Say it quietly around these parts, but at this point in their careers, O.A.R. might just be music’s answer to Cal Ripken, Jr. – the dependable workhorse who’ll show up and put in solid numbers night after night, no matter rain or shine.
The band got their start in Rockville, Maryland all the way back in 1996, and have put out ten studio albums, five live records, and played a handful of sold-out nights at iconic venues across the country, from Red Rocks to Madison Square Garden. More impressively, the band has retained its original lineup – no mean feat after almost twenty-three years – and their shows have evolved as they have. The band is making their way back to Maryland – in many ways, still their spiritual home – to record their sixth live album this weekend.
“I like shows and I like venues that have a built-in atmosphere and culture,” says saxophonist and guitarist Jerry DePizzo. “A place like Merriweather Post Pavilion certainly fits that.”
Athough DePizzo and his bandmates are spread all over the United States – I reached him over the phone from his home in Columbus, Ohio, while others are as far-flung as San Diego and Nashville – Maryland remains inextricably tied to the core of this band’s identity. Saturday night at Merriweather will likely serve as a homecoming in more ways than one.
O.A.R. are performing at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland on Saturday, September 7. The Mighty is out now on Black Rock Recorded Music.
Brightest Young Things: What does it look like to try and get back on the road? What are the logistics around getting everyone in one central place, and where do you go? Or are you working over the internet?
Jerry DePizzo: Honestly, we’re constantly working. The machine of O.A.R. never stops moving and going; it’s easy for us to just pick up and get back out there. There’s never really a lot of downtime, which is great.
A lot of it is tech-focused, but a lot of it is being prepared, so that when we do get together we’re efficient with our time. And that’s the most important thing we’ve learned over the years. Get your stuff done at home so that we can make the most of time when we are together, which is not very often because people live all over the country. We’ve got to make it count. Our sound checks are our practices, and we’ve got to do the best we can.
BYT: Next year marks the 24th anniversary of the band. How do you stay hungry and interested? Have you ever felt like you needed a break from music?
DePizzo: I get up every day chasing my dream, and I have done so my entire adult life. That’s a gift and a privilege, but it comes with a lot of responsibility and a lot of effort. We work very hard at what we do, and we’re able to express a lot of who we are creatively through the music, but there’s also a lot of art in the commerce as well. We’re also running a small business. All of that together is very challenging and more of a full-time job. We’re fortunate to have something like that.
BYT: I’m interested in your comment about considering O.A.R. a small business. The music industry has really changed from when you guys got started to present day – the way we consume music, the way musicians generate revenue from their art. How has that shifted for you guys? Do you keep an eye on the future and emerging trends or do you adjust as things go?
DePizzo: Well, our audience has always given us our power. The fact that a ton of people have always showed up to our shows has allowed us to ask the question “Why can’t we do it ourselves?” That’s been the mentality since the early days, through our major label days, into our independent [label] days, and into our partnerships with independent record labels today.
If anything, there’s more of a focus on the “fanalytics” of it – understanding who our audience is, what their behavior is, what they want, and what’s the best way we can give it to them. It’s the block and tackling of running a business. Being at it quite a while and having enough experience at it lets us understand what they need, and we’re doing our jobs in giving them what they want in the best way we can.
BYT: Has anything about the evolution of what an O.A.R fan looks like surprised you? Any unexpected changes?
DePizzo: Yeah – it’s interesting to see entire families come to a show. That’s something I didn’t anticipate or think of when I started out doing this, or when I wanted to do this. This understanding that generations of people are going to experience this, appreciate it, and connect with it. So, I really cherish and enjoy that, because I understand the responsibility that comes with that, and what it takes for a family man – or a family – to say “You know what? I’m going to bring everybody to the show. This sounds like it’s fun, safe, and something that we can all get into.” I take pride in our PG-13 rock show that folks can bring their entire family to.
BYT: That’s kind of wonderful. It’s great that everyone can get something out of it.
