Interview With Richard On Of O.A.R.
If you were to write one of those classic screenplays for a sappy TV movie, not the kind that repeatedly features that female from Growing Pains unless she was a star-crossed groupie or something, you couldn't possibly write one with all the necessary twists and turns that would equal the evolution of the band O.A.R.. This Maryland-based Quintet are living proof that if you set your mind to something, you can accomplish that goal with the proper single-minded energy.
Lead guitarist, Richard On took a few minutes out after just finishing the Sprite Mix Tour and getting ready to head out on their upcoming headlining tour, to speak with Guitar.com. Find out why Napster was a good thing, how the Sprite Mix tour teaches humility and what a $500 CD sounds like.
Guitar.com: Hey Richard, how goes it?
Richard On: Great Don, hope all is well with you.
Guitar.com: Well let's get right to it - let's set the record straight for all the n00b's out there. The band name; it's O period A period R period. Not "Oar" as in a long, thin, wooden pole with a blade at one end, used to row or steer a boat and fight off giant squids.
Richard On: Right, that's right (laughs).
Guitar.com: It's stands for "Of A Revolution." I think it's pretty interesting that, largely, your hardcore fans know why and what those words refer to, but if you're new to O.A.R., you're not quite sure what the hell it means. I mean, not that that was done with intent but it's clever that it turned out that way.
Richard On: Well the reason why we resorted to O.A.R. was cause at first we just said "Of A Revolution." This was back in high school, like 1996. People would ask, "what's the name of your band?" and you try to say "Of A Revolution" and they'd be like "Offa what?"
Guitar.com: Yeah, it's sort of a mouthful.
Richard On: Yeah, so we just shortened it to O.A.R. and it simplified things. But if people want to get into the meaning of the name of the band, it's easy enough to find out.
Guitar.com: You officially become a band in '96 or so.
Richard On: Yeah, 1996 - that was like, well I was still a Junior in high school.
Guitar.com There's been much said about how much of an impact the Internet has had on your success. When did the Internet start to become a major part of your exposure and marketing for the band?
Richard On: Probably not until we got to college. Freshman year in college, maybe sophomore year. This was when Napster was really up and coming, that really helped us as far as spreading the music. We'd play cities that we'd never been to before and the shows would be sold out. And everyone knows all the words. We were like "how the hell is that happening?" (laughing)
Guitar.com: (laughs) Hmmm, imagine that. Napster shown in a positive light. What will the record companies think?
Richard On: Right - well after the shows, we'd do a little research and we started to figure out how this was working. And the answer was the Internet.
Guitar.com: Wow- it populated the areas with your music, long before you had the chance to get there. Word of mouth times a hundred, I suppose.
Richard On: Yeah, more or less.
Guitar.com: So you're still in college at this time, so you can't tour during the whole year. Are you guys breaking out and touring hard all summer long?
Richard On: We toured pretty much through the summers almost full time. We didn't have our booking agent back then so getting shows and putting them together was pretty on us or on our management. So we really didn't have too many shows. We'd go out on little stints, like one or two week tours, just around the D.C., Virginia, Pennsylvania area.
Guitar.com: More regional, sort of keeping it close to home.
Richard On: Yeah, cause we were driving around in a van then.
Guitar.com: Now, you guys are out of Rockville, Maryland. Is that still home?
Richard On: Well, we still consider it home but not everyone lives here though. I'm still here. The bass player is here. The drummer is here and the singer is up in New York. And the sax player, we met him while we were at Ohio State. So he lives in Columbus.
Guitar.com: The bulk of the band all comes from Rockville. You all went to High School together...
Richard On: And middle school.
Guitar.com: Really? Wow.
Richard On: Yeah, our singer Marc (Roberge) and our drummer Chris (Culos), we had a band together in eighth grade.
Guitar.com: Very cool. I think I was still playing with G.I. Joes in eighth grade.
Richard On: We did the eighth grade talent show.
Guitar.com: Now that is truly classic. What a legacy. Were you taking lessons then?
Richard On: Well, when they asked me to join the band, I think we were covering "Porch" by Pearl Jam back then. And we totally demolished "Wonderful Tonight" by Eric Clapton, with all sorts of bad palm muting (laughs).
Guitar.com: Sounds sweet (laughs).
Richard On: I think that sort of drove me to start taking lessons. I could read tab and I mostly figured that out on my own. But as far as any theory or any of that stuff, I really didn't have much. I still don't have a huge background in theory.
