The members of OK Go operate under the philosophy that the major record label system is deceased. These days, a band purely needs to focus on selling itself.
“Whether you’re a band or an actor or an artist or a writer, it’s a smart way to run your life,” says OK Go bassist Tim Nordwind. “That way, you never get bored. There are some bands out there who don’t want to make movies or get into crazy art and science projects, they just want to play their guitars. I understand that. But we’re the type of people who want more than that.”
Calling from a Milwaukee tour stop, Nordwind is preparing for Tuesday’s release of “Hungry Ghosts,” the quartet’s first album since 2010.
But the innovative mechanism known as OK Go doesn’t simply promote a record through touring and interviews. On just the pre-order campaign (on PledgeMusic) alone, the act is breaking fresh marketing ground.
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“We’ve used pledges as a place for some of our weirder ideas we’d like to try out on fans,” he says. “Like, we’ve offered to make a documentary on your life, but we won’t base it on any actual facts of your life.
“Other ones are: We’ll pick people up on our bus and take them to the sound check and the show. We’re hand-designing 20 or 30 pairs of Jack Purcell Converse shoes. We’re doing super-unflattering caricatures of people. It’s been fun to use that as a platform to connect in a creative way. Meanwhile, we get the word out about our record.”
Since leaving Capitol at the start of this decade to form their own label, Paracadute (“parachute” in Italian), the OK Go guys have released some of the most acclaimed and viewed — thank you, YouTube — videos ever made.
Their newest visual mind-boggler is “The Writing’s on the Wall,” the first single from “Hungry Ghosts.” It features the four members employing a string of props and camera setups to create optical illusions, all in one unbroken take. The song illustrates a relationship coming apart due to different points of view.
“We had this idea three or four years ago: ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could build an emotional arc out of 31/2 minutes of anamorphic images, perspective tricks and illusions?’” he says. “For the longest time, we thought it would intellectually be a cool thing to watch, but we could not figure out whom to collaborate with. Do we find an artist? A director? We finally found a production company in New York called 1stAveMachine. They really understood all the different things you can do.”
Also tricky was trying to craft a story, even an abstract one, out of all the clatter.
“How do we create a new surprise around every corner?” asks Nordwind, whose best moment in the video involves climbing a ladder and looking down on a seemingly random group of objects that merge to form a collage of his bearded face. “Otherwise, it’s just a bag of tricks if you can’t make something emotionally captivating. And the actual building of it was also incredibly time-consuming and difficult.”
Nordwind built the band in 1998 with singer Damian Kulash. The two met at a Michigan arts camp when they were 11-year-olds. They took the name OK Go from an art teacher who used the phrase to signal their drawing assignments should begin. (Other members include drummer Dan Konopka and keyboardist/guitarist Andy Ross, who have remained the core lineup since 2005.)
They kicked around the Chicago scene for a while, eventually moving to Los Angeles right as their early videos began to exponentially increase the fanbase.
“I remember when our first two incredibly inexpensive and homemade videos came out — the ones for ‘A Million Ways’ and ‘Here It Goes Again’ — the prevalent attitude at the label was, ‘This stuff is doing well online, but MTV will never play this. It just doesn’t look like something that belongs on MTV,’” he recalls.
Fortunately, the Web generation didn’t really want its MTV. It was perfectly willing to embrace the band’s aggressive creativity. This does beg the question of whether OK Go might have helped reinvigorate MTV and become the biggest band on the planet if it had debuted during the network’s supremacy.
“It’s kind of hard to say,” Nordwind says. “I don’t know if MTV in its dominant years would have taken a look at it and been like, ‘Sorry guys. It’s in the wrong format.’ Or would they have welcomed it? I know growing up, I just never saw anything as lo-fi as those early videos we put out.”
The band has all but abandoned the lo-fi vibe, in both its videos and recorded output. “Hungry Ghosts” promises an ambitious mixture of basement funk parties (“Turn Up the Radio”), IMAX-sized choruses (“The One Moment”) and Space Age dance floor (“I Won’t Let You Down”).
The album title isn’t a retro Pac-Man reference but rather a Chinese Buddhist concept regarding the gulf between desire and reality.
Alluding to that notion, are there things the band still wants it hasn’t attained?
“When we were thinking about the Buddhist meaning of ‘Hungry Ghosts,’ we were thinking of it more in a personal way,” Nordwind says. “We’re developing a TV show right now. I’d very much like to have an installation museum piece with some of our videos. Also, we’d love to do a show that was a bit more in the style of Vegas or Broadway — something where people would come to us.”
He adds, “I hope there are always new, challenging opportunities ahead that we haven’t had a chance to do.”
▪ OK Go, “Hungry Ghosts”
▪ Angaleena Presley, “American Middle Class”
▪ Bob Seger, “Ride Out”
▪ Florida Georgia Line, “Anything Goes”
▪ Idina Menzel, “Holiday Wishes”
▪ Melvins, “Hold It In”
▪ Stars, “No One Is Lost”
▪ The Game, “Blood Moon: Year of the Wolf”
▪ We Were Promised Jetpacks, “Unravelling”