Damian Kulash Jr. sits in one of the editing suites of a media-production house in downtown San Francisco, watching clips on a computer screen of a silver Chevy Sonic doing hand-brake turns in a dust cloud. The car is festooned with what looks like forks, hockey sticks, TV antennas, railroad horns, shark spears, and a couple of dead Persian cats, which are in fact large microphones fitted with furry windsocks. Inside the car, three guys plus Kulash—each in a driving suit and matching helmet of a different lollipop color—pull levers, finger small pneumatic keyboards called melodicas, and mouth the words to a song called “Needing/Getting.”
“car advertising adjusts to suit the changing times”
If the sound weren’t turned off, we’d hear guitars being strummed, pianos being thwacked, basses being plucked, and tubas being blown. The Sonic, in a sort of percussive drive-by, is actually creating the music. The desert dust billows, and tumbleweeds tumble. Once again, car advertising, so long a well-polished mirror of contemporaneous trends in America, adjusts to suit the changing times.
Kulash is the lead singer of a band called OK Go, or as any fan of its official YouTube videos (137 million hits and counting) might say, “the treadmill band,” “the band that does that thing with the dogs,” or “those Rube Goldberg guys.” Formed in 1999, OK Go is as well-known to its largely virtual, viral audience for its videos as its propulsive and generally upbeat power pop.
“Every band has songs. Not every band has videos like this,”
Guitarist Andy Ross, bassist Tim Norwind, and drummer Dan Konopka join Kulash in the elaborately choreographed videos, which show the band dancing in a backyard, frolicking with smart canines, drumming with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish marching band, and, most famously, swinging on gym treadmills in a 2006 home video shot in Kulash’s sister’s basement. “Here it Goes Again” won a Grammy award for best short-form music video, has been downloaded tens of millions of times, and spawned dozens of amateur and professional imitations.
Some rock artistes would recoil at being known as “the treadmill band,” but it doesn’t seem to bother Kulash. “Every band has songs. Not every band has videos like this,” or, indeed, a music-industry backstory like this. It involves OK Go divorcing its big transnational record label—EMI—in 2010, starting its own label, and joining
the great media democratization movement on the internet.
The original concept for “Needing/Getting” grew out of a 2010 video for the song, “This Too Shall Pass.” In it, the so-called Rube Goldberg video, the band sings off a soundtrack while dominoes topple, balls and tires roll, umbrellas fly, TVs smash, and paint splatters in one continuous 3-minute 54-second take, all of which was underwritten by State Farm (look closely for the logos).
But Kulash wanted to take it a step further and do a video where colliding objects make the actual music: “I like the idea of doing videos that are live recordings. It helps break down the idea that these are all distinct forms of art.”
“The sound and video would be recorded in multiple takes and then assembled in the editing lab.”
Initially, he envisioned a car circling a banked oval while striking and running over instruments and rumble strips in a way that would produce some kind of rhythmic narrative. Ultimately, it was deemed impossible to do a musical number this way and in one take, so the idea morphed into a rally-style course. Each stage would comprise a section of the song. The sound and video would be recorded in multiple takes and then assembled in the editing lab.
To hit the marks on time and effectively “play” the song, one of the band members wrote a computer program to convert musical bars into miles per hour. The speeds were not high: about 35 mph during the chorus and 17 to 22 mph on other sections of the track. But Kulash wasn’t watching his speedometer as he drove. He had a visual downbeat reference in dropped beanbags marked with flags, plus a metronome in the car.
Problems? Oh, yes. Every fourth or fifth take, an arm or a fishing rod broke off the car. Also, the worst Santa Ana winds to hit Los Angeles in a decade arrived just in time to flatten parts of the course with 70-mph gusts. The large video crew worked gamely through the storm and got its images, but as of this writing, Kulash was unsure of how much of the audio would have to be bumped up by computer enhancement.
“We’re still trying to figure out what we got and what we didn’t,” he says. “We will certainly have to goose it. If a microphone didn’t catch a piano, I’m not going to feel guilty adding back in a little bit of low end so you can hear it. I will start feeling guilty if the whole thing is fake, however.”
Even if the video goes viral and becomes a YouTube record breaker, the revenue stream remains murky. OK Go might get more gigs around the globe, maybe even land one in Uzbekistan because a promoter there saw the video and liked it. Or not. Chevy may sell more Sonics because of it. Or not. Kulash says he isn’t bothered by the money question, either.
“If you have to connect inputs and outputs too directly, you’re going to quickly get stuck in a 20th-century model [of success based solely on record sales]. From where we stand, it has always made more sense to invest in good ideas and figure out how to monetize them later.”