April 16, 2010

OK Go puts rock in motion

Although they are best known for dancing, jumping, and skating across treadmills, OK Go is more than a one-hit wonder. The band has achieved what only few have been able to do: repeat the phenomenon of Internet fame. Since it was uploaded three years ago, the “treadmill” video for “Here It Goes Again” has attracted more than 50 million views on YouTube. Their newest video, featuring a massive Rube Goldberg device synchronized to their music, earned 11 million views in just one month. After a strong Internet outcry to get their record label to enable the embedding of their videos, the band announced last month that they were leaving the label and forming their own, Paracadute. The Maroon spoke with bassist Tim Norwind to discuss the transition to Paracadute, the process of building a Rube Goldberg machine, and OK Go’s future projects.

Chicago Maroon: What has changed the most about the band since Ok Go first started making videos for You Tube?

Tim Norwind: Well, first of all, we never made them exactly for You Tube. It's funny that not really all that much has changed for the band. We're generally in the business of making cool shit whenever we can. I think we made them more for ourselves and for our mutual employment more than anything. We ran into some good luck that there was thing called You Tube right around the time we were making videos like that and it was obviously a good home for those videos to live. It's hard to—not that much has changed, except maybe we have more opportunity now to make the things we want to make, which has just been nuts. We have already made—on our new record—we have already made four videos, so I guess it has just created more opportunity for us.

CM: Could you give an example of how that opportunity has allowed to do something you haven't done before? Of course, you have the new video for This Too Shall Pass.

TN: Well, I don't know if we would have been able to find any really great engineers and technologists and physicists to work with us to build a gigantic Rube-Goldberg machine in a three-story warehouse five years ago. But I think we've maybe built a little credit in the video-making world as a band that tries to make the impossible possible. So, when we see the Notre Dame marching band do components of Here It Goes Again at halftime, we go up to them and say, “we think you're amazing, would you like to do something?” And they loved the videos and said, “Yes.” Other than, we're excited to make things and when we try to track down other people to make things with us, they generally seem pretty excited to do it.

CM: For your new label, Paracadute—Am I saying that right? “Paracadute”?

TN: Yes, you are, you are one of the few that does say it right.

CM: Awesome. Great.

TN: It's Italian.

CM: Yeah, I did my research. It's Italian for parachute, right?

TN: Correct.

CM: So what do think will be the greatest challenge for Paracadute in the future?

TN: The biggest challenge is going to be how much crazy stuff we can think up and distribute to the world. Major labels provide these three things: one is promotion, two is marketing, and three is banking, basically. Luckily, we're self-sustaining enough in the band these days that we don't need the money and we've done a good job promotionally on our own. Basically, we've created Paracadute to be the distribution arm for any ideas we have and we think are cool and worth chasing. The label really can only offer us CD distribution and, the thing is, I think we'd like to be able to chase other ideas as they come to us. The label would be good for CDs, but also for producing videos and if we want to make films we can make films. If we want to make a barbeque sauce, we can make a barbeque sauce. We could do whatever we want really. So I think the challenge is coming up with ideas at this point.

CM: Can you give an example of other projects the band is working on besides new music and music videos?

TN: We've been doing a lot of different stuff this year. We did stuff at Design Miami, which was part of Art Basel this year [the band played with instruments that projected lasers]. We've done films—I think we're interested in film. It's everything from—I guess the issue here is that there's a steady decline in CD and music sales. It's an expected thing in this world that when people can get something for free, they generally do. That means the band needs to figure out other ways to become self-sustaining other than selling music and we want to be able to have this freedom to—if we make a video and we want to sell the T-shirts we're wearing from the video online, then we can if we want. And that's something you can't really do through major labels. You can't say, “Hey, I want to sell this idea or that idea.” You have to be like, “Hey, I want to sell CDs and that's it.”

CM: The You Tube embedding fiasco with EMI is frequently mentioned alongside the band's decision to start a new label. But it seems like your saying, in general, you want to do more things than a major label would allow you to do and the problem wasn't only with embedding.

TN: The embedding thing is one of a million things, a million issues, that we ran into with our label over the last eight or nine years. The embedding issue was, to say the least, an annoying one from our perspective and we obviously understood why it was happening we understood the label's conviction. They were trying to monetize something that they used to think of as advertisement. And because they're not making money anymore and selling what they were supposed to be selling, which is music—a physical product. That wasn't so much the reason why we left as it was going in a different direction than our label was. We're interested in following other ideas.

CM: Let's talk about your newest idea: The Rube-Goldberg machine. I was wondering how that idea developed. Did someone in the band just say one day, “Hey, guys, let's do a Rube-Goldberg machine?”

