With O.A.R.’s Back to Rockville Tour coming to Ravinia Fest this weekend, we caught up with Benj Gershman to discuss The Rockville LP, Chicago memories, and almost 20 years of O.A.R. We caught a few laughs along the way too.
Hey Benj, how’s it going today?
I’m great! I’m on tour with the band in Michigan. We’re playing at a beautiful spot called Meijer Gardens, and it’s a great day here.
Awesome! Thanks for taking the time to meet with us. Let’s kick things off by telling us a little bit about yourself and what you do.
No problem, we love Chicago. We’ve been playing shows there for several years, and it’s great to get some support from the local guys, so keep it up!
As for me, I’m Benj Gershman. I play bass for O.A.R., and I have fun in this band. We love doing what we do, and we’ve been a band for going on about 20 years now. It’s a pleasure. We know how lucky we are to have this in our lives. We’ve had a lot of friends and peers who do the same thing, and it’s not easy to stay a band. So, we work really hard while we keep it fun.
Awesome! You’ve been called a jam band, pop rock, and Adult Top 40, but how would you describe your sound to people who haven’t heard your music?
I would just tell them we’re an American rock band. Short and sweet, man. Short and sweet.
One of your live albums, Rain or Shine, was recorded at the Charter One Pavilion in Chicago. Tell us a little bit about that experience and what made it special.
That experience in Chicago was unlike anything else we’ve gone through while trying to make a record. First of all, with live records there’s a lot of pressure to get everything right. You need to have the feeling – the vibe of the recording – reflect the experience that’s being shared between the band and the audience that night, or in that case, those nights. So, Rain or Shine became the name of the album because, literally, we were going to play that show rain or shine because we had the whole recording set up. It was kind of insane [laughs].
Prior to the show, we had all of these storms coming through and it was – I forget if it was the first or second night, I think it was the first night – we were just getting pummeled by rain, and we basically had to break down some of the production to keep it safe for us on stage and the audience. It was a driven adaptation of a usual show but the energy was just so present there. The audience was so happy that we actually got to play because they were sort of, we didn’t know if the fire marshal would let us have the show, and we were sort of pushing for it. Everything worked out and we just had this incredibly electric experience. I think that really reflects on that record, and that’s really what Rain or Shine was. It was just a recording of this experience that we got to share with all of these wonderful audience members, and to this day, it’s one of those things we’re really proud of and really happy it was a part of our career.
Well, I’ve got to say, we absolutely love the album. The energy is great.
No problem. Did you know right away that you’d turn that concert into a live album? What kind of planning goes into that decision?
Well, for something like that, you have to bring the right recording equipment. You can’t just record on the fly and hope that it’s going to sound right for a release like that. So yeah, there was a lot of forethought, and it was a targeting thing, getting two nights at the venue, the purpose of that was – if we got rained out was part of it – Also, if versions of songs weren’t exactly what we wanted, we had to opportunity to perform them again and get the right version down. There was a lot of coordination with our management and the other person in our crew on tour, and we just tried to make it really special with all that – just the whole picture – it was all kind of put together. It wasn’t by the seat of our pants and put some music together.
That’s always something I’ve personally wondered. All of your live albums always sound so great.
Well, thank you. I think a lot of that’s due to the mixer of a lot of these albums – a guy named Jeff Juliano – a very talented engineer. We owe a lot to him. He’s helped us define our sound through those records, and we’re just really thankful for Jeff. He’s a great guy and he’s just been there for us over the years. I mean, our first real studio experience with Jeff was when we were working on our third studio album, Risen, Jeff was the engineer behind it. We got to know him early on in our career, and he’s remained a friend, an ally, over the course of all these different records. He’s always supported us when we’ve needed something, so he’s a big part of how they sound and why they sound the way they do.
Any other memorable experiences in Chicago that you might want to mention?
Yeah, Chicago is one of those cities where we really had a ton of incredible experiences all over the place – all over the city. Our first set of sold out shows was at the House of Blues – I think it was 2001 – we were fresh out of college, starting a tour. A guy named Michael Yerke was the talent buyer over there – someone we’re still in touch with, close with, great guy – and it was just such a great experience. There was a hotel right next door, and he wanted us to play three nights. It was so easy to say yes to that, believing in someone who does it professionally saying, “You guys can make this happen.” We trusted him – and at this point in our career it was kind of a risk to do that many nights – but our fans really came out and supported, and he was right. We really look back on that as a turning point for, I guess, we could really take on more as a band than what we thought we were ready for and always keep looking ahead – staying ahead of the curve. Shortly after, we played at the Eragon for the first time. We had a huge crowd over there.