Guitar.com: How long did you take lessons for?
Richard On: Maybe four years or so, but before that I took piano for like 6 years.
Guitar.com: I'm sure the theory from piano helped you a great deal when you decided to pick up the guitar.
Richard On: Oh yeah. I couldn't read bass clef (on piano) to save myself so sight reading became a lot easier once I started playing guitar.
Guitar.com: Cut the work in half.
Richard On: (laughs) yeah.
Guitar.com: You're pretty much gigging all the time now. I saw your tour itinerary. You just finished up the Sprite Mix Tour and you're preparing for a college/club tour. Do you still have time to practice and keep your chops up to speed? Do you still consider yourself a student at this point?
Richard On: Hmmm, well when we're on the road, we don't practice all that much because we're touring constantly; there's so little down time. So I'd say not much. Practice comes during breaks or during rehearsals for the tour. Probably the best time not to hear a band on tour is the first show of the tour. You probably want to catch up with them somewhere in the middle. Not the end, cause then you're hitting that eight week hump and all you want to do is go home (laughs).
Richard On: So with all the gigs, that's the practice. Not only are you practicing what you're playing and improvising with other people, you're also getting to do it in front of crowd, which is totally different than practicing in your room. A lot of people practice while they're sitting down in their bedroom, with a metronome. But there's a whole other thing going on when you're standing up and playing in front of a crowd, that's the thing.
Guitar.com: Yeah, I think from what I've seen from your new DVD (comes included with their new release, In Between Now and Then), there's a wonderfully organic vibe that's created onstage and that certainly doesn't happen in the rehearsal studio or when you're practicing. I think a lot of that comes from the crowd and the energy created by the band and sort of feeding it back.
Richard On: It's just where you are. The environment that we get put in.
Guitar.com: Have you and your bandmates been really stunned by the where this has taken you?
Richard On: Yeah, absolutely. None of this was expected at all. I look back to when we used to practice in the drummer's basement. Trying to come up with the name for the band. The funny thing is, a lot of the songs that we play now were written like back in high school.
Guitar.com: That's great. Pretty prolific writing.
Richard On: If you listen to our first CD, The Wanderer, that CD - that's not even a CD. It's more of practice tape (laughs). We had some songs. We mostly did it for our friends. They wanted us to record them so they could listen to them.
Guitar.com: Right, makes sense.
Richard On: They suggested that we go into the studio and try and lay them down. Well, we had like $500. Went to the studio and if you make a mistake...(laughs) too bad.
Guitar.com: The only way to do it. (laughing) It sounds like $500. I think I have a tape like that somewhere. Sounds more like $97.50, I think.
Richard On: (laughs) That's probably true of a lot of bands. Exactly. Time is money. Unless we had an extra $5 we couldn't fix anything.
Guitar.com: We can fix that in the mix. (laughs)
Richard On: Right, that was all we could afford then. And now you've got Pro-tools and stuff and we could go back and fix them. But the rawness of that CD and the innocence of the band is pretty funny for the time.
Guitar.com: Well it's pretty amazing when you see the footage you provide on the DVD, talking to your fans and seeing the birth of band, the fan base, the buzz. You have such strong support from your fans. It reminds me of when Dave Matthews was coming up through the ranks. College kids had known about him for quite a while before anyone (in the mainstream) had ever heard of him.
Richard On: Right.
Guitar.com: Dave was selling out large venues long before MTV and the mainstream realized who the hell he was.
Richard On: It's funny how a lot of the industry doesn't realize these things until after the fact.
Guitar.com: So let's talk about your new release. This is your fifth official release, $500 or otherwise. Your first in for Lava Records. Have things changed for you beyond distribution at this point?
Richard On: As far as?
Guitar.com: As far as your life in the band? For you personally? Is there more touring? Less touring? More press? More responsibility? With the major label support, what changes?
Richard On: It's definitely more touring and less of your own personal time. But this is what we've always dreamed of doing.
Guitar.com: Well put. How many dates a year are you guys doing currently?
Richard On: About 250.
Guitar.com: Wow, you guys are busy.
Richard On: We're home maybe four months out of the year if we're lucky.
Guitar.com: Now is this all US based? Any plans on going overseas?
Richard On: We haven't gone overseas yet. We do plan on going to Europe.
