For OK Go, Apps Are Just Another Extension Of Their Art

Posted May 20

When you hear the words “band app,” what comes to mind? Likely a sad shell of a digital offering, serving up a sparse smattering of tour dates, song samples, photos and videos. Not so with OK Go’s new app, Say The Same Thing — a band-branded social game that expands OK Go’s circle of artistic offerings without being explicitly about their music.

Over the years, OK Go’s name has become synonymous with innovation — from their off-the-wall music videos (featuring treadmills, Rube Goldberg machines and dogs!) to the drive it took to leave a major label and launch their own venture, Paracadute. Now, the band is continuing its mission to use all available mediums to their benefit with the launch of a new social game, Say The Same Thing, which was conceptualized during long van rides whilst on tour.

The app, which had netted around 550,000 downloads last week — and nabbed the distinction of being the 50 billionth app downloaded from Apple — was developed by resident band tech head, Andy Ross, and is available for free in the iTunes store and Google Play. It’s a pretty simple little game that you can play with either a stranger or friend (or the band itself) that asks each player to type in a word, and then try to guess a related word at the same time.

We spoke with the band’s lead singer, Damian Kulash, about how the idea to make a game came about, as well as apps as an art form. Check out our interview below:

So this isn’t the first app you guys have created, right?

[Band member] Andy [Ross] is a very experienced programmer. He has made some other apps. The band had only done one other app under the band name, which was a collaboration with This American Life. We did a live show with them where people in movie theatres all around the world — it was a simulcast thing where we played handbells — people could play along with the handbell app that we made. That’s the only app that the band has ever released. Andy, of course, has done some of his own programming as well.

Where did the idea come from?

It’s an old improv game. It’s a thing that improv people used to use to warm up. In long van rides and stuff it’s a good way to pass the time. Obviously, you don’t need the app to play the game; it’s a game that could be played just with two people sitting in a room. With the app, it lets you play with people who aren’t sitting in the room with you.

Andy started coding the app to see if he could make a mobile version of that game. We all started playing that and realized: This has nothing to do with our music, obviously — it has nothing to do with our videos or our live show or anything, but the reason we make songs, the reason we make albums, the reason we make videos — it’s all trying to create an experience for someone to enjoy themselves. To give somebody an emotional experience — a gift. The app really is another version of that. Rather than making an app that is a promotion for the band, why not make the app as its own artwork and just do an app for its own sake?

It’s also pretty indicative of the personality of your band, right?

This will sound so pretentious and highfaluting, but I think that the definitions of what musicians or what bands or artists are, they’re all sort of based in the modes of distribution of the last century. What the Beatles were working with was a 12-inch piece of plastic and they did everything they could with a 12-inch piece of plastic. Screwing with it in all kinds of interesting ways — like the lock groove at the end of Sgt. Pepper’s and everything. That was their medium.

Now, everyone has the same medium — everyone’s doing ones and zeroes, whether you’re a journalist or you’re a musician or you’re a filmmaker. Everyone’s working in the same space. Instead of thinking of ourselves as a band in the traditional sense, like, ‘OK, you play the guitar, you play the drums,’ — that’s where we started and now if we have a good idea we make it. If that idea happens to be another song or another album, or another show, then, good. If that idea happens to be an app or a video, then we’ll do that instead. They all feel sort of like relevant ways to be creative.

Yeah, a lot of apps seem like promotional apps — with tour dates and everything. But then sometimes someone like Brian Eno creates something new, like Scape, — an artform.

There’s two ways to look at all of the things connected to being a band. You can look at it the ’90s way, which is that a video is an advertisement for the song and the concert is promotional for the album. The songwriting itself is the grunt work that you have to do to wind up with the recording — that three-and-a-half-minute piece of music — [which] is the value. That’s what people care about, so everything else is just promotional.

I think a more contemporary way to look at it is, you get to make all these different things. Any creative person has the outlet to make whatever. Whether it’s music, websites, interactive experiences, videos. We all have the same tools. So, instead of looking at the all the connected stuff — the stuff that’s connected to being a band — as being promotional to that, we look at those other things as creative opportunities.

When we’re making an app, we think about whether or not we’d want to play this app — not the sort of fan club-style app, which gives people one more way to access tour dates or find your music. That has a use, but that’s not something that seems all that fun in an app. That’s information that’s already out there.

I remember talking to you a while ago about your videos in the same way. That they’re not promotional, they’re art.

It shocks me that so much of the way people look at culture around them is still sort of in these well-defined boxes. ‘Well, that’s art, that goes in an art museum. This is commerce and this should be somewhere else.’ When you hear numbers like 50 billion apps are downloaded, it’s pretty clear that that’s contemporary culture right there. That’s where we live. 50 billion? That’s 10 times as many people as there are on Earth. Well, almost.

The idea that people would look at the Internet as sort of a separate space from physical space in some sort of meaningful way — that apps are this little cultural cul-de-sac where nerds are living — that’s obviously not true. We’re all living there. In the same way that people pick up instruments in whatever era and use whatever’s lying around, the instruments that we pick up now are just as much our phones and laptops as they are our guitars and drums. This is where we live.

So why did you make the decision to let people play against you in the app? How is that working?

There’s about 90,000 people signed up to play with us right now, so it’s working great in one respect! It seemed like it connected this full circle. Like, why would a band make this thing? Well, look, you can play it with us. It seemed right.