When they’re not constructing massive Rube Goldberg devices or getting a hearty cardiovascular workout on their treadmills, the members of indie rockers OK Go have an awful lot of downtime. In between sound checks, traveling from city to city – there’s a real need for distraction when you’re out on the road, but what’s an enterprising band to do? If you’re a member of OK Go, then you transform a classic improv game into a brand new app that looks like it could give handheld crack cocaine like Angry Birds, Draw Something, or Candy Crush Saga a run for their money in terms of sheer simplicity, fun factor and, most importantly, pick-up-and-playability. Entitled Say the Same Thing, the app is pretty self-explanatory. Essentially, you and a friend try to guess the exact same word. If you’re right, you win. If you guess incorrectly, you have to try to meet somewhere in the middle; it’s all got a very Vulcan mind meld feel to it, but you’ll be surprised by how addictive the simple premise becomes. Still confused about what’s going on? Let the band members explain below in a hilariously bleak, but ultimately rewarding video.
Get it? Got it? Good – we knew you would. The app is now available everywhere for both iOS and Android, but because we love you and because we wanted to get some hands on time with the app itself, Brian Walton and I sat down with OK Go’s guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist Andy Ross, who programmed the app, to get the inside scoop on how the idea came about, the challenges of programming mobile software, and how they keep themselves entertained on the road.
Nerdist: How did the game come about?
Andy Ross: It comes from an old improv game. It’s one of those games you play in cars or you just hear word of mouth. This is a game I played with my college friends. Started playing it with the band because we have so many hours of down time and they really liked it, so on the side I just started working on the app. We can go into my long history as a programmer, but I just started working on the game on the side and it started coming together, sending it out to the people in the band and friends and stuff like that, and it’s really fun. It’s a really fun game to play.
N: Is it iOS only?
AR: Nope, it’ll be for Android as well.
N: How long have you been a programmer?
AR: I went to school for it. I actually went to school for electrical engineering but minored in CS, and got a programming job right out of college. It was like a Java programming thing for this company called YouPop. It was more mobile based, but it was sending 140 character status updates for your friends. So we’re all pretty bitter that another company took off more than ours did, but…. That was like a Java development job, then I realized that I didn’t really like being in the office every day. And I’d been playing music all along in college and after college and stuff like that, so…. Tried opening a recording studio in New York, which was fun for a little while, but then I didn’t really wanna record people’s bands after a little bit.
N: That’s the most diplomatic way of putting that. (laughter) So, from start to this build, how long has it taken you?
AR: Started it in July and it’s been a little bit leisurely because, you know, we have other things to do, but it’s also been a ton of work. We’ve gone through a lot of iterations on, you know, what features we want to add and getting the basic game play working, and then we need to add monetization and features that would support that. So, it’s been through about three or four cycles.
N: Do you prefer developing for iOS or Android, or is not that big a difference?
AR: I definitely prefer developing for iOS.
N: That’s interesting. I’ve found a lot of developers say that. What makes that easier to program for?
AR: Well, at this point I have more experience with it, so it’s just a familiarity thing. I don’t know. The SDK just seems a little cleaner. I’ve also never fallen in love with Java. I have a lot of Java experience; that was like my main job for a couple years, but something just seems a little, I don’t know, happy about Java. I grew up in C, and iOS development is in objective-C, it’s a flavor of C. So, I just like working in C. I feel like I’m actually working. C, you have to worry about keeping track of memory and, I don’t know, it’s just more fun.
N: How do you balance your creative brain with this? When you want to program, do you go on the bus, or are you more residential when you do this?
AR: We’ve been off the road for a little while. We’ve been off the road for about a year. Almost two years. We’ve been working on another record. But, even when you’re on the road, you just have so much down time, especially when you’re on a tour bus. You sleep overnight on the bus while it’s going to the next city so you wake up in the next city and you don’t have anything to do until sound check. So, you have a lot of time. A lot of guys in bands will sit around or, if you’re motivated, you can go do stuff in the city, but a lot of times you’re in a city where there’s nothing really to do.
