Interview: O.A.R.

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O.A.R.’s career officially began last century in 1997 with the release of its first studio album, The Wanderer. Now, in 2014, the band shows no signs of slowing down as it is about to release its eighth studio album, not to mention the five live albums the band has also released.

Why so many albums? O.A.R. fans are insatiable, constantly wanting anything and everything the band can come up with. O.A.R. has managed to continue to grow its fan base each and every year without compromising who it truly is at its core by simply relying on its talent and word of mouth to win over new fans. This is a practice that the band has been using since its inception.

O.A.R.’s first song to incite the masses to dance and sing is still an anthem today, 1997’s “That Was a Crazy Game of Poker.” Since then the band has swayed listeners with its mainstream hits: 2003’s “Hey Girl,” 2005’s “Love and Memories,” 2008’s “Shattered,” and, most recently, “Heaven.” The pop/rock/reggae feel this jam band has created is addicting and, thankfully, there is no cure. Passionate lyrics, powerful musicianship and the right outlook has combined to create this timeless band.

Somehow O.A.R. has managed to create so many meaningful and popular songs, have a career that spans so many years, and has not fallen victim to fame and rock and roll fever. There is no big headedness, no tabloid mania, no chaos. Starting as best friends has allowed O.A.R. to progress not just into a successful band, but into a musical force because of the honesty and loyalty at the band’s roots.

As O.A.R. hits the road once more while wrapping up its newest album, Richard On took a timeout from analyzing the band’s newest mixes to talk with Pop-Break about the new and old music, the strength the band has at its core, tour mates, co-writing, Richie Sambora’s skills, and the strength of Ricola.

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Pop-Break: Thank you so much for calling me, I appreciate it.

Richard On: Yeah, no problem!

PB: So let’s dive right in! First and foremost, when are we getting the new album?

RO: The new record is slated to be released at the beginning of June.

PB: Okay awesome. So I know on the last tour you guys played “I Will Find You,” is that song going to be on the album?

RO: We’re not sure exactly what’s going to be on the album. We’re mixing everything right now and then we’re going to take a step back and reevaluate and make sure everything fits with each other. You know when you’re making a record, it’s like a big puzzle and you want everything to flow and you don’t really know that until the very end and that’s when things start making more sense. So now we’re just mixing then we’re going to take a step back and see what makes the cut.

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PB: Well are we going to get to hear any other potentially new album songs? I’m going the Atlantic City show on the 7th (at Revel Casino). Are we going to get to hear any new songs then?

RO: I’m sure we’re going to play some new stuff. We do a song called “Peace” that we were playing over the summer and I’m pretty sure we’ll be playing that probably full band. Back then it was just Marc (Roberge) and I and I think Jerry (DePizzo). So yeah it’ll be everybody. By the way I’m super sick and I go into these crazy coughing fits so if I start freaking out on the phone, I’m sorry.

PB: I totally understand. It’s not a problem.

RO: One other thing, once I get into it, I cant stop and people think i’m going to like die but I’m getting better.

PB: Good! I’m in the same boat actually so I’m glad you said it too.

RO: Well I hope you have some Ricolas. I’d give you some Ricola over the phone if I could.

PB: Well thank you! Okay so, obviously you guys as O.A.R. is you, Benj (Gershman), Marc (Roberge), Chris (Culos) and Jerry (DePizzo) but you guys have had some amazingly talented touring musicians with you guys for the past few years.

RO: Mmhmm.

PB: Jon Lampley, Evan Oberla, Mikel Paris, all of them. What’s it like having those guys kind of break into the band and the bond you guys have established for over a decade, wow, actually almost two decades now?

RO: It’s really fun because not only are those guys uber-talented, but they also bring a lot of energy to the band and it’s a different sound that comes out of the speakers, out of the PA. I think everyone contributes in different ways. You know Mikel Paris is a great singer, keyboard player, percussion player and basically a swiss army musician who can play anything, do anything. He was a member of Stomp for 10 years before he toured with us so the guy could do anything. The energy that he brought and the more vocal capabilities, as far as the harmonies and expanding Marc’s vocals, that’s been great. But then when you get to the horn section, those guys, they just, it’s not that we’re old, but they’re young; they dance; they love it. They’re great players so they really bring the energy up to the next level when we play live with them. I wish we could have them all the time but sometimes the shows don’t really account for that. I think that every time you go on tour, you want to be the same band but you don’t want to have the same look every time. It really depends on what you’re going for and not every show always needs that high energy so it varies from show to show.

