O.A.R.'s Chris Culos talks tapers, 'Poker' playing cards and the art of the jam
O.A.R. is quite the rarity: A jam band that manages to get played on the radio.
But even though the jazz-pop-rock group has notched hits like Heaven, This Town and Shattered (Turn The Car Around), fans at their live shows still go nuts for 10-minute, improvisational jams like their breakthrough single That Was A Crazy Game of Poker.
“When we first started playing, we’d play a lot of house parties,” said drummer Chris Culos, calling from a tour stop in Hartford, Conn. “When you play a house party, it’s going on for four hours, five hours, sometimes we’d be there all day. And what do you do if you have to play for eight hours, and you only have 10 songs? So it forced us to stretch it out and play songs over and over again and do them different ways.”
After forming as high schoolers in Rockville, Md., O.A.R. ended up at Ohio State University, where they rose to headliner status through word of mouth and relentless college touring. These days, even though they’ve graduated to amphitheaters and outdoor festivals, O.A.R. still finds new ways to make their live shows entertaining. One recent gimmick: Encouraging fans to toss decks of cards into the air during That Was A Crazy Game of Poker.
On Friday night, O.A.R. will play a free postgame concert at Tropicana Field. Here are excerpts from our chat with Culos.
You guys grew up in Maryland, but then got going in Ohio. So does that make you Orioles fans, Indians fans, Reds fans…?
A lot of the guys in the band grew up going to catch games at Camden Yards. But the biggest baseball fan in the band is probably our bass player, Benj . I know he’s a big Red Sox fan, and him and his dad have been to a couple dozen different stadiums across the country. Each year they’ll pick a new place to see a game. And he always tells some good stories about that. We did a thing with a rapper named B.o.B., a song (Champions) for a Duracell campaign for the Olympics, and as part of that, we got to go to Dodger Stadium a few weeks ago and meet a few players before the game. They played the song on the speakers as we walked out on the field. It was a really cool experience.
Are you playing that on tour? Does Marc (Roberge, singer) rap in place of B.o.B., or do you guys just freestyle?
(laughs) I would like to see Marc rap. He’s actually really good. He improvises a lot of lyrics. It’s kind of one of the things we do — we like to change our setlist every night, but we also like to change up how we play each song, so the band has an opportunity to spread out, improvise a little bit, and it also gives Marc a platform to take whatever he wants to talk about.
When you play a show, can you tell if there’s a divide, whether it’s 50-50 or 60-40, of fans who want to hear jams versus fans who are there to hear a classic pop song like This Town?
Definitely. We’ve gotten really good at being able to read the crowd. And whenever we make a setlist, it’s nothing we stick to 100 percent. It’s a guideline. Because you never know what you’re going to get out in front of. If you stick to the setlist ahead of time, it may bite you in the ass later. Sometimes we think we have a great setlist, and you get out there and the crowd is amped up, and we’re like, “We can’t play this, this is a snoozer right now. We gotta keep the energy up.” So we’ll switch it out and play something a little more upbeat.
Generally speaking, does Marc pull the setlist together each night, or do you do it as a group?
Generally speaking, Marc has done it in the past.
Are there any nights where you’re just itching to play a song, and you’re like, “Marc, throw me a bone here, I want to play this.”
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. We all have over the years definitely thrown in our parts. This summer, we’ve collaborated a lot more. We just want to keep people excited about coming out to see the band — creating not only a fun setlist that’s going to make each night unique, but coming up with moments during the show to make each night unique. When I would go see bands and, like, Dave Grohl would go out into the crowd and play a song, I’ve never forgotten that. In that sense, we’ve been writing our setlists a lot more together and talking about how we can transition to different songs and make what was maybe three songs in a row last summer now a 25-minute chunk that goes from one section, segues here and transitions to another part. And from the feedback we’re getting, especially on Twitter or message boards, has been really good.
So on this summer tour, give me an example of a phenomenal, never-forget-this moment.
We played at Red Rocks one of the first nights of the tour, and we recorded it for a DVD. The band came together, the crowd was just unbelievable, and it happened to be one of those nights that we filmed. It’ll be a live CD and DVD, and we’ll get it out, maybe, before the holidays.
Do you guys record every show now?
We do. We actually have pretty much every show that we can available from liveoar.com. You can buy the show and leave that night with it on a USB bracelet.
Has that caused any friction between tapers and the band?
Basically, people are still allowed to come out and tape the shows with their own equipment and trade it for free, and we encourage that. We make it available in a couple of different formats, and some attention’s been done to the mix, and that kind of stuff. So we’re offering a product, and people can still tape the shows and trade ’em around. We totally encourage that.
Do you guys circulate live recordings of your own favorite bands? Or did you when you were first starting out?
When we were first starting out, absolutely, yeah. I grew up going to every show imaginable. I’ve seen every band from the Grateful Dead to the Foo Fighters. As far as the liveoar.com stuff, our saxophone player, Jerry, is the one who spearheaded that whole thing. He basically has an archive of every O.A.R. show going back since we first got started. It’s a cool collection.
When did you guys start encouraging fans to throw playing cards in the air during Poker?
We didn’t actually come up with the idea. I wish I could pinpoint where it started happening. But people started doing it, and then more recently, we said, “You know what? It’s kind of a cool thing.” So we actually encouraged it for the Red Rocks taping. We said, “Hey, we’re filming, bring as many cards as you can.” Some nights are heavier than other. But it’s kind of a fun thing to watch from our perspective on the stage. It’s awesome.
I was looking around your online store — you guys don’t sell O.A.R. playing cards, do you?
We actually do, at the shows.
I was going to say, that would seem like a major oversight on your part. It’s an obvious branding opportunity.
Yeah, they may be sold out if they’re not on the merch site.
Last thing: As an Ohio State guy, are you excited about Urban Meyer coming to the Ohio State University?
Yeah. I’m the first to say, I’m not a super sports fan, so I can’t really talk more than surface level. All I know is that with his record at Florida and everything coming in, we’re in great hands. Everyone is really excited. I think it’s going to be great.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*