“To this day, I don’t feel our band really arrived yet. Once I feel that way, you know, I won’t work as hard. In my head, it’s always a struggle, and it’s staying hungry to write better songs. It’s not to downplay what we’ve accomplished so far, because I’m proud, but I want to keep that attitude.” — Richard On, O.A.R.
ISSUE: Spring 2010
DEPT: Feature Story
STORY: Paul Nakayama
This interview started unlike any other. It began with a dinner date in Culver City, Calif., with an attractive woman, Sueann. As we strolled through downtown, the night was humming with the possibilities of romance, and as she turned to face me, I expected the evening to take a certain turn.
“So …” she began.
I took in a deep breath. “Yes?” I asked, my eyes twinkling with tears of joy, a sure sign of my anticipation.
“There’s someone I think you should really meet. I think you’ll really get along,” she said.
My heart sank. I kicked a trashcan. Maybe an innocent bystander, too.
A week later I received a call from Sueann. She said there was someone else on the line. A voice much deeper than I was expecting to hear followed: “Hey, this is Richard On.”
Christ, I thought, she thinks I’m gay. She is setting me up with a dude. But, sensing my neuroticism, she explained, “Richard is the lead guitarist for the band O.A.R. We talked about doing an interview.”
I’d heard of O.A.R. before; an ex had used one of their songs on a mixtape. I sat down to Google a little pre-interview research and was blown away by what I learned. Close to two million albums sold, a number of chart-topping singles and an enormous cult-like fan base. Yet, they’ve remained mostly off mainstream radar and much of their success is without a major record label (by choice). I thought, I need to know their secret to success.
I listened to O.A.R.’s 2008 album All Sides, and watched a number of their online videos. Their sound is definitively mainstream and catchy, despite their indie mentality, and combines pop-rock with hints of light reggae. I found myself, hours later, singing their hit single, “Shattered,” in the shower and again in the car. I’d developed a man-crush on the Chinese American guitarist/songwriter Richard On. We traded tweets for a week and finally decided on an interview date.
O.A.R. and Richard’s musical career both began in the 1990s at an eighth-grade talent show alongside bandmates Marc Roberge and Chris Culos. They formed under the name Exposed Youth — a name that raises my eyebrows. A laugh escapes me, and Richard interjects, “Let me explain. You know, before you think we were …”
“Naked?” I ask, still snickering like the mature 30-something that I am.
“Or really young pedophiles,” he jokes. “This was around the grunge era with Pearl Jam and Nirvana coming out. That was a big changing point for a lot of kids our age, and you felt like a part of that movement … you know, like parents just don’t understand and like we were these oppressed kids, so we thought the name sort of fit. Of course, we grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. so we probably faked we were more miserable than we really were.”
While on the topic, we talk about his other musical influences: The Cure for understanding pop melodies, Bob Marley for the feeling and the groove, and U2 simply for their songs. “The Edge is probably my favorite guitarist because despite how simple his parts are they speak so loudly. And I’ve never been a shredder myself,” he admits. I feel compelled to offer my own, but there’s no place for Olivia Newton-John in this conversation. At least, not yet.
In 1996, their junior year of high school, O.A.R. recruited Benj Gershman, their bassist, and recorded their first album for $500 using Benj’s father’s credit card. The Wanderer went on to sell 300,000 copies without the help of a record label, an incredible feat. Richard says, “It’s really hard for me to listen [to it] because I was a really horrible guitar player back then, but there’s something about the innocence of making that record that caught people’s attention.” It’s not surprising that Richard’s favorite song to perform to this day, “That Crazy Game of Poker,” comes from this album. “The album version was nine minutes long because we didn’t know anything about songwriting back then, and we were just freestyling, but people really responded to it. We play it at every show and it’s really grown since. It’s the song I always look forward to playing.” I can’t help but wonder if this song is a metaphor for the band itself and its evolution through the years.
