Longtime Cult Band O.A.R. Hopes Top 40 Success Doesn't Leave It "Shattered"
It's always an odd thing for a band — and its fans — if it eventually breaks through to a wider audience. No musician embarks on a career just to be a cult favorite, but "early" fans always take a certain caustic pride of ownership, in being able to say that they were into the group way before most people.
Maryland-marinated rockers O.A.R. (which stands for "Of a Revolution") are standing on said precipice. After six studio and three live records, their most recent effort, All Sides, has spawned a Top 40 single and heavy VH-1 rotation with the melodic "Shattered." Guitarist Richard On is happy for the exposure, but also keenly aware of the challenges.
"It's crazy now," he says. "When we talk to fans after the show, the demographic has spread so wide with the song, especially the older audience. We realized that we had something special in the studio when we were recording it."
On adds that the entire process of making All Sides took O.A.R. into new areas — including geographically. The band recorded in L.A., and vocalist/guitarist Marc Roberge wanted a "road experience" to inspire his lyrics. So he and his family set out on a cross-country trek to the studio. Not surprisingly, many of the tunes are about moving ahead, moving forward and, well, moving somewhere.
"The lyrics sparked the music this time, when it's usually the other way around," On offers. "And this time we didn't feel rushed. We were ourselves."
O.A.R.'s origins started in, of all places, junior high school. That's where Roberge, drummer Chris Culos and On first started playing together. They picked up bassist Benj Gershman at their Rockville, Maryland high school, forming O.A.R. in 1996, then adding saxophone/guitarist Jerry DePizzo at Ohio State University.
O.A.R.'s alternative/jam-band style of rock became popular on campuses in the region, and the group released demo The Wanderer in 1997. Over the next few years, fans responded to high-energy songs like "Hey Girl," "City on Down" and "That Was a Crazy Game of Poker," and the group found itself drawn into the collegiate "jam" scene that also spawned the Dave Matthews Band.
O.A.R. also encouraged fans to tape and trade its shows, thus further spreading the music in the early days before downloading and bit-torrent streams.
Still, "jam band" is a moniker that O.A.R. embraces — even if others do not.
"It hurt us for awhile with places like MTV. When they think of jam bands, they think of fans who are dirty hippies tripping on LSD all the time," On laughs. "But it's actually a badge of honor, because jam bands are so talented, and to get up there and just keep the audience's attention with a solo or stretching out a song takes a lot."
Not that On indulges in many 20-minute guitar solos. On All Sides, his longest six-string break (on funky "Living in the End") barely registers on the clock at all before it's gone.
"Well, I'm limited compared to what a lot of guys can do!" On laughs. "But that song had a classic-rock feel to it, so we wanted to have a solo. Any longer, and it could have gone sour."
In August 2007, O.A.R. embarked on a tour for the USO, playing military bases in Iraq and Kuwait. For On and the entire group, it would prove to be a life-changing experience.
"I guess the one word to sum it up would be real," he says. "Forget the TV, forget CNN, to see what's going on over there with your own eyes, it's mind-boggling. And that's regardless of your view on the war. If [people] went over there, they would see some of the good stuff that our soldiers are doing, though the media tends to focus on the bad."
A pre-tour visit to recovering soldiers in Walter Reed Hospital was "shocking," as the band stood at the foot of beds of soldiers barely out of their teens coping with missing and mangled limbs. At the hospitals in Iraq, things were even a bit fresher.
On remembers seeing a boy of about five or six on a bed with his entire chest stapled up. By him was his father — this pair of Iraqi civilians was the only survivors of an entire family whose house was bombed. Problem was, it was an accidental target of a U.S. weapon.
"If I were that father, I would be livid and cursing to the end. But the entire time, the father is thanking us — the band and the soldiers — which was incredible," On remembers. "He understood that accidents happen, and he believed in why our soldiers were there. It was mind-boggling! I didn't know what to say, but we were all in complete tears."
Members of O.A.R. have also shed a tear or two in band meetings over the years. After all, not many acts can claim to be both buddies and band members since before they could shave. And while On says tensions used to occasionally ride high, things are more "diplomatic" now, and the group is more likely to sit down and discuss its problems rather than fly into actions or recriminations.
"We've definitely had our moments when things were really, really hard. It's like being in a marriage with five guys," On notes (though we're not sure that's legal in most states). "But you just have to swallow your pride and get rid of the egos. We're all in the same boat with the same goal."
Asked about any memories of Houston, On's thoughts turn to empty halls and egg rolls. "One great thing about Houston is that there's a lot of great Asian food. And me being Chinese, that's hard to get on the road," he says. "The last time we were there, we got a great crowd. But I do remember playing Houston over the years, and nobody would come to see us, nobody at all!
"But hey, it was that way with Dallas too," he adds. "We've finally cracked Texas!"
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