Even if the name does not ring any bells, chances are you will be familiar with the work of OK Go. The Chicago rockers’ video for their song Here It Goes Again, featuring the band performing an intricately choreographed dance routine on treadmills, has been viewed almost 50 million times on YouTube, earned the band a Grammy for best music video and was even parodied on The Simpsons.
The lead singer in that video, thanks to his ability to dance and lip-sync simultaneously, was bass player and native of Kalamazoo, Michigan, Tim Nordwind.
“The Jewish population in Kalamazoo is bigger than one might assume,” he says. “There are two synagogues there. My family went to the Reform. The Arts Community was surprisingly good too. Kalamazoo is in between Detroit and Chicago, so we got a lot of cultural traffic.”
Nordwind met guitarist and lead singer Damian Kulash at art camp when they were 11. They stayed friends, moved to Chicago and formed OK Go in 1998. Four years later their self-titled debut album emerged, containing a hit single, Get Over It, which worked its way up to 21 in the British singles chart and garnered the band an appearance on Top of the Pops. Their second album, 2005’s Oh No, also performed well, and reached the mid-20s both sides of the Atlantic.
“We had two albums out on a major label, although we were living somewhat hand to mouth,” admits Nordwind. “They were scary times in the sense that we didn’t know what the future held in store. It was hard to tell if the band had run its course or not.”
The first step in OK Go’s transformation into internet icons was almost an afterthought. An unofficial video for the single A Million Ways featured the four members of the band performing a one-take dance routine in Kulash’s garden. Sent to friends and fans, the video made its way onto YouTube, where it became a minor sensation.
“I was glad people liked it because this was us being us,” says Nordwind. “We’d been struggling with the record label on what we were going to put out into the world creatively. They really hated our ideas. They were afraid we’d look gay or something.”
Towards the end of the Oh No campaign the band thought it would be fun to create another dance video as a gift for their fans. This time, it would involve treadmills.
“If anything, I was a little scared to actually put it out into the world,” insists Nordwind. “We already had one dance video. The idea was, let’s make it and if it’s cool we’ll put it out. If not, we never have to show it to anyone. We didn’t tell anyone we were doing it. Not our label. Not our management. We just went and did it.
“We knew pretty quickly once it was out that it was doing something. The first day on YouTube it got a million views. The second day it got another million views. When the MTV Music Awards asked us to perform it we knew something was happening. I’m very happy those videos have done well. It’s allowed us to have a career making weird, fun and interesting things. That’s the position we always wanted to be in.”
OK Go’s weird, fun and interesting career arc has resulted in a third album, Of The Blue Colour Of The Sky, where funk has supplanted the band’s rockier tendencies. “We made two pretty heavy guitar-centric albums,” says Nordwind. “After two-and-a-half years of touring we’ve exorcised those guitar demons. We were looking to get excited by something else this time. Stuff that was on the radio when we were kids, like Prince and Michael Jackson.”
Although OK Go’s records may never reach the same kind of iconic status as their low-budget video masterpieces, Nordwind and the band can smile knowing that they’ll always have one notable celebrity admirer. “We were playing a show in Wyoming at a university during the presidential campaign,” he recalls. “Barack Obama was speaking on campus, and we were like: ‘Oh! My! God!’ Someone from his campaign had got in contact with us earlier because they wanted to use some of our music. We got to hang out with Obama for 10 minutes before he went on to speak. He’s tall and he looks you dead in the eyes and he is clearly a first-class world leader. He was familiar with the band. He knew the video. Whether he was made aware of us five minutes earlier I’ll never be able to tell.
“At one point he looked at me and said: ‘Hey, I like your style.’ I was flabbergasted.”