Written by Anthony Toto & Bill Bodkin
OK Go are pure musical craftsmen. To the general populace, the band is known for their brilliant music videos, particularly the treadmill-filled video for ‘Here it Goes Again.’ To the music lovers, OK Go is more than just video mavens, they’re brilliant songwriters who have this mind-blowing way of finding the perfect hook, the catchiest of melody.
Yet, whether it be their videos or their music, it’s the craftsmanship of OK Go that makes their audio and visual art resonate with so many people. Whether it’s cutting 40 demos and carefully whittling them down to craft their latest record or taking six weeks to perfect the video for their song ‘I Won’t Let You Down’ – the men of OK Go work tirelessly and meticulous to craft their infectiously wonderful art for the world to enjoy.
Recently, we caught up with OK Go’s bassist Tim Nordwind to talk about the new album Hungry Ghosts, the planning that went into their new video and the brand’s embracement of technology as they prepare to perform at Terminal 5 in NYC on April 11.
There was a four-year gap since your last record, talk about the early seeds of Hungry Ghosts. Earlier in the process, what kind of tones were you looking to establish on this record?
There was a pretty large gap between Of the Blue Colour of the Sky and Hungry Ghosts and that’s mostly because we toured a lot behind Of the Blue Colour of the Sky and we also made like ten videos (laughs). We spent a lot of time on the road creating ideas and supporting Of the Blue Colour of the Sky. When we finally sat down to write again – we actually did a lot of writing on tour and whenever we had breaks. We wound up doing a lot of song writing on our computers because that’s what we had with us. We would sit on our computers with our headphones in our hotel rooms. We actually became better programmers through the necessity of having to write through musical software.
When we finally went into the studio to write Holy Ghosts, we were playing our demos through the speakers and we realized everything we programmed sounded new and very different for us. There were sections of a song where we would program a synth and it kind of sounded like a guitar but it didn’t sound like a guitar at the same time. It just sounded so cool and unique. We started thinking, “We know we’re supposed put a real guitar part here but this sounds pretty special. Why do we have to put a real guitar there?” We just started going down a path where we followed a more electronic direction. As a result, we wound up having a more electronic sounding record. When we were writing this record, we were heavily inspired by the pop music we listened to when we were young. We grew up in the ‘80s listening to bands like INXS, Prince, and groups like New Order. I don’t know why but it was time for those influences to come out of us. As a result, we made the poppiest sounding record that we ever wrote.
There were initially 40 demos of material. When the time came to narrow down the material, was there a painful process of elimination or did you immediately recognize the ideas with the best potential?
I think it’s somewhere in between. There were some songs that hurt to let go. For whatever reason, they didn’t fit or seem right for the time being. Out of those 40 demos, we ended up finishing 20 of them so there was an even more painful process of having to get rid of songs we already finished. We said to each other, “Now, we have to cut half of what we already finished.” We have an awesome stockpile of material and I’m sure we’ll do something with those songs at some point. It’s always hard. When you’re putting a record together, you’re trying to tell the most effective story. Sometimes the best material doesn’t work within the context of the album that you’re trying to create. A lot of really great songs didn’t make this record and I’m sure we’ll do something with them.
Will you guys possibly release a special edition album with those songs as B-sides or bonus material?
We could even release another album’s worth of songs. It’s even weird to call them B-sides because I think they are pretty high quality songs. Maybe we could release them as rarities or another record sometime soon.
All the band members had their own separate rooms to develop their ideas in the recording studio. It sounds like everyone had their own dorm room or classroom and you guys went from class to class to learn something new?
It was a highly collaborative record and it was probably the most collaborative record out the four we’ve done. It was really cool. We all had our own computer stations and we bounced from one person’s laboratory to another person’s laboratory and worked on sections of songs and things like that. It was great to work that way. It made the end of the day a lot of fun. There was a nice little surprise at the end of the day where someone would present what they worked on. We would eventually collaborate as a team to make it all work within the context of the song. It was really nice to have different stations to bounce around and it made the whole process seem fresh.
This was your second album produced by David Fridmann. Talk about your experience working together and how this manifested into a successful collaboration?
