Lead singer Marc Roberge talks about their transition to mainstream success, how their fans shape their sound (yes, they read those message boards!), and his Steve Sanders moment.
Marc: It's funny, because somewhere along the line you find out. It may be anywhere from a week to a month before we'll get an e-mail from our management saying, "Hey, we said it's cool for your song to be on such-and-such." Because we control our publishing, we basically act as the publishing company with clearances and all these things, as opposed to signing a publishing deal and them just putting your shit everywhere and you really don't have any control. So I always know about it. And I rarely catch it on TV the first time, because I'm a little spacey. But there's one I did not miss. I did not miss 90210, because when we were kids, that was the show. 90210 was the big deal. And I always said, "Man, that would be cool to get our songs on this show." And ten years later we're on there. Better late than never. So it's kinda cool.
Songfacts: So it wasn't like a campaign of yours, "I've gotta get on that show!"?
Marc: No, actually I was pretty bummed out that it was not like the old show. I thought it was gonna be all those actors. They even had one show where the Steve Sanders character, Ian Ziering I guess is the actor's name, he came to our show. I was so psyched. I'm looking out and I see Steve Sanders, and I'm like, "What the f--k is going on?" (laughing) Stuff like that is weird. I love it. I love hearing our stuff out there.
Songfacts: Let's expound on that a little bit. You say that you guys are in control of your publishing, but yet you've signed with a major label. It's kind of a conundrum, isn't it?
Marc: In a way. When we came up we were doing really well independently with our own label. And then when we kept selling records, we were getting to the point where we had great distribution, everything was really cool, and our touring was growing. We started getting offers from major labels. And every meeting we took was very similar. But there was this one guy at Lava Records who basically said, "I don't want to change what you guys do. You obviously know what you're doing. Let's just make a deal that is cool and we'll sell more of your records." It was very honest and wasn't one of those, "We're gonna make you stars" things. It was like an imprint with a big label. And then Lava, unfortunately, caved or something before we put out our last record. They came in and fired everybody, and we had to put our album out early - it was a big thing. But all along the way, honestly, the management we've had, these people really treat us right. So we made the decision based on a leap of faith, "I hope these people don't try to change us."
Songfacts: And they haven't?
Marc: And they haven't. They're just cool. I think they know what we do works for us. And we're not really easily styled, so I don't think they're gonna be able to do that. We dress alright already.
Songfacts: There really is no pigeon-holing you guys.
Marc: Well, thank you. I appreciate it. It's just 'cause we're guys who were friends, and we were in a band, and we've had those pipe dreams together. We'd sit around at the pizza place or whatever and talk about, "When we tour, let's divide the money up this way, and let's do it like this." It was all like in a pipe dream, non-business sense way. But we actually did all that. So now we're just happy. We made this weird situation that works. We're very lucky.
Songfacts: Let's get back to "Shattered," then. This is your biggest hit that you've had on the radio, and there hasn't been a huge amount in the mainstream. Can you just talk to me about "Shattered"?
Marc: "Shattered" always had something about it that we really liked. I wrote it with Gregg Wattenberg, who's a friend of mine. We just like to write songs. I have a lot of buddies like that, who I just sit around and write songs with. He came up with this piano-driven song that kind of sounded like the finished product is now, but not very close. So I took it with me, we went on the road, we started writing songs for the record. And then I kept listening to this thing that we'd written, and I came up with this melody, this one line, "How many times can I break 'til I shatter." And that was all I had for a couple of weeks. But I just kept coming back to it. And by the time we were ready to press "record" on the album, this was the absolute last demo that was approved by the band. Just like, you know what? Let's give it a shot. Not because it wasn't good. It just wasn't finished yet. So we recorded it. I was always positive - I always knew this was gonna be a good song because it flowed, and it felt really good. So when the lyrics came in, we said, "Oh, this is definitely the one…" The same day, we knew that this was gonna be the first single.
Songfacts: What do you mean by "I'm good without you"?
