By Tricia Despres
Officially, the members of rock band O.A.R. have never played Ravinia before. But that doesn’t mean they have never been there.
“I broke into Ravinia before I played it,” chuckles O.A.R. saxophonist Jerry DePizzo. “A friend of mine lives in Highland Park, and every year he would tell me that we had to play Ravinia. I would always tell him that we play downtown, and Ravinia was in the suburbs. [Laughs] But I was staying at his house a few years back and we ended up jumping the fence to see it—and it was beautiful.” While Highland Park officials are sure to look into that unauthorized fence jump, let’s focus in on the best part of this story: O.A.R. is finally (and legally) playing Ravinia.
“They have yearly memberships there, right?” DePizzo posed rhetorically during a recent interview with Ravinia Backstage. “They are used to more of those classical types. It will be interesting to add some grimy rock ’n’ rollers to the mix.”
‘Grimy rock ’n’ rollers’ seem quite the unfair understatement for the band, which has spent the past 19 years reinventing the musical landscape with a continued streak of songs that have delighted O.A.R.’s loyal fandom that began bubbling up during their beginnings at a Rockville, MD, high school around 1996 and became further cemented via the band’s number-one breakthrough single, ‘Shattered (Turn the Car Around),” in 2008.
“We didn’t expect a whole heck of a lot at the beginning,” DePizzo recalls of the band’s early days, chuckling through the thought. “We had small goals. We all just wanted to play in a band. I remember selling out House of Blues in Chicago back in January of 2001 and thinking at that moment that we could actually make a career out of the music.” Granted, it hasn’t always been easy for DePizzo, who joined his fellow O.A.R. bandmates—lead singer Marc Roberge, drummer Chris Culos, guitarist Richard On, and bassist Benj Gershman—during his time attending Ohio State University. “I think one of the best times we had was when we were all in our fourth year of college and everything was happening for us. And when I say ‘happening,’ I mean everything was happening very rapidly,” recalls DePizzo. “It was a time when we were connecting inspiration with output. The only crazy part was that Napster was coming online at the same time, and discovering music was like an episode out of the Wild West.”
In fact, there were times that the future of O.A.R. was not at all clear. “There was a time during the recording of the King record when we completely had our heads in the sand,” DePizzo recalls of the 2011 album. “We were handling personal challenges and changes and personal illnesses and illnesses within our families, and that time could have easily ripped us apart as a band. We had to calm down and re-emerge.” And re-emerge they did with 2014’s The Rockville LP, the band’s eighth studio album that saw the O.A.R. bandmates returning to their hometown to rekindle both musical and personal inspiration.
Described by the band as one of their most diverse and intricate song collections to date, the album also had them travelling to Brooklyn, NY, and even Music City to work alongside famed record producer Nathan Chapman, who is best known for his overwhelming success with country-turned-pop star Taylor Swift. “Mark and Nathan hit it off immediately,” says DePizzo, who adds that Roberge first met Chapman at an event in Los Angeles. “The thing I take away from Nathan is, despite all of the success he has achieved, he has seemed to always maintain a level and humble head. He has no time for the pomp and circumstance of celebrity.” During those Nashville sessions, such songs as “Peace,” “Favorite Song,” “Two Hands Up,” and “We’ll Pick Up Where We Left Off” came to fruition. “The speed of those songwriting sessions in Nashville was crazy to me,” recalls DePizzo, who co-produced “The Element” with Roberge. “We got into the writing session and he started talking about thinking about our favorite songs that inspired us as kids, which instantly conjured up memories of [Bruce] Springsteen and [Bob] Dylan and The Beatles. The whole session motivated me to work differently from then on.”
Currently playing across the country on its “Back to Rockville Tour,” O.A.R. is basking in the success of its new single “Reach Up,” a new version of “Two Hands Up” that Roberge and singer-songwriter Cody Simpson recently collaborated on to be the theme song to the 2015 Special Olympics.
“We are just glad we wrote a record that connected with people,” says DePizzo. “When we get on that stage and play these songs, we play to a wave of people rather than individual faces. These days, we play to lots of ages because we have many generations coming to our show.” Certainly, it’s a pretty lucky place for the band to be in this often challenging musical landscape. “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity,” says DePizzo. “Our goals have always grown with our success. When all is said and done, we can hang our hats on the face that we have done everything in our career the way we wanted to do it, rather than how we had to do it.”