the day i get to play a show or write a song or create something. . . it’s special to be able to say and I’m thankful for that.”
OK Go heads back to sweet home Chicago at the House of Blues (329 N Dearborn Street) this Sunday October 10th. Tickets can be purchased through their website. Check their tour schedule for the rest of the stops (including their next show: a free concert at Louisville, Kentucky’s Discover Louisville Festival). Their latest album, Of the Blue Colour of the Sky, can be purchased on their website as well as the White Knuckles video with proceeds benefiting the ASPCA.