Dave is really great. Half of what he does – he presents you with this amazing psychedelic playground. He has this great studio and there are plenty of toys to play with. The other half – he has a really great ear and he’s a great musician. He understands songwriting and song arrangements. When we wrote Of the Blue Colour of the Sky, there was a little bit of a learning curve to figure out how we worked together. By the time Of the Blue Colour of the Sky was finished, Dave proved himself to be a great engineer, producer, mixer, and a fifth member to bounce ideas around. Coming back for Hungry Ghosts, we actually came in with fewer completed ideas compared to what we had for Of the Blue Colour of the Sky. We wanted to create things in the moment and we knew Dave would allow that. We trusted the process a lot more. There was a lot of hunting in the dark for magic as opposed to Blue Sky. I guess it made things more exciting.
Were there any particular songs where you truly enjoyed the heavy incorporation of synth tones or electronic samples? Perhaps a song like “Another Set Of Issues” or “Turn Up The Radio?”
I think one of the more extreme songs on this album is “The Great Fire,” which is more of a ballad. It was a song Damian brought in and it was more of a piano ballad that you could play at a piano bar. Dave heard it and said, “This is a great song but we have to destroy it somehow.” He was just like, “You could definitely release this as a piano ballad but I want to blow this up and put it back together and see what we’ve got.” We really went on a crazy electronic shikari (laughs) and slapped on the wildest electronic samples you could think of. I remember the first version sounded like the sound effects from Avatar (Laughs). It didn’t even sound like music to me (laughs). It sounded like this crazy hodgepodge or an electronic “Fantasia” and we were able to dwindle down and create an emotional piece of music. That’s the most extreme version of getting crazy in the studio. It was a different experience for a song like “Turn Up The Radio.” The demo for “Turn Up The Radio” was very electronic and programmed sounding already. We liked that it was still a rock song but we also liked it from an electronic perspective. We pretty much followed that path and I feel like we created a very modern sounding love song.
Take me through the creative process of “I Won’t Let You Down,” how did the video choreography come about?
It’s funny because “I Won’t Let You Down” was the last song written for the record. We wrote it after most of the record was completed and mixed. We realized that we were missing one more upbeat song for the record. We went back and made that song with a guy named Tony Hoffer and we just decided to work with someone else for a change. That was a great experience. We wound up having this very fancy disco song. The guy we collaborated with in Japan – his name is Morihiro Harano and he’s a creative director whose work we have admired for several years and we always looked for an excuse to work together. He came to us with these Honda UNI-COBs; these one wheel people moving machines. He told us, “Honda is looking to do something creative with these. What would you guys to do?” We were like, “Well, we would choreograph a dance routine.” That idea took us to Japan because Morihiro’s whole creative team is located in Japan. It was a really awesome experience. We got there and we were presented with these UNI-COBs shortly after. It took us a little while to get used to riding them and it took us week to come up with the choreography. From there, we got together with the rest of Morihiro’s creative team – a director named Mr. Seki and a stunt coordinator called Airman and we went to town on that video. It took about six weeks to make and I truly love it. It was such a good excuse to stay in Japan for a little while because we really love it over there.
This band has embraced any technological platform to share its music – mobile apps, YouTube, commercials – how do you manage to stay ahead of the curve and turn your outside the box ideas into a success?
Personally speaking, I never felt that we were too terribly ahead of the curve. It’s sort of hard for me to say that with all of these amazing outlets opening up online. Luckily, we’ve always been very good at creating. These opportunities have come to us and we’ve always done our own thing. We’ve always tried to make cool stuff that inspires us and that we think people would like. In today’s day and age, it’s pretty easy to create something and share it with a lot of people online. You don’t have to go through any middleman and you could put your work online and it’s like “Hey, here you go!” Thanks to net neutrality and all that, there’s a pretty even level playing field. You could release a video online and see what happens. That’s just the way the world has gone. I don’t particularly feel like a forward thinker or anything like that. I think a lot of our lives are lived online now. We’ve looked for all of the opportunities out there to share our music and we’re just very lucky to be creating during this time.
OK Go performs tomorrow night at Terminal 5 in New York City, click here for tickets.