Marc: What the song's really about is these people in my life - or in anyone's life - coming up to you, like, "Man, if my boss wasn't such a jerk I'd be making…" Or, "If my wife didn't hold me back, I would be a football player." Whatever it is, everyone's always got these complaints they're blaming on everyone around them. And they're constantly saying, "Man, I was the shit without you. I could do whatever I wanted." And the main line at the end where it says, "I've gotta turn this thing around," it's just saying it's not about all these other people. It's not about the people holding you back. It's really about you. So the "I'm good without you" part is this guy trying to convince himself, "Alright, I'm in the car, I'm outta here. I'm gonna go be a rebel, I'm gonna be a kid, I'm gonna have tons of girls," all this stuff. And he always comes back because he realizes, "That's not her problem, it's my problem. I need to fix what I've got here."
Songfacts: Sounds like you're kind of a sponge and you absorb conversations of people that are around you.
Marc: Yeah, I try to. It's funny, even last night I was with my 5-year-old niece, and she really likes to write songs in her head, like funny songs or whatever. And she sat there and said this crazy lyric. And I was really inspired. I was like, "That is so cool." Straight from a kid's mind, unfiltered. I gave her this little book, I said, "Any time you have an idea just write it down. Call Uncle Marc and we'll talk about it." You've gotta open up your eyes to what's around you. When you're a writer you've gotta be inspired all the time. And sometimes you'll hear this one word, like in the song "Shattered," the word "pattern," "Let me make my own pattern." And I remember we were in the studio and I was writing that down, and I was just going through words, "I've gotta make my own way," and I said, "pattern," and everyone's like, "That's an interesting word." It's a normal word, but I don't hear that often in songs. And we were like, "Oh, put it in there, man, that'll throw 'em."
Songfacts: Staying with the All Sides album, can you talk to me about "Dinner Last Night"?
Marc: Yeah. This one is about a couple sitting at the dinner table, as you can imagine. I don't know if you're a Seinfeld fan, but Kramer comes in one day when Jerry's considering getting married, and he's like, "Do you know what marriage is? It's a prison. And you sit at the table, and you say, 'How was your day?' 'How was your day?'" And that vision of this couple just sitting at the table going through the motions, "How was your day?" "How was your day?" And this man has disengaged. He's out. His mind is completely out of this marriage. And she's saying to him, "Hold on," and asking him questions. She's saying, "It's okay if you lock yourself up at the end of the day. It's alright if you let yourself go." But it's also saying, "Hold on, there's something here." "Hold on, you gotta remember, you gotta be strong." And in the end, I think the guy does realize how special it is. But that song we wrote so long ago, it must have been like 8 years ago we wrote that, and we just put it on a record.
Songfacts: What made you decide to bring it back?
Marc: We play it literally once a year. And on the message boards our audience would always be listing certain songs they want to hear. They'd say, "What's up with 'Dinner Last Night'?" Because they've heard a lot of the live stuff, they're very supportive. And we watch that stuff. We said, "Alright, let's give it a shot." So we started playing it live again, and it was working, and then we tuned up the lyrics for the record, because a lot of these lyrics from the old songs are just kind of made up on the fly. So that was definitely driven by fans saying they want to hear it.
Songfacts: You guys have come so far, and a lot of it is based on the gospel of O.A.R. as told to other people by your fans.
Marc: Isn't it crazy? I got an invitation to someone's wedding, and it wasn't weird. It was like I've known these people for ten years. A lot of these folks have been coming out for 8, 7, 6, 5, even a couple of years. But you get to know these people because they support you so much and they have stories. There's an FBI guy who comes, and I love seeing the FBI dude, because he gives me cool hats and shit. It's really an interesting thing. A lot of teachers. I have a soft spot for teachers, so any teachers who come I'm always willing to give them tickets or something.
Songfacts: Can you tell us any exceptional experiences that you've had from fans that you've encountered at your shows?
Marc: Yeah. There's never the wild crazy party girls. It's just not like that. It's like a big high school reunion or something. But I'll tell you what, I'm trying to think of a really good story… The other night I was in Ohio playing at the Newport, where I haven't played in years, and we were doing this show for the Michigan game. And I walk out the back after soundcheck and there's this kid that I recognize from the shows. And I'm like, "Hey, what are you doing here?" He's like, "Oh, man, I just flew in." And I said, "Where are you from?" And he said, "North Dakota. I had to see the Newport." I said, "Well where are you staying?" He was like, "Oh, I don't have a room yet." (laughing) It's like, "Are you crazy?" And then he says, "Well, all I know is that you're doing a radio show in Minnesota in a month, and there's no tickets. Can I have tickets?" And sure enough, a month later he e-mailed our manager and he showed up in Minnesota in the front row. I mean, this kid comes alone.
