OK Go: Viral masters go Tokyo

When Tokyo Flow reaches OK Go’s Damian Kulash, the singer is in Phoenix for a funeral. Despite the circumstances, Kulash’s trademark enthusiasm bubbles back as talk turns to the band’s tour-de-force video for “I Won’t Let You Down,” shot in Japan.

“It really was a new experience in a lot of ways,” he says. The piece features thousands of Japanese high school girls dancing en masse, filmed by drone from above, and the four members of OK Go gamboling about on Honda U3-X personal mobility devices.

“Director Morihiro Harano and the band saw eye to eye,” Kulash continues about the video which, at this writing, had been viewed
15 million times on YouTube. “It’s always magical when you align with someone creatively, and you feel like the whole is more than the sum of the parts. It’s even more magical when you’re crossing the language barrier.”

Choreographed by Japan’s Air:man, “I Won’t Let You Down” is a disco-flavored trifle of a dance number that sees the high school girls—epitomizing kawaii—deploying umbrellas in precise movements to create what from above looks like a shifting work of contemporary art.

People may be reminded of Japanese painter Yayoi Kusama’s dots or North Korea’s mass games, but the main inspiration goes back to 1930s Hollywood. “Busby Berkeley was a famous American choreographer from the ’30s, and he liked graphic aerial shots a lot,” Kulash explains, “so what you see in our video with the kaleidoscopic shots from on high, he often did that in the studio with dancers.”

Forming in Chicago in the late ’90s, OK Go have become known as much for their peppy pop-rock and their stint as the house band for NPR’s “This American Life,” as for their elaborate videos, which collectively boast over 100 million YouTube views.

To what does OK Go ascribe the remarkable audience for their videos online? “We don’t try to spell out our lyrics or match the song’s emotional content,” hazards Kulash. “We look at the shape of the song, and try to match the arc of it. For example, with a sad song, rather than trying to make a sad video, we try to make something with the same ups and downs. What we hope is people will see that this three-minute thing is not about the lyrics, it’s just this piece of art for them to like—there’s a radical transparency of process.”

ok go 3 Ok Go goes Tokyo

The success of OK Go’s videos means the revenues from them form a key part of the band’s income, and Kulash even appears on panels devoted to the secrets of making viral videos. The band has become something of a poster child for the way post-analog bands leverage numerous media formats to get their music out.

“We like to think that recorded music in the 20th century existed in a bubble and there were no commercial pressures on it, and it was art,” Kulash reflects, “and no wonder we hated the labels—they were doing all the dirty work and paying themselves 90 percent of the profits.”

Kulash observes that in the current, more complex environment of downloads and streams, it’s more difficult to figure out the commercial side of one’s artistic endeavor. OK Go’s solution has been to, so to speak, get in bed with the enemy.

“We find it creatively freeing to go into business with people directly,” he says. “We know then what’s expected of us and vice versa. So rather than having a record company who thinks they know better than you what to do with your art, we work with people who want to be associated with what we do. It’s a much healthier relationship.”

In the case of “I Won’t Let You Down,” there’s the obvious promotion for Honda’s mobility device. “I can’t discuss the specifics of our deal with Honda—but we knew what was expected of us and what wasn’t,” says Kulash. “We knew they would let us make the video exactly as we wanted and have creative control. They didn’t want to change what we were doing because they liked it.”

Kulash says people need to get over the idea of sponsorship as crass. “That’s where a lot of the music is to be found these days because radio plays only a few extremely well-funded acts,” he says. “I have problems with corporate domination of culture, but as long as I’m not in a position where I’m shilling products, I’d rather be where culture is actually happening than try to avoid it.”

OK Go has had a fan base in Japan ever since touring its eponymous debut album in 2002. Last summer’s packed Fuji Rock appearance and the upcoming sold-out date in Tokyo indicate just to what extent “I Won’t Let You Down” has cemented the band’s relationship with people here. “In Japan, it feels like everyone is a nerd about something—whether it’s film or rock ‘n’ roll or bowling,” Kulash says. “Having our music finally take off there just feels right.”

The singer is an astute observer of the way music scenes have evolved since OK Go’s days on the Chicago band scene. “Those communities used to be based around physical proximity,” he notes. “They still exist, but now they’re based around concepts or styles or artistic choices rather than geographic locations.”

