The other day, before a show in Athens, Ga., Damian Kulash, frontman for the indie band OK Go, was in full rock star mode. But he wasn’t trashing his hotel room or partying with groupies on the road (See “Life,” by Keith Richards, pages 1-576). Kulash, the model of a modern-day rocker and self-professed “insane workaholic,” had encamped in his hotel room for several conference calls so he could oversee the band’s uber-creative projects this month: a new music video involving animation on toast, a New Orleans-style street parade in Los Angeles, and a Today Show video in which OK Go envelops Matt Lauer and co. in Ping-Pong balls.
A truly independent artist these days is as multi-dimensional as any entrepreneur. Ever since OK Go left its label, EMI, earlier this year, Kulash and his bandmates have been running the business that is their band. “You’re out there wooing corporate clients and figuring out how to fund these things,” he said in a phone interview. “I spend a lot more of my hours on the business side than I’d like to.”
Still, Kulash is ecstatic about the types of things he can pursue now that OK Go no longer needs to ask permission. “We’re working to bend people’s perception of what is acceptable for a band,” he said, ignoring the room-service meal that had just arrived.
Like what he calls the “big, awesome, psycho-spacial, geo-musical, techno-sonic parade party” last week in Los Angeles. Range Rover contacted the band about creating an event for the campaign for its new vehicle, Evoque. OK Go proposed a musical parade through L.A. along a route to spell out the band’s name. The image would then be captured by Range Rover’s GEO-tracking phone app Pulse of the City. Think of the event as a human-powered Etch A Sketch, Kulash said. Set to music.
Last Wednesday afternoon, about 70 musicians and marchers set off with OK Go from Hollywood and Melrose Boulevards to trace a big ‘O’ through the streets. Armed with a megaphone, Kulash kicked off the parade with “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and then played everything from “La Bamba” to “Hey Ya” before ending with the OK Go song “This Too Shall Pass.” The crowd, adorned in glow rope by nightfall, sang, danced, took a dinner break, and filmed the goofiness on 20 Flip cameras supplied by the band.
“What a lovely reverse from a label, where we would want to do something and be told, ‘No, you can’t have any money,'” said Kulash. “Range Rover and Flip approached us and said, ‘Hey, you have good ideas. What do you want to do?'”
What OK Go wants to do is make cool and original art, not just recordings. “The music business has been arbitrarily narrow for a long time,” Kulash says. “Our model is to put less expectations on recordings as the sole unit of value.”
An eight-mile, eight-hour street parade might help sell concert tickets or albums, but that’s actually not the point to Kulash. It’s another way to experience OK Go’s music and to connect with the band. (The video will be included in upcoming shows and posted online.) Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the event burnishes the group’s reputation for charming, artsy stunts.
The band was a natural for the Today Show’s series last week on viral videos. More than any other indie band, OK Go has mastered the art of the viral video to meet its artistic and marketing goals. The video for “This Too Shall Pass,” a song from its most recent album, featured a mesmerizing Rube Goldberg machine made by LA-based Syyn Labs and has been viewed more than 19 million times on YouTube. For the Today Show, Kulash and his bandmates spent months planning a playful stop-motion animated music video featuring Matt Lauer, Meredith Vieira, Al Roker, and Ann Curry. The hosts appear in telephone booth-like tubes that OK Go fill and refill with 125,000 multi-colored Ping-Pong balls.
For a band that has made dazzling one-take videos with them dancing on treadmills (53 million YouTube views) and performing tricks with dogs (7.5 million YouTube views), the latest offering from their album Of the Blue Colour of the Sky represents a departure. It’s subdued. It employs what must be the first stop-motion animation on slices of toast, shot with a fixed camera. The low-key approach is well suited for the intimate acoustic song “Last Leaf,” and visually, it’s just as engrossing as their previous work.
When Kulash was looking for someone to build the Rube Goldberg machine, he came across MIT grads Nadeem Mazen and Ali Mohammad at Serious Business Design. They told him about a laser that could burn images on toast with remarkable precision. Do enough pieces of toast, and you create old-school animation, like in a flip book. “They said, ‘Think you can make a video with that?’ and I said, ‘Hell, yeah, we can,'” recalled Kulash.
Like most of OK Go’s videos, the piece took months to pull off. Kulash visited Cambridge three times to work out the details with Mazen and Mohammad. They tested various types of bread before finding a canvas with the right color and texture, Pepperidge Farms soft white. A team of interns then toasted more than 3,000 slices. Using the laser on the bread like a pencil, Mazen and Mohammad reproduced illustrator Geoff McFetridge’s dream-like sketches of falling leaves, flying birds, and growing guitar-trees. Each second of animation required 15 images. The entire video consists of 2,430 pieces of toast art.
Pepperidge Farms didn’t pick up the bill. Neither did State Farm, which sponsored “This Too Shall Pass.” This time, it was Samsung. Because each toast photo was shot with a Samsung NX100 digital camera.
Finding “art patrons,” as Kulash puts it, is challenging, but satisfying his own artistic needs remains the steeper hill. “There’s a hyper-speed shift in how you see the work you make and what you can do with it, which I find fascinating and unsettling,” he said, before finally digging into a late-afternoon lunch. “Something I would have killed to do six months ago seems boring to me now. A job that could pay for all these things seems like a job where it used to seem like an opportunity.”