Songfacts: And how old is he?
Marc: He's gotta be 22, 23, something like that. And in one way you want to say, "Oh, is that weird?" And in another way, it's not. These folks just really like to be around people and have a good time. I've had some weird ones. I've had some pretty scary weird ones. But I just prefer not to talk about them. (laughing)
Songfacts: Yeah, that's the weird part; when does this cross the line?
Marc: It's always religious based. It's always like dudes coming out with the Bible, "Hey, man, your song, I know it's about this section." I'm like, "I have never... okay... cool, thanks." And on one hand you're like, "That's really sweet," and on the other hand you're saying, "That's kinda weird." I don't know why that is, I don't know why Bible passages can scare you so much.
Songfacts: What's scary is the type of people that are so willing to read something out of your lyrics into their perception of what their religion is.
Marc: Meanwhile, I'm a Jew from Maryland. (laughing)
Songfacts: That actually is a good segue into "Dareh Meyod."
Marc: Oh yes, "Dareh Meyod." It's in Farsi, it's not meant to be pronounced correctly. Here's the deal: this one comes straight from my wife - girlfriend at the time. I'd say to her, "I'm leaving on Wednesday for tour." And it's always a very sensitive and tough situation. But then I'd always end up leaving like Tuesday night at four in the morning. And my way of justifying it was saying, "Oh, I'm leaving on Wednesday." And she would always say, "Can't you just say you're leaving Tuesday and just be honest about it?" It was this funny little thing we had. So dareh meyod means "it's coming," and Sehshambeh dareh meyod means "Tuesday is coming." And because she's Persian, she speaks Farsi. It was just a little "Hey" to her. It's basically a love song about having a hard time leaving, but saying the same road that takes me out will be the same one that'll bring me back. And the title's just kind of for her.
It's pretty cool because we'll be playing a show, and very rarely a couple of Persian people will come and they'll always request that song. They're just like, "It's so cool, there's no rock band with Persian words."
Songfacts: What is Sehshambeh?
Marc: Oh, Sehshambeh is "day," so Yekshambeh would be Monday, Sehshambeh… in that order. So it means "Tuesday is coming." I shortened it because I figured, why make it that hard?
Marc: "Love and Memories." That was an interesting time in our lives. It was a very interesting time, because we were finding ourselves under a lot of pressure to make the new record that was gonna pop it over a little bit. It was the first time in our careers we were worried about that. We wanted to get on the radio for once. We were frustrated. So we started writing songs that were a little more rock mood. That was the mood that we were in at the time, anyway. It wasn't like we were changing everything for the sake of changing, but we were in that world. But when we wrote "Love and Memories," we just said, Okay, here is a song that we really love that also happens to sound good for the radio. You should have heard some of the other ones, they were terrible. This one was good. It worked, and we went for it. "Love and Memories" is like a utility. I love the song, I get the story, I was totally into it. But it worked to get us where we are now - without "Love and Memories" I don't think "Shattered" would be getting played as much. It's nuts. We're like the luckiest guys in the world.
Songfacts: With "Love and Memories," I watched the video on that one, and man, that had to have been one horrible experience for somebody to go through. That wasn't you, was it?
Marc: No, it was inspired by this movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I thought about how frustrating that is, if someone's trying to intentionally erase you from their memory, how painful that could be. But in the end, it's really impossible. And that's the lesson of the movie, obviously it's impossible to get rid of something that changes you. So "Love and Memories" was about this couple, this woman was trying to get rid of this guy from her life, and in reverse he was trying to do the same thing. I just thought that was very interesting. I wanted to play off it a little bit.
Songfacts: Can you tell me about "A Crazy Game of Poker"? I've heard that that was based on The Stand. Is this true? Are you a King fan?