But like any path in life that you’re passionate about, everyone reaches a crossroad. For me it was a hard decision to give up “Dungeons & Dragons” and my life as a Dungeon Master upon getting accepted into a university; I wanted sex and not with girls into elf cosplay. Richard had real things to consider as his bandmates were deciding between attending Ohio State and the University of Texas, the two largest schools in the country, and in their minds, the two biggest venues for their blossoming musical career.
The band was determined to stay together, but Richard also wanted to be realistic. When Marc, Chris and Benj left for Ohio State, he didn’t immediately follow. Instead, he took classes at a local junior college, taking some time to figure things out and “getting into typical punk Asian kid trouble.” Eventually, his bandmates convinced him that Ohio State was an amazing opportunity, and he transferred there to focus on the band. That’s also when they recruited their fifth and final member, saxophonist and Ohio native Jerry DePizzo. “That’s a pretty lofty goal — choosing a school just because you wanna play music for all those people there,” Richard reflects. “Not to sound dramatic, but I really don’t know what I’d be doing without [the band]. The band really took me to a good place and made me feel like I matter.”
The crazy thing is I believe him. Having the same “co-workers” for more than 15 years is hard to imagine for someone like me; I’ve probably switched companies every two years for the last 10. The fact that his bandmates are some of his best friends doesn’t make it easier for me to comprehend; it’s harder to grasp. I’ve had screaming matches with friends over the last roll of toilet paper, so there’s a long pause on my end while I process all this.
I think Richard senses my struggle with the concept that mixing friendship with business could work. I ask him, bluntly. He admits there was a rough patch in the early days. “We were guys with our own ideas and agendas, but once we knew we had to be a team, it was simple. We’re all on the same team, and it isn’t every man for himself or an ego thing. We need each other. And once we realized that, our roles within the band fell into place.”
Their approach to songwriting is similarly honest, direct and mature. “Early on, all of us would just sit around in a room,” Richard explains. “As we got older, we all live in different cities now, and we all have our individual ideas and opinions. So the band is run like a democracy. We vote on everything. Even if you feel really strongly about something, but you’re outvoted, that’s it. Each of us will make our own demos and share with the group. And, if it’s good, it’s good, and if it sucks, it sucks. When we first started, we weren’t being honest with each other, and so the band suffered and the music suffered.”
Meanwhile, I’m taking notes. This is really good life lesson stuff. If I had applied this whole democracy notion to my own Movie Club and our film picks, we probably would’ve been spared the travesty that was G.I. Joe. It definitely sucked, and I definitely suffered.
The band’s hard work and commitment to their craft certainly paid off. O.A.R. has sold more than 1.7 million albums and performed for more than 1.5 million people. They’ve sold out shows at Madison Square Garden numerous times. I ask if that’s when they felt like they’d arrived as a band. Richard is modest in his response. “To this day, I don’t feel our band really arrived yet,” he says. “Once I feel that way, you know, I won’t work as hard. In my head, it’s always a struggle, and it’s staying hungry to write better songs. It’s not to downplay what we’ve accomplished so far, because I’m proud, but I want to keep that attitude.”
But if there was a defining moment for O.A.R. to look back on, it would have to be the first time playing at a 1,700-capacity venue in Columbus, Ohio, called the Newport Music Hall, where all the big bands play. “We always told ourselves that one day we’re gonna play that joint,” Richard remembers. That day arrived when they were invited to be the opening act at a CD release party for a popular local band. Richard’s expectations were low since their set was set to begin at 3 p.m., and there was virtually no marketing set aside for them. “You never really know how you’re doing as a band, but when we got there, the place was packed. It was all word-of-mouth. We assumed the crowd was for the other bands, but as soon as we finished our set, everyone just split. That was a big wake-up call for us that something special was going on.”
