When Damian Kulash '98 got word last March that Capitol Records had just signed his Chicago-based indie rock band OK Go, he dashed off an e-mail to the band's fan list. "If I'm not mistaken," he wrote, "this entitles us to begin wearing leather pants and you to begin complaining about how much better we were before we went major label."
A year later, no one's complaining. The band's sound, a kind of radio-friendly pop with an intelligent, experimental undercurrent, has prompted its fan list to grow from 4,000 members to roughly 7,000. Along with industry insiders, they are eagerly awaiting the band's debut album, OK Go, which is scheduled for release in May.
At a recent packed concert at Bill's Bar in Boston, the band's appeal was clear. On the surface, OK Go could be any indie band in thrift-shop T-shirts and jeans (no leather pants yet), but the group stands out among self-conscious rockers as one that's not afraid to look like it's trying. As lead vocalist and guitarist, Kulash incited the Boston crowd to cheer for the covers they want ("White Snake, the Breeders, or the Pretenders?"). He and bassist Tim Nordwind jumped high above the stage to stop-time hooks. By the time they reached their stadium-rock finale, "Get Over It," the crowd was dancing along.
Kulash, a Washington, D.C., native, began developing his smart pop sound as an art and semiotics concentrator at Brown. He took the full series of electronic music courses and produced a demo of Elvis covers for his senior thesis. After graduation he moved to Chicago to join two old friends who had moved there for college: bassist Nordwind and Andrew Duncan, who plays keyboards and guitar. They added drummer Dan Knopka and launched the band in the fall of 1998. Soon their high-energy shows made them the darlings of Chicago's club scene. Picture the likability of They Might Be Giants (with whom OK Go toured last year) with the edginess and mystique of David Bowie or Prince. James VanOsdol of Chicago's Q101 Radio dubbed them the city's "best unsigned band." Marty Behm of the Chicago Tribune's Metromix.com has compared OK Go to "the twisted genius of early Beck."
OK Go fills a niche in popular music that's been vacant for some time - a serious talent that doesn't take itself too seriously. "There's this notion," says Kulash, "that if you're going to make intelligent music, it has to be dour and opaque. We're trying to make music that's fun without being stupid. We want to be a guilty pleasure minus the guilt."
Michelle Walson is a production assistant on the PBS documentary series The Visionaries. She lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.