One of O.A.R.’s earliest songs, "That Was a Crazy Game of Poker,” originally came out on the band’s 1997 album The Wanderer
. With the twangy first half of the song in which singer Marc Roberge sings in a bit of a drawl about how he’s “gotta throw it all down and kiss it goodbye,” it continues to be a fan favorite that the group always plays live. But to hear drummer Chris Culos describe it, the song had a rather convoluted and complex origin.
“The first part of the song came about because our singer Marc [Roberge] and I had done a high school abroad program,” he says via phone from a Norfolk tour stop. “We went to Israel for three months. We learned all the history from biblical times to modern day affairs. It’s cool because we’d learn about something in the classroom and then go to the site where it happened. This is at an age when you’re seeing a different civilization. We were gathering all these ideas but Marc at the time was like, ‘I’m only 16. I don’t have that much to write about that people will think is honest,’ so he started telling stories in different characters’ eyes and writing about how can learn from the mistakes we made.”
Culos says the “general vibe” of the song started to come together then. When the two returned to the states and started working on the song more with their bandmates, it became the tune that fans have come to know and love.
“When we came home, we wrote the second part of the song where it goes to more of a reggae part,” he says. “I remember we had written the chorus, and it was like an anthem. We went to a buddy’s studio. It wasn’t a high-end studio. It was in a guy’s basement. We wanted to record our first CD, but we didn’t have enough money to have a producer and do takes and takes. We set up as a band and played live and [Roberge] freestyled our lyrics to the second half of the song. He was scatting and came up with freestyle lyrics off the top of his head. It’s amazing because those lyrics came off the top of his head and then they spread all across the country. It’s an awesome story looking back on it. It stuck, but it’s the beginning of the story. Marc can now tell different stories within the same song. That kind of spirit started what people like about the band.”
The band, which first formed in Rockville, Maryland in 1996, would relocate to Columbus after all the members decided to attend Ohio State University. The group thrived on the frat party circuit and picked up sax man Jerry DePizzo, a native of Youngstown, along the way.
“We met him orientation weekend,” says Culos when asked about how he first met DePizzo. “Our singer Marc met him. He was one of the first people we met in the dorms. It was one of those lucky moments. We had gone to Ohio State with another buddy from ours who was playing with Jerry in a band called Ordinary Peoples. We would play together all the time. Jerry would play different instruments with that band and he would sit in with us and play sax and it became a vital part of the show. We had Jerry join the band. It’s funny how that coincidence that it happened like that.”
DePizzo’s sax riffs give the music an “island-y vibe.”
“Going back to our influences with Paul Simon and Genesis and having the horn section in there, it’s great,” says Culos. “But it’s not too funky. We love listening to Tower of Power but he brings that island-y vibe. We’re not a reggae band, but it adds a whole different melodic element. We have our guitarist skanking on the upbeat and that’s more of a reggae thing, but you have the vocal melody behind it and the bass line driving everything, so there’s an open area for the sax to come in and elevate the song. It gives us other stuff to play off.”
On its latest album, last year’s The Rockville LP
, the group tries to write the kind of summery songs that inspired it in the early days. Roberge teamed up with songwriter Nathan Chapman, a guy best known for his work with Taylor Swift. They wanted Chapman to produce the album but because of scheduling, he wasn’t able to produce the entire thing. As a result, the guys started working on it with him in Nashville and then finished it up in Maryland.
“Marc wanted to pay tribute to what it was like when we were 16 years old,” says Culos. “Each song is a tribute to that. One song is simply about listening to our favorite songs, driving around with the windows down blasting music. We still do that to this day. It’s a love letter to Rockville.”
With blaring saxophone riffs and anthemic vocals, “Favorite Song” has a great feel to it.
“I think we wanted the music to match what the lyrics are,” says Culos when asked about the track. “That doesn’t always happen. Sometimes, the lyrics are darker than the music, but that was one of those that pays tribute to the songs you just blast. We wanted to have energy and a modern twist production-wise than just an organic rootsy, acoustic guitar driven song. We’re really good at that, but we can do stuff in the studio and surprise people. It pushes us. I’m not trying to brag. We want to get better as songwriters and as a band. We want the shows to get better. Those are good challenges to take on.”
The band returns to narrative songwriting with “The Architect,” a breezy, horn-driven tune that starts with a reference to an encounter with a presumably homeless man on Bourbon Street in New Orleans.
“Well, I’m not going to get into lyrics so much because people can interpret it differently,” says Culos when asked about the song’s origins. “The story I like about it is that it’s on the album because the audience wanted it and would not stop talking about it. It’s one of the only songs that the audience has ever heard from the past. Maybe we played some of the songs prepping for the album. We’ve had songs that have been around for 5, 10, 15 years. People have come to us and said we need to put it on a record. What a great thing to do if we’re doing a throwback. I want to say it was written in 2004. It’s old. We didn’t write it in high school but it’s been around for a while.”
The current tour, which includes a stop at Jacobs Pavilion at Nautica, supports the new single “Two Hands Up” which the band recently performed on Good Day New York
and Live with Kelly and Michael
. Originally on The Rockville LP
, it’s a song that Roberge recently reworked with singer-songwriter Cody Simpson and Coca-Cola so it could become the theme song to the 2015 Special Olympics, featured on ABC News. Culos says the band has started to sketch out some tracks for the next studio album too.
“We’re always writing and we’re working on new things at soundcheck,” he says. “We played a few new songs live. We have songs in the vault that are easy to bring out. If it’s the right one at the right time, we’re doing to do that. We’re writing some fun new stuff and the direction of the new project will be happening sooner rather than later.”
O.A.R., Allen Stone, Brynn Elliott, 6:45 p.m. Friday, Sept. 4, 2014 Sycamore St., 216-622-6557. Tickets: $37.50, livenation.com.