Inside OK Go's songwriting magic

Inside OK Go's songwriting magic
Photo by Gus Powell

OK Go| Fine Line Music Cafe| Saturday, August 16 In Gimme Songs, musician Mark Mallman talks songwriting with his peers and heroes. This week, a conversation with OK Go bassist Tim Nordwind before Saturday's show at the Fine Line.

It's rare, but possible for an artist to bring two equally compelling components to the table. Nobody ever says Woody Allen's screenplays outshine his directing capabilities, and I feel the same way about OK Go. If the band had never released a single video, they'd still have a collection of albums better than most bands out there. I spoke with bassist Tim Nordwind about something other than inventing groundbreaking online content. We simply talked about writing super good music.

Mark Mallman: I was listening to the new material when an air raid siren went off outside during a song, and it fit in just perfectly.

Tim Nordwind: Nice! This record, more so than before, was programmed by the four of us, so there's a lot of processed sounds and stuff.

When it comes to creating the initial material, where do you usually begin?

Because of programming, I end up using a lot of synths as percussive elements. These days I tend to start with a beat. The beats per minute help define the initial mood. I like playing around with percussive elements that keep a rhythm, but don't necessarily sound like an acoustic drum set. Then I make some sort of atmospheric information to create a mood.

Percussion can really pull a song in a certain direction.

Whether I make something that feels upbeat, downbeat, or some kind of combination of various emotions, I try to let the rhythms dictate. I create moods, which then tell my brain what kind of song I want to make, and then I kind of go from there. At what point do lyrics come in on your songs? I imagine, since this is a collaborative process, Damian adds input at that point?

Sometimes Damian keeps lyrics I write, but other times he'll riff off of the themes, and then put them in his own words. I think, because he's the singer in the band, it's his time onstage for delivering these moods and messages. I feel it's important for him to believe the things that he's saying. Sometimes he'll relate to the message I've created and use some of the lyrics. Other times he doesn't relate as much and he'll change it to something that feels like it's more from his own experiences. I will always at least attempt to have some kind of lyrical information. It could even be babble lyrics.

There's that story about when McCartney wrote "Yesterday" where he says he dreamed it, then woke up and wrote place holder, or babble lyrics. The scratch lyrics ended up being "Scrambled Eggs." Would it ever be that nonsensical where you'll just come up with a lyric and hand it to Damian like that?

Yeah, exactly. I like to put suggestive things in there. Either you'll like it and you'll live with it, or you'll say, "Oh I don't relate to this, but it does make me think of this other thing." I find, personally, that it's helpful to have at least something in there to suggest a right or wrong way.  

Aside from sounds and lyrics, what else comes into play when you create? How about elements of composition like key signatures?

A lot of my songs start in either A major or A minor, then often times we'll move them up or down. For some reason I feel comfortable writing in A, sometimes G.

Because of the melody range?

I think it might be because of the vocal range, yeah. Also, when I get to needing the chordal information, I just feel comfortable starting there. It may be because G and A were the first chords I ever learned.

There's that line in Spinal Tap where Nigel says, "I wrote this song in D minor because it's the saddest key." It comes across as an absurd parody, but the film suggests key signatures are best left to symphonic composers. I've gone back and forth on whether in rock music a key signature plays a role.

I'm familiar with that line, and I've always thought that was such a funny thing to say and believe. I've spent a lot of time wondering though, and I still don't have a very good answer.

My high school music theory teacher grilled me for saying that keys are arbitrary in their emotive quality. There is the thought of tonal colorization, maybe Nigel had some synesthesia going on.

It's a funny thing to think about though. I mean, anything in the minor key is sad, I don't know if something in the harmonics of D minor are specifically sadder than anything in A minor. Your band is so creative, have you ever used Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies cards to determine something like the key of a song, or maybe a lyric or sound choice?

Damian has that set in his studio. I think we've only seriously used it once or twice. I feel like it could be a really great tool, especially if you're really not worried about anything, which is how I feel you should always be. They're a great tool for getting you off of any type of mental block. I would love to make an entire record where we just go off the beaten path.

OK Go. With Slamdunkapher. SOLD OUT. 18+, 8 p.m., Saturday, August 16, at Fine Line Music Cafe. Info.

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