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O.A.R. aims to be bigger than its latest hit

Matt Sullivan
Courtesy O.A.R.

There was a time when O.A.R.'s name recognition only went so far. While it might be funny to look back now, considering the band with a three-letter name has since landed major radio hits like "Stranded (Turn the Car Around)" and "Love and Memories," there was a time when the members had to correct a lot of people.

"In the phone interviews we would do, people would ask, 'How did you get the name Oar?'" drummer Chris Culos joked over the phone from his new home in Nashville, Tenn. "Well, actually, it's 'O.A.R.,' and it stands for 'Of a Revolution,' and 'of a revolution' came from this short story our singer had written and was kind of a part of what a lot of the songs were based on, so it had kind of this whole other story to it rather than being named after a paddle."

That revolution was more of a personal one than a call to arms. After bouncing around in bands throughout high school, four teenagers from Rockvale, Md., started a new band in '96 and ditched the grunge inspirations of the day to focus on rootsier music with a reggae influence. "We were finally making music that we were liking," Culos said of the revolution. "It's not political; we didn't start trying to be like Rage Against the Machine."

Instead, they started making the acoustic, groove-based roots music that would make them stars in the jam band circuit. Culos said that, initially, the long jams in the band's live set were a result of not having enough material to fill time at the house parties that booked the group while they attended Ohio State University.

"They may want you to play the whole time. It could be hours, and we didn't have hours of material, so we'd have to come up with ways to fill in the time," he explained. "It wasn't really jamming in the sense of where Phish is kind of noodling musically. We do a little of that, but it was more of just stretching the songs out, finding new sections and arrangements and parts like that."

That led to fans taping the shows and comparing recordings, and the band would get feedback on what versions worked best. But eventually, O.A.R. deviated from those recommendations in order to take a chance on grabbing the attention of a bigger audience. Beginning with 2005's "Stories of a Stranger" and continuing most prominently on 2008's "All Sides," O.A.R. courted a glossier, pop-rock sound. That led to the radio hits which have since catapulted the band.

"It was a business decision to get our music out to as many people as possible," offered Culos. "We weren't compromising the sound of the band; it was something we believed in. It was honest music we were making.

"It might have been a new sound to people who had heard what we were doing before, but it wasn't a change," he continued. "If you were to see the band live throughout every stage of the career, the only thing that I think changed was that we've been getting better as a band, but the sound live hasn't changed."

Plus, a lot of years have passed since a group of high schoolers started O.A.R. "When you're 16, you're a little limited I think in scope, yet there's so much you want to say," Culos explained. "I think our singer, Marc (Roberge), had a great way of capturing that by not telling it through his own eyes -- he kind of created characters and stories.

"Fast forward to 'All Sides': He's had a lot more experiences in real life, and he wanted to tell a story from his own viewpoint," he continued. "So when you have that more emotional and maybe a little bit more of a deep connection, the music might reflect that to support it. It's got to be an entire thought."

But he admitted that the band's fan base is split between the hard-core loyals from the early days and the more recent converts. "There is a double-edged sword in a lot of ways commercially, but you do not want to alienate your hard-core fan base," he said. "Your hard-core fan base, they don't really care what song is a single."

And that's why Culos said the band is weary of chasing radio hits. "There are some bands that are only as big as their latest hit single."

To that end, the band's focus has shifted to its annual summer tour. That focus also carries over to the next album, which Culos said the band is in the middle of recording.

"We just really want to connect with the fact that we're a band we want you to think of when it comes time to go out and see a band in the summer," he said. "When you're hanging out with your buddies, those moments and those memories you guys are making, that's the stuff we relive over and over again and what a lot of our favorite songs are about when we wrote 'Black Rock' or 'I Feel Home, 'City on Down' -- any of that stuff. It's about those connections you make with your friends, your family, and taking those memories with you if you're away from them and not feeling like you're so far away."

Daily News correspondent