One thing fans of O.A.R. know when they come to the band's concerts is there's no predicting what songs they'll hear – which is exactly the way the band intends it.
"Every O.A.R. show is unique. We change things up every night," saxophonist-guitarist Jerry DePizzo says during a phone interview with Orlando Weekly. "No set list is ever the same. We always do a great job, I think, of balancing the concert staples. They evolve over time and really grow and evolve from tour to tour. We pull out a couple of rarities [at each show] because we know folks travel and we know folks go to multiple O.A.R. shows a year and throughout the year. So we switch up and provide variety for them. But we've got 10 songs on this new record and we intend on putting all 10 out there throughout the summer."
That new album is The Mighty, the first studio release from O.A.R. in five years. And – you guessed it – there's no telling how many of the new tunes will be in the set list at any given show.
"Whatever feels right from night to night is what we do," DePizzo says. "But I think we do a good job providing a unique show every night, a unique experience, yet one that kind of has a good blend of staples, rarities and new stuff."
The care O.A.R. put into their live shows has certainly been a major factor in a career that has seen steady growth, to the point that the group now headlines amphitheaters in many cities.
Formed in 1997 in Rockville, Maryland, original members singer-guitarist Marc Roberge, guitarist Richard On, bassist Benj Gershman and drummer Chris Culos self-released their first album, The Wanderer, before they started college. DePizzo came on board in time for the recording of the 1998 album, Souls Aflame, which was also self-released.
Songs from those albums got posted on Napster during the original heyday of that song-swapping service, and when O.A.R. began touring nationally in summer 2001, the band discovered the downloading had built a fan base for the group in cities across the country.
Since then, O.A.R. has released a steady stream of studio records (The Mighty is the band's ninth studio release) that have found the quintet continually improving on their abilities, plus five live albums that have documented the growth of O.A.R. as a live band and the ongoing evolution of songs from across the group's catalog.
With The Mighty, DePizzo thinks O.A.R. made an album that will both please longtime fans and serve as a good introduction to the group for those just discovering the band.
"This record just feels great to us. We're extremely proud of it," he says. "And I think we've made a very timely record, and also classic at the same time. So, if you've known and loved O.A.R. throughout our 20-year history, there's plenty of material on this record for you. And if you are new to O.A.R., this is just a great launching pad for you to go discover the rest of our stuff."
The Mighty finds O.A.R. touching on the various styles that have long been trademarks of the group's music. Several songs ("Turn It Up Slow," "Are You for Real," "Be Easy" and "Knocking at Your Door") boast reggae rhythms and infectious pop melodies – a stylistic fusion that has been a hallmark of the O.A.R. sound from the start. There's also a decided island vibe to "Oh My," a cheery tune with horns providing a prominent hook. On "Miss You All the Time" (the album's lead single), "California" and "Free," the group's sound leans more toward folk-pop, as the agreeable melodies and sunny vibes of the songs come wrapped in a nice blend of acoustic and modern synthetic textures topped off with uplifting backing vocals and harmonies. The band's ability to craft appealing ballads continues on the stripped back "All Because of You."
DePizzo also feels the album takes the group down some new paths, beginning with the production from the group's go-to producer, Gregg Wattenberg, and PomPom, a young producer-engineer who works for Wattenberg.
"PomPom is someone with a Midwest sensibility and a New York style and taste. She's somebody who grew up on O.A.R.," DePizzo says. "So she's helping O.A.R. make a new O.A.R. So we got a fresh perspective, and a fresh female perspective, on kind of the sonics and the sounds and the textures of the record. That really helped us introduce our classic songwriting in maybe modern sonic textures."
What was also new about The Mighty project was the band's approach to making the album. The group was not working under a strict deadline to finish the album, and worked on the project one song at a time, gathering at Wattenberg's studio whenever each song was ready to be recorded.
"It doesn't make sense anymore for us to go hole ourselves up in a studio for four weeks or eight weeks or a month at a time. We're family men. We want to be home," DePizzo says. "So we worked on a song at a time, basically. We would work on a song until it was done, and when it was done, we would move on to the next one. There's a little bit of an exception here and there, but what that really helped us to do was hyper-focus on making one song great as opposed to trying to make 10 songs pretty good or 20 and hone it down to 10 and all of that nonsense. So we were pretty focused and specific."
The group also decided to let each song dictate how it would be played and produced and not worry about any stylistic parameters that had been followed on previous albums.
"I think this time around we really gave each song, we weren't afraid to identify what the song was and really lean into it," DePizzo says. "For example, 'Turn It Up Slow,' we were like 'Man, that sounds like an '80s song.' Before, we would probably go 'Well, in the past we've done X, Y and Z, so let's maintain those borders. This time around, we went 'This is an '80s song. Let's just make it the most '80s '80s song we possibly can do.' So, there was a lot fun in that. It was also quite liberating as well to not worry about what was done in the past and really focus on what we wanted it to sound like [now]."
With The Mighty out, O.A.R. is starting a summer tour. This is not only a chance for the band to connect with fans old and new, it's a time when the new – and older – songs get to evolve and grow anew.
"You're never done with a record. You just have to turn it in," DePizzo says. "After working on the song and turning it in from the album, we continually work on it day after day after day after day, as we go and hone it and we play it live and we shape it and mold it. Songs that were written 20-some years ago are still being worked and tweaked. We're never done with it."