O.A.R.’s Chris Culos: Don’t Mention Frat Parties

Prove yourself again. When you’re in a band like O.A.R., who used a resolute D.I.Y. work ethic to climb out of the basement and sell 750,000-plus albums, you’d think you had a few laurels to rest on — but you’d be wrong. For drummer Chris Culos, his group’s new CD, Stories Of A Stranger, is a peaceful call to arms against those who label O.A.R. as just another jam band who knows how to noodle it live.

“It’s not that we want to go in a different direction,” says the Maryland-bred Culos, 26, speaking from his newfound hometown of Chicago, “but we want to prove to the naysayers that we have a lot more to offer than what they’re crediting us for. We’ve always been making music that makes us happy, but I think we wanted to see how far we’ve come as a band.”

Formed on the campus of the Ohio State University in 1998, O.A.R. (Of A Revolution) never had problems winning fans with its rootsy-rock-meets-reggaehead origins. A son of a drummer, Culos finds it easy to explain exactly what kind of rhythms turn him on. “I’ve always related to beats in hip hop,” he says. “I always thought it was cool just to make great drum beats, and I try to translate that to O.A.R. without necessarily doing a lot of fills.

“Playing live, we are very into the moment and do a lot of improv: Sometimes we build up, sometimes we build down. I really try to pay attention when the guys are soloing, trying to hold down a groove and letting them shine. Other times I think it’s a planned almost-overplaying on purpose, where the band makes a combined effort to reach some sort of climax or peak in the music. I think there’s a difference, however, between overplaying and a planned aggressive playing, where the band as a unit tries to bring something out of the audience. When we’re playing to a buildup, there’s a need for the band to push as hard as it can. It’s fun, because you can let loose and not worry about overplaying.”

Although the band had six albums under their belts, including their 2003 major label debut In Between Now And Then (on Lava/Atlantic), O.A.R. approached Stories Of A Stranger with a sense of urgency — and some pressure from their label — to prove they were solid songwriters as well as great musicians. “In the past,” Culos explains, “a lot of our stuff developed onstage while we were improvising. When we started thinking about making this new record over a year ago, we started getting ready to come into the studio in late December. Then our label said, ’You could go into the studio and do what you always do, or take some time to think about what you’re going to do. We think you should take some time.’ We realized what’s really at stake: There’s some pressure on us to put something out beyond what everyone’s expectations are. We knew we could accomplish that.”

O.A.R. responded to the challenge with a fierce focus on the science of songwriting, rehearsing five days a week in Culos’ basement as they recorded the sessions into Pro Tools. Even more importantly, the band enlisted outside mentors — highly established songwriters and producers — to consult on their material, opening up entirely new perspectives in the process. “We wanted fresh eyes and ears, almost editing your rough draft,” Culos says. “So [singer/guitarist Marc Roberge and lead guitarist Richard On] worked with people like Glen Ballard and brought back some really great material for us. Sometimes they would come back with a demo where they had made music on a drum sampler, and I’d have to be open to playing a drum part that I had not necessarily come up with. Any drummer knows you can play the simplest drumbeat a million different ways, and I liked hearing an electronic beat on a drum machine and trying to perform it back. And it would work! That’s the other end of it, which is trying to translate. They came up with a song, but how do we really make it O.A.R.’s?”

Culos took the process a step further by enlisting his own drumming consultants, starting with Brian Jones from Agents Of Good Roots. “The way those guys went outside with their songs gave me the confidence to do the same thing,” he says. “I’d go down to Richmond, Virginia, and he would find a couple of hours a night to set up two drum sets and we’d just play.

“That certainly enhanced the songs, because it guided what I would play into a complete thought. It was so much better to know what was happening from beginning to end, and playing that almost the same way every time. You have lyrics that are set for a reason, but in drumming I never thought that way, that maybe there should be a set pattern in what the song is trying to accomplish, rather than just have the drum pattern be repetitive.”

It may have been Culos’ recruitment of current Wailers drummer Drummie Zeb, however, that really helped the band nail the primary mission — Stories’ 12 songs. “We’ve never claimed to be a reggae band, but we’ve always taken a lot from what reggae music was about,” Culos reflects. “Drummie taught me a lot about the history of reggae and the slang terms, like the one-drop beat, four-on-the-floor-footers, the pepperseed beat. One of the things I was really impressed with was that a lot of the rhythms have gone back thousands of years to African culture, just instilled into these patterns that they’ve played for centuries. You hear a beat, and it’s almost imbedded in you that you have to move.”