Whether in a close physical community of bands, or a digitally diffused community of creators, the social role of music is clearly one of its most important. But Kulash says it’s music’s secret sauce that made it his life choice.

“For me, music is the only thing that can scratch that itch,” he says. “I think the reason why is, life is not simple. In your most joyous moments there is melancholy. For example, I’m talking to you from a funeral today. Being human is so complex and magnificent, and for me the interplay of sounds speaks to me in those complex emotions.

“An amazing fact is that when people sing together, their heartbeats align, and they release oxytocin on the level of sex. Oxytocin generates feelings of loyalty and love, and if you can generate that in a society by performing music, then it has a huge function in making society whole. It’s amazing that you can get the same answer scientifically and emotionally and evolutionarily—which is that music is fucking magic.”

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Indie Seers: Ogre You Asshole’s elegant introspection

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A sense of honeyed sadness suffuses Nagano indie rockers Ogre You Asshole’s new album Papercraft. “If you must put it into words,” frontman Manabu Deto says of the trilogy the disc completes, “the unifying theme of those three albums would be ‘someplace cozy and comfortable, yet miserable.’”

Deto is reluctant to comment further on any specific themes of the album’s songs but prodded on the matter, offers the following metaphor:  “Something that looks decent on the surface could be so shallow and flimsy when viewed from a different angle—like a stage prop in a play.” It’s a sentiment reflected in the cover of Papercraft, which depicts a Hollywood-style building façade: All surface and no depth.

Perhaps it’s the slower pace of country life or the distance from Tokyo’s commercial entertainment industry, but Ogre You Asshole’s sound impresses as more contemplative than that of many indie rock outfits in the capital.

All surface and no depth: The Papercraft cover depicts Hollywood-style building facade

Since forming a decade ago in Nagano, the band has stubbornly resisted the lures of the big city. The ability to step back and do something expansive and conceptual is important to its members. “Creative activities of artists change with the times,” Deto says, “even more so in the rapidly changing times we live in. In such a transitory world, in order for Ogre not to be affected by fast-changing trends and create a series of works with a strong unifying theme, we had an understanding between the band and our production team that it was necessary for us to take a few years making three albums so our listeners could gain an understanding of our work.”

Papercraft launches with “Someone’s Dream,” a noire outing that sounds like it could appear on a Wim Wenders or Quentin Tarantino soundtrack. The album then segues through the boogaloo beats of “Perfect Lovers in the Perfect City” to the laconic, slide guitar-driven title track.

Throughout, Deto’s singing and his bandmates, guitarist Kei Mabuchi, drummer Takashi Katsuura and bassist Takashi Shimizu’s playing are understated yet always unexpected. Listeners familiar with cult psych rock band Yura Yura Teikoku will detect a rich vein of quirky influences from leader Shintaro Sakamoto.

Deto cites Sakamoto’s “strong concepts,” and Papercraft was in fact produced by You Ishihara and engineered by Souichiro Nakamura, both of whom worked with Yura Yura Teikoku. The album’s analog recording approach and use of vintage instruments like the mellotron also impart a nostalgic acid rock atmosphere that gives it a certain kinship with Sakamoto’s work.

Ogre’s psych rock appeal has made the group a favorite touring partner of bands like Modest Mouse (whose bassist gave them their name from the film Revenge of the Nerds), Wolf Parade and Deerhunter. Live, the band stretches out on extended improvisational excursions that evoke Krautrock, another key influence.

But Ogre You Asshole aren’t trying to lead or follow any specific trend or pop music phenomenon. “For the past few years, I’ve been listening mainly to music of the ‘60s and ‘70s, so I don’t really know much about the current music scene,” Deto says.

“I thought bands such as Deerhunter, MGMT and Wolf Parade, with whom we performed in Japan, were all good. I recently heard Flying Lotus and Ariel Pink, and they were good too. But we don’t really know much about them and aren’t so interested in what’s happening in the Japanese band scene.”

Dec 27, 7pm. ¥3,600. Liquidroom, 3-16-6 Higashi, Shibuya-ku. Nearest station: Shibuya. http://meturl.com/ogrepapercraft


Ten Indispensable Albums
We asked Ogre You Asshole’s Manabu Deto to name ten albums he simply could not do without.

