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After 10 years of viral videos, what OK Go has learned about the Internet

OK Go lead singer Damian Kulash spoke with Washington Post writer Abby Ohlheiser about the band's viral hits. (Video: Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)
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The first OK Go viral video was an accidental success: the band made a tape of its intentionally goofy stage dance and put it online. It was 2005, the same year that YouTube was founded and the idea of a “viral video” online was just entering the lexicon.

“We hadn’t really thought of the Internet as a place to create, as a space to create,” Tim Nordwind, the band’s bassist, told The Washington Post in a Friday conversation at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington. Added frontman Damian Kulash: “It certainly wasn’t a canvas. It was like a distribution platform.” 

Hundreds of thousands of people downloaded that first video, “A Million Ways,” during its first days online, prompting the band to wonder what would happen if they actually tried to make something for the Internet. On purpose, this time.

The band was honored this month with an American Ingenuity Award for Visual Arts for the decade of work that followed that decision.

Their latest video, “The One Moment,” takes a chaotic-seeming 4.2 seconds of filmed explosions, and slows it down to play over the course of minutes, revealing a much more ordered and beautiful scene.

We spoke with OK Go’s Kulash (lead singer and guitarist, directed “The One Moment,” very talkative) and Nordwind (bass guitar, vocals, awesome glasses, less talkative) about their videos, the Internet and what’s changed over the decade since that first viral hit. We have condensed and edited their answers for length and clarity.

On the relationship between their songs and the music videos they make for them: 

Kulash: The process for writing songs and making videos is similar in a lot of ways.

Once the song exists, it’s already been through 30 lives. You’re fighting with it, and you’ve been fighting with it for ages. By the time it gets recorded, it takes on this whole new life. And then six months later, as you’ve seen people’s reactions to it on tour, it keeps changing. Its last phase is that video usually, for us, just because our videos take so long to make. What is often for the rest of the world the first time they’ve heard a song is the last version.

Nordwind: It feels like everything we make is sort of a living organism that grows and breathes, and it can go from a song to video to a live show to a piece in a museum. It can live, and that’s been really nice.

On how an “accidental” viral success led them to become that band with all the viral videos: 

Kulash: [After “A Million Ways” went viral], we were like, “if we can do this by accident, we should do it on purpose.” And that’s when we did the treadmill dance at my sister’s house in Florida.

But even that video, we thought that was a gift to those same nerdy fans, the three or four hundred thousand people who wanted to see us dancing in the back yard. The least we can do is give them something that we tried to do. That was actually, intentionally a video.

We thought “Here it Goes Again” would have double the popularity of “A Million Ways,” if we were lucky. It doubled that within a day. It was a huge, huge hit.

Making that stuff then was really a lot more Wild West than it is now.

On whether “Here it Goes Again” video would succeed now, 10 years later, if they made it today:

Kulash: I have actually wondered that and, in different times of my life, come up with the two opposite answers and been sure of it.

You know, I think we’ve made much more impressive videos. I mean I love that one, but we’ve definitely done things that have hooked the world, and the world’s imagination, just as much. But there wasn’t the following business story, which was: this band made something that their label and manager didn’t even know about, and it won a Grammy.

It was a shock to the whole music industry, and to the culture industry and the tech industry, that the thing had a life of its own that doesn’t have that much to do with the content.

Nordwind: The world moves much quicker through all of this stuff too. I think when “Here it Goes Again” came out, it was like a four- to six-month-long story, you know? And I feel like the shelf life for these types of things is about three to five days now.

Kulash: In 2010 or so, if we got 10 million hits in a week, there would be 20 by the end of the month.

Now, the hits come in the first three days and then, flatline. There’s a trickle thereafter. But things aren’t being shared by slow email links anymore. It’s like everybody sees the same Facebook posting and they move on.

On how they’ve managed to remain distinctive now that there’s so much rapid-fire, viral “noise” online: 

Kulash: The reason our stuff is different, I think, is actually a process question. Most people who are making films of any kind are efficient and smart enough to make sure they don’t waste all their money. We are not.

If you’re at a desk trying to think of things that no one else has thought of, and they also have to be 99 percent doable, that bull’s eye is incredibly tiny. What we do is, we waste a bunch of money upfront. We go, “wouldn’t it be awesome to go play in this sandbox,” and then we go and play and play and play.

We look at things that are 60 or 70 percent — good, goodish ideas — and the ones that we can pull into that 90-95 range, then we plan something. But by the time we’re planning something, we have a set of tools that nobody else is allowed to use, because it’s too risky.

On whether simplicity still has a place for visual content online: 

Kulash: First of all, I would say that in general simplicity is really complicated.

If there’s one thing to learn from trying to write pop music, it’s that the best songs you know are all the same three chords as all of the worst songs you’ve ever heard.

Getting those simple things to be sublime is very challenging. And so it’s interesting to hear you refer to “The One Moment” [the band’s most recent video] as being complicated. It is extremely complicated to make happen, but it’s a very, very simple idea, which is just to shoot the entire video in one moment because the song is about one moment. Achieving that simplicity is very complex.

The full video interview is available here

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