TN: Originally, our guitarists, Andy, sent us a bunch of Rube-Goldberg machines just off of You Tube. We watched them and all agreed that they were pretty awesome. And we thought, “man, it would be great on just a massive, grand scale and make a video out of that.” Then it became a question of how would you make that for three and a half minutes [of music]? There are plenty of Rube-Goldberg machines out there in the world and so we wanted to make one that synchronized with the music and one in which we could dance around as it was working. We basically thought that sounded like a really fun idea, but that we'd probably need one or two people to help us. So we put a letter of intent on a couple of science message boards in Los Angeles and a group called Synn Labs, which is a science collective of technologists, physicists, engineers, and people who work at NASA. They answered our letter of intent and said, “We'd really love to work on this project, it sounds awesome” and they were familiar with the band. At first we were like, “That's great, but we really can't afford to pay twenty people” and they said, “Don't worry about paying us.” They were just excited about the idea. So we got together with Synn labs and created this machine. They would come in after work for four or five months and we all helped build this thing. I guess that's the short version of how it all came to be.

CM: So there were two very different groups—scientists and engineers on the one hand and musicians on the other—who were working on the project. How did that collaboration happen?

TN: It was more like a long term project. For the first two months, it was us meeting with the guys from Synn Labs and just sitting down having brainstorming sessions. Everyone, whether it was us or the fans or Synn Labs, everybody was like, “Wouldn't it be cool if this” or “Wouldn't it be cool if the music stopped and the machine played the song for a second.” So it was a very collaborative thing and, obviously, we do have a high respect for the physics involved and the science involved. And I think they wanted to connect the science with the emotional side of things. I think we were all aware that the way this thing was going to work was if there was some sort of emotional toll to all of this. It couldn't just be the machine at work.

CM: So you and Damian [vocals/guitar] have been friends for a long time before you started Ok Go and I was curious if that friendship has stayed largely the same or if has developed at all?

TN: We met camp and we become fast friends—we agreed right there and then that we were going to be best friends. And there's always been a creative element to our friendship—we met at a summer arts camp and a big part of our friendship, our relationship, is that there's something to make. We connect on the fact that—whether it's as simple as “I'm making you a mix tape” or “Hey, let's make a song” or “Let's make a video.” Our friendship has always been active in that way. We always seem to come together to make something. When you're talking about people who work together creatively but who are also friends—when I say we make things, that's everything from making a party and having friends over to actually making records and videos and things like that. There are many levels of our friendship at this point: friends, business partners, creative partners. It's bloomed into a good but, at times, you could explain it as complicated I think. But, we're still doing it together.

CM: Of all your videos, which has been the most fun to work on?

TN: That's a really tough question to answer because it's like, “Which one of your kids do you like best?” You know what I mean? They've all been pretty enjoyable to work on, and all for different reasons. It's a particularly hard question to answer because each video was met with very different challenges. It's hard to say which one I like the best because they are all interesting and difficult all in their own ways. With the treadmills, it was like “How do we position these things, first of all, so that we can do some sort of emotionally gratifying, choreographed routine on them.” And then once we figured out how to arrange them, then it was like, “What can you do on these things?” That was fun to just hurl ourselves at the machines. In the case of the Notre Dame marching band video we did for this Too Shall Pass it was very different in that the treadmills were the four of us and Damian's sister [who choreographed the routine] and the marching band was the four of us and 200 marching bands kids and a slightly bigger film crew. The idea there was, “We've got 200 kids who all play music. How do we capture this live and make the reveal of these kids interesting for three and a half minutes.” The challenge there was what you are going to do with 200 kids, how are you going to get the sound recorded live, and how do we do this all in one take? I don't know if explaining a little bit of the process of those two [videos] gives you sense of what we walk into every time we try to make a video.

CM: Can you give us an idea of what new videos and what new challenges you're working on?

TN: We just finished one where we did a choreographed dance with time manipulation. That [challenge] was how do you choreograph a one-take video over the course of twenty-one hours--

CM: There was twenty one hours of filming?

TN: Yeah, twenty-one hours of straight filming that is being compressed into four minutes. So the challenge there was—we did it with a lot of high-speed photography and things like that—so the challenge there was we need to make a compelling four minutes condensed down from twenty-one hours. So there's an example. We have another one I can't say very much about other than we will be dancing with a bunch of really really really dancing partners. And so that it is challenging in and of itself—how to dance with these partners that don't normally dance.

CM: Can I ask if they're people?

TN: Are they people? Sort of.