Over Our Heads - OK Go plays Times Square

by Stephaine Witherspoon

We are thirty-six floors up waiting for OK Go to take the stage for their New Year’s Eve performance atop the Pontiac Garage in New York City’s Times Square, to be televised on (of all places) ESPN. Several girlfriends and associates huddle around one of the suite’s open windows, tilted to its maximum regulatory 15 degrees to hear the jumbled roar of the 1.2 million people below. Tim Nordwind, bassist, stretches out on a sofa lining the wall of windows listening in on a conversation of growing concern between lead singer Damian Kulash and tour manager Mike Kent. There’s always a glitch, and tonight’s malfunction is whether or not the band will refuse to perform their big-ticket dance routine unless Pontiac’s hired stagehands agree to lay out the rug they’d already approved for their performance. “It’s like Ice,” says Kulash. “You hate to play that card…” A statement summarily finished by Kent: “But if we have to, we will.” The problem is that the Pontiac Garage stage is really just the roof of a four-story building, which juts out into the center of Times Square–at this moment a snow and rain-swept plane stretching precipitously out over a sea of onlookers (or up-lookers, as the case may be). This is a once in a lifetime event, but no one is willing give their lives. Kent, who seems like he could muster some true rock n’ roll manager grit if necessary, calls up a stagehand and runs down a terse list of possible solutions–the demand softened only by lighting a cigarette and exhaling his acknowledgement that this whole fiasco is not the stagehand’s explicit fault.

Ok Go is a Chicago based band that had a modestly successful self-titled debut six years ago with the hit “Get Over It” and is coming off the American leg of the tour for their new CD “Oh No.” During their career they’ve played with a wide assortment of headliners from rock legends “The Bangles” to middle-tier college band “Nickleback;” and tonight they’ll play with rap-rock groups Puddle of Mud and P.O.D. Truth is they’ll play with just about anyone because they’re not–or at least they weren’t–a band that worries how they might be perceived by association. Just as they’re not a band that worries about playing fairly straightforward pop songs. “I have a great relationship to my music,” says Kulash. In fact, a bit of maturity and a developing persona as the Victorian patterned, Rococo glam, Oscar Wildean, rock sophisticates has widened their appeal to include a more discerning audience. Which explains why they are now opening for the likes of Spoon and Kaiser Chiefs.

However, what’s landed them this coveted gig is the recent success of their “A Million Ways” video, a homemade production that is at once a tongue-in-cheek boy band parody and also a damned good choreographed dance. The video, originally intended to entice acclaimed director Michel Gondry–known for his video work for Bjork and Beck– was reputedly leaked through some friends and became one of those instant internet phenomena, logging 3 million downloads in a matter of weeks and inspiring high school students across the country to recreate the dance for their school assemblies and broadcast the results over their myspace profiles (for step by step instructions visit OK Go’s website). Myspace, also, happens to be why I’m even present tonight –as the wardrobe assistant for A Fine Tooth, a vintage men’s clothing start-up based in San Francisco, which managed to land this gig after “friending” the band less than a week ago.

There’s a knock on the door, cutting short the debate between Kent and Kulash. It’s room service returning with an estimate on the cost of a bottle of Vodka, as neither hard liquor nor Champagne were provided in the spacious after party suite. As it turns out the good stuff is running about $140 a bottle while the well vodka is going for $180, a curious predicament. Despite these technical difficulties and the 1.2 million people below the band seems…relaxed. In fact, Damian is telling an animated story about the time the band stayed in a hotel where a LARPing (live action role playing) convention was underway and how throughout the course of the evening he was taken into “their world”–a story that’s more about being unapologetic about your own interests than a snide account of other people’s weirdness. Like most of the anecdotes he tells throughout the night there’s a mix of bombastic humor and self-effacement.

Kulash, as expected of a front man, is the bands’ magnetic center. He’s one of those individuals that don’t simply arrive somewhere, but instead manifest; and at first you don’t quite know how to make room for his presence. When we first encountered him he’d just returned from a haircut, which he didn’t think he liked. “You know how the stylist always gives you the same haircut as their own,” he’d instantly said as he entered, all the while disappointedly mussing his hair this way and that. The haircut I noted, was not so bad–rather Beck-like circa Sea Change–an easy comparison given his waif-ish, indie-rock air. He’s energetic, frenetic, charming and flutters about the room picking up various articles of clothing wondering whether or not they’ll “pop.” “I mean it’s obviously gorgeous, gorgeous stuff.” Well, obviously, but for a 27 year-old front man who has six years of studied self-promotion and grueling tour schedules under his belt, gorgeous isn’t necessarily good enough.

The other band members sling jackets on and off, bantering about the G.O.P.’s Christmas wars. “This year I was just a foot soldier. Next year I want to be a general,” jokes Kulash. Tim Nordwind with his trademark heavy rimmed glasses and looking a bit like Peter Sellers slips into a dapper green jacket that could work–but we have to make the band work together and Damian isn’t that into it. He continues rejecting items because they’re too match-ey or band-ey or courderoy-ey, everything is suffixed with an “-ey” and just when you’d like to dismiss the guy as a vacant rock fop you remember that he’s also a semiotics major who understands, for instance, that a bling gold elephant brooch is too “Coming to America” Nubian and a jeweled green flower pendant is a bit too Haight Ashbury.