Richard On: Yes, we've been to Montreal and Toronto.
Guitar.com: We have some strong support from our Canadian brethren on Guitar.com. So how was the Sprite Mix Tour?
Richard On: At first, when the tour started, it was really tough.
Guitar.com: Why was that?
Richard On: Well to be honest with you, it was supposed to be a melding of two musical genres, hip-hop and rock. It just sounded like it was going to be - well a lot of people are into hip-hop and a lot of people are into rock. But in a lot of cases that's all their into, rock or hip-hop. I think a lot of the hip-hop artists probably felt the same way. But the first five shows that we played were on the west coast. The west coast is really hip-hop driven as far as concerts and events are concerned. We were really excited because we thought we were going to do really well there. We'd do two nights at the House of Blues in LA and two nights at the Fillmore. We always thought we had a good following there [California]. But when we got there, it was clearly not our crowd.
Richard On: Yeah, call us spoiled but I mean we've never been seriously, I guess, call it "heckled." (laughing)
Guitar.com: Right. I guess you can't say that anymore.
Richard On: Yeah, we had people screaming "GET THE 'F' OFF THE STAGE."
Guitar.com: Now that's some heckling.
Richard On: Yeah.
Guitar.com: Who were you sharing the bill with at that time?
Richard On: The Roots, N*E*R*D, Robert Randolph and the Family Band, a band called the Slightly Stupid.
Guitar.com: Clearly Sprite achieved their mix of people, except in this case it was a wee bit heavy on the hip-hop side.
Richard On: Oh yeah.
Guitar.com: When did that start to change? Or did it start to change?
Richard On: Well at first we thought, this is how the who-o-o-le tour is going to be.
Guitar.com: (laughing) Oh great, wouldn't that be a pleasure to have to endure.
Richard On: (laughs) Yeah, I mean that was what it was like for the first five show. California is usually pretty good to us. As soon as we got off the west coast, I think Dallas was the first show after that and even though that was the worst sounding show of the tour, we have our fans there.
Guitar.com: That must have felt a bit better.
Richard On: Ever since then, it was just great.
Guitar.com: Well, there's nothing like a little dose of humility to put your life back in balance.
Richard On: (laughs) Right. It's good for the ego. But really the tour was a great experience.
Guitar.com: How many dates did you do?
Richard On: Ummm, I'm think it was like a month long or so, with about four nights a week.
Guitar.com: It sounds like an interesting concept, the mixing of rock and hip-hop, but probably one of those ideas that's much better on paper than in reality.
Richard On: The real question is - would we do it again?... probably not (laughs)
Guitar.com: Right. Well hopefully you guys are stronger from the experience (laughs). How about your guitar set-up? I'm assuming from everything I've seen and read, you're a Strat guy.
Richard On: Yeah, exactly. I started playing Strats by default because Gibsons were so expensive. So I bought my first Mexican Strat when I was in like the seventh grade and they just kind of grew on me. At the time we were writing all these songs and I was trying to figure out all these sounds and I had no idea about any of that stuff then. The majority of the stuff O.A.R. plays is pretty clean, to my ears, the clean sound of a Strat, of that classic single coil is just what I was looking for. All my dirty tones comes from pedals. I don't really drive my amps too hard. Our stage volume is really quiet.
Guitar.com: Is it?
Richard On: Yeah. With all the clean stuff I play, if I drive it too hard they're going to break up. They're set right at the verge of breaking up, so if I dig into the strings I get that great rumble.
Guitar.com: How many guitars do you take out with you?
Richard On: Three. One is a Fender. It's been treated pretty rudely by me, mostly.
Guitar.com: That's all right. (laughs)
Richard On: I got another guitar made by Don Grosh. When we were in the studio I was having big intonation problems. I mean big intonation problems. It's just cause the wood they use for those guitars isn't dried completely. I can't afford a '57 Strat.
Richard On: Right. I actually ended up renting one and that's what convinced me to go out and get one that's just going to be solid and stay in tune. So I found this guy Don Grosh and that solved that problem.
Guitar.com: Don's the guy. He makes amazing instruments. For Guitar players, there are a few guitar makers that are considered the elite of the industry; Don Grosh, Jim Tyler, Tom Anderson, John Suhr, Terry McInturff. Those guys make some serious guitars. So what's the third guitar you have out?
