By Maureen Callahan
For the past 25 years, Grammy-winning, indie alternative rock band OK Go has come to be known for their catchy melodies and extraordinarily creative videos.
They combine bright colors and patterns with zero-gravity, optical illusions, well-trained animals, and perhaps the world’s longest Rube Goldberg machine.
They’ve been called America’s most creative rock band for good reason. No other band takes this kind of time with their videos- an ingenious collaboration of art and physics- that are addicting to watch.
Contributing Editor, Maureen Callahan, recently chatted with OK Go drummer Dan Konopka, via Skype, from his L.A. home. The pop drummer fondly reminisced about his time growing up in Elmhurst, especially York High, and the influence midwestern roots have over his life.
Have you always been musical?
I’m from a musical family. I’ve been a drummer since I was 9. My mom played piano and organ. My oldest brother, a classical musician, paved the way for my career in music.
He became the head violinist in a major metropolitan orchestra, so he helped me see music as a legitimate career path I could pursue. From fourth grade until now, this has been me.
What did you like best about Elmhurst?
I was born in Elmhurst. I loved York High. I had great teachers and friends. I got along with the sporty people, the artsy people- pretty much everyone. I really enjoyed it. I’ve been back to work with the York students for Fine Arts Week. My overarching message to high schoolers is not to be scared to pursue art as a career.
I’ve been in L.A for the last 17 years. The L.A. community isn’t as tight knit as what I was used to in Elmhurst. Out here, it’s so packed with people and saturated with kids who aren’t really allowed to just be kids and play outside.
Everyone must always have a parent with them at every moment. It’s just different than how I grew up. That said, I’m moving with my family to Nashville in July. We’ll be south of the city in a very Elmhurst-esque community!
What are your favorite cities/theaters to play?
I loved playing Paris. And it was great to get down to New Zealand. These days, Chicago is our favorite, though. It’s where we’re from! The crowds are psyched, and my family comes out to the shows. It’s always a good time.
I like playing the Metro because it’s small. The people there have been there forever, too, and it’s got a nice vibe to it. I also like Northerly Island. That venue is unique.
How was your experience at Lollapalooza?
We liked it a ton. When you play festivals, you usually play with bands that are bigger than you, and as a musician, when I get done playing a show, I’m just done.
But if Draft Punk is playing on the next stage, I’m definitely going to listen. The last time we played Lolla, we performed at noon. Daylight and rock ‘n roll don’t always go together, but it was fun!
What is it like playing for a crowd the size of Lolla?
The smaller the crowd, the more interesting the show, I find. We played in front of 40,000 people at a show in Korea. You don’t form a great connection with the audience. It’s easier to do that with a small crowd. A big crowd is fun because there’s a lot of energy, but it’s a huge wall of people.
Often, there’s a barricade between the stage and the audience that puts the crowd even further away. I liked the gigs we did when we first started, and people were right up against the monitors, 5 feet away. It’s fun to see the crowd’s reaction.
How does the band decide on their stage effects?
A lot of the stuff we do on stage is pretty standard. We might overdue the confetti, but people like it, and it’s not that expensive. Over the years, we kind of take notes of what we see other bands doing and what works best versus what we can afford.
How does OK Go come up with their iconically artistic videos?
Our videos start out as simple thoughts at first. We bounce ideas off each other. We’re all pretty nerdy! Two of the guys in the band are very mathematical. Damien [Kulash, lead singer and guitarist] has a degree in symbiotics, so the ideas are there. One of us says, ‘let’s do a video on treadmills.’ Full stop.
Or ‘let’s do a video in microgravity.’ Next comes funding for the idea, so we can actually pull it off in the environment we have in our heads. Then we create a storyline to figure out what would have an emotional effect. We plan an entertaining arc of things to see so the audience doesn’t get bored. There’s a lot to manage during a three-minute song.
How did you film the Upside Down & Inside Out video in zero gravity?
It wasn’t perfect zero gravity; it was actually microgravity. We did two flights a day for 28 days, trying to get it right during filming. We got onto the plane and did the maneuver to get the feel of it.
The airplane was fighting against turbulence, and weather played into it, too, so the experience inside the fuselage was different from flight to flight. Sometimes we ended up floating to the right or the left because the plane was changing angles! It was very hard, but it’s my favorite video.
That video was filmed in an airplane outside Moscow. It was much more economically feasible to shoot there. A privately owned airline, F7, paid for it. If we had shot it in the U.S., it would have cost about $8 million. To fund our videos, we create relationships with corporate sponsors and their ad agencies. We get them to use one of our songs.
Then we direct a commercial, which is actually our video, but we promote the sponsor in it. We always feel lucky when a company like Morton Salt works with us to make this happen. We always make sure they’re given props at the beginning and end of the videos so the audience knows they sponsored it. Their advertising clearly comes across.
What is OK Go Sandbox?
OK Go Sandbox is a non-profit organization we started as a tool for teachers. We get messages from teachers all over the world telling us they use our videos in class as part of their curriculum. A professor from the University of St Thomas in Minnesota who was the head of a S.T.E.A.M. (science, technology, engineering, art, and math), department reached out to us.
She wanted to figure out how our videos could be teaching tools. So we started making videos for teachers to help educate students. Never did I think we would be involved in educating kids through our music videos. We just wanted to be musicians and make the artwork we wanted to make. It’s been great!
We have some new music recorded. We’re just waiting for two or three more songs to release an album. Lead singer Damian Kulash and his wife made a movie that will be out on Apple TV+ at the end of July.
Some of our music is in it. Aside from that, I’ve been doing a lot of session drumming and mixing and full production, so if people are interested in having me play drums or mix their solo work or help produce music, they can contact me, Dan Konopka, at [email protected]. ■