Room service takes pity on us and delivers a bottle of Kettle One. We fill our glasses and return to our positions by the window. Mary J. Blige brings her set to a close and the crowd lets loose a dislocated crescendo. Tim comforts himself with the thought that with so many people it’s almost like playing to no one at all, just a selectively attentive backdrop of white noise.

Times Square on New Years Eve is, as one would imagine—a nightmare of sensory offenses. A brutal crush of people so intense even those without an acute sense of crowd dynamics briefly imagine some horrific scenario of mass exodus, but the current of excitement is strong enough to push any fight-or-flight instincts aside and these passes dangling about our necks give us special powers as we’re waved past the hoards of people in gated off holding pens and ushered through a maze of back doors and freight elevators.

We first head over to the Renaissance hotel for a press interview and photo ops. In the press room a small spread of pasta salad and finger sandwiches lines the back wall while a sound guy and one die hard New Yorker watch the game on a portable T.V. (sorry all games are The Game to me). Not exactly a scene of consummate professionalism, but then again this is for ESPN, a relative newcomer to the New Years’ eve network challenge.

The only press present is what is clearly a reporter for Pontiac—I didn’t know car companies had reporters. When the band walks into the room, someone remarks: “Whoa! Is it 2006 or 1976?” (Try 1876.) The interviewer prompts Kulash and Nordwind to speak enthusiastically about Times Square’s New Years Eve Celebration in general and Pontiac Garage (the stage they’ll be performing on) in particular. P.O.D. just went through this rather painful process of iterating and reiterating just how exciting it was to perform in Times Square (as opposed to Madison Square Garden, I suppose) and just how thankful they are to Pontiac for making it all happen. Kulash is a quick study and hits all the marks articulately and with a measure of flamboyance. When I tease him later about “the Pontiac reporter” and taking all cues in perfect stride, he’s pragmatic: “They paid a lot of money to put on this event. Of course, they’re going to want to promote it. I think it’s great that they want bands like us to play.” Touché. Anyway, the Rock Star, who is constitutionally unable to believe in the harmonious co-existence of creativity and commercialism, is so …1996.

A fact that seems clear to me, but what’s not clear about this evening is where are the “professional” reporters? OK Go are a signed band on Capitol records with a hit video off their latest album. And here they are playing Times Square to an audience of a million plus. So where are Capitol’s representatives in all this? Where are their press agents? Where’s Rolling Stone? I mean, aren’t we, or at least they, almost famous?

As the band tells it, Capital has a habit of completely missing the ball when it comes to their successes; but, then again, if Capitol were here we probably would not be, since major labels typically don’t book stylist gigs with one-month-old clothing shops through myspace (not yet at least). Perhaps, in our amateurish wonderment, we’re missing the fact that there really isn’t a story here at all. Nothing new, anyway. Just one more account of the dominating spread of hyperlinked, D.I.Y., pure indie-ethos in which it’s now possible to become the next big thing without major representation (or in spite of it)—3 million times over, thank you very much.

It’s 11:15. The event coordinator, who looks a whole hell of a lot like Philip Seymore Hofmann, pops his head in the door. “It’s Time.”

Even the most humble hearted would have to concede to a brief bout of megalomania while walking along side a band that’s about to play a huge crowd and New York City’s Times Square is (here comes my Pontiac plug) the ultimate crowd and yes it’s very, very exciting.

We watch the performance of the first two songs from the wings before we’re rushed down to street level to watch the final song on the jumbotron. And there before our eyes, as though having just been magically lifted from the late night glow of the laptop screens on which we first watched their video, the same laptop I’d planned to blankly stare at as my New Years’ plan before all this happened, “A Million Ways” is performed, dance and all.

Back in the hotel room everyone is watching the performance on ESPN. They’re the last act to go on before the ball drops. Then, in the cutaway to commercial, a familiar riff begins and the band’s song, “Invincible” plays over a surprisingly riveting collage of 2005’s most memorable moments in sports. After everyone stares in amazement through the first stanza, Damian looks back at Tim, Andy and Dan and says: “Guys, we’re a good band.” Andy smiles broadly. It’s an intimate exchange where you simply see four good friends who’ve made something happen for each other. And that’s the amazing part of all of this for us. Somehow, we’ve become included. It’s not just that we vicariously lived this moment. It’s that these four individuals have made us part of their moment. Later that evening, Tim stands up and announces “We couldn’t have done it without you,” meaning us, A Fine Tooth. Not exactly true, but for a band that’s just had one of their crowning nights, to have the presence of mind to realize that this night was also our success isn’t just kind and gracious, it’s exceptionally human.

It’s five to twelve and we’re ushered out onto the street again, to watch the ball drop.

We’re at the epicenter of our brave new world, replete with fifty-foot billboards selling everything from toothpaste to freedom, at the beginning of a brave new year (after 2005 it would have to be brave, wouldn’t it?). And the confetti’s falling and the speaker’s are blaring and “It’s up to you New York, New York.” This is the biggest party in the world and, perhaps—the world is watching—perhaps we revelers can set the tone. Then the current of excitement becomes something more. Bubbling up in champagne glasses and issuing forth through the horns and noisemakers, it becomes an irrepressible force of hope and it feels as though we could all be a part of it. —N.Y., N.Y.

From all of us at A Fine Tooth we wish you Peace, Prosperity and a Happy 2006.

More New Year’s Eve photos of OK Go in Times’ Square here.