O.A.R.’s manager and Marc’s brother, Dave Roberge, agrees that there was something special and recalls a conversation following the band’s graduation from Ohio State. The band wondered if they should pursue their careers or if they should pursue the band. “I told them it wasn’t their choice or my choice to make. The fans had already decided,” remembers Dave. “‘Look at the numbers,’ I said. ‘People don’t want you to just go away.’ That year a lot of music industry guys thought we would fall on our faces, that we were a college band, but we sold 98 percent of our tour tickets.”
Even with their popularity, I ask if there were any challenges as an Asian American musician. Richard grew up in a predominantly Jewish and Asian community. Describing his multiethnic band sounds like the setup to a joke. (“Three Jews, an Italian and a Chinese guy walk into a bar …”) So, it wasn’t until he ventured to the Midwest to attend Ohio State — then not the most diverse campus — that he first encountered culture shock. “I definitely experienced some nasty things out there, but I think part of it came from mutual ignorance,” Richard recalls. “I was being dumb and complaining that there weren’t any Asians instead of focusing on why I was there. I did hear my fair share of slurs that left a bad taste in my mouth, but in the end that kind of spurred me to change people’s thought processes rather than fight it.” O.A.R.’s music was a big equalizer in this regard. He adds, “People were definitely surprised when they found out I was Chinese, that I wasn’t a Caucasian rocker. But I like that surprise. Music is color blind.”
We take a short break as Richard has an unexpected visitor at his door, a young girl from the neighborhood offering a dog-walking service. “Do you own a dog, sir?” she asks.
“No, but I want one. Do you sell dogs, too?” he replies with a chuckle. I can practically hear her rolling her eyes. It’s cute. Richard’s real cool with her.
It’s funny because Dave and the others occasionally refer to Richard as the Stone Buddha because of his stern exterior and Zen-like calm. “He’s the rock, but if you peel back the layers, you’ll see that Richard is the most fun-loving, humorous, tongue-in-cheek guy, and he tends to bring that out in the rest of the guys. He brings style to the group,” says Dave.
Listening to Richard chatting with the girl affirms the band’s reputation as down-to-earth and humble. O.A.R. is popular among music fans because of a long history of hands-on dialogue with their fan base. Since the beginning, Richard and the rest of the band made the effort to respond to emails and message boards from fans. When social networking took off, they embraced it. Personally, I’d be terrified of disturbed stalkers tracking me down, wanting to smell my socks and such, but I applaud their dedicated and open adoption of Myspace, Facebook and Twitter. They even ran an interactive Twitter campaign asking fans to collaborate with them on the lyrics to a new song for their next album. The resulting song, “Light Switch Sky,” is probably the only song created from fan submissions and is likely the first professional song born purely from tweets.
When Richard returns, I ask what they do for fun. He admits to being a workaholic, even sneaking in songwriting and emails while watching TV with his wife. How Asian of him, I joke. After some prodding, he reveals an unspoken but time-honored tradition of bands pranking each other on the last stop of a concert tour. “There are classics like the ol’ baby powder on the snare drum so a giant cloud goes up with the first beat. We put so much on that we’ve had drummers cough and fall off their seats. Taping down keyboards so a single key makes all the keys go down with an awful sound. Easy wins like vodka in water bottles,” says Richard, as we’re both laughing. “We pranked our buddy Robert Randolph once during a song where he likes to bring up girls from the audience. But instead of hot chicks, we sent our grungy, bad-ass crew up in tutus and shirts off, smelly and hairy, doing ballet steps and freaking him.”
We end the interview on that high note. A few days later, as I’m reviewing the interview tapes, I’m still chuckling over the jokes (some of which I regrettably can’t publish). My man-crush hasn’t waned. It’s not a starstruck kind of man-crush, but rather admiration for a cool guy who just happens to be a talented rockstar. O.A.R. just released their four-disc live CD, Rain or Shine, and will be in Los Angeles in March to record their new album. I’m planning on giving Sueann a call around then, see if she wants to go out again … she can chaperone my man-date with Richard.