Ridiculous videos of treadmills and Rube Goldberg machines aside, OK Go makes good with the power pop, though it’s difficult to gauge whether more people are fans of their wacky, inventive dances or their tunes. In just a few short weeks, the Chicago-gone-L.A. quartet went hyper-web-technology with an interactive video based in HTML 5, played the president’s 50th birthday, and squeezed in some time at Lollapalooza for a high-octane set. That’s where this interview came in:
Bear Girls: Who do you want to see here at the festival?
Tim Nordwind: I know Dan wants to see Skrillex.
Dan Konopka: I wanna see Skrillex. I just met Skrillex, And he’s sort of a hero to me right now. He’s, like, a pretty badass guy.
TN: I wanna try to catch Cults if we’re done in time. I’d really like to see Ratatat.
Bear Girls: I’m sure everybody has been asking about this. Your new video for “All is Not Lost” is a pretty big and cool deal, so how did that all start?
TN: We were approached by a dance troupe from New York called Pilobolus that we’ve been fans of for a long, long time. And they asked us if we wanted to do a collaboration with them, which we were really excited about. We’re two kind of like-minded outfits. So we brought out Trish Sie, who we work with on a lot of our videos… ‘cause she’s also a big fan of Pilobolus and has a dance background, and so we all got together and collaborated. And Trish came up with this idea to build a glass table, and put a camera underneath it and sort of mess with the perspective of gravity in that way. We started rehearsing for that and then Google kind of came along and asked if we would do an HTML5 project with them. So, this seemed like it would be a good thing to parley into an idea like that. And we were able to do a lot more than just one static shot with a glass table. All of a sudden, we could have four, to eight, to 12 tables, and then it became a question of “what do we do on those tables?” And we realized that we could spell out letters with the dancers’ feet.
DK: Google allowed us to take our videos to another level, making it interactive. The beginning of the video, you can type in a message and the dancers write out the message at the end with their feet. So, we did the entire English alphabet. We also did the Japanese alphabet. And the song is “All is Not Lost,” and it was a message of hope first directed towards Japan and the people who suffered through those natural disasters. So, we tried to take it as far as we could in the technological sense with Google. And it was just a big, happy collaboration for ya.
Bear Girls: Have you typed in any cool phrases?
TN: My phrases have been pretty “vanilla,” actually. Like, we made it, so we’ve seen a lot of edits of it. So when it came time for it to actually go live, I did a “Hey, how ya doin’? I’m Tim”-type message. Just to make sure it was working.
DK: I did a lot of things to try and impress my mother-in-law. Like, “I love you Mom,” “I’m not a dead-beat drummer, Mom,” “I can really do it, Mom. Trust me, Mom.”
TN: Dan has Mom issues.
DK: Nah, I think it’s working. With the Obama thing, and the feet message, I think we’re safe now.
Bear Girls: I typed in “I have no soul.”
TN: Did it work?
Bear Girls: It did work.
TN: Is it true?
DK: Is that “sole” like with feet?
Bear Girls: No, I typed it with a “u.” I do have soles. I don’t know for how long though. But yeah. You guys played for Obama’s birthday, and you guys have done some other stuff with Obama. When did that start happening?
TN: We met Barack on the [presidential] campaign trail… and we were playing at the University of Wyoming, and he was speaking at the University of Wyoming, and we asked if we could meet him because we’re huge fans and supporters. So we were granted that meeting, so we got to meet him back then. He talked to Damien a little bit about net neutrality ‘cause Damien was about to testify in front of congress for net neutrality. And a few years later, all of a sudden, we got called to ask if we wanted to play his 50th birthday party.
DK: Which was a really exciting event. We got to share the stage with Jennifer Hudson and Herbie Hancock, and we all got together and sang to Barack for his birthday. It was all here in Chicago. It was right at the Aragon Ballroom.
TN: Which was nice, because we started in Chicago. So, it was a bit of a homecoming.
Bear Girls: And as a band who started in Chicago, what was it like growing up here as young chaps?
TN: Well, Dan is the only one who truly grew up in Chicago.
