For O.A.R., a major label and party time

Music Notes

Music: in concert, CDs

November 27, 2003|By Rashod D. Ollison

Steamy weather, chilled Coronas and party people -- bodies slick with sweat -- bumping and grooving under the moon. It's a summer party whenever you throw on an O.A.R. CD. The band's latest is In Between Now and Then. And although I had heard of the Maryland group, I never really paid much attention to the music. It wasn't exactly on my radar.

Curious about what makes O.A.R. such a big deal, I slipped the CD in and was instantly transported to a Caribbean beach party ("Dareh Meyod"), then a fun, smoky joint in a college town ("Right on Time"). Yeah, I dug it. The grooves pulled me in.

Phoning from his New York City pad, lead singer Marc Roberge says, "Our eyes are wide open to different cultures, and that goes into the music."

The dominant influence is obviously reggae. The music's lilting rhythms drive the best songs on the album, bolstered by Marc's passionate vocals, another thing that makes O.A.R. stand out from the rest.

"I identify with the rhythm of reggae," Marc says. "The music taught us to take different stuff and make it simple."

What makes In Between Now and Then such a significant release for the group is its major-label distribution with Atlantic Records. If your radar has been tuned to mostly mainstream stuff (uh-huh, that includes me), then you would miss O.A.R., which stands for "Of a Revolution." It's not that that band's sound is too abstract, too underground or too avant- garde to garner pop attention.

The quintet has been doing it independently for the past three years with its own label, Everfine Records. Since releasing its debut, The Wanderer, in 2000, the group, which formed at Ohio State University, has sold its CDs at the hundreds of shows the band plays a year. And Napster, the controversial Internet service, was essential in getting O.A.R. heard. Fans of the band were always taping shows and making them available on the Internet. But unlike other artists who have spoken out vehemently against file sharing, Marc sees it as a blessing.

"Quite simply, that has been our success," says the singer-guitarist, "the free trade of music."

The Wanderer sold more than 100,000 copies, a figure some major-label artists can't seem to get. Subsequent albums -- 2000's Soul's Aflame, 2001's Risen, 2002's Any Time Now -- sold more than 50,000 a piece. Since securing the deal with Atlantic, the band has received more press, which has resulted in a swift sell of more than 100,000 copies of In Between Now and Then.

But Marc is still unsatisfied. With all the hard work and undeniable talent, O.A.R. is still relegated to the jam-band scene.

His tone a little terse, Marc says, "Some of the pop [stuff] is good. But the frustrating part is that a kid can walk into a label and get groomed into something he's not and can make a living, get on MTV, sell a million records. And we are working so hard for almost 10 years ... " His voice trails off; he pauses for a moment. "Some deserve the success, you know? Some don't. Hey, we just do what we do and stay honest."

Marc is 25, and his childhood was pretty regular. His mom's a teacher, dad is an attorney. He has two older brothers. Growing up in Rockville, he and his best friend, O.A.R. drummer Chris Culos, watched MTV religiously and dreamed of being rock stars in regular rotation on the network.

After hooking up with guitarist Richard On, saxophonist Jerry DePizzo and bassist Benj Gersham in college, Marc and Chris found the right chemistry. The music-making -- then and now -- has always been a natural process, one fueled with a delicious energy and appealing elements of rock, ska and jazz.

"Everybody puts in his own [stuff]," Marc says. "We don't tell people what to play. Everybody does his own thing and makes the song happen. There's no Hitler in the group."

And that's a good thing. You can count on O.A.R. to get the party started right and quickly.

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