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Rockers of O.A.R. positioned for greatness

James Costa | Tuesday, April 17, 2007

For the second time in two years, O.A.R. is coming to South Bend to play the Morris Center. It’s been an exciting year for the band, including a sold-out performance at Madison Square Garden in New York City. That memorable night was filmed, and the recording will come out this June. The band’s most recent album, “Stories of a Stranger,” is a chugging and powerful piece of work that brought the group great success this year and last.

O.A.R., which plays in South Bend this Sunday, is often tagged as the successor to groups like the Dave Matthews Band and has continued to forge new musical paths and directions. Jerry DePizzo, the band’s saxophonist, spoke with The Observer to discuss the band’s past and its strong outlook for the future.

Tell us about the album. How’s it been playing live?

DePizzo: It’s been playing real well. We’ve developed some of the songs to become staples of our concerts. We’ve developed them and manipulated them to fit to fit the live environment, with arrangements that fit a live environment in a way we didn’t focus on when making the album. We do it so that when you come to a show, the songs are certainly different from the album version. This is something the band loves to do. We love to switch it up and vary it up to give people something a little bit different for the live show.

“Stories of a Stranger” was released in 2005. Is there a new album in development?

DePizzo: Yeah, we have a live record coming out June 5th. We filmed it at Madison Square Garden on January 28th of this year. It’s going to be a two CD and two DVD set. It’s really fantastic. We’re extremely proud of it as a band and it’s probably the best thing we’ve done to date. Everything from the performance, the recording of it, the filming of it, the artwork, everything, and it’s all just really great and we’re extremely proud of it. We’re going into the studio this fall to do another studio record.

How does it affect the band to watch yourselves continue to rise?

DePizzo: It’s a good feeling. The band is bigger today than we were yesterday. It keeps growing and growing and growing. We haven’t really had an explosion of growth or something like that, and in some ways that’s a good thing and in some ways we wish we would have that. Everything is steadily progressing though. We’re a better band because of it and we’ve learned to deal with each new level as well.

You once said that two songs you loved to play live are “City On Down” and “Poker” because they really hit a chord with the audience. Now with this tour and upcoming album, can listeners expect another “Poker”?

DePizzo: No. Honestly, we never really tried to replicate what “Poker” is and I think it would be foolish of us to try. It’s a magical song, but it’s been 12 years since we wrote that song. We’re at a complete different place now with different aspects and points of life that are what we try to write about now. It’s just like how songs like “I Feel Home” and “Love and Memories” can’t be replicated. You can’t try to go backwards with things; you can just keep going forward with things.

What’s it like as a band to have songs from a few years back that you can play and so every night relive the memories of the times when the song was new?

DePizzo: Just to see the reaction of the crowd every night is a great thing. People ask if we get tired of playing a song but it’s not like that. We have one song that we have to play and that’s the one we have to play and some people see it as a burden but I really don’t. People get so excited and so happy when you play it, so why wouldn’t you? And the other side of it is that we switch it up and change it every night. It’s never the same when we play it. I don’t think we’ve played songs the same way twice, ever.

This keeps it fun and fresh for us. We build upon it. We don’t play it the 1996 version or the April 16th version. We keep building and adapting and changing it, and this keeps it fresh for us. I think it’s the artist’s and the band’s responsibility to give the fans something new every time. Marc [Roberge] does a lot of improvisation with the lyrics. Some nights when the show gets a little crazy, half the lyrics are off the top of his head. As one of the soloists in the band, I don’t play the same solo twice, ever. One thing is that I don’t like to memorize things. Also, it keeps everything fresh and exciting for me.

A lot of people don’t realize that O.A.R. is actually Of a Revolution. How did you get the name?

DePizzo: I think it’s from a short story that Marc wrote in 1996. It’s taken from a time when him and Chris [Culos] had just studied abroad in Israel for months and had a new outlook on life. They’d seen a completely new culture, with different cultures living together as one while fighting each other at the same time. It was a distinct point in their life and they started writing this music and being in this band and they wanted a name that was somewhat lofty, a name that meant something above themselves and that’s what they came up with.