DK: I grew up in the Western Suburbs, so around high school times, if you wanted to do anything fun, you had to either hop on the train or grab mom’s train and boogie down to the North Side, like Wrigleyville, or Lincoln park, and later it was Wicker Park. And there was always fun stuff to do over the weekends. And after high school, I ran into Tim who was going to school at DePaul. Chicago’s a great time, especially now in the summer months. People come out of their shells and enjoy the weather, and everybody is just so friendly in the summer time…
TN: When I came here for college, I loved it because there was such a good indie music scene going on at the time, and there was a really healthy punk scene, and a really healthy post-rock scene. It was awesome. I came from a sort-of smallish town in Michican to go to college here. And to open up the paper and see there was a show every night – My dad wasn’t happy about it, but I was out at the Metro or the Fireside Bowl, like, five or six times a week.
DK: What was the place that got shut down?
TN: Lounge Ax.
DK: Lounge Ax was a cool, cool tiny club that they shut down, but you could catch a lot of national acts there. Like, smaller ones on their way up. We saw a lot of cool shows there.
TN: You could see, like, Fugazi at the Fireside Bowl. It was pretty rad.
Bear Girls: This was a follow-up to my video question, but I got pretty sidetracked. Do you believe that at the rate technology is moving, we will soon have physically interactive videos, like in Willy Wonka, when Mike Teevee removes a Wonka Bar from the TV?
TN: Man, it would be awesome. I’m gonna say yes. That will be possible. You’ll be able to grab into your computer screen and pull something out of our video.
DK: It’s gonna really change the porn industry basically. For the better?
TN: Definitely for the better, in my opinion.
Bear Girls: What kind of video would you guys make with that technology?
TN: I’d like to do one where it’s just a wishing well, and you can just flip coins into it from wherever you are and make wishes.
DK: I would like to make one that’s like HBO Boxing, so if you wanted to get your ass kicked, there would be a heavyweight boxer, and he would just reach out and clock you, so you could have that experience in your life where you got knocked out by a Mike Tyson type right at your desk.
TN: I like his idea better than mine.
Bear Girls: The wishing well thing is cool too. Maybe you could make a profit off of it.
TN: I think it would be a good charity-type thing.
DK: Yours is a better idea.
Bear Girls: I think they’re both great ideas.
DK: Pain and cash.
TN: Pain and cash. It’s what makes the world go ‘round, boys. I’m not sure if you’ve learned that yet.
Bear Girls: On the same note of technology, Damien has been a pretty big supporter of the slow-internet movement, especially with the song he wrote “Love Me Long Time” that premiered on NPR. What are your thoughts on the slow-internet movement?
TN: I’m a big promoter of retro anything. It was a truly cool, cool time for the internet. I remember when the internet took patience. And I feel like it’s something the younger kids don’t know anything about anymore. So when I have kids, I’m gonna get dial-up, and I’m gonna make ‘em go through that first before I get high speed anything. I’m into it, man. I’m into books, mail, I’m into the newspaper, and I’m into stairs, and walking to places and dial-up internet.
DK: I feel kind-of the same way. I mean, my wife and I have a baby on the way, and you hear parents say, “I wanna give my son everything I never had.” Well, I don’t want to give my son anything. I don’t want him to have an iPhone. He’s not gonna get the car, not until he’s 21. Clothes: maybe. He’s gonna have a Tarzan kind-of thing, and he’s just gonna have to like it.
Bear Girls: What are your favorite internet pastimes from the dial-up days?
DK: There was this weird time where I had web TV. It was a modem but it looked like a cable box, and if you didn’t have a computer – I didn’t have a computer at the time – you would plug it into your TV, and so you could sit at the couch and type on this thing. I had that, and it was slow, e-mails would take a minute and a half to load. That’s all I’ve got. That’s my story.
TN: When it was dial-up, at that point, I was only using my computer for e-mail. Even now, I’ve got three or four sites I go to, and it’s mostly social networking stuff, you know. J-Date – I’m just kidding. But back then, it was even less so, I wasn’t doing any business, or banking or bill paying.
