“You know it’s just open mic night, right?” That was the curt greeting OK Go received the last time they unloaded their gear in Ann Arbor. Since then, the Chicago quartet has gracefully made their way onto the national scene via their cathartic anthem “Get Over It.” Indeed, the band has taken its crunchy, intelligent rock across the country and back, and its fan base has grown in leaps and bounds.
It wasn’t always so easy, however. Guitarist Andy Duncan, bassist Tim Nordwind and drummer Dan Konopka toiled in Windy City obscurity before singer guitarist and longtime friend Damian Kulash arrived in Chicago from Brown University.
In the beginning, the band went about building a reputation much as it might in Ann Arbor: By posting flyers everywhere. “We’d sneak into the (Chicago) Art Institute to make them,” Kulash admits. “It’s important that you have people to listen to your music. Sometimes it just means putting your name everywhere until they wonder who you are.”
No one’s wondering anymore. Successful tours with established acts like Elliott Smith, The Vines and the Donnas, as well as radio and MTV exposure, have etched the band’s name onto the current music landscape.
Despite the heavy rotation, Kulash sees only slight similarities with their playlist peers. “We’re not part of any scene. If you look at what’s on the radio, we’re part of larger things that are not like Creed, or are not like Limp Bizkit.”
Despite being one of only a handful of bands playing smart pop-rock, OK Go has found allies in other progressive acts. “It’s nice that the White Stripes and the Strokes are on the radio … building off stuff that’s melodic and fun and not based on Pearl Jam.”
Indeed, the band seems to draw its influences from more disparate sources, and one listen to the album confirms it. For every straightforward rock nugget like “You’re So Damn Hot,” the band unfurls a charming, harmony-laden pop melody. Songs like “There’s a Fire” and “Hello My Treacherous Friends” recall the complex tunes of Elvis Costello and Big Star.
Kulash credits this to a wide base of influences: “The ideas behind our songs come from all over the place. We’re as likely to be inspired by Toto as by Prince as by Fugazi. We try to make [the songs] all melodic. I think it’s important that sometimes they engage your brain and sometimes they engage your gut.”
Fans can expect to hear that dual appeal this Tuesday, when the band takes another stab at Ann Arbor. They return as a headliner that’s made great strides in both their commercial and artistic development. “When we first played these songs they were a little simpler. We’ve added a keyboard player, because there’s so many extra lines.”
The “competitive rat race” of the record industry has certainly taken its toll, but it hasn’t dampened Kulash’s optimism. “There’s so much great music out there. We do our best to be a part of it.” This time, the mic is all theirs.