Grass-roots rock band O.A.R. can thank a perturbed club owner in Columbus, Ohio, for sending it on the road to big-label stardom.
In 1996, high school friends singer-guitarist Marc Roberge and drummer Chris Culos formed O.A.R. (short for Of A Revolution) in their native Rockville, Md., then recruited guitarist Richard On and bassist Benj Gershman. Saxophonist Jerry DePizzo completed the lineup when the band members moved to Columbus to attend Ohio State University.
Around that time, OSU officials wanted to transform the South Campus area along High Street from an endless strip of seedy clubs, bars and fast-food joints into a sanitized retail mecca, one that wouldn’t attract any more riffraff.
The transformation meant that O.A.R. had fewer venues to choose from.
“We ended up playing at Little Brothers, which wasn’t as close to the university,” On said recently. “We were underage and all our friends were underage. When the owner found out, he got us blacklisted. It was totally our fault; they could’ve lost their alcohol license, so I don’t blame them for doing it.
“But the owner didn’t have to go out of his way to tell the local music scene downtown not to book our band.”
It forced the quintet, with its fast-spreading following, to rent out the Newport Music Hall on High Street, just across the street from OSU’s Student Union.
“We had to play there because no one else would book us,” On said. “At first, we would have to rent out the Newport and throw a party. Then, night after night, we were selling out the place. The club said, ‘Okay, we’ll set you up like a normal band.’ ”
That residency, and the advent of Internet file-sharing, expanded O.A.R.’s fan base even wider. By February 2001, the band’s manager created Everfine Records to release and promote its third studio album, “Risen.” Combined with its fourth LP, the live set “Any Time Now,” the group’s catalog had sold 290,000 copies – very impressive numbers for a do-it-yourself college band.
“Maybe for a year and a half or two years, there were labels trying to sign us,” On said, “but it wasn’t the right time. The whole major-label thing is based on timing and finding the right family, the right people.”
Lava Records president Jason Flom, who had carved a niche with a diverse roster (from Kid Rock to Trans Siberian Orchestra), showed up in the right place at the right time.
“Lava totally shared the same vision,” On said. “On top of that, Everfine is an ideal record company for any band that’s trying to do it on their own. We found that Lava shared the same vision as Everfine – combining the two and getting them to work together was awesome.”
O.A.R.’s first Lava/Everfine effort, “In Between Now and Then” (released on May 27), debuted at No. 54 on Billboard’s album chart, selling more than 20,000 copies in its first week.
So much for being an underground phenomenon.
Before making the big leap to Lava, O.A.R. wanted to let its fans know about it first. They posted an announcement on its message board and told fans that they would address any concerns they might have.
“It’s a tightly knit community of all these people who have the same goals as we do,” On said. “A lot of times, when we’re making a big decision, we always want to know what the people are thinking. Their input totally counts. We pay attention to that.
“We posted that we made this move and what they could expect from all this. I’d say 99 percent of the posts after that were all ‘Congratulations,’ ‘You guys deserve it’ – all encouraging things. That 1 percent was saying, ‘Oh, you sold out.’
“If somebody’s going to call out on us just for signing to a major label, that’s not selling out or changing anything. This is like a job, just like everyone’s job. You want to progress and do your best.”
For “In Between Now and Then,” O.A.R. wanted to stay true to its reputation as a solid live band that can also get it done in the studio.
“The true representation of a band is if it can play live – that’s what they sound,” On said. “In the studio, that’s something hard to capture. Our goal was to capture that on this record. A lot of it was us using our own equipment that we use for our live shows.
“Then again, there’s some things you can do in the studio and that you can’t do live, and vice versa. It’s all about finding that compromise, that halfway point of studio and live. We found it.”
Now, about that sound. “Island-vibe roots rock” is the best description.
“That term came from a high school newspaper article,” On said, laughing. “One of our friends, who was on the newspaper, came up with that genre all his own. We thought about it and went, ‘That pretty much covers everything we pack into.’ Ever since then, it has stuck.
“There is an island feel to a lot of our stuff, and the roots-rock thing, I think that’s a given, along with the storytelling and the folksy songs. I just wish I had come up with the term myself.”
THE FIRST RECORD I EVER BOUGHT: “Either Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ or the soundtrack for ‘Stand By Me.’ I loved all those oldies on there.”
THE FIRST CONCERT I EVER WENT TO: “Fugazi, and I think I was in the seventh grade. Me and Marc went. It was a free show that they throw every year at Bethesda, and we took the Metro. I didn’t know what to expect, and I had never heard of the guys before. So we were standing kind of in the front because we wanted to see what was going on. Pretty soon, it was packed and the band starts playing. The next thing we know, the crowd starts swaying back and forth. Then I see a foot fly over my head, and the next thing I know, we’re in a moshpit. It was like, ‘Holy shit, get me out of here.’ We were already short to begin with; we were like 3-foot nothing.”
THE WORST JOB I’VE EVER HAD: “Probably the hardest job I ever had was a banquet server at Lakewood Country Club. Funny thing is, Marc and Chris worked there, too, but I had no idea they worked there because they were caddies. It was just long, hard hours, and a lot of the people at this country club were like the biggest snobs in the world. One rule was ‘you can’t say no,’ so if someone asked for something, you go and find it. True story: One time, this guy at a big banquet party was totally wasted, and he asked me if I could get him some condoms. I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ But I put on my nice face and said, ‘Sure, condoms, no problem. Be right back.’ I go to my boss and tell him, and he says, ‘Go to the friggin’ store and buy some condoms. Just do it.’ I drove to a CVS and there’s a huge line, and I’m buying condoms for someone I don’t even know. I couldn’t believe it.”
ORDER “IN BETWEEN NOW AND THEN”: Click here.
ON THE WEB: www.ofarevolution.com.
BWF (before we forget): The O.A.R. album discography – “The Wanderer” (Oarfin, 2000); “Soul’s Aflame” (2000); “Risen” (Everfine, 2001); “Any Time Now” (2002); “In Between Now and Then” (Everfine/Lava/Atlantic, 2003).
Upcoming tour dates – July 25, Noblesville, Ind., Verizon Wireless Music Center; July 26, Birmingham, Ala., Sloss Furnace; July 27, Nashville, 3rd & Lindsey; July 30, Grand Rapids, Mich., DeltaPlex; July 31, “The Late Show with David Letterman,” on CBS; Unity Tour with 311 and Something Corporate – Aug. 4, Omaha, Westfair Amphitheater; Aug. 5, Minneapolis, Target Center; Aug. 7, Kansas City, Mo., City Market; Aug. 8, Maryland Heights, Mo., Plaza at Riverport; Aug. 9, Cincinnati, Riverbend Music Center; Aug. 11, Gilford, N.H., Meadowbrook Farm Musical Arts Center; Sprite Tour with N*E*R*D, The Roots, Talib Kweli – Aug. 14, Denver, Universal Lending Pavilion; Aug. 22, Los Angeles, Verizon Wireless Amphitheater; Aug. 23, Concord, Calif., Chronical Pavilion; Aug. 26, Dallas, Smirnoff Center; Aug. 29, Atlanta, Hi-Fi Buys Amphitheater; Sept. 3, Virginia Beach, Va., Verizon Wireless Amphitheater; Sept. 4, Camden, N.J., Tweeter Center at the Waterfront; Sept. 5, Columbus, Ohio, Germaine Amphitheatre; Sept. 6, Chicago, Tweeter Center; Sept. 7, Detroit, DTE Energy Music Center; Sept. 9, Pittsburgh, Chevrolet Amphitheatre.