Bear Girls: You guys weren’t playing any games?
TN: No. None of us are really big gamers. Period.
Bear Girls: That’s something to add to the Wikipedia page: “They are not big gamers.”
TN: Yeah. It’s weird, because I have all the respect in the world for games and gamers. I just never got into it.
DK: This is a good story. You might not want to print this one. I was so late in the game with the e-mails that I didn’t realize if you didn’t chop off the end of an e-mail, it would send the tread of e-mails. And I had typed this response to this one girl I was seeing that I meant to send to another girl I was seeing. And she got to see the entire thread of conversation I was having with the other girl. And I was like, “Oh cool. I just sent her an e-mail.” She just wrote back, “You’re an MF-er. What’s your problem? You’re a jerk. Why would you do this?” And then I realized, I rolled the mouse down, and I was like, “Oh, shit.”
TN: You were so pissed at technology that day. I remember you were blaming the computer.
Bear Girls: Well it’s always the computer’s fault when it comes to girl problems.
DK: I blame Apple…
Bear Girls: You guys tend to use vintage gear, and I know Damien is trying to work with cylinders and cutting your own vinyl. Where did this love for vintage stuff come from?
TN: Man, I think there’s an equal amount of love for vintage as there is for new stuff. With vintage stuff, though, it’s hard to beat the sound of a 70s P Bass, or a 60s fender amp or something like that.
DK: Some of those things, they just don’t make ‘em like they used to. Some cymbals on a drum set from the 60s, you can get the same model and the same type, and it just sounds completely different. A lot of cymbals, you can look on ebay and find a 20-inch ride cymbal for $20,000. So there are certain instruments that have a certain kind of style or flavor to them.
TN: And it’s a taste issue because we’re all such music connoisseurs, we listen to so much music. When you’re writing a song and you want it to sound like T-Rex, you want to write it on the equipment they were using.
DK: We’re not a big fan of super old XLR cables though. We like new cables…
Bear Girls: In your new record, it seems that your drums and the lower end have a bit of a lo-fi feel, and it almost has a Neutral Milk Hotel style to it. It sounds really cool, but I was wondering where the shift came from.
TN: Well, I think what you might be thinking of is lo-fi as in distorted. And it’s funny you mention that, we actually referenced Neutral Milk Hotel a lot on this record, just because we love their records. But yeah, there’s definitely a super blown-out sound, especially between the bass and drums, which we were specifically going for.
DK: Working with Dave Fridmann allowed us to do a lot of unusual recording things that – it was sort of a kid-in-the-candy-shop thing. Dave had so many different things we could choose from, so we just kind of went to town to make the most interesting sounding record we could.
TN: It’s sort of lo-fi/hi-fi in that sense… Sometimes people think the record is broken. We’ve gotten people writing in, “Your record sounds broken.” Which, to be honest, we were sort-of going for that. I don’t know if we’ll go for it next time or not…
Bear Girls: How many times have you been asked about treadmills?
TN: We obviously get asked about treadmills a lot. These days, we just get asked about our videos a lot, not even about that one specifically anymore.
Bear Girls: That was a segue into my next question. I was just wondering if you guys actually even run on treadmills. I see you guys more as exercise bike people, or elliptical men.
TN: I’m an elliptical man for sure. I messed up my knees after doing two years worth of performances in Cuban heels. I used to wear these white Cuban heels, and we’d always do the “Million Ways” dance at the end of our shows, and my knees were just smashed. So, I do the elliptical when I exercise, but I don’t think I’ve exercised in two years.
DK: I have a treadmill, and I use a treadmill at home. But I walk a fast walk. It’s really all you gotta do. You don’t have to run, because I have rough knees too…
Bear Girls: Recent reports have just arisen saying that experiments were done that “prove” the impossibility of time travel. What are your thoughts on this?
TN: That’s bullshit. I’ve seen Back to the Future, like, 10 million times. That shit is for real. We’ll get there.
DK: Yeah. Terminator, Back to the Future. Wormholes.