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PB: Now I know Mikel Paris has obviously been recorded on your albums. Can we anticipate having Jon Lampley or Evan Oberla on any of the upcoming songs?

RO: Yeah. They played on some of the tracks for sure.

PB: Alright, so you guys have obviously toured with a lot of people you’ve co-written with, Andrew McMahon, Steven Kellogg, a lot of different musicians. What’s it like being on tour with people you co-write with?

RO: Oh man. I think it’s pretty much a given that whatever song we co-wrote together, we’re going to be playing that song live. It’s definitely a given but as far as that, I mean we’re all really great friends, you know the journey of this business. Just being in a band and being able to sustain a career for however many years, and then maybe 15 years down the road you’re touring with them again. Now we’re buddies and we keep in touch, but now you get to see them every day and you get to perform the song that you wrote with them everyday. It’s pretty amazing because you get the chance to actually sit down and actually rehearse the song and go over it instead of instead of, you know, if you have a show and Andrew’s in town and he’s going to just sit in for just that night. You can actually make some cool variations of songs and expand on the original idea. It’s a blast touring with our friends. I know we say this all the time but it’s just like summer camp on the road. We always hang out. We eat together, go out together at night and it’s a blast. We’re really blessed to be able to tour with friends.

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PB: So now here comes the hard question — who has been your favorite musician that you’ve toured with?

RO: Who is my favorite? Now I’m going to piss people off if I answer that!

PB: True. Well at least I didn’t ask who was your least favorite.

RO: Now I’m going to get a call from Matt Nathanson who is going to be like ‘Yo, what the fuck?’ I mean I can’t! I really can’t. As far as, well that’s a really hard question! That’s impossible to answer and I’m going to offend people so I’m just going to say everyone brings their own thing to the table performing life. I think one of my favorites was touring with Robert Randolph just because I’m a guitar player and the things that he does with a pedal steel are things that I could never do and the sounds that come out of that thing are just amazing. So much like the human voice, it’s unreal.

PB: Good diplomatic answer there with a real answer there as well.

RO: Yeah, that’s called covering your ass.

PB: Well that actually really does bring me to my next question. I mean O.A.R., you guys are just a calm level-headed, amazingly talented group of guys and it seems like you guys don’t let it become about the business and the fame and it has been that way from the start. How do you guys manage to stay so focused on the music, so level-headed and such a chill group of guys?

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RO: You know I think it started with us being great friends before the band started and we have a lot of history, a lot more than a lot of other bands. I almost think sometimes things could be easier if we weren’t friends, you know what I mean? Like you said, there is business involved.

PB: Absolutely.

RO: And we do have to make a living out of it and pay our bills, but fortunately that’s not the priority of this. We’re not doing this for the money. We’re not doing this for the fame. We’re doing it because we like making music. I like making music with these specific guys. I think because we’re such great friends, we’re always checking each other. I think that’s what friends do; real friends are honest with each other and if you’re screwing up, or you’re drifting, or you need help, you’re in a bad place, I can depend on those guys to always put it bluntly. ‘Hey, you know wake up, maybe you should stop doing this’ or ‘You should do less of this,’ ‘Maybe you should focus more on this’ and I think, because we’re brutally honest with each other, it can get at ugly sometimes. I think in the big picture, that’s why everything works. We always check each other and that keeps us grounded.

PB: You guys really do seem like such a group of guys that just loves what you do so I’m glad that you guys have that.

RO: I think it’s also constantly reminding each other not to take this for granted. It’s really rare that any band lasts this long and if you’re lucky enough to become the Rolling Stones or U2 and do it until you’re well into your 50s, 60s, that’s even more amazing. So I think it’s just really important for us to not forget that this is a blessing too.

PB: You guys have been around for so long with your big huge catalog of music, how hard is it for you guys to figure out what you want to play every night?

RO: It’s really hard. It’s almost impossible. Not only because we all want to play different stuff but also just even remembering the whole catalog. That isn’t to say that we don’t remember these songs because we don’t like them as much. It’s just because from tour to tour, there are certain songs we play more than others. It really comes down to the type of show, where we’re playing, what the crowd’s going to be like. Lately we’ve been taking requests off of Twitter which has been a lot of fun and really challenging because you know some of these guys will throw out songs we haven’t played in like 10 years and it’s just like okay lets figure this out. You won’t know if we’ll play the song or not. We don’t really respond to anyone we just look at what people would like to hear and go from there.

O.A.R. Live at Red Rocks
O.A.R. Live at Red Rocks

PB: So what do you think your longest version of “Poker” is?

RO: Recorded or just played?