DePizzo: Yeah, and it’s not weird. Because I understand what it’s like to be in high school or in college and see a ten year old. I’d be totally terrified by that. That doesn’t really happen with what we do – everyone shows up, has a good time, dances along and sings the lyrics. Everyone goes home happy.
BYT: Did you ever have some act you could enjoy with your parents or older family members?
DePizzo: Not with my family so much. My friends and I would go see Allman Brothers shows – those were fun for us. Did that a couple of times. That inspired me. The Dave Matthews guys too, but that came later; that came in college. But both inspired and showed me the power of a live music event and what it can mean to people. We take that very seriously and appreciate it.
BYT: O.A.R. are Rockville natives, and you’re recording this upcoming live album at Merriweather Post Pavilion, which just celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. Does MPP have any special significance to the band, and to you, personally?
DePizzo: A ton! A ton, would be the short answer to that. And to clarify – I grew up in Ohio, but the other four boys grew up in and around Rockville, Maryland. So they went to Merriweather all the time growing up, seeing all kinds of shows.
I remember – I think it was July of 1999 or 2000, we had an opportunity to open up for Bob Dylan at Merriweather. I got the phone call from one of the guys saying “Hey, we’re opening up for Bob Dylan – are you available to come do this thing?” Excellent! We go there – and we’re not opening up for Bob Dylan. [Laughs] We’re in some bonus stage, like way out. But it’s great, and for a bunch of eighteen, nineteen year olds that’s the same thing as opening for Bob Dylan. We thought we were going to hang backstage by his dressing room and hang out, play him some of our music and then he’d hand it to a record executive and we’d all be giant rockstars. It didn’t happen that way, but it certainly inspired us to do big things. It was kind of our springboard, and a great experience to be introduced to the venue.
BYT: What can we expect from this live album you’re recording on Saturday? Is it new material mostly? Are there any deep cuts that you are particularly looking forward to playing?
DePizzo: This is the first live record since 2012 Red Rocks, and we’re super excited about that. We’ve done a couple records since then, but most importantly we want the audience to hear that we listened. We listened to the feedback and the social posts and what folks want as part of the setlist. And what we would want as well; a lot of the time that aligned. We are excited to really put the audience’s input into the setlist and play something that is going to be a good time for those there the night of the show but also be able to live on in an album, as well.
BYT: That springs a philosophical question, particularly as you mentioned Bob Dylan earlier. He’s notorious for refusing to play anything from his back catalogue. He gets up there and plays whatever the hell he wants to play; is that feasible for a musician nowadays?
DePizzo: I mean – whether you’re Taylor Swift, or Bob Dylan, or O.A.R., or anybody – your job is to entertain folks. We feel our best way of doing that is to go out there and play the songs we feel people expect us to play along with some deep cuts. And to switch things up every night. We know folks go to a ton of different shows; it’s not uncommon to meet someone at an O.A.R. show who has been to four or five different ones that year, so we keep it fresh. So, I understand Bob Dylan’s need to do that, but at the same time, when folks go to one of our shows, they expect to hear “[Crazy Game of] Poker” and tunes like that. We try to deliver for them.
BYT: You’ve sold out places like Madison Square Garden as well as other giant venues around the world, but still play the occasional club show. Which do you enjoy more? What’s your ideal setting to perform?
DePizzo: People go to places like Merriweather to go to Merriweather. People go to Red Rocks to go to Red Rocks. People go to Ravinia in Chicago to go to Ravinia. People go to the Gorge to go to the Gorge – you know what I mean? Who’s there is important, but the venue itself is an important element of that. Those shows are fun because there’s an added level of excitement that exists with the audience, and through that there’s a heightened connection and you can do some fun stuff with that.
BYT: Finally, is there anything you’re looking forward to doing back in the D.C. area?
DePizzo: You know, what I’m going to enjoy of being back in the D.C. area is watching and seeing all the friends and family that come to the show. See all the guys and stuff and watch them absorb all of that. That’s always one of my more favorite things to do. And I’m bringing my kids this time, so I’m looking forward to the Rockville family reunion backstage.