O.A.R. have been a successful band for an astonishingly long time. The early seeds were planted in the late 1990s, when lead singer Marc Roberge and members Chris Culos (drums), Richard On (lead guitar), and Benj Gershman (bass) performed at an eighth-grade talent show in Rockville. The foursome cut their first record as high school students in 1997, then headed to Ohio State University, where they met saxophone player Jerry DePizzo. The group made it big by playing the college-party circuit hard, and still today are staples on many a dorm-room soundtrack. The fivesome returns to their local stomping ground Friday for a show at Strathmore; we caught up with Roberge to talk about the new record, die-hard fans, and favorite Washington haunts.
What are you up to at the moment?
I’m at home with the kids for the week right now. We’ve been in the studio in Bethesda writing some new songs.
Do you know when the new album is coming out?
We don’t have a set plan, but it’ll be out in 2013. Basically we’re trying not to put a date on it, because that always puts a damper on things.
Do you always record in Bethesda?
We don’t really ever—we tried out a new spot recommended by a friend, a private studio. It’s cool going straight to smaller studios that don’t cost a fortune because you get a better product, closer to the final product. It’s like you’re skipping a step. Four of the five of us are from Rockville, and right now only one person lives in the area; the rest of us live in New York, Chicago, and Columbus.
It must be nice coming back to your home base to play.
It’s great! We love playing at Merriweather; we love doing Strathmore. This is a whole other level of local—we have our parents, our in-laws, everyone living within miles of Strathmore. You go to your old favorite spot on the Pike, and when you’re there for a show you feel like—back in the day you could go on a field trip, and you might have been there a thousand times, but because you were on a field trip it felt extra special.
Do you have a favorite memory from a Washington show?
Definitely at Merriweather, when my son [who is three] walked out onstage at the beginning of the show. I didn’t know he was there, and he was standing there very calmly. It was my turn to get to the mike and sing, it was very loud, and he didn’t understand where I have to leave him there—“Why did Daddy walk away?” But my favorite part was when he went behind the drums, and I went behind the drums and no one could see us, so I could talk to him onstage. Lucky for him he went on a tour bus at a very young age, and acclimated himself to this lifestyle. Citizen Cope opened for us, and before he’d go on we’d go sidestage and have him hold the microphone. So he’s not impressed by it by any means.
What’s your favorite place to go when you come back to the area?
Giuseppe’s—that’s the original spot. Growing up down here, that was my spot. I also like Ledo Pizza, and it’s not conflicting cuz I like ’em both. I’m a simple guy—me and my friends like the same things we liked 20 years ago.
What do you guys do on the road when you’re touring?
We usually use the tour as an excuse to play golf, so we take advantage of wherever we’re at. When you get older, with families and more responsibilities, the less golf you get to play, so when we’re in a new city we try to play some golf. The other thing we’ve really become into is playing music together during the day, so we’re doing a lot of that, as well.
Since you’ve been together as a band for so long, do you ever drive one another crazy?
Yeah. It’s kind of like if you grew up around the family that had a bunch of kids, six boys and a couple girls, one of those kinds of families—they’d always battle, but they’d always stick up for each other. They’re allowed to fight with each other. We’ve been together since childhood, really, so at this point there’s no problem we can’t work out without talking it out real fast. There’s no fighting, it’s just brotherly.
Do you have any pre-show rituals?
I always talk to my wife before I do a show. We always make sure we’re in contact before the show—she’s been doing that for me my whole career, so it’s become a tradition for us. We also always warm up; everyone in the band is playing for at least an hour before we go onstage. Before, when we were younger, we were probably partying before the shows.
What would you say first influenced your ska-tinged sound?
Our first show was actually at an eighth-grade talent show, and we put out our first record in high school. Then went to college and picked up our sax player. So it’s kind of like as a band we were born in Maryland and raised in Ohio. Our number one influence was Pearl Jam hands down; that era was our era. Then later we kind of became into reggae music; we really enjoyed the pulse of that. Then the years went on and each of us started liking different types of music. For me personally, Ryan Adams was a huge influence as far as sheer amount of music and quality.
Who are you listening to these days?
I don’t get too much music over the course of the year, so it seems like the end of the year I just spend listening. A lot of Alabama Shakes—I’m really digging on that. Hunter Hayes is this country kid who plays all the instruments and records them; a lot of people play instruments, but this kid can play everything. I like to keep tabs on pop music just know what’s going on. Bruno Mars to me is a really interesting guy; I like his take on things.
Seems like people who come to your concerts expect to hear certain songs, like “That Was a Crazy Game of Poker.” Do you ever get sick of playing them?
I never get sick of playing the songs people like to hear; I never get sick of the reaction the crowd gives you. A lot of times when you play the songs the most people like, there’s always a pocket of people that really hate that. They want us to play the songs no one’s ever heard. As a whole, my main goal is just move the crowd. I get happy when the crowd gets happy, but I take a lot of joy in finding those rare ones to add to the lineup.
Do you have any New Year’s resolutions as a band?
As a band, we do every year kind of set goals, and last year it was to make this live album and go to Red Rocks and have a big ol’ audience—and we did it. This year it’s to release a brand new album of brand new music and have a big ol’ summer tour, and do it in a functioning, great way. Our one goal as a group that we keep talking about is to have an album out that’s completely unrushed and unpolished at the same time.
Do you anticipate that this one will be a big departure from your previous albums?
It’ll be different from the last couple in a sense, I guess, because every album is telling the stories of what you’re up to; even when you’re writing songs about other characters, your experiences come through. We’ve been through some ups and downs and sideways stuff, so our most recent album was a very half dark, half light experience, maybe leaning toward the darker side. This album is in its infancy right now, and it’s supposed to channel a new beginning, a new spark, a new appreciation, a more positive outlook—that’s really what we’re aiming for. What I’m trying to do thematically is . . . when go to the beach in the summer, you’re with your friends, and it’s the party on the beach, the dinner at night, the walk with the gal, that’s what I’m trying to capture on the album. I want this to be the album you put on for that family, for that weekend with your friends.
Will folks going out to the show hear any of the new stuff?
We got one song we played this summer that we’re working out; we just wrote and finished one that might get played. We’ll probably have one brand new one. We’ll have the horn section at the show, an orchestra, a keyboard player. Having the horn section really opens up what you can do.
You’ve been touring for so many years, you must have some die-hard fans who’ve seen you multiple times. Got any crazy stories?
I actually just made a documentary called Standing on a Burning Hot Sun, which comes with the DVD we just put out—right after the live performance there’s a 45-minute documentary. It’s supposed to capture those summer relationships, kind of that whole good feeling of getting in a van with all your buddies and going to see a show. So I wanted to get in touch with the audience members I’ve seen for years at tens of hundreds of shows, and interview them. I grew up in a world where my brother was in a band, and live music was a part of our life, so [seeing that many shows] isn’t crazy to me—although there’s one dude who’s been to 140 shows. I’m friendly with him at this point; we text and stuff, and some people think that’s crazy, but he’s a really nice guy and really enjoys the moment. I could never roll like that to anybody’s shows! Gosh, I’m not built for it. That impresses me in a whole other way. So we’ve got the DVD and the live album out, it’s on iTunes, and the documentary comes with the DVDs. In my opinion it’s a really good look at the human side of touring and summer concerts.
O.A.R. perform at Strathmore Friday, December 14, at 8 PM. Tickets ($75 to $130) are available online.