OK Go gives the people what they want: a live show with those mind-bending videos
Damian Kulash knows you probably know his band OK Go’s videos better than you know their actual songs.
“You get famous for what you get famous for,” the band’s lead singer and guitarist says via Skype from Omaha, where the band is on tour. “When you think about the set of bands that have good songs — I’m going to put us in the set because I think we have good songs —that’s a really big group of bands. In the video category we’re basically one of one. ”
But sometimes it can be frustrating, he says. “I remember seeing in some roundup of the best videos of some year when we were number eight or nine or something. ‘This would easily be No. 1 if it wasn’t OK Go, because we’ve come to expect this from them.’ So you’re saying that the Beatles records aren’t that good because they’re the Beatles? That’s [expletive] crazy!”
It might be difficult to think of OK Go without their playfully mind-boggling music videos, but in live performance, now you don’t have to. The Live Video Tour, which features the band performing in sync with those videos, comes to the Berklee Performance Center on Nov. 2 in a show presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston.
In the mid-2000s, the band’s songs didn’t always stand out among the mix of radio-friendly modern rock that populated the airwaves. But no one was making unconventional videos like OK Go, and the band’s career took off in parallel with online video streaming. In the spring of 2005, around the time YouTube launched in beta, the band taped themselves doing a goofy dance in Kulash’s backyard and lip-syncing to their song “A Million Ways,” and sent the tape around to their friends as a joke. Someone put it online, and it went viral, accumulating more views than the band had sold records.
A year later, along came the treadmill-hopping video for “Here It Goes Again,” which was filmed at the home of Kulash’s sister Trish Sie, a choreographer who has worked with the band many times since. It racked up millions of views on YouTube and led to the band becoming an online phenomenon. On MTV and VH1, reality TV was killing the video star, but before iPhones, Instagram influencers, and YouTube Red, the infant Internet of video was a free-for-all, and OK Go caught a wave and rode it. By 2010, the band had upgraded from grainy micro-budget magic to dizzying, complex Rube Goldberg machines (“This Too Shall Pass”) and a herd of adorable trained dogs (“White Knuckles”). 2016 even took the band into zero gravity (“Upside Down and Inside Out”).
“We’re chasing wonder, generally,” says Kulash about the philosophy behind the videos, which often employ single takes and minimal post-production effects. “For the most part, we want people to have a genuine human response to something. The film magic that’s used all the time to blow our minds doesn’t really blow our minds that way, and we know it’s trickery, so we want them to be feeling the human event. I don’t particularly care about the single take-ness. That’s just the shortest line between those two dots.”
So does playing on top of a click track to stay in sync with the videos on this tour make things less spontaneous or fun? Kulash says no. “It’s just like there’s a fifth member. The video is a fifth member who keeps very strict time,” he explains, pointing out that the audience for the live video tour is much more age diverse. “It’s not just a sweaty catharsis-fest for young adults. It’s like a film screening, and an art event.”
Kulash doesn’t think that a young band today could follow the trajectory OK Go has. “When we were putting things on YouTube 10 years ago and they were going viral, we had as much access as everyone else on the planet. Now there’s ad agencies on Madison Avenue that specialize in maximizing this stuff,” he says. “I think the idea that a band could do a ridiculous boy band dance in their backyard and that would be their calling card, that’s from a different era now.”
But speaking of different eras: If last decade’s kids slacked off watching OK Go videos in the computer lab, now the videos are in the classroom.
“We find that preschool and kindergarten use them, all the way up to college classes,” says AnnMarie Thomas, the founder and director of the Playful Learning Lab at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. “I’ve used them in engineering and design classes. Other people have used them in teaching simple machines to fifth-graders.”
The Playful Learning Lab, Thomas explains, creates materials that try to engage students with learning about math and science, focusing on fun by connecting with partners like circus artists and musicians. After Thomas met Kulash at a TED conference, the lab and band partnered to create science education materials based on the music videos. “The One Moment” teaches lessons about gravity and algebra, and “Needing/Getting” shows how electronic sensor data can become sound.
“We’re so fond of what teachers do and feel that teachers in America are so [expletive] upon, that the least we could do is try to help them in that quest,” Kulash says. “It’s been really, really fun.”
OK GO: THE LIVE VIDEO TOUR
At Berklee Performance Center, Nov. 2 at 8 p.m. Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston. Tickets $35-$55, 617-482-2595, www.celebrityseries.org