Singer, songwriter and piano man John Ondrasik says there were a couple of reasons his rock band took the name Five for Fighting.
"Ondrasik is Slovak and hard to pronounce," he says. "My first album, 'Message for Albert,' was in the late '90s with EMI Records. The record company asked me to come up with a band name, since it was the age of boy bands, Lilith Fair and grunge music, and the male singer and songwriter persona was dead. I sarcastically said 'Five for Fighting.' I'm a big hockey fan, and back in the day there were fights in hockey games. 'Five for fighting' means a five-minute penalty. I expected them to hate it, but they loved the idea."
Born in Los Angeles, Ondrasik's mother taught piano at his high school, John F. Kennedy in Grenada Hills. After graduating from the University of California with a degree in applied science and math, he decided to pursue music. He and his rock band are known for such hits as the Grammy-nominated "Superman," along with "100 Years," "What If," "The Riddle" and "Chances."
Ondrasik will perform at 7 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 21, at the Craterian Theater, 23 S. Central Ave., Medford. This show finds him accompanied by a string quartet. Tickets are $29, $32 or $35, $20, $23 or $26 for ages 22 and younger, and can be purchased at craterian.org, the box office at 16 S. Bartlett St., or by calling 541-779-3000.
A lifelong fan of the NHL's Los Angeles Kings, Ondrasik wrote about the team for Sports Illustrated.
"Songwriting is much harder," Ondrasik laughs. "I'm not paid to be a journalist. I'm graded on a curve. Writing for the Kings or Sports Illustrated is just so fun and subjective. I'm such a sports geek; I just put on my sports fan hat. But I'll stick to songwriting and leave the journalism to the pros."
His enthusiasm for hockey also landed him several halftime or pregame shows at major sporting events. In 2011, Five for Fighting performed at the NHL Heritage Classic in Calgary, with the Calgary Flames facing off against the Montreal Canadiens.
"The name Five for Fighting's probably cost the record company a lot of album sales because of the disconnect between the guy and the music, but it's been fantastic because I've had the opportunity to play some incredible sporting events. I've played NHL All-Star games, Daytona 500, ESPN's 'Monday Night Football.' "
"The one in Calgary is noteworthy because it was live television and it was minus-20 degrees with a 10-degree wind chill factor on the outdoor stage. You'd think it would be impossible to sing in that weather. The problem we had, though, especially as piano and guitar players, after 20 or 30 seconds, our hands would start to go numb. We'd put our hands against big space heaters trying to get them to work for three minutes. We were a little more proud of that performance than some others just to have survived it."
Ondrasik enjoyed another wonderful experience when he played on the 50-yard line in front of 80,000 people at a New York Jets game at MetLife Stadium.
"I guess the highlight would have to be Dodger Stadium, playing for the L.A. Kings' and the Hound Dogs' outdoor game, where I grew up going to baseball games," he says. "I sat there at home plate. My dad and my son were in the audience. At the end of the day, I'm glad we're called Five for Fighting so I could do those gigs."
Ondrasik's songs explore feelings and interpretations about what's going on around him, and he delivers lyrics in an able tenor.
"Songs like 'Superman' are certainly introspective. I call a lot of my songs 'Post-it note songs.' They share sentiments we think about every day, living in the moment. They're to remind me of little life lessons and mottos. Certainly those are introspective and personal.
"When I had kids, my songs became much less selfish," he says. "I started thinking about the world they were growing up in. I grew up on '70s singers and songwriters: Elton John, Billy Joel, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor. I kind of fancy myself a product of those influences, and those artists wrote songs about the world and the culture around them."
Ondrasik enjoys the various permutations of Five for Fighting.
"I've always loved that sometimes we're a rock band, sometimes it's me by myself or a duet with my guitar player, and sometimes it's with a symphony or these quartet shows," he says. "The incredible string musicians joining me for the Medford show are cellist Dave Egger, viola player Chris Cardona and violinists Katie Kresick and Melissa Tong.
"It's allowed me to change my catalog," he says. "I've had the honor of working with some incredible composers who have written great arrangements for some of my songs. The string quartet allows me to pull those songs from my catalog. To be able to pull out songs like 'Devil in the Wishing Well' or 'Two Lights' is so inspiring. I think the arrangements are so beautiful, so musical, and add a new dynamic to the songs."