Marc: Oh, hell yes. I'm a huge fan. I read The Stand in 7th and 8th grade constantly - constantly. I put it in this little leather book holder, I'd sit in class and just read it over and over. I loved the story. It was like the Bible, it was the classic wanderer story. And at the time, I was writing a story called "The Wanderer," and I really felt inspired. But fast forward four years, I went over to Israel for high school, transferred over there for a semester. And I had a really bad night, I came home to my dorm and I wanted to start writing a song. It was about a card game with the devil, how it would be if you were tested constantly and you were in a card game. So the first half of the song was written there, the fast up-tempo part. And then we came back to the States and I cleared up a lot of my head, and I was in a really good place. And we started playing the second half of the song, which is kind of cut in half time, so more of an island feel. And that was because I felt that things had slowed down. It was one of the first songs we ever wrote as a band. It just went along the story, this guy is losing all his money, all his gold, all his possessions, but in the end, the devil couldn't convince him to give up his soul, so he decided to walk on his own. And it was inspired by that story, walking, meeting people, and that song then led to a couple of other songs on that record, "About An Hour Ago," "Black Rock," about this guy going around and picking up strangers and different characters. And I thought that was really fun. I want to do that again on another record, just kind of tie them all in together.
Songfacts: Your songs from the beginning seem very lyrically dense and long. That's obviously what drew your core fans to you. And now they're a little more condensed, and a little more radio-ready.
Marc: The radio didn't play a part in these songs, but I really got inspired by working on the record before this, and writing "Love and Memories" and things like that. It was a tough thing to have to do, but in the end I really learned to appreciate the art of songwriting. And then over the next two or three years, I really got into it. I mean, I was really into dissecting peoples' songs and melody. Like the Beatles, I mean, they got 2-minute songs, 3-minute songs, and they are melodically perfect with all these cool parts. But they're very simple in a way, too. And I thought that was really cool. So for a couple of years that's really all I was doing. And then toward the end of the songwriting process for this All Sides record, I kind of said, Okay, I'm ready to expand. And that's where the songs like "War Song," and "The Fallout," songs like that are more drawn out. And the songs I'm writing for this next record are really all based on these long soundcheck jams we've been doing. I'm interested in lyrics, and it's funny, I'm just in another place again, and I think that the next record will be a combination of All Sides, and then another probably like the first record.
Songfacts: It's good to be evolving all the time. It keeps everybody on their toes.
Marc: Well, not only that, but it keeps you busy. (laughs)
Songfacts: My nephew wanted to me to ask you about "Untitled." Why is "Untitled" untitled?
Marc: When I was a freshman in college, I had a girl who was the high school girl type deal, right? And that ended badly, and a lot of great songs came out of it. So, this one is called "Untitled," because this person singing is no longer under the title of "boyfriend," no longer under the title of "better half" or any of those titles that you are associated with. So it was kind of like this redemption, this guy's breaking free, so he's stripping himself of all these titles.
Songfacts: Wow, that's unexpected. That's a great little piece of information.
Marc: Yeah, thank you. I just made it up. (laughing) No, I'm just kidding.
Songfacts: I want to know about "Night Shift." This is another one of those lyrically dense ones.
Marc: That was literally a song, again, in that same year that I was writing about the hardships of being away from home and everything I was used to. So it was about a girl and saying, "I'm working nights here, I'm up all night thinking about you. This is what I'm doing. I got no money, I got nothing, but everything's cool because I've got nighttime to work and think about you," and things like that. It's a really simple idea. Really meant for fun. It came out of playing on stage. And what we're doing again now is we just make shit up on the fly a lot. You just have to trust in your audience that they're not gonna judge. Because you go for it sometimes and it doesn't work lyrically; you're making them up onstage, and it doesn't work. But this one worked. And it was one of the first songs we ever really had that worked with people.
Songfacts: Yeah, you guys come out on stage and people just kind of throw their hands up in praise.
Marc: Yeah, right. (laughs) No, I honestly think it's just because they could be doing this just as easily as we could be doing it. We're just guys who are in a band. We just really love what we do. And I think they love that we love it. If we were up there jaded and couldn't stand the sight of each other, I don't think people would come, because you can't lie about that stuff.
