OK Go know they can’t top their just-released, already-legendary “Rube Goldberg video” for kinetic energy. So they’re going to the other extreme. “To my knowledge, this is the first time sleeping has been choreographed,” says front man Damian Kulash, fresh out of his sleeping bag. He and the other three band members are rising and shining in the first morning light that is streaming into L.A.’s Echo Park, where the group is filming a video for their song “End Love” in one elaborate eighteen-hour take that will be sped up to accompany four minutes of music. During the night, the quartet took turns waking up to lip-synch to the song … although moving your mouth at 1/600th the speed of real time is more like stop-motion animation.
An assistant darts in to apply some sunscreen to the now-upright band, whose next task is to stand perfectly still, even as unwitting picnickers frolic in the background of the frame. During this ordeal, a goose has become romantically attached to drummer Dan Konopka, waddling circles around him as he stands in a brightly colored tracksuit, arms outstretched at odd angles. “There’s points where I miss playing the drums,” admits the least performance-art-inclined member of the band. “And sometimes when we’re done recording and done with the tour and we focus on these videos, I kind of find myself being this production assistant. I don’t really have much to do except do the choreography or stand and get blasted in the face with paint, and sometimes I yearn: Man, it would be great to go do a gig. There’s this gulf, like, Holy shit. We’re gonna go jump on treadmills?” Still, he’s willing to run with (or stand still with) each new idea Kulash announces. “I love being a musician first, but making incredibly awesome art projects is a really, really close second.”
If this new video is an exercise in being radically stationary, in real life, it’s the music business that’s operating at a near halt, while OK Go is busily scurrying around on the fringes, trying to find that mythical new paradigm. They’ve come closer than most bands by becoming the undisputed kings of viral music videos. Their “treadmill video” has been viewed more than 50 million times in its official YouTube iteration alone. That seemed unrepeatable, but in just two months, the Rube Goldberg homage has already surpassed 10 million views. If they got paid every time someone watched an OK Go video, maybe they’d be wealthy enough to join the rumored corporate bidding for EMI Music.
Instead, they very publicly announced their divorce from EMI in March, having secured their freedom in order to win back their third album, Of the Blue Colour of the Sky—which Capitol released in January—and immediately rerelease it on their own label, Paracadute (“parachute” in Italian). Capitol reps did not respond to requests for comment, but it’s clear they felt there wasn’t nearly enough monetization to be had from a band whose free online ubiquity hasn’t remotely translated into record sales. (The latest disc has sold 30,000 and faces daunting odds on catching up with the previous album’s 269,000.) A devil’s advocate might reason that if people mostly know OK Go’s “hits” by their generic titles (the “treadmill video,” the “Goldberg video”) and not their actual titles (“Here It Goes Again,” “This Too Shall Pass”), maybe the hooks are strictly visual. Drama Cat is a YouTube superstar, too, but no one’s rushing to invest in his future, right? And if Damian Kulash is the charismatic rock star touted as a next big thing (as he has been for a decade), what kind of career self-sabotage leads him to cede his leading role to a ball dropping onto a lever that crashes a piano?
These questions tend to lose their urgency upon exposure to the charms of Kulash. He’s part classically wiry front-man rocker, part Ivy League brainiac whose idea of bringing sexy back is testifying before the House Judiciary Committee on Internet neutrality. Kulash has been fond of writing New York Times op-ed pieces about major-label shortsightedness; first, he opined about copy protection software, the short-lived practice that penalized the dwindling pool of CD buyers by making discs unrippable. Then, he fired another “warning shot across the bow,” as their manager, Jamie Kitman, puts it, by writing in the Times in February about the ridiculousness of labels’ making YouTube videos un-embeddable (even when the band finances the videos themselves, as OK Go has largely done). “Viral videos that are restrained from going viral” is a self-defeating concept, Kulash reckons. Whether Capitol wearied of taking these public shots or figured it had bigger fish to fry, it agreed to let one of its flagship acts go.