Member of Spring Fling headliner talks about the band’s songwriting, music videos

This Saturday, the rock band OK Go will headline Spring Fling, playing to thousands of Tufts students. The band, started in 1998, has released three albums, the most recent one entitled “Of the Blue Colour of the Sky” (2010), for which they have been touring the past few weeks. Damian Kulash (vocals, guitar), Tim Nordwind (bass, guitar, vocals), Dan Konopka (drums, percussion) and Andy Ross (guitar, keyboards, vocals), who replaced Andy Duncan in 2005, make up OK Go.

The band is best known for its hit single “Here it Goes Again” (2006) and the accompanying video in which its four members conducted an elaborately choreographed dance routine on treadmills. This video has become one of the most popular YouTube videos of all time and skyrocketed the band into a pop culture-icon position.

OK Go was also recently in the news when it left the EMI Group and Capitol Records to form its own independent label, Paracadute Recordings. Kulash wrote an op-ed in the New York Times last February, claiming that record labels serve an important function for bands that are just starting out because they can be a “risk aggregator” — meaning they take on 20 bands that could be famous and the money made from the one successful band makes up for the 19 that don’t turn a profit. However, according to Kulash, once a band become successful, the label then only serves to suppress and stifle the group’s creative impulses. In other words, the members of OK Go wanted to continue being able to make their own viral videos — like the treadmill video — a process of which their record label didn’t approve.

Nordwind talked to the Daily about the upcoming Spring Fling show, the band’s new album, the shift to its own label and the art of viral video-making.

Catherine Scott: What were your initial reactions to being asked to play the Tufts show? What do you like/dislike about playing to an all-college audience?

Tim Nordwind: In general, going and playing at colleges is fun because you really never know what’s going to happen, even more than a regular club show, because you college kids get so godd–n drunk. One of them might use a guitar as a stripper pole, someone may dress up in an all-green, all-encompassing outfit. When we got the offer from Tufts, we were pretty psyched to come play.

CS: Do you change your set in any way, or are you just playing the same set that you’d play on your tour?

TN: We kind of have to get up there and read the crowd. We often call audibles when it comes to university shows. Sometimes they [the students] really want nothing but party music. We will often tailor the set to please everyone as best we can. It may be a slightly more upbeat event, but it really depends on how we’re connecting with the crowd. It’s still a party every time we hit the stage.

CS: How do you feel about your new album? What do you think makes it special?

TN: It’s definitely my favorite of the three we’ve made. On the first two records we were a little bit more goal-oriented in terms of sitting down and writing a song. We’d say to ourselves, ‘We want to make a good stadium anthem. We haven’t heard one of those in a long time.’ And that would be the goal.
    This time around, working that way just wasn’t exciting for us anymore. We threw ourselves into a new ocean of mystery as far as songwriting goes. We would make bits and pieces — so write a theme or come up with a chord progression — that had emotion to it. If it seemed like there was some magic there, we would try to build from that. We didn’t know where the song was supposed to go. We just tried to call magic out of these little moments. We ended up with a fairly different-sounding record this time.
    It’s one of the groovier, more upbeat records we’ve made. And although there are many melancholy moments, the happiest moments of the album are some of the happiest we’ve ever written. So, it’s kind of a record of extremes in that sense.

CS: What’s your favorite song on the album?

TN: That’s a hard question to answer. It’s sort of like asking to choose your favorite child, or something. I love each one for different reasons. I’m sometimes drawn to some songs over others. This week I really like the song “Needing/Getting” and “Skyscrapers,” because of its slightly epic, melancholic mood. Those are my favorites this week … but probably not next week.

CS: How do you come up with the concepts for your music videos (because you’re known for having interesting and innovative videos)? Do you have creative control over them?

TN: We have complete creative control over our videos. A lot of bands, especially from the MTV generation, they often farm out the creative aspect of video-making to directors and writers and other actors. But we really like doing that stuff! It’s definitely part of the art of what we do. It falls under the same category of the music we make and the concerts we play. We look at it as an artistic pursuit and not an advertisement for the band. We’ve tried to steer clear of the traditional filmmaking community when it comes to our videos, because there is such a set idea of what a music video is supposed to be — like a commercial for the band where the band looks awesome and everything is beautiful and glamorous! But that’s not the type of video we’re interested in making.
    As far as coming up with the concepts, they come from anywhere. As long as we’re excited about a concept, we’re happy to chase it down. For example, [the video of “This Too Shall Pass”] came from seeing a high school marching band doing a recording of “Here it Goes Again.” We thought that was awesome, and we wrote them and said, ‘Hey, you guys are great. If you’d ever want to collaborate, we should do it.’ And they did, so we did. With the Rube Goldberg machine, it was something Andy Ross had found of a YouTube clip of the machine that had been made in an office with nothing but office supplies. He thought that was awesome and thought it would be fun to make something like that on a really grand scale. We found these engineers to volunteer their time to build it, and it was this Herculean, epic effort that luckily came to fruition.

CS: What is going to be logistically different about working under your own company instead of an established record label like you have been?

TN: In terms of our path, we’ve often been the captains of our own ship for the most part. We looked at our label as a business partner, rather than a place to go for any sort of aesthetic or creative consulting. In that sense, we’ve been on our own. Basically, what we’ve done is start our own business that can take care of the distribution of our ideas. In fact, that’s really exciting for us because there aren’t any middlemen anymore that we have to deal with. We just now have to figure out how to distribute these things instead of a corporate company [doing it for us]. We’ll see how it works. I think it will work like when we were on the label.

CS: Would you think leaving the label is a good move for all bands, or was it only good for you specifically because of your viral success and your need to stay true to your band and your fans?

TN: I don’t think a record label is the right place for everyone. Young bands need to go to record labels for the funds to go on tour for six weeks, make their records, produce their t-shirts and everything else. For us, it seemed like the right decision because we are a little bit more self-sustaining at this point. It was a good point for us to go our own way because we needed to figure out other ways of distributing and selling our music, as well as other ideas we had. At some point, the label wasn’t very helpful for us, and for bands who have reached a certain level of success, labels really aren’t all that helpful for them.
CS: What would you say to college bands who are looking to make music their career?

TN: I wouldn’t say they need labels, but they need some kind of financial backing. Oftentimes that is a label, but not every young band needs a label. They just need to put their best foot forward. Something else that’s important is to make sure you like each other because you’re going to be spending a s–tload of time together. You’ll find out how the other [bandmates] breathe and chew gum and everything. It’s like a marriage.

CS: Where do you think the music industry is headed with the now readily available Internet to put music out there, making the record labels more and more obsolete?

TN: Everything in the world is headed towards the Internet now. It’s become part of the fabric of our world now, so music will certainly find a space online. It’s another space for art to exist, but not the only space. It’s hard to know, though; I don’t really know. And I don’t think anyone does.