Spotlight On: OK Go Drummer Dan Konopka plus the Premier of the "Upside Down & Inside Out" Video

Dan Konopka, the drummer from OK Go, has had some iconic moments in his career. He’s played for the President, worked with the Muppets, had his song and video on The Simpsons, and has won a Grammy. But all of those accomplishments for him pale in comparison to nailing a perfect take in one of their famous, mind-bogglingly creative videos.

“That’s when I feel most alive in the band,” Konopka says. This makes sense, considering that the process of making an OK Go video is as artistically creative as the making of their music.

OK Go’s videos are often highly choreographed and require one flawless, high-stakes take — frequently requiring 50 to 100 takes in the process and weeks of development and rehearsal. When I point out how it’s interesting that they often put themselves in situations that require heavy choreography — and that they’re musicians, not dancers — he laughs.

“You’re totally right. We’re not great dancers,” Konopka says. “But there’s an underlying charm in that … that anyone can do this stuff.” Although, what becomes clear from our conversation is that this is far from true and that Dan is a humble guy. But don’t think for a minute it’s always smooth sailing and creative nirvana.

OK Go - Upside Down & Inside Out

Hello, Dear Ones. Please enjoy our new video for "Upside Down & Inside Out". A million thanks to S7 Airlines. #GravitysJustAHabit

Posted by OK Go on Thursday, February 11, 2016

Making an OK GO Video

An OK Go video is a process of collaboration not for the faint of heart. But this is what feeds Konopka creatively. To help find a way to achieve the desired end result, which is often the only known in the video equation, there is a lot of trial and error, suggesting of ideas and realization of one’s own limitations in the process.

Konopka describes how there often comes a moment in every video shoot when the crew starts to panic and fear that all of the work might be for naught — that the video will never come together. Regarding that moment, he says, “We know it’s coming, but the people around us don’t always know that.” This is where Konopka shifts from being the talent into being the group psychologist and zen master.

“That’s really my role and I take it seriously,” he says. “When things get scary, I try to make it an emotional-neutral zone.” He’s had to calm the nerves of key grips, make-up artists, and others on set. “There’s a threshold of pain and nervousness. The band crosses it later than most people on the production.” He says he’s now been through enough shoots to have faith in the process and know that eventually they will get the take.

A look behind the scenes (Photo courtesy of Paracadute)
A look behind the scenes (Photo courtesy of Paracadute)

The Making of OK Go’s Hungry Ghosts

Whether OK Go is making a video or an album, throughout our conversation Konopka repeatedly talks about being in service to the greater idea, the bigger artistic goal. He is a consummate team player and collaborator, fully invested in his band’s creative vision and process. And what emerges from our conversation, without Konopka ever directly saying it, is that OK Go has created an artistic open forum, where all opinions and input are valued and encouraged.

This is especially true for the making of their most recent album, Hungry Ghosts. The band set up five digital work stations in their studio space and kept rotating, each working on different elements of different songs, contributing input or working to fix identified problems simultaneously until the songs came together.

Konopka was working on a laptop with Ableton Live 9 running with an audio interface, thus creating a mini personal studio in a closet of the bigger studio. “It was a really efficient and fun way to be productive in that studio," he says. "I’d throw music at the demo and make some other content for the song, and I’d send it to the producer.”

Ableton Live 9 and OK Go’s Creative Process

Konopka's clear acrylic DW kit (Photo by Josh Fleitell)

When our discussion about music production software goes deeper, the conversation gets surprisingly personal and philosophical. He starts by telling me that it took him years to own the fact that he had a fear about being creative and how creativity is essentially “about bravery and squashing your fear.” And he can’t overstate to me the importance of learning Ableton Live 9 and how it helped him unleash his creativity. Learning the software was the most pivotal moment of his creative life, he says.

"When I got Ableton Live 9 and took some production courses, it got me out from behind the drum set and my comfort zone. I could express more than just drum beats. It helped me to unplug the fear and plug into the creativity. Ableton opened up a new musical existence for me.” He says he particularly likes this software over others out there because “it’s a really good format in terms of being creative and getting ideas down quickly. It’s simple and easy to work with.”

Despite his obvious love of the software, he’s also quick to identify an interesting dilemma of such software. He tells of a time when Damian Kulash, the lead singer of OK Go, who typically makes his beats in Reason and converts them over to Pro Tools, produced a drumbeat for a song so complex that he couldn’t figure out how to play it. But because Konopka views himself as a lifelong learner, such a situation was not a blow to him, but seen as another creative, collaborative opportunity.

“It’s critical to be open and curious about other people’s skills,” he says. So he asked his drumming colleagues for input as to how to master the unplayable beat. When everyone agreed it just wasn’t possible, again he wasn’t deterred. “My challenge in that circumstance is to convert what he’s done into something that a human being could play,” he says. Thus, he would capture the spirit of that beat and translate it into something reproducible.

Konopka’s Gear

When I ask him about his drum kit and what he’s playing these days, the answer is much more simple and definitive. On tour, Konopka plays a DW drum set in clear acrylic with Zildjian cymbals. In the studio, he plays what’s available and what he thinks suits the track.

As we wrap up, he mentions that his son, Cohen, is taking drum lessons and that he finds it completely inspiring, not just as a proud father, but also as a musician. He concludes, “In the end, it’s supposed to feel good, it’s supposed to be fun and bring a smile to your face. People who talk about chops and perfecting their craft are missing the point. Watching a four-year old feel it —that’s what it’s about.”

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