Road-tested pop rock group O.A.R. pushed to create something deeper with 'Stories of a Stranger'
"We've almost bled this stuff for the last year, it's been so much sacrifice and pain," says O.A.R. (Of A Revolution) drummer Chris Culos of the band's new album, "Stories of a Stranger" (Everfine/Lava).
While album sales for the latest set (released Oct. 4) may be a far cry from what had been hoped for (38,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan), the band's mainstream dreams are still actively in play and its popularity is gradually growing.
O.A.R.'s roots date back to high school in Rockville, Md., when childhood friends Culos and Marc Roberge (lead vocals/rhythm guitar) started jamming with Benj Gershman (bass) and Richard On (lead guitar), joined later by saxophonist Jerry DePizzo at Ohio State University.
The group recorded their independent demo, "The Wanderer," and quickly drew labels as a college/jam/touring band, yet their rock and reggae influence has also likened them to the Dave Matthews Band. Culos recently phoned from Los Angeles in the midst of O.A.R.'s nationwide tour to discuss their fruition and future plans for success.
Q: How's the road treating you guys?
A: It's going great. We've been having a really great time playing some new material, getting back to the West Coast, which we haven't been to since the spring. I mean, we have been playing some of the material for over a year now, so some of the audience is aware of a little bit of it. A lot of songs are fun for us to play, and the crowd has really reacted to it.
Q: Which city has had the best atmosphere so far?
A: We played in Phoenix on a Sunday night at a club called the Celebrity Theatre. It was one of those unique places to play because you play on a round stage in the center of the room. The crowd is seated 360 degrees around you, and the stage rotates two times clockwise and one time counterclockwise, back and forth all night. So it's a pretty unique place for the audience to see the show. It's a little hard to get your bearings because you keep spinning, but we're used to it because we played there probably two or three times before.
Aside from that, the crowds were just wild. They were so loud and really into a lot of the new stuff, which added more fuel to the fire for us.
Q: Do you think it's mostly people who are familiar with you or people who are now catching on?
A: I'd like to think that there is a little bit of a new audience because we know that the numbers, as far as ticket sales, are going up. And whether it's still spreading by word of mouth or however -- people who have been fans of the band for years spread it on to their friends and introduce them to us with old music -- I get a feeling that there are [new fans].
When we play our new single, "Love and Memory," there's a pretty great reaction in the crowd, so it makes me believe that, hopefully, with some of the radio play that we're now getting in certain markets, it's actually starting to attract some new people. That's different than we've had before, which is anything besides the grassroots, word-of-mouth approach. We're seeing some sort of success throughout radio.
Q: How important would you say touring is to increasing that exposure?
A: For us, we've sort of made it our priority to be a touring band for many years. It was our bread and butter. We did four full tours a year for about two months each time. We were known as a live band, and our popularity spread a lot through the fact that people were allowed to record our live shows and trade them to their friends.
We've been called frat rock and college jam band -- a lot of labels. We feel like, not necessarily that we have something to prove, but we have a lot more to offer. We really wanted to make a studio record that proved that, and I think we accomplished that. Whether or not it's critically acclaimed, whether or not it sells commercially, we made a record that we set out to make.
Since our first record, we always wanted to capture our live energy on stage. Every time we've gone in the studio, it's been a learning process and we've slowly gotten better. I think this CD goes leaps and bounds beyond that sort of exponential process we had been making.
Q: In the Billboard.com Tour Diary, Benj actually mentioned that it was a long process finding a producer because you guys were looking for the best fit. [The band eventually settled on former Talking Heads member Jerry Harrison.]
A: Yeah, we started thinking about recording last summer. December came around and it seemed like we were just going back in and recording a CD like the previous ones. It sort of felt unfinished and that we would have been careless if we had just gone in and made one more CD.
The label came to us and said, "Hey guys, this record is as important to you guys as it is for us. You should take your time and do this right." So we felt a huge load off of our chest, and we took a step back. The label said we needed to find ourselves again and find our creativity, push ourselves as musicians and songwriters, and "you need to stop touring for a little bit and put 110% into this." That's exactly what we did.
We spent January and February going back to our roots, which is basically in my basement in Rockville, Md., where the band formed when we were in high school. We rehearsed five days a week and we were constantly writing, rehearsing and analyzing every beat that was played and every note that was written and every sequence of every song.
That was one side of the songwriting. The other side was, for the first time, the songwriters in the band worked with outside songwriters. We weren't fairly open to the idea. I guess we just assumed that you pay money to someone who writes a song for you and then you perform it and it just doesn't feel very honest. But that wasn't the case.
Q: Marc mentioned that you guys were really counting on this album to push the band to the forefront. Do you think that was accomplished?
A: I think we wrote our most mature, introspective, and deeper songs than we've ever written.
I think in the past, when we were younger, there was only so much we had to offer lyrically and musically. We've said we weren't born with this natural ability to be geniuses on our instrument. We have a love for music and a passion for playing music, and we've taken that and run with it in a sense -- playing whatever we feel and not necessarily caring what's right and what's wrong.
People have asked us for years how we describe our music and the easy thing is just to say "rock and roll." The more definitive answer we give is "island vibes roots rock." I'm not trying to say that we've created this revolutionary sound or something that no one's ever done before. But I do think that there is a personality and character of the band that sprung from the fact that we didn't know what we were doing at the beginning, as much as we knew what we wanted to hear and what we wanted to play.
Q: What do you think are the band's strengths and weaknesses?
A: I think our biggest strength is the fact that we were friends before we were a band. That alone makes it so much easier for us. We were best friends and we started a band. That dream of playing in the basement and thinking one day we could really play on a big stage and do this full time.
Creatively, we write songs and we play music, but it's really a business that we've come to run on a day-to-day level. The fact that we're friends and brothers and that we can get along so great makes it worth it even more.
The other strength is that we've played together for so long that we can also read each other's moves, if you will. We do a lot of improv on stage, and I don't necessarily know what someone is going to do, but I kind of know enough of their style to at least be able to go with it. It makes for a lot of great moments on stage, and I think the audience reacts more as opposed to bands who play the same set and the same song every night.
As far as our weaknesses go, I think we try to keep an open, verbal communication at all times, [but] at times the band, in private times offstage, have had our moments being on tour so much and having things build up, whether it's business or personal.
When troubles are just brewing, we've seen things broil to a head and we know that we need to keep open communication at all times. That's really, really helped us to balance our personal lives and our lives out on the road tremendously.
Basically, you can only go so far on natural ability. The rest is hard work, and I think we know that. I think in the last couple of years and especially months, we know [the hard work] we need to put into songwriting and individual practice time. A lot of the guys, instead of sitting on the bus playing PlayStation games like we did in the past, are now sitting in a rehearsal room backstage practicing or taking lessons on their own free time.
Right now, the new music just feels so good and natural and fun, it's tough to stop the creative process. And even though we have a new CD out, we're still working on new songs. We're ready to move on to the next thing.