OK Go never pretended not to care about being popular. For many of their earliest gigs they plastered the city with big, sharply designed posters–I remember seeing one in mid-1999 and thinking, Am I supposed to know who that is? Within a year they’d finagled their way onto bills with the likes of Elliott Smith, the Promise Ring, and Sloan, and at the end of 2000, though they’d yet to make a record, This American Life host Ira Glass had personally invited them to play at live productions of the radio show in Boston and New York as well as Chicago.
But the band also seemed to want the respect of its peers–and within Chicago’s indie-rock scene, blatant commercial ambition tends to be viewed with skepticism if not contempt. They spent $10,000 of their own money recording an album’s worth of material with producer Dave Trumfio, and though they sent copies to major labels, front man and songwriter Damian Kulash says they expected to end up on an indie or even to release the album themselves. Maybe their own conflicted feelings showed: their frothy hyperactive pop, played with rock ‘n’ roll energy but tarted up with trendy electronic flourishes, inspired only mild interest from both sides.
It was Glass who–indirectly–prompted Kulash to clarify his goals. “Do you see yourselves as being earnest or clever?” the radio host asked him in late 2000. “I was completely stuck,” Kulash says. “Clever is the last thing you want to describe yourself as–this annoying, quirky thing–and earnest has this connotation of drippy faux sincerity. I tried to answer ‘neither.'” But the question got him thinking, and the conclusion he came to is evident on the band’s debut, OK Go, out September 17 on Capitol Records.
Kulash had moved to Chicago in 1998, fresh out of Brown University, where he’d majored in semiotics. He and two of his future bandmates–bassist Tim Nordwind and guitarist-keyboardist Andy Duncan–were childhood friends from Washington, D.C. Nordwind and Duncan had come to Chicago for school and played in Stanley’s Joyful Noise with OK Go drummer Dan Konopka. Kulash says the quartet’s early stuff was calculatedly arty. “We were trying to figure out how we could get a sampler and beats to work in rock songs that didn’t sound like rip-offs of Portishead,” he says.
With the Trumfio sessions in hand, the group started touring ambitiously, using every connection they could think of to get the recordings to people who might be able to help them. In June 2000 they made what they thought was a disastrous trip to LA to open for Weezer side project the Special Goodness: the shows were sparsely attended and OK Go got stiffed on their guarantees.
Back home, Kulash worked part-time as an engineer for National Public Radio, befriending Glass at WBEZ. Then a few months later booking agent Frank Riley, who’d gotten hold of a CD-R during the LA trip, offered the band a few shows opening for perennial college faves They Might Be Giants. John Flansburgh liked them so much he tried for a brief time to manage them; the quartet has since opened for TMBG on five tours.
While OK Go was out with perhaps the world’s most capital-C clever band, Kulash discovered that he wanted to be earnest. “I wrote a lot of songs that I wanted to actually believe in,” he says. “I didn’t want them to be ironic or distanced. I wanted to write songs that would be uncomfortable in an indie-rock club, songs that would require a stadium. I wanted to write a full-on rock song, one that made me feel like Queen songs made me feel.” The first song he finished after this realization, “Get Over It,” won over Capitol Records president Andy Slater, who signed the band in April 2001, and has since been chosen as the first single off the album. The tune opens with neatly organized hand claps and foot stomps a la “We Will Rock You,” and the lyrics could be a kiss-off to the chronic complainers of indie rock: “Oh your wounds are full of salt / Everything’s a stress and what’s more / Well it’s all somebody’s fault / Hey! Get over it!”
Initially the album was to comprise mostly the recordings OK Go had been passing around, with some minor changes. “We went into the studio thinking it would be three weeks of tweaks and remixes,” Kulash says. But he had five new songs he wanted to try too, and “that turned into seven songs that we made from the ground up, and we basically rerecorded all of the old ones. Once we found ourselves in these really nice studios with every tool at our disposal, we wanted to go back and do everything again, because we knew we could do better.” LA session pros, including three different drummers, were brought in to play parts that the band couldn’t nail down. Kulash admits that this felt awkward, but insists that it was the band’s decision: “There were times when we had worked for a week on something and I was unhappy with the way it sounded and I knew it wasn’t going to be right until we did it this way.”
They definitely got a more consumer-friendly album for their trouble–catchy, crunchy ear candy, polished to a sheen and heavily compressed to sound great on the radio. While some of the hooks hark back to classic rock, the production’s more reminiscent of slick new-wave groups like the Cars, Adam & the Ants, and the Cure. Rhythm loops, analog synths, and samples remain part of the mix, but they’re more smoothly integrated into the songs. It was finished by January, and originally slated for release in June. “We’re all champing at the bit and excited to see it come out,” says Kulash. “But the last thing we want to do is spend forever making something and then see it happen wrong. When the label calls and tells you your record has been pushed back another month, there are two options. One is…that you’re low profile at the label and you’re gradually becoming shelved, which is scary. The other is that they really want to do it right.”
It does seem like Capitol is behind the record at the moment: the band spent most of July on tour with hot labelmates the Vines, the video for “Get Over It” has been added to MTV2, and they showed up on Late Night With Conan O’Brien on September 4. The single, released three weeks ago, had reached number 30 on Billboard’s modern rock chart at press time. OK Go plays an all-ages record-release show at Metro on Thursday, September 19.