OK Go members offer tips, play songs in informal event

Daniel Head

Leaving their treadmills and dapper suits at home, three members of OK Go turned the McCormick Tribune Center Forum into their own unplugged concert and songwriting tutorial for a group of about 30 students, faculty and local residents Friday afternoon.

Sponsored by the Center for the Writing Arts, members of the Chicago-bred power-pop group spoke about their songwriting techniques in between playing three acoustic sets of their songs to the small crowd. Lead singer and guitarist Damian Kulash spoke during most of the event, explaining that his songwriting follows no formula or plan.

“The good songs just write themselves,” he said. “Trying to fit a song into a marketing box of any kind, whether or not it’s visual – those just never do much.”

Stacy Oliver, assistant director of the center, moderated the event, asking the performers questions about writing pop music, influences and how they promoted their songs. Pop-song writing is a very relevant art in modern culture, Oliver said.

“Where would our society be without, ‘She loves you yeah, yeah, yeah?'” Oliver asked, referring to The Beatles’ famous song.

Throughout the hourlong talk, Oliver let the band play sets of songs from their two studio albums with new arrangements. Kulash, bassist Tim Nordwind and guitarist Andy Ross played most songs on two acoustic guitars and a toy glockenspiel – or a “rockenspiel,” as they referred to it. Drummer Dan Konopka did not attend the event.

Oliver later asked the band about dealing with the public’s reaction to their songwriting. Kulash reminded the audience that Pitchfork Media, the popular music critique Web site, gave both of their records bad reviews.

“I hate music journalism,” he said. “All I can think about is the machinery of the music industry. All I can see is the business side of music when I read music journalism.”

Oliver and the band members briefly mentioned the band’s Grammy-winning, homemade music video for the song “Here It Goes Again,” featuring the band performing a choreographed dance on treadmills. The video became an Internet favorite, receiving about 1.4 million views on YouTube in a 24-hour period, which catapulted the band to international fame.

“Our fan base has gotten bigger, but I don’t think we pander to those people,” Nordwind said.

Their online stardom got Kulash involved with the debate about whether Internet users should have control over online content . He recently spoke in Washington, D.C. and wrote a column in The New York Times defending the ability to independently post easily accessible content online. But he said he is cautious to become too political as a songwriter.

“I think about the song ‘Ohio,’ by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, both as a pop song and as a call to arms,” he said to the audience. “What is unsuccessful is when people try to fit some chords and lyrics around their political ideas.”

The three finished their third music set with a cover of Electric Light Orchestra’s “Don’t Bring Me Down” and “Here It Goes Again.” They then spoke to nearly every student who came before taking off for a sound check for their free show in Grant Park in Chicago for the Manifest Urban Arts Festival later that day.

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