"The question I think you’re sort of dancing around is, ‘Does it suck to be those guys in that video band, and nobody pays attention to the music anymore?’" Damian Kulash, lead singer and guitarist of OK Go, says. We’re talking on February 11th, the day that the video for "Upside Down and Inside Out" was released, the band’s latest in a string of increasingly ambitious music videos. This video, shot on a Russian S7 aircraft in a reduced gravity environment, is the most impressive one the band has done in the 10 years since it went from "vaguely successful indie rock band" to "band whose every video debuts on Good Morning America and goes immediately viral." And Kulash is right—that is the question I’m dancing around.
"If you put yourself in my shoes, I can’t even feel it that way, because I’m just excited that we make stuff and people care about it," he says. "I love that song, and I think a lot more people will hear it because it’s got this great video." That makes sense, certainly. Before OK Go released the treadmill choreography-based video for the single "Here It Goes Again" in July of 2006—directed by the band and Kulash’s sister, Trish Sie—they were playing small indie rock clubs. The last show they played venues in their hometown of Chicago like the venerable Empty Bottle, a 400-person dive. A few months after "Here It Goes Again," they booked a two-night stand at the 800+ person Logan Square Auditorium. Playing the city last year, they quickly sold out the 1,100-person Metro. So clearly, it doesn’t suck to be in the "that video band," if your goal is to take your music to more people—even ones who only get to watch you play it on a stage, not just ones who see you float in zero gravity or watch your epic, Busby Berkeley-style routine full of Japanese schoolgirls.
Still, Kulash has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about that sort of question. In a digital age, he says, the difference between "music" and "video" is increasingly blurry—his band just caught on to that earlier than some.
"Fifteen, 20 years ago, music came on a plastic disc. It was an object, and whatever you could put on the plastic disc was the music. Film came on reels of acetate, and TV came over the airwaves into that box. Journalism was on newsprint. Everything was a separate distribution mode, and those distribution modes really defined what each of those endeavors was, artistically or creatively or productively," he says. "But then, around fifteen or twenty years ago, everybody started making 1’s and 0’s. You write journalism, you make 1’s and 0’s. You make films, you make 1’s and 0’s. All of us are distributing our work through the exact same tube. The idea that the types of art we make should still be defined by the boxes they came in 20 years ago is crazy."
Kulash has a point. He talks about YouTube, which his band certainly uses to great advantage—but so does every other band. "YouTube is the biggest music streaming service on the planet. It’s what kids use to DJ at parties. Your song is a video whether you like it or not. Everyone’s making 1’s and 0’s. So just make something that’s awesome," he says, then laughs. "As pretentious as all that sounds, to me the music and the videos don’t feel very different. We’re chasing a slightly different flavor for it—it’s like cooking savory for dinner and sweet for dessert. Yeah, they taste different, but they’re all part of the same meal."
Going into the kitchen and coming up with new meals is a big part of the job for Kulash and OK Go now, but it’s not one that he says comes with a ton of pressure—or one that fits along the narrow axis that an outsider who sees the band go from "low budget treadmill choreography" to to to "shot in zero gravity" might expect. That is to say, they’re not out to constantly out-do the last one.
"The pressure is to make one that’s thrilling enough for us to want to make it," Kulash explains. "That’s not a one-dimensional axis on which to judge it. It’s not ‘is that harder and more complex than the last thing you did?’—it can also just be more fun, or more artistically satisfying, or a particular journey that one of us wants to go on." The videos keep getting more complex not because they’re worried that if they don’t float in space it’ll alienate their fans, in other words—they get more complex because they can get more complex.
"There’s kind of a natural progression toward bigger and weirder because once we’ve done something that at one point seemed so unapproachably complex and challenging that now seems kind of normal, the goalposts have shifted," he says. But since the complexity and "wow" factor isn’t the point, it’s not that hard to think of what to do next.
Kulash says that his collaborator and bandmate, bassist Tim Nordwind, has a good way of thinking about it. "The way he puts it is that within the band, and within the set of collaborators that we often work with, we kind of know when we’ve gone too far," Kulash says. "And when we’ve gone too far, that’s when we feel like we’ve finally said something that comes from us. It’s hard to chart out exactly what you’re trying to say until you feel yourself in that place—you’re like, ‘Yeah, that’s a little too far, and now that’s starting to feel like it’s genuinely ours. This is something no one else could or would do. This is ours.’ That’s the feeling I think we’re really going for: It doesn’t have so much to do with size and grandeur as it does that feeling."
See the full video for "Upside Down and Inside Out" below.