The music has been called "arty party," and it's an apt description of OK Go's approach: irreverent, perhaps a little silly on the surface but solid musicianship bubbles underneath.
"One thing we try to take seriously is not to take things so seriously," says Tim Nordwind, the power-pop quartet's bassist and chatty spokesman. "It's hard for fun to translate into something that isn't too goofy or stupid. There's a fine line you dance on."
It is literally the idiosyncratic dancing of Nordwind, Damian Kulash (lead vocals and guitar), Dan Konopka (drums) and Andy Ross (keyboards and guitar) that has recently garnered the band so much mainstream attention. And OK Go will bring its moves and music to Washington's 9:30 Club on Sunday night.
Perhaps sometime last fall a pop culture junkie friend e-mailed you a link to a strange video. In it, four nerdy-looking dudes in natty suits performed a hilarious, tightly choreographed routine in their back yard. Shot with a camcorder, it was OK Go's low-budget, one-take clip for "A Million Ways," which eventually became one of the Internet's most-viewed music videos ever with 9 million downloads.
Shortly afterward, the band released another cheaply made and elaborately choreographed video: "Here It Goes Again" showed the foursome doing synchronized steps on treadmills. It was downloaded more than 7.4 million times. "It should be an Olympic sport," says Nordwind, calling from a tour stop in New York City. "We hurled ourselves on treadmills for a week and thought it would be fun. It wasn't a marketing thing. It was part athletic, part entertainment. But I don't recommend that people try it. It's kind of dangerous."
In August, OK Go repeated the routine, treadmills and all, live on the MTV Video Music Awards. The appearance and the sensation the videos stirred helped to build buzz around OK Go's second album, last year's Oh No, which peaked at No. 2 on iTunes' most-downloaded albums chart. The CD also topped Billboard's Heatseekers' listing. Unlike the 2002 self-titled full-length debut, the latest CD offers a more stripped sound, driven by harder grooves.
"The first album was like a science experiment, a true studio project," Nordwind explains. "We wanted to make a synthetic rock 'n' roll record and cram every space with a bell and whistle. This time, we wanted to make a record that sounded like we're playing at a concert. There's a lot more space and groove."
Thanks largely to Swedish producer Tore Johansson, best known for his work with Franz Ferdinand and the Cardigans, Oh No resonates more strongly without all the layers. It reveals more of the Chicago band's terse, nervy instrumentation and penchant for smart, catchy lyrics.
"We had changed a lot as people between our first and second record," Nordwind says. "Our tastes had changed. It's more about a feeling than how many guitars we can pile on a song."
The album isn't exactly an organic set where the songs freely flow into the next. In the studio, the guys seem to be as stylized and self-aware as they are in their videos. If there's a theme or concept, it's a spirit of fun underpinned by strong musicianship. The new-wave pulse of such cuts as "Invincible" and "It's a Disaster" recalls the best of Cheap Trick and T. Rex.
But with the notoriety of OK Go's quirky videos, is the band worried that the clips will become bigger than the music? "I feel like it's a plus to get anyone anywhere to listen to your music," Nordwind says. "It makes me happy that the videos have brought so many people to the music. I think there is a larger portion of people who see the videos, listen to the song and want to investigate and find the album. It's an untraditional way to get people to listen to the music, but it's worked for us."
The OK Go show at the 9:30 Club, 815 V St. N.W. in Washington, is sold out.