A&E

Ghost of a Smile

musiclead okgoEven toddlers like OK Go now. So why is ‘Hungry Ghosts’ their most melancholy record?

The first time I heard OK Go was on the 2004 compilation Future Soundtrack for America, the unjustly forgotten “alt bands go political” mix that helped prime a generation of indie kids for Obama’s 2008 youth revolution. Their contribution—a cover of “This Will Be Our Year,” an obscure tune from ’60s psychedelic rockers the Zombies—was the musical equivalent of a warm blanket—just throwback enough, just modern enough, just pop enough, just rock enough. It was impossible to not like.

So, it turned out, was the band. A decade later, they’ve won a Grammy and broken the Billboard Top 40. Their breakthrough 2006 video for “Here It Goes Again” has been watched more than 70 million times on YouTube, and nearly every video the band has released since seems to go viral instantly. While they’re not “stars” in the traditional musical-industry sense, who doesn’t like OK Go?

Even my 5-year-old, Frankie, became a fan after the band did a video about the “Three Primary Colors” on Sesame Street. Now she watches all of their videos, over and over, demanding to see “the marching band one” (“This Too Shall Pass”) or “the one where they’re driving” (“Needing/Getting”) or “the one where they’re in the park and there’s a goose” (“End Love”). “The one with the machine” can either mean “Here It Goes Again” or “This Too Shall Pass,” because kids are comfortable with expecting you to read their mind.

When I tell OK Go co-founder and bassist Tim Nordwind about this, he’s not the least bit surprised; he hears the same thing from parents all the time, he says. The band members themselves didn’t see it coming—who knew Sesame Street was like Spotify for toddlers?

“It’s actually really, really cool,” says Nordwind by phone. “Even if things don’t go as well as we want them to right now, I feel like we’ll be able to come back in, like, 15 years, and there’ll be this generation of fans who met us on Sesame Street.”

He laughs when he says it, but I’m not sure this is such a terrible idea. It’s not like musicians get 401ks.

I also tell him that he is Frankie’s favorite OK Go member; she often expresses her affection for “the man who sweeps up,” “the one with glasses,” or “the pink one” (track suit reference), depending on what video she’s watching. This may have something to do with the fact that while fellow band member Damian Kulash actually sings the songs, Nordwind lip-synchs them in most of the band’s videos.

“There’s a lot of confusion,” admits Nordwind. “For the longest time people thought I was the lead singer.” The tradition started, he explains, when upstart Chicago band OK Go—which was founded in the late ’90s, though Nordwind and Kulash had been best friends since the mid-’80s, when they met at art summer camp at age 11—performed a choreographed dance routine on the local public access show Chic-A-Go-Go. (“We watched a lot of ESPN cheerleading competitions and a lot of N’Sync and Backstreet Boys,” in preparation,” says Nordwind.) At the time, the only recording OK Go had done was a song called “C-C-C-Cinnamon Lips,” the only song Nordwind has sung vocals on ever for the band. Subsequently, when the band wanted to come up with routines, and then videos, for new songs, “all the guys wanted me to continue to front the dance routine,” despite the fact that he didn’t actually sing the songs.

I’m not actually surprised by this; the band’s videos prove Nordwind may be the coolest frontman ever to not actually be a frontman. Frankie, I explain to him, likes to copy his moves from the “White Knuckles” video, in which he does things like give a dog a high five, and bring his hands together as if in prayer while crouching like a badass.

“I’m glad she notices things like that, because I do spend a little time thinking about them,” he admits.

On the band’s newest album, Hungry Ghosts, he and the rest of the band were definitely thinking about ’80s alt-pop. While the previous Of The Color of the Blue Sky channeled some Prince in parts, Hungry Ghosts’ lead single “The Writing’s On the Wall” haunts with the whoo-ooh-oohs of New Order’s “Temptation.”

“I especially am the really big New Order fan,” says Nordwind. “It did not go unnoticed that especially musically it’s New Order-ish and Cure-ish. I think it could go either way. The backing vocals are definitely an homage to New Order.”

The other thing notable about the song is that it’s fueled by true melancholy, something that none of the songs on the stay-strong-at-any-costs message of Blue Sky were willing to succumb to.

“Both records are kind of breakup records, in a way,” says Nordwind. “But I think on Hungry Ghosts, maybe we’re trying to look at it from a couple-years-more-grown-up perspective—really trying to understand that weird gap between what you desire and what you can actually have and need to accept. Which is where the concept of hungry ghosts comes in. It’s a Buddhist concept, and the hungry ghost lives in that gap between desire and content. I feel like a lot of these songs are about the experience of living in that gray area.”


 

Info: Friday, March 20, 8 p.m.; Catalyst, Santa Cruz, $20/$22, 423-1338, catalystclub.com. PHOTO: OK GO: Left to right, Andy Ross, Tim Nordwind, a horse that just played cowbell on one track, Dan Konopka and Damian Kulash.

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