O.A.R. Rock On

By | January 29, 2004 at 12:00 AM

You say you want a revolution? Well, you know – we all want to change the world. Except for Chris Colus. He’s the drummer for a reggae-roots-rock band, freshly signed to a major record label, and he’s trying to explain that band’s name, which is O.A.R. – Of A Revolution.

“There’s no political motive,” the 25-year-old Rockville, MD native insists. “This is the music we’ve wanted to play, the music we wanted to hear – that’s a revolution for ourselves and our fans.”

The “Of A Revolution” name actually comes from “The Wanderer,” a short story singer-guitarist Marc Roberge wrote back in 1996 at Rockville’s Thomas S. Wootton High School, the alma mater of four of the O.A.R. five. But the Of A Revolution spirit goes back further than that, back to the childhood friendships and band-in-the-basement days an awful lot of would-be rock stars dream of. As Colus tells the story, he pauses frequently to laugh. And at times, his earnest voice seems to hint at an underlying truth: he’s as surprised as anybody that his dream about making music with his buddies from middle school has become a reality.

Boy band

“Marc Roberge and I have been best friends since before kindergarten. Our parents were close.”

That’s how Colus begins the story of Of A Revolution. Remember, their name comes from a story, and their songs are, according to Colus, “character-driven, story-based songs.” It’s a familiar story: The boys started their first band while attending Robert Frost Middle School, gave it a goofy name (Exposed Youth) and debuted the puppy at the eighth-grade talent show.

“When we got to Wootton, Marc started writing some original material that became O.A.R. songs. We were just working in the basement, and about two years later, we said, ‘We gotta get Richard over to hear what we’ve been doing.”

That would be guitar player Richard On. On had met Benj Gershman during a summer lifeguarding stint, and Gershman played bass.

“They came over, and it kind of clicked,” Colus says. “O.A.R. was founded in 1996 when we were juniors in high school.”

Which is a great time to be in a band. Play a few gigs, gain a little notoriety, pull ahead in the popularity sweepstakes, sign each other’s yearbooks and move along. Maybe pull off a reunion show at the 20th high school reunion.

That is not what happened to O.A.R. Not at all. O.A.R. stuck together, with all four original members eventually winding up in the same place – Ohio State University – where they met their fifth member, saxophone player Jerry DePizzo. None of them, Colus notes, studied music there, and not all of them graduated – although finishing up those degrees, at some point, is a priority.

The guys in O.A.R. make their living playing music, and that’s what really matters.

“As an independent band, we sold a hundred thousand CDs and we were able to tour and self-finance,” says Colus. “We found some success. It was going really great.”

On the brink

O.A.R.’s latest CD is called “In Between Now and Then.” Out last year to solid reviews, its first single, “Hey Girl” became an MTV2 staple, and its second single, the reggae-flavored “Dareh Mayod,” has gotten airplay on alt-rock radio.

But Colus has no doubt about where to place the credit for his band’s steady rise.

“We owe our success to the audience,” he explains. “They’ve been so loyal.”

O.A.R. encourages concert-goers to tape shows and trade tapes, and unlike many rockers, they have kind words for Napster, the now-reformed downloading system.

“Our music spread across the country even when we couldn’t travel across the country,” says Colus. “We’ve always taken the grassroots approach.”

Not unlike another band to which O.A.R. has been frequently compared: The Dave Matthews Band.

“They’re a personal favorite of mine,” says Colus, “but even if they weren’t, there’s just so much to learn from what they’ve done. The Dave Matthews Band is a huge role model for us. They’ve turned a grassroots movement into an empire.”

The grassroots movement that has propelled O.A.R. thus far is built not so much on rock ‘n’ roll glamour as on a good old-fashioned work ethic.

“I feel like we’ve been working so hard for so many years,” Colus says. “We had put out four CDs before we were signed to a major label.”

That label, Lava Records, was carefully chosen by the band as the label that would let them continue on their laid back “if you build it” path.

“Lava was the real champion,” says the drummer. “It was a point in our career when we said, ‘OK, the next stop is to sign with a major label and get our music to a broader audience.”

They spent two years looking before settling on the label of Kid Rock, Uncle Kracker, Blue Man Group and Willa Ford. And now they’re ready for the next phase.

Hometown crowd

Colus says that when he thinks about shows the band has performed, he remembers how the crowd was on that particular night.

“It doesn’t matter if there’s a few people or a lot,” he says. “It’s the energy.”

The band has been known to play just about any kind of gig you can name: Sweet Sixteens, birthday parties, fraternity bashes.

“Bars, frat houses, churches and synagogues, amphitheaters,” Colus ticks them off. “We always said we’d do anything – and we always said it didn’t matter if we play in front of five people or 5,000 or 50,000.”

Of course, when the band plays Constitution Hall in downtown D.C., it will be for a hometown crowd in a venue filled with memories.

“We graduated at Constitution Hall,” says Colus, referring to the Wootton Class of ’97 commencement ceremony. “We’re so excited. It’s one of these places. I can’t believe we’re going to play here. It’s a landmark thing, at least for us.”

And they’re playing with Robert Randolph and the Family Band – Colus calls Randolph a living legend, although the guitarist is about the same age as the O.A.R. boys.

“He’s just amazing, and he’s just going to explode onto the scene,” says the drummer. “They’re such a talented, high energy band – and we’re just gonna try to match that.”

And have fun trying, no doubt. According to Colus, homecoming time for O.A.R. is usually around Thanksgiving time at the 9:30 Club. This year, for so many reasons, things will be different.

Colus quotes the advice his dad, Carl, gave the band.

“He’s our guru,” the son explains with quiet pride. “And he told us, ‘Don’t expect anything, but be ready for anything.’

“We’ve always worked very hard, and we’ve always looked at this as a learning experience. But now it’s not just our friends listening. Ten years later, we’re in a position where we have to live up to our name.”

So let the revolution begin, but understand it’s a quiet revolution; a groundswell made mostly of music. Because when you’re talking ’bout a revolution, it sounds like a whisper.

The reggae-roots-rock band Of A Revolution will perform with Robert Randolph at Constitution Hall, 1776 D St., Washington, D.C., on Friday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $29.50. Call 1-800-TICKETS or visit ticketmaster.com.

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