PB: Played. I should not admit this, this will be my 9th year in a row seeing you guys and I’ve heard versions that are 6 and a half minutes long, I’ve heard them 14 minutes long. What’s the longest you guys have played?

RO: I’m pretty sure we’ve played for over 20 minutes one time, close to 20 minutes. I’m not sure how it sounded and I’m sure some people were sleeping by the end of the song. But that song is so much fun to play because you can stretch it out and we can shorten it if need be depending on how much time we have. So I think close to 20 minutes.

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PB: I know you guys have gotten to do some really cool really random things. I know you guys did The Simpsons theme song, what’s the most fun random thing you guys have gotten to do as O.A.R.?

RO: Oh man just recently at Sundance. I can’t say this is my favorite but this is one of the most recent memories, my memory is pretty bad. Richie Sambora agreed to play “Fool in the Rain” with us and sit in on “Poker” during the Sundance Film Festival just recently in Park City. NBC was announcing the Olympic Freeskiing team and the tournament just happened right before we played, and after we played they made the announcement of the winners. And Riche Sambora was game and he said lets do it and just through friends, met him, and I don’t know if he knew who we were but we met and we sat down and worked out the parts and jammed at sound check and it was crazy. The soundcheck was in the public and it was raining at the bottom of the ski park, the ski resort, so everybody is looking up there and people are like we know that’s O.A.R. but is that Richie Sambora? And pretty soon a crowd gathered and he was great. He didn’t want to end the soundcheck. He just kept jamming and jamming and he wanted to keep playing. So that was fantastic. What a sweetheart. And growing up as a guitar player you can’t help but idolize Richie Sambora. You know he was on every guitar player magazine I ever collected growing up so that was awesome. What a sweetheart that guy is.

PB: Good answer because I’m from Jersey.

RO: Yeah and he sat down one on one and taught me how to play “Dead or Alive.”

PB: Seriously?

RO: Yeah. A friend of mine recorded a video and the next morning I woke up and watched it like seven times because I didn’t think it really happened.

PB: That’s phenomenal. So I have two more questions for you.

RO: Sure!

PB: What song are you most proud of over this band’s life?

RO: Hmm. I mean I would have to think of a song that made a difference in this band’s career and “That was a Crazy Game of Poker,” that was a game changer for us. We wrote that song when we were 16 in the basement and we never knew that it was going to translate to so many different people, especially at that age. Marc wrote those lyrics because he was telling a story. The second half of that song we didn’t really know how it went. We just jammed it. That’s literally why it ended up being, I forget how long it is on The Wanderer maybe 8 minutes, 9 minutes long, because we were literally just jamming that second half in the studio. You know when Marc was saying, “I don’t know what to say anymore,” literally he was just free-styling. He’s like, “I don’t know what to say anymore” and we’re just like we should end this at some point. We’re running out of money! But that song really was a game changer for us. “Shattered” was a game changer for us. That was the first time we ever thought of writing a pop song for radio just to see what it could do. I think at some point you know a good song is a good song, whether it’s two minutes long or nine minutes long, and that song really changed things for us as far as the perception of the band, gaining new fans expanding our demographic, younger and older, being able to play bigger venues and having more opportunities in every way. So I mean that was a really proud moment for us I think.

PB: Nice. Alright, so the last question, if you could go back to the beginning and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be.

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RO: Oh man.

PB: Sorry!

RO: I was just talking about my memory and how bad it is. I really wish that I took things more seriously in the beginning. I mean you never really know what’s going to happen. You don’t start doing it because you want to be the biggest band in the world. I think if I did do that, I would remember a lot more stuff. It’s funny because I’m driving around, listening to new mixes on the new record, and I drove down to Black Rock, Maryland and that’s actually why I was driving around Black Rock, Maryland. I don’t know. I guess I would try to sit back and I don’t know, maybe keep a journal. I just wish I remembered more of the journey. Things just get so hectic and the touring, things tend to blur together and blend together night after night and you know playing guitar at a venue. Thank God the set lists are different. I just wish I really remembered more of what was going on and sat back more and took a breath and appreciated it for what it is. I do that all the time now, but back then, I think we were just going with the flow.

PB: Well thank you so much for talking to me and you didn’t even start coughing!

RO: As soon as we get off the phone I’m going to go and throw up somewhere. No, I’m just kidding!

PB: Well thanks so much for your time, can’t wait to see you guys down at Revel in AC!

RO: Thanks so much, have a good one!

O.A.R. performs on February 7th at Ovation Hall at Revel Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey. For tickets, click here.

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