N: There’s a bit of a drive in our audience and at Nerdist, our whole thing is to own what you want to create, and we’ve got a lot of workaholics. Do you find that you’re just constantly looking for an outlet for creative things, or do things come up and you say “Hey, I want to do this.”?
AR: I don’t think we’re constantly looking, but all the guys in the band are the type of people where if there’s something they want to do, they’re going to pursue it. I don’t think we’re gonna really worry about barriers in a certain sense. Except Facebook crashing.
N: Curse you, Zuckerberg!
AR: One of the things we like about this game, or why we think it’s a different experience than other word games, is you’re trying to figure out what your other friend’s thinking, and then, once you’ve played enough games, you sort of start trying to make the joke the other person’s going to make. So, you’ll start out doing games where you’ll say things like “vegetable” or whatever, blah blah blah, but THEN you’ll start saying things like “Sonny Bono.” I love the fact that you did it in the first game.
N: Who did the designs of [the avatars]? These are obviously some band members.
AR: Ha ha, yeah, the funky, half-human, half-monkey crazy people? We work with these designers, I think they’re out of the Ukraine and we sort of met them…. I don’t even remember how we met them, but they’re awesome. They’re really, really awesome. We did a Mac app with them called “Lost Photos,” which basically goes to your email account and finds all the photos that have been stored in there, and they did a great job on that, so we kept them.
N: These are some standard OK Go questions I’m sure you get asked all the time. The decision to not be the lead singer in most of the videos, the rotation, why’d that happen?
AR: The first dance that the band did. The band, on the first record…. So, there was this show on Chicago public access called Chic-a-Go-Go, I think that was the name of it, you should check that. This is before I even joined the band, the band got offered to go on Chic-a-Go-Go which is this public television show, but bands weren’t allowed to play live. They had to lip synch. OK Go decided, if we’re going to lip synch, we’re going to fuckin’ blow it out. They came up with this elaborate, choreographed dance, and the song that they picked for it was a song called “Cinnamon Lips,” which Tim actually sings. Tim is the lead singer on that one song on the record. So, they did it with Tim as the lead singer, cuz he was the lead singer. So, they did that dance a lot, and I even did that dance when I first joined the band. That was like the dance.
Then I joined the band, which, by the way, during the audition process, one of the questions I got from Damien and Tim was like, “So, are you open to choreographed dancing?” Which is not something I was suspecting. Thankfully I said yes. So, I joined the band, and the dance was such a barnburner at the end of the set that we thought “Okay, we’re gonna keep doing it, but we’re gonna do a new song.” So we picked “Million Ways,” which was the backyard dance. And, when we were sort of working that out, we said, for our synchronized dancing persona, Time needs to be the lead singer of the band. And it just kind of happened, even though Damien did sing the lead vocals on that song. When we do a choreographed video or dance, Tim is our lead singer.
N: You guys really, to your credit, some of the things you were making stories about were some of the videos, some of the rights management, really fighting for some of the equal IP presence. You basically went back to your label and said, “Look, our fans appreciate this from us” and I’m sure there was probably a lot more going on than just that. What was that process like? When do you put your foot down as an artist and say, “Look, we’re building something that you’re not used to; let us run with it?”
AR: Yeah, I think there’s so many things to talk about in that specific area. I think it started initially with DRM, and Capitol wanted to make our second record the first release with DRM on it. And, we didn’t want that. To us, it just made life harder on everyone. I think, at the time, it was so strict that the technology worked out that you couldn’t even put the songs on your iPod or digital device if you didn’t know what you were doing. So we just weren’t into it. We thought it was a stupid technology also because, you know, as soon as any one person cracks that, it would go on the internet anyway, and you’ve just made life difficult for everybody else. The funny story about that is, there’s a hidden track on that record that’s, I think it’s 20 minutes long or something, and it’s just a recording of Damien’s wife sleeping, but the reason it’s on there is that it completely filled up the CD so they couldn’t even fit on a DRM, that’s how we got out of DRM on that record. And within a year anyway, everyone had stopped using DRM and it was over, so we’re glad we did that.
