O.A.R. Dips Its Paddle in the Big-League Ocean

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ORIGINALLY POSTED ON STRAIGHT.COM, FEB. 24, 2005

By Steve Newton

Most independent bands have a tough go of it, struggling just to make it to low-paying gigs, scraping money together to make records, and then having a rough time selling them. But there are exceptions. Before Washington, D.C.-based O.A.R. (Of a Revolution) became a major-label act in 2003, it was making a pretty good living going it alone. Its 1997 debut, The Wanderer, has sold more than 175,000 copies to date.

“Yeah, that’s a true story,” quips Marc Roberge, the quintet’s 26-year-old singer, guitarist, and main songwriter. He’s on a cellphone in his cool-named hometown of Rockville, Maryland, where he and drummer Chris Culos attended high school together. After they hooked up with lead guitarist Richard On, saxophonist Jerry Depizzo, and bassist Benj Gershman, they set about making a name for themselves on the road, delivering a breezy, upbeat mix of rock and folk seasoned with pinches of ska and reggae. In between tours they released four indie discs, culminating in the 2002 double-live package, Any Time Now, which is closing in on 100,000 copies sold.

“We didn’t know the rules,” Roberge recalls. “We were just making CDs and sellin’ em. We were selling them at shows, but more so in college campuses through our friends. We developed our own independent sales-rep program in 1998, basically just sending CDs to our friends throughout the States, who’d sell them and send us the money.”

In 2003, O.A.R. signed to Lava Records-with distribution through the powerhouse WEA-and things got a bit easier, especially in terms of promotion. “One of the most obvious differences is that I’m speaking with you right now,” Roberge notes. “As an indie artist it would have been more like ‘Let’s crash Vancouver and play, and try to convince somebody to write about us afterwards,’ you know.”

Although O.A.R. has been part of the jam-band circuit, performing at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival and sharing stages with the Grateful Dead and Dave Matthews, Roberge claims that his target audience is more than Hacky Sack-hooked hippies. That said, his favourite lyrical themes are freedom, wanderlust, idealism, and love, and his group does draw the dreadlocked crowd with its Rastaman vibrations. In fact, along with Crowded House’s self-titled debut, Bob Marley’s Babylon by Bus album was one of Roberge’s first-ever music buys.

“Growing up, I attached myself to reggae music,” he says, “and the only thing I took from reggae music was not the plight or the cause, because I couldn’t directly relate to that. What I could relate to is the fact that I enjoy feeling good, I enjoy the vibe, the pulse of reggae music. And I try to provide that at our shows, because I think people should dance and have fun.”

Roberge-whose group makes its Vancouver debut on Wednesday (March 2) at Richard’s on Richards-describes Bob Marley & the Wailers as “the perfect live band”, but he also spent many hours of his teenage life in the thrall of Pearl Jam’s MTV Unplugged video.

“Right now we’re actually rehearsing in the house that we rehearsed in when we were kids,” he explains, “and I can remember sitting and watching that every day, and sayin’, ‘I wanna do that.’ So that was my driving force in the early years of high school: to be like Eddie Vedder.”

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