Richard On: The third one is just another Strat that I play a whole step down whenever we cover "Sunday, Bloody Sunday." That song is a high, high song. Even the Edge tunes down a half step for that and Bono has a crazy range.
Guitar.com: Yes he does.
Richard On: We play it in C. Just to get that open sound of that riff, I have to play it in that position.
Guitar.com: Makes sense. Are you using Fender amps as well?
Richard On: No, for my clean rhythm I have a tone king. The Comet 40, the old one, not the one that they have out now. I'm a big fan of the 66 tube. I have a Hot Cake that overdrives that when I need to get a little more dirty. And for my lead channel I have a Carr Imperial.
Guitar.com: Now is that the one that looks like a tweed?
Richard On: Well, it looks more like a Super Reverb.
Guitar.com: Right, right. How do you like that?
Richard On: It's great. I've got the 4 x 10 Imperial. Oooh, and I just got a Pete Cornish Fuzz that I use to drive that. It's pretty cool. And I've always got delay on cuz, I'm not the faster player (laughs).
Guitar.com: You've got quite the collection of pedals on your pedal board. Care to define that?
Richard On: I've got way too many pedals. I don't know how to chop it down but I have to figure it out. My pedalboard is just a nightmare. There are so many things that could go wrong and of course do go wrong. There's just too much room for things to happen. Things getting unplugged at the worst times. I've got to figure that out.
Guitar.com: Now, you just got home. You just finished the Sprite tour recently right?
Richard On: We've been off for about a week and we just flew out to Austin to play Austin City Limits.
Guitar.com: Very cool. I love that show.
Richard On: It's a great show and it's a great festival.
Guitar.com: It's a concert? They do a festival event?
Richard On: Yeah.
Guitar.com: I didn't know that.
Richard On: They have the show and then following the show. Well, the festival is very much like Bonnaroo. But the crowd isn't as.....
Guitar.com: Earthy crunchy?
Richard On: Yeah, I suppose. It's just a great crowd. Very appreciative.
Guitar.com: Yeah, Austin has such a great tradition for music. They have a huge college population. Tons of clubs. The perfect breeding ground for music.
Richard On: Yeah, it's the Southern Nashville. So we flew out and did that one show and then I flew back yesterday. And we're off until October 14th.
Guitar.com: That ought to give you enough time to fix that pedal board. Nothing a little duct tape couldn't fix (laughing).
Richard On: Yeah, except I'm such a procrastinator.
Guitar.com: I can see it now. October 13th, 11:00 at night.
Richard On: Nah, I'll wait 'til soundcheck on the first night (laughs).
Guitar.com: Growing up, did you have a life altering recording that you held near and dear?
Richard On: The CD that probably changed my perspective, or maybe the recording that made me want to be in a band is probably Pearl Jam's Ten.
Guitar.com: Big record for them.
Richard On: Yeah, I think I was in like seventh grade. At the time I had no idea who great players were. I didn't know who Jimi Hendrix was. I knew who he was but I had no idea of the impact he had on other players. I didn't know that all the stuff that these Pearl Jam cats were playing, they pretty much got from these older guys.
Guitar.com: So did you take the time to explore those players?
Richard On: Yeah, that was a pretty great time for me. I just kept tracing the timeline back to older artists who started the whole thing. That was a pretty exciting time for me.
Guitar.com: So is Stone (Gossard) and Pearl Jam your inspiration or are there other players that you draw upon?
Richard On: Well, I had an older brother who also played guitar. I wanted to do everything that he did and I wanted to listen to everything he listened to. So the Cure was a huge influence on me just because I spent a lot of time trying to learn their songs. The whole synth-pop, New Order, stuff like that and then I found Pearl Jam.
Guitar.com: So now you're eight years deep into O.A.R., music has changed a good deal since '96, what are five must have CD's for you?
Richard On: Hmmm, man that's a tough question. I'd say Layla by Derek and the Dominoes.
Guitar.com: Good choice.
Richard On: Ten by Pearl Jam. There's a lot of live albums that I'm a big fan of. There's a live Allman Brothers CD. I think it's called An Evening With The Allman Brothers Live. This is with Warren Haynes. He does improv on a couple of songs on there that just catches me. Maybe we should just stick to studio stuff.
Guitar.com: I'm a big fan of a lot of live stuff as well, largely because the energy on it.
Richard On: The latest U2 album, All That You Leave Behind. That's a great record.
