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For most artists, music videos are a necessary evil, a way to promote themselves on television and the Internet with live, backstage and conceptual footage. Then there are the exceptions, artists who take control of the medium to express another side of their artistic vision.
Since the dawn of the art form some including Godley and Creme, Rob Zombie and Linkin Park’s Joseph Hahn have created and shot their own videos with budgets ranging from reasonable to extravagant. But only OK Go have managed to create unparalleled low-budget, high concept mini-movies fueled by complex choreography, creative cinematogrphy, moving treadmills, stop-motion techniques, dancing dogs and even a Rube Goldberg Machine.
To date, many of the OK Go’s videos have received over 10 million views and their most popular work, “This Too Shall Pass (Rube Goldberg Version)” – a mind-blowing Mousetrap-style, physics-driven creation that features a fluid series of actions triggering reactions, such as a piano falling, a hammer smashing a TV, umbrellas raining from the ceiling, various sized balls rolling down tracks triggering buttons and knocking down objects – has topped 44 million views.
“One of the things that has been the most satisfying about our career is when you do have a hit on YouTube it stays around forever,” vocalist and guitarist Damian Kulash told Yahoo Music. “People keep discovering the videos and rediscovering the songs. So we’ll go out on tour and people will have just learned about us two weeks before and they’ll discover something that we made five years ago.”
OK Go’s newest video, “The Writing’s on the Wall,” came out June 17 and has already ratcheted over 9,776,000 views. Like “This Too Shall Pass,” the clip uses science as a tool to mesmerize viewers. The video was shot in a Brooklyn warehouse in a single take with a camera that follows the band members as they take part in unveiling a complex series of optical illusions. Kulash came up with the concept years ago, but it took a lot of work to find the right crew to help the band execute the video.
Kulash co-directed the clip with Aaron Duffy, partner and creative director of 1stAveMachine and celebrity inventor Bob “Thingamabob” Partington. The group and their team worked on the video for over a month, first coordinating the illusions and how they would be filmed and then shooting the video, which took 20 days to set up and 61 takes to get right.
“It was not an easy thing to do,” Kulash said. “In the past, if we wanted to make a video with dogs, it was hard to find the right dog trainers, but at least we knew we were looking for dog trainers. With this video we had to go out and find someone that’s good with anamorphic illusions. That’s a more nebulous process.“
To complement the video for “The Writing’s on the Wall,” OK Go shot a behind-the-scenes video that illustrates how the optical illusions were set up. Kulash is thrilled by the response both the making-of clip and the actual video have received and how they have helped promote the band as it heads out on the road to start promoting their Hungry Gosts.. As much as OK Go enjoy playing shows, they’d much rather stay out for three weeks than 18 months.
“I love performing and traveling. It just goes on too long,” Kulash said. “There are so many other ways to be creative. I love making videos and designing the live show, I love how many kinds of creativity we get to employ all in this one job. When we work super-intensely with nerds of one type or another – physics nerds, dog training nerds, dance nerds or filmmaking nerds – we get in this tiny bubble and it feels like a creative summer camp. You throw yourself at something and try to make it. It’s the best feeling in the world.”
OK Go like to make their own schedule and thanks to the success they’ve achieved with videos and other projects, they’re finally able to invent their own rules.“We were never a particularly good fit for the traditional music industry modes of promotion and the way everything worked,” Kulash said. “You have to look cool in a particular way and act cool in a particular way. You’re supposed to get big in London first and spread from there. There has always been a method by which these people do their thing and it always felt really uncreative. It wasn’t about following your ideas, it was following a pattern. That’s something we’ve always opposed.”
When OK Go left Capitol Records after touring for 2010’s Of the Blue Colour of the Sky, the band took two years to write their fourth album Hungry Ghosts, which they’ll release October 17 on their own label Paracadute, with distribution from BMG.
“Being in charge of the business means we don’t have to worry about things that same way,” Kulash said. “We’ve been able to take out time with this and no one has been pressuring us to hurry up. This wouldn’t have worked the same way under the largess of a major label.”
As for the new album, OK Go intentionally started writing without preconceived idea of how they want the music to sound and allowed their creativity to flow until they had a batch of songs. Having more time than ever to spend on a record meant being able to examine each song from every possible vantage point and add and subtract multiple layers and textures until they were happy with the results.
“If we try to pick an endpoint and get there we can only get as far as our imagination took us in the first place,” Kulash said. “Whereas, if we play around in a sandbox of sounds, the things that wind up resonating with us emotionally are usually really surprising. They’re much more multi-dimensional or complex than what we could have thought out. Once in a while we hit this alchemical reaction where one plus one equals a million and suddenly that thing is vibrating with these contradictory emotions. It could be melancholy and joyful and lusty and angry all at the same time. To me, that’s when music sounds best. It’s expressing an itch deep inside your brain where language and logic don’t get to.”
By the time OK Go were done tinkering with Hungry Ghosts they had an album far more driven by keyboards and programming than their previous efforts.
“For a lot of it I was moving,” he said. “I was moving to New York and then I was moving back [to Chicago] so I didn’t have a studio for a lot of it. I could work on a laptop, but I couldn’t work anywhere else. But that just gave us a new challenge, which I liked. We are a white boy rock band. We are supposed to make music with guitars and play at certain tempos. But once again, we do our best work when we’re listening to our instincts and not chasing down something we think should exist.”