  1. Joe Meek, I Hear a New World
    Kei (Mabuchi/OYA’s guitarist) wrote a song that reminded me of this Joe Meek album, which we recorded for the Japanese Anime “Space Dandy.”
  2. Can, Tago Mago
    Back in our college days, a friend of mine used to play this album a lot. It brings back memories and so I guess this is my favorite of all Can albums.
  3. Modest Mouse, This Is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About
    This is the album that I listened to most in my college days when we started our band. It’s different from the kind of music we play now as OYA, but I still think it sounds great.
  4. Todd Rungren, Something Anything?
    I like all of Todd Rungren’s albums, but particularly like this one. I guess this album shows what I think of as “mellow.”
  5. Arthur Russell, World of Echo
    It’s so soothing that I could just keep listening to it.
  6. Stereo Lab & Nurse With Would, Simple Headphone Mind
    I’ve been listening to Stereo Lab for quite some time, but I’ve just recently heard this album they made with a noise/industrial rock band called Nurse With Wound for the first time. I thought that they were doing the kind of minimal musical phrases we sought to create (on our new album Papercraft) already in the ‘90s.
  7. Terry Riley, A Rainbow Curved Air
    The thing I like about Terry Riley is that his music sounds inorganic, but if you keep listening to it, it gradually leads you to a trippy state.
  8. Yo La Tengo, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside­-Out
    The thing I like about Yo La Tengo is that just by listening to their album, I can tell that they truly love music.
  9. Throbbing Gristle, 20 Jazz Funk Greats
    In between albums “100 years passed” and “Papercraft”, OYA released an album called “Confidential” which we rearranged songs from our early days. We came up with the ideal of adding industrial rock elements like that of D.A.F. and Throbbing Gristle and it turned out quite interesting.
  10. Lou Reed, Transformer
    The first solo album by Lou Reed that I ever listened to was New York (released in 1989). I thought that I prefer the Velvet Underground over his solo works, but then when I started listening to his earlier solo albums released during the ‘70s, I came to like his solo works more.

Ken Tanaka: YouTube star smashes stereotypes

We tracked down Ken Tanaka, the Caucasian-Japanese star of numerous YouTube shorts parodying Asian stereotypes.

Tanaka says he was adopted by Japanese parents in the ’70s, and was only recently reunited with his long-lost twin brother, Californian actor/comedian David Ury. Despite their side-by-side appearances in videos seen by thousands, some still suspect they’re—ahem—the same person.

Why did your Japanese parents decide to adopt a Caucasian American?

In the mid-’70s, Japan had a big booming economy and it was popular for Japanese families to adopt American babies. Kind of like how American celebrities such as Madonna and Angelina Jolie adopt babies from other countries.

What was it like growing up as a white Japanese person in rural Shimane?

I lived in a very small village high in the mountains with a population of under one hundred people. Everybody had known me since I was a baby, so nobody treated me any differently than any other boy in my town. 

How is your search for your birth parents going?

It is a difficult journey, but I will never give up. 

What inspired you to begin making videos?

I met a person when I first came to Los Angeles who suggested that YouTube would be a great way for me to share my story. I had never heard of YouTube before and I had never made a video. But my friend had a camera; he showed me how to work it and how to upload videos. It’s been seven years now since my first video.

Tell us why Asian stereotypes make your videos funny.

You’re probably referring to our videos, “What Kind of Asian Are You?,” “But We’re Speaking Japanese,” and “Asian Stereotype Police.” These are all videos that question assumptions about race and identity. When we write these comedy sketches, we look for common but absurd situations that we think people will be able to identify with.

How does the response to your videos about Asian stereotypes differ in the West and Asia?

For “What Kind of Asian Are You?” we got a lot of comments from Caucasian people who were sure this could never happen in real life—and then a lot of comments from Asian people who said they experienced this kind of situation often. I think people in the West generally are more sensitive about these kinds of comedy videos.

What do you have in mind for your next video?

We just released a new video where David and I discuss Japanese jokes and David tells some jokes that I have heard from many Japanese language learners.

Tell us about your new book.

Earlier this year, my brother and I collaborated on a new book called Everybody Dies: A Children’s Book for Grown-Ups. It’s an illustrated picture book that can help grown-ups cope with the inevitable fate that awaits us all. It includes fun activities like “match the corpse to the cause of death” and a last will and testament that you can fill out. It’s fun for the whole family. 

More information on Ken Tanaka, his work and his books can be found at www.kentanakalovesyou.com