Guitar.com: Yes it is. That was one of the CD's that took only one listen to be a favorite. You know how sometimes you have to listen to something for while before it grows on you.
Richard On: Yeah.
Guitar.com: Not that one.
Richard On: Yeah, I agree. I'm trying to think of some more recent stuff, not just old. Is that four? We're up to four, right?
Richard On: Hmm, I'd say The Cure, Disintegration album.
Guitar.com: Well that's certainly a diverse must-have list.
Richard On: Yeah, I listen to a lot of different stuff.
Guitar.com: Now you're about to head out on your own headlining tour, colleges, clubs, a mix of different sized venues. Are you playing any arenas, yet?
Richard On: No, I think we've got a couple of dates with 311. They might be arena shows.
Guitar.com: Right. We just did an interview with Tim Mahoney that's about to go up on the site. He seems like a really good guy.
Richard On: We just toured with them before the Sprite tour. We did about 12 dates with 311. Yeah, those guys are really cool.
Guitar.com: Are you the gear junkie in the band?
Richard On: (laughing) I am the gear junkie in the band.
Guitar.com: It wasn't too hard to tell. When I saw your pedal board I was like "if that doesn't scream gear junkie, I don't know what does." (laughs)
Richard On: (laughs) It's always the sloppiest guitar players that are the gear junkies because they buy all those effects trying to cover everything up.
Guitar.com: You can go to just about any closet in my house and if you open the door, chances are, a pedal of some type might hit you in the head. Do you help Marc out with his rig as well?
Richard On: His rig is a lot simpler than mine. I think he has a tube screamer and Line 6 DL4 delay. He asks me stuff but he has great ears for what he's looking for.
Guitar.com: He's also doing the more fundamental work on guitar. So I guess that makes sense. Now, there are a lot of young guitarists out there that are going to read this interview and there's so much that they can learn from what O.A.R. has been able to accomplish. Are there any specific things that you think you've done along this unique timeline, that you feel stands out to the point of being good advice for up-and-coming bands?
Richard On: For us, when we were up and coming, Napster was legal (laughs).
Guitar.com: (laughs) Right, good point.
Richard On: So I guess now that we're in a different environment, I'd say tour your ass off. Get some good songs together and find some guys that make a little chemistry. You know pretty quickly if you've got a band with some chemistry. And just tour and tour. If you build a fan base and you're looking to get signed or whatever you're looking for. The foundation for that band will be their fan base. Build the fan base and they will come (laughs).
Guitar.com: Well stated, but I think that's true (laughs). That's sort of how you guys did it. That's an element I didn't really touch upon here but maybe we should. When you guys went from grammar school to high school and then the lot of you end up together at Ohio State, was that because of your friendship or was that more of your dedication to the band?
Richard On: I don't even know how we all ended up. I mean, Benj (Gershman- Bass player) was a year younger than us. I went to community college here at home first. Marc and Chris went over to Ohio State. I really wanted to get out of Maryland because I was just goofing off. After a semester I was like, I don't want to go to Maryland U. because it's all the same people from high school, same trouble.
Guitar.com: So is the band broken up at this point?
Richard On: The band, we were kind of on hiatus. We would wait until the summer to gig or record. We didn't really have much of a choice. So I decided to transfer after a semester. Usually you have to wait a full-year before you can get out of there but I made a deal with Ohio State that if I got really good grades, I could transfer in the winter. So I got up there.
Guitar.com: And that made three of you at that point?
Richard On: Yup and we were friends with Jerry the sax player. He wasn't in the band but he would jam with us. But we didn't have a bass player so me and Marc would just do acoustic shows. We were just telling everyone we really did have a band. But I'm pretty sure they all knew we were lying (laughs). We kept saying "wait til our bass player gets here."
Guitar.com: It's all a game of poker, so to speak.
Richard On: That's right. So we had all these CD's, the Wanderer. So we were just passing them out and that just spread throughout the campus. Next thing we know we get a call from Benj, he got into Ohio State and he came up. And that's really when we started playing.
Guitar.com: That's amazing. That's a level of commitment, whether it was intended or not, but a lot of bands will never come close to that level of dedication.
Richard On: Right.
Guitar.com: Obviously your friendship also played an important role in that as well. That's such a great legacy. Well, I wish you much luck and success on the road this fall and winter. When you get up to Boston, we'll have to track you down.
Richard On: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me.