O.A.R.’s latest album may be called “The Rockville LP,” but don’t take the title to mean it was recorded in the group’s home town of Rockville, Maryland. In fact, the foundation of the album came together during an early session with songwriter/producer Nathan Chapman in Nashville in 2013. Then other parts for the album were recorded in a host of non-studio settings in summer 2013 as O.A.R. toured amphitheaters across the United States. Now the group will bring its tour to Jim Thorpe’s Penn’s Peak on Feb. 5.
“We brought a recording rig out and we utilized every venue that we were at,” sax player Jerry DePizzo said. “We would record guitars outside in Virginia at a show and we would have a soundstage in Connecticut and we would be doing handclaps at the end of (the song) ‘I Will Find You,’ and piano we would do at Saratoga Springs because they have a bunch of Steinways just sitting there. So we brought in a piano tuner and had at it. We utilized every and all space to make this record.”
But the album title is fitting because the group drew inspiration for the project by returning to Rockville and revisiting the community that still feels like home nearly two decades after the group began its journey together as O.A.R.
“The band was looking for a concept for the record, looking for something to really creatively sink our teeth into,” DePizzo said, looking back at the beginnings of “The Rockville LP.” “So we figured, let’s go back home. Let’s go back to the Rockville area. We went down the same roads, went to (drummer) Chris (Culos’) basement and kind of recharged and reconnected with that energy and that spirit that first got everybody together playing gigs and things. That was enough to recharge the creative batteries and go out and finish the record.”
DePizzo credits Chapman (best known for his work with Taylor Swift) for helping for helping to get the project off to a strong start. He and O.A.R. singer Marc Roberge had met during an event in Los Angeles and decided to try writing together.
These Nashville sessions produced four of the album’s most concise and poppy songs – “Peace” (a tune with a Lumineers-ish folk feel) “Two Hands Up” (which has some electronic touches) “Favorite Song” (a sunny reggae-pop track) and “We’ll Pick Up Where We Left Off” (which sounds like a song Train would like to write). These songs gave O.A.R. a foundation for “The Rockville LP” and met one key goal for the album – to have songs that could be sent to radio as singles.
“I think we all know we needed a song that really connected with people in a broad way. And working with Nathan certainly was a great experience for that,” DePizzo said.
DePizzo joined Roberge, Chapman and two other Nashville-based writers – Kevin Kadish and Blair Daly — for one of the sessions and found it to be a cool learning experience.
“The craft and the focus on the song was great stuff,” DePizzo said. “It was just really cool to be there, to be a part of it and kind of absorb that into our workflow.”
Having the radio-ready songs in hand allowed O.A.R. to connect with something else that relates to Rockville — the attitude they had back in 1996, when Culos, singer Marc Roberge, guitarist Richard On and bassist Benj Gershman got together as students at Wootton High School in Rockville to form the band. (DePizzo joined O.A.R. after meeting the band during college at Ohio State.).
Back then, there were no thoughts about writing singles or paying attention to songwriting conventions or rules. The guys in O.A.R. simply wrote whatever music formed in their imaginations. DePizzo said the band wanted to reconnect with their inner 16-year-olds and the freedom they felt in making music. And having four potential singles already in hand let the group, in DePizzo’s words, get “a lot weirder” with some of the other songs.
“Once we knew that we had some material that we felt was going to connect with people, regardless of whether they are fans or not, we felt we could really focus on some material that conceptually can expand the boarders a little bit more, open up the borders,” DePizzo said.
Those “weirder” songs include such extended tracks as “Caroline the Wrecking Ball,” “I Will Find You” and “The Architect,” which make room for more intricate arrangements, stylistic left turns, solos and instrumental interplay.
Those songs harken back to O.A.R.’s early albums, which found the group fusing a wide range of influences (including pop, reggae and island music) in songs that often topped five minutes and usually expanded further in concert, where the band improvised liberally on its music. That approach gained O.A.R. a strong following within the jam band community.
Wanting to expand the group’s audience and develop their songwriting chops, O.A.R. began to concentrate on tightening up its songwriting as it made albums such as “Stories of a Stranger” (2006), “All Sides” (2008) and “King (2011).
Those albums did indeed grow the band’s audience, but “King” came during a period that included some difficulties for the band. During recording, Roberge’s wife was diagnosed with cancer, an illness she has since overcome. The band also found itself at odds with its label, Atlantic Records, and ended up splitting with the label.
Things have brightened since then, Some band members have had children and the band, after releasing “King” on Wind-up Records, has signed with Vanguard Records, which DePizzo said has done a very good job marketing and promoting “The Rockville LP.”
“I think ‘King’ was certainly a darker record because we were going through a lot of the tumultuous things at that very moment,” DePizzo said. “And we’re out on the other side of that, and I think this record probably reflects that.”
Now O.A.R. is following up a summer co-headlining tour with Phillip Phillips and a fall headlining tour with a winter run of shows. Having already explored some of the new songs during its recent tours, DePizzo said he expects the new songs to continue to take on new dimensions as O.A.R. continues to play shows.
“Once you have a couple of laps under your belt with the (new) songs, it’s good to dive deeper into them and expand them,” DePizzo said. “Yeah, the material’s never done. Music’s never done. So it’s constantly evolving and it’s constantly changing. That’s what makes it fun and that’s why we keep on coming back every night and playing shows is that we get to challenge ourselves and come up with cool, new creative ways to play the songs everyone knows and loves.”
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IF YOU GO
WHERE: Penn’s Peak, 325 Maury Road, Jim Thorpe, PA 18229
TIME: Doors open at 7 p.m., show starts at 8 p.m.
DATE: Friday, Feb. 5
COST: General admission seating is $40 in advance, $45 at the door
For more information, call 1-866-605-7325