In a review of the older album “In Between Now and Then,” you were compared to the Police. How does the band enjoy these comparisons?

DePizzo: The Police is one of my favorite bands of all time, so if someone wants to say we sound like the Police then that’s fantastic. I’ll take it. We can get compared to bands like the Dave Matthews Band, Phish and the Grateful Dead and it’s great. We take it as compliment and we try to forge our own path. I don’t think we’ve ever tried to sound like anybody else and if we tried, we’d fail miserably. So we try to be the band that we are and get better at that.

As your sound has changed over the years, I notice that the band worked with famed songwriter Glen Ballard on “Love and Memories.” What was that experience like?

DePizzo: It was great. I expected something completely different out of that situation. Glen Ballard was a well-known individual with a great amount of success and I expected a lot more attitude and bravado from him and I didn’t get any of that. He really just sat down with us and wrote and a song and I loved every second of it and we got a great song out of it.

Where does the band see their sound heading in the tours and albums to come?

DePizzo: I’d say it’s going to get closer to the live sound and what we do on stage. We’re not going to record a record of 10-minute epic jams, but we’re going to have a lot of chemistry in the studio. We spent about a month in New York writing new music for the record and we recorded it all. We’d never done that before.

We used to come up with a bunch of song ideas, record them, and that would be the record. What we’re doing now is playing the songs and recording them on tape and now over the next few tours, play them live and see how it goes in a live setting. They end up becoming better songs because we get more comfortable and more familiar with them through performing them. You can expect the next O.A.R. record to be 10 or 12 performances on a record and not just songs.

What led you to join O.A.R.?

DePizzo: I lived the dream as a guy who was a big fan of the music and actually got to be a part of the band that I really enjoyed and loved. We were friends first and went to college together. I’d go to see them play and then I’d go and help set up at sound check, then I’d play a song at sound check, then a song during the show, then a couple songs and it kept progressing from there till the saxophone and what I did became an integral part of the band and the band’s sound. It’s been a very exciting and rewarding experience.

What can the bands expect from the summer tour?

DePizzo: We’ll be playing new songs, which we’re excited about. We’re going to blow the doors off the place. We’re going to bring out one hell of a light show and new arrangements and it’ll be a really powerful, forceful and exciting O.A.R.

What songs can we look for that have become live highlights?

DePizzo: “Fifty two fifty” is that one that has really taken on a life of its own. It has really developed into one of the stronger songs that we do live. That was one that really surprised me going into the tour because it wasn’t a song that we played exceptionally well when we went in to make the record. Now, it’s a really powerful song that has a lot of impact.

What was it like when the band realized they had sold out Madison Square Garden?

DePizzo: It was great! The thing was, we had played the Garden in January of 2006 and we were very, very pleased to fill it out the first time around. That was a surprise to us; we didn’t think we’d have that kind of success there. This time was a little different. Since we’d done it last year, we expected to do it this year and so we raised the bar.

We’re certainly glad that we did it again. We actually sold a few more tickets this year than last year, which was great. On top of that, we did the recording and the filming, so there was a lot of pressure put on us to sell out and when we did, we breathed a sigh of relief.

What’s it like to sell a million total records as a band?

DePizzo: It’s great – it’s definitely an accomplishment. It’s a notch on the belt. We continue to keep putting notches on the belt and reaching, going for goals we want to attain and we want to achieve in our career.

How does it work then that the whole band can be doing their own thing and still come together to form one song?

DePizzo: That’s the chemistry. It’s what makes us who we are and the band that we are. It’s what you can’t get with a bunch of session musicians. It’s the camaraderie, the years of brotherhood and friendship being on stage, learning how to be a band with each other. It’s something that can’t be replicated.

What are the band’s immediate plans?

DePizzo: We are on a spring tour right now. We have a West Coast tour in June, then the summer tour in July.