We’ve just been really lucky that such a great city – you go there and there are so many incredible things from the music, to the architecture, to people – and to go there and be inspired and experience it together, really makes us look forward to every new visit. As far as that goes, we’ve always wanted to get involved with Ravinia Festival and be a part of that concert series, and this is a big thing for us. We’re really looking forward to this year’s concert there. It’s a new thing – we’ve never done it before – and it’s outside the city, so we’re curious how the response is. So far, everyone has been responsive – getting their tickets – and we’re just looking forward to an excellent night. It’s really gonna be a fun time. Actually, about an hour ago, we were working a new cover that’s directly related to our generation and Chicago. So, there are a couple tricks up our sleeve for that night that will make the show an extraordinary kind of thing. We’re really trying to go above and beyond for this one, so we hope people are there to enjoy it with us.
I’m sure it’s going to be great! Earlier in the interview, you mentioned that O.A.R. has been together for almost 20 years now, which is incredible. How have things changed from the beginning, and how have they stayed the same?
Well, [laughs] they’ve changed a lot since the beginning of our career. We were selling tapes to begin with. Then it was CDs. Then it was MP3s being traded illegally. Then it was MP3s being sold legally. Then everything was downloadable and Spotifyable. We’ve seen the industry change, and as people, we’ve changed. When we started this, we were high school kids – Jr. high school kids. Now we’re adults with families, and it’s just really a thing where our personalities have evolved, our musical tastes have evolved, our musical goals – career goals have evolved.
The things that have stayed the same are our passion and our bond as brothers, as friends. We have the goal of just continuing to do this, continuing to be a band making music to make people feel good. That’s really the driving force behind this whole thing: trying to have a positive effect on those who we get to interact with.
It’s a great accomplishment in itself that you guys have stayed together for this long. To maintain that passion and keep everyone on the same page – it’s phenomenal that you’ve been able to do that.
What has been your favorite part of your career so far?
Every single day that we’re doing this is my favorite part. To wake up in a new city and know that we get to do this again is kind of like – that thing of being in the moment – there are so many moments in a career like ours that are special. I would just say it’s always our favorite moment in that way.
Your newest album, The Rockville LP, hit the shelves in June 2014, a little over a year ago. On that album, it really sounds like you guys went back to the basics, and just had fun making music. Tell us a little bit about recording the album and what it means to you.
Yeah, this record is really about connecting with where we come from. In that way, we went back to the vibe of where we started. And, I think – you can say back to the basics – but I really think the songwriting that Marc and a lot of people who were crafting this record put together really represent a much more mature songwriting & craftsmanship. I feel like we were trying to pay homage to the genre we find ourselves in, as well as painting a picture that we’re still writing new music that represents where we’re at in life, which is what we’ve always tried to do. We get older and that perspective changes.
Well said. What’s on your iPod right now, Benj?
I just started getting into this guy named Jason Isbell. We’ve crossed paths with Jason at the Lynyrd Skynyrd 45th Anniversary show. His music is something you can just pick up and enjoy. It’s always airing on different networks. Jason is a really talented songwriter, and I’ve just been listening to him. He’s got some cool songs I’ve never heard, and I’m having fun exploring his catalog.
Sounds like we’ll have to check him out. In the meantime, tell us something that people don’t know about you.
Oh boy… [laughs] wow. I don’t know what people know and don’t know.
Anything you have an interest in that’s not music related?
I’m really into photography. I really appreciate the art of photography, capturing moments. I love film photography, and I’m sad to see it kind of going away. But that’s life. I saw that with our career – releasing stuff on tapes and all that kind of stuff – mediums change but the art is still there. It’s cool to see people with their iPhones taking these little snaps, but it’s very different from old-school true photography. So, I have a real appreciation for that art.
Anything else you’d like to mention while we have you here?
I really just appreciate you guys taking the time to do an interview and spreading the word about our show at Ravinia – that’s going to be great. I’m happy to connect with you guys.
Trust us, we’re even happier to connect with you. This is incredible. Anytime you’re around the Chicago area and want to connect, let us know. Thanks for stopping by.
No sweat. Have a great evening and we’ll see you in Chicago.
See you then, Benj.
Don’t forget to grab your tickets to O.A.R.’s Back to Rockville Tour as they visit Ravinia Fest this weekend, Sunday, September 6th. Tickets are available for purchase at Ravinia.org.
Photo Credit: CBS Local