Another issue that came up was embedding of the videos. So, Capitol wanted to shut off embedding of the YouTube videos on third party sites because they were trying to make as much ad revenue as possible. And, again, that’s kind of… that blows, because getting all the blogs and getting all the, you know, smaller media outlets to post the video and show it to people – that’s like a huge deal in terms of getting it out there and getting people to see it and getting it to go viral, and it just seemed like another really close-minded way to go about putting content online. So, we fought that pretty hard and that was sort of like the last straw with Capitol. Our record deal ended around that time.
N: You guys have never come out and said, “This is who we are, this is what we’re doing,” but it seems like a group of guys who have a very like mind on a lot of things and just, very easily, more than most bands, it’s like, “Oh, they have a stand on this” to a degree, you can just see through your actions. Do you take that seriously? Do you guys think about, “Okay, we’ve kind of done something….” You are pioneers to a certain degree and you’re really owning the digital space for your own purposes.
AR: Are you asking, like, are we political about it?
N: No. Is that something in your head when you’re sitting down and writing this record, is that something you’re thinking about like, “Okay, how are we going to stay on top of this?” Do you ever find yourself putting the cart before the horse or do things just happen naturally?
AR: I wouldn’t say that we’re consciously strategizing, especially when we’re working on the record. When we’re working on the record, we’re just trying to make the best songs possible. I assume we’ll be finished with the record in May, and then we’re gonna figure out what to do with it. And, yeah, I mean we’ll probably think about what’s the best way to do it. You know, at the end of the day, I think a lot of the reason why the videos do well and some of the other things we’ve done do well is just because we’ve worked really hard on a good idea. And, I think that’s kind of where these conversations can go a little bit off-kilter. It’s like, “what’s the trick that you guys use?” And it’s like, we locked ourselves in a room with treadmills and basically killed ourselves for two days, and that’s the trick.
N: That Rube Goldberg device could not have been easy, in any way, shape, or form.
AR: No, no, no. There were, like, 4 am crises during the shooting of that. But, it worked out for the best. So, I mean, um, I think we’re all smart people and I think we’ve made the right calls in terms of what technology to use, but I think a big part of it is just, you know, having pretty good ideas, working our butts off and getting lucky.
N: Hopefully with the new album, you’ll be touring again, and, this is more of just a fanboy for you question: Dream tour lineup. OK Go is opening for any lineup you want, or closing for any lineup you want.
AR: Can we resurrect people from the dead?
AR: I mean, come on, you have to say The Beatles. Or Led Zeppelin would be my personal favorite. I think we’d love to open for the Pixies, the Cars, I don’t even know if they’re still doing stuff…. There’s a lot, there’s a lot of bands we could go to.
N: Is there a favorite venue that you have?
AR: Um. We really like the 9:30 Club in Washington. Um, our shows in Boston have been really, really good.
N: Where have you guys been playing lately in Boston? The Wilbur?
AR: We played the House of Blues, which has been renovated. They did a pretty good job.
N: Yeah, it’s nicer than the Avalon was.
AR: Yeah. Yeah. Um. But, the Middle East is always like a super awesome show for us. You know, L.A.’s a really good city for us, and we haven’t played L.A., I think, since 2010. But we played at the Fonda last, I think. And that was a great show.
N: You have our e-mails if you guys decide to workshop some songs in a small club in L.A. We’ll be there.
AR: Oh, you’ll be there. I would love to play L.A. Since we played last time, I’ve met a lot of people who I’ve become friends with in L.A. And I can’t believe that all these people have never seen me play.
N: And, we have one last question that we give everybody and that’s “What is in your ideal burrito?”
AR: That’s a great question, first of all. Well, I gotta go with steak. I gotta go with guacamole. I like salsa. Umm… cheese. Not huge on sour cream, so I’m gonna skip that. And, I would probably go with that.
Additional reporting by Brian Walton.