Songfacts: Yeah, and it's obvious that you have a real camaraderie with your fans, too, and that's why they want to follow you from place to place.
Marc: They're awesome, man.
Songfacts: You don't do that to people who don't take the time to make you feel like a real human being as part of the fans.
Marc: I feel like I owe each of them a little bit of money. Every time they're like, "This is my 45th show." I'm like, "Oh my God, I guess I'll give you a couple of refunds. I'm sure we had some bad ones in there." (laughing)
Songfacts: "I Feel Home" is about your hometown, correct?
Marc: Yeah. I'm about maybe a mile from where this song was written right now. We were on my friend Frank's driveway sitting on my car. We had our little acoustic guitars - this guy Mike, who's no longer with us, and this girl, and Frank - and we were just sitting there and I was screwing around on the guitar. We spent so many nights sitting together on driveways and parking lots, and building these bonds and these friendships, but it had a lot to do with where we were from. All of our parents earned what they got, and then gave us all great childhoods. So our nights together we were always happy. We had conflict, but when we were chillin' on the driveway, it was all good. So we sat there, and I came up with that tag, "I feel home," and then I went back to school in Ohio and finished writing it, which I think was better because I was away and I was a little objective. But it was basically about that moment, how special it was. When Mike died I went to his funeral, and I was gonna play this song at the funeral, and I opened up my guitar case and one of my strings was broken. And I was like, "Aw, it's gonna sound terrible. I don't have a tuner, no mic, nothing." I said, "Mike, please just make this be all right." And everything was cool, and it was a good moment. So that song, we hold that really close to us. It's kind of like an ode to a time period that shaped our entire lives.
Songfacts: That's gotta pull something out of you every time you play it.
Marc: Every time. It's crazy. I play that same song five, six times a week, for ten years or whatever, and never get sick of it. When we get sick of a song we stop playing it. You won't hear it for like a year because we're sick of it. (laughs)
Songfacts: Okay. What else can you tell me about that song?
Marc: Years ago in Rockville, Maryland, which is where I'm from, if you scoot out a couple more miles from DC and a little further away from the beltway, it was all farmland. But now they're putting these houses in here. And one of these spots, out on these old country roads, it's basically all Rockville, Maryland in the outskirts. "Black Rock" is another spot where in the city now, they have lochs. So they fill up the water, they used to put boats through that. And Black Rock is one of these spots near the loch that is a little creek, and a mill, an old burned out mill, and we used to go there and sing. All these songs were about spots we'd hang, and what happened there, and the feeling that it gave me.
My poor parents, they're in the same house I grew up in, they see a car outside, they love it. They don't get worried. They're like, "Look, somebody's out in front of the house." I go, "Mom - don't!" (laughing) "Close the door!" She's like, "Oh, should I say hi? Should I bring them cookies?" She is the sweetest. And she still has all my stuff up on the walls, and all the other brothers' and everything.
Songfacts: Are there any songs that you'd like to get the message out that is particularly meaningful to you?
Marc: There's this song that doesn't get much play, but it's called "On My Way." It's on All Sides. I know a few people that do not believe in themselves, period. They have all this potential, amazing smiles, great people, but they just don't believe in themselves, and it just brings them down, it wears them down. "On My Way" is a song about how if you had the opportunity to sit and they weren't allowed to talk, and you just had four minutes to say what you thought. Hopefully it would fix everything. And I love it. I just love playing it live. I don't know why, it's like my favorite song. I wrote it with Matt Nathanson and Mark Weinburg, who's another friend. And there's something about that song, I just feel like if you know somebody who you want to pick up, play 'em the damn song.
Songfacts: Is that one that you feel like you have to play it every single night because there's a message in it?
Marc: Yeah, I try. I put it on every set list, and it'll make it most of the time. We change the set list based on the crowd a lot, and if they're not ready for a really slow song, we'll cancel it.
Songfacts: Thank you, Marc, for taking this time to talk with me.
Marc: Thank you for asking real questions. I really appreciate it.
Our conversation with Marc took place on December 27, 2008
Visit the O.A.R. Website at www.ofarevolution.com
More Songwriter Interviews