Five For Fighting's John Ondrasik on fandom, music and the L.A. Kings
From September through December SI will be speaking to musicians of all genres about the intersection of music and sports.
This week, SI talks with pop music star and L.A. Kings superfan John Ondrasik. The composer and singer of such hit songs as "Superman (It’s Not Easy)’, "100 Years", "The Riddle", “Chances”, “Slice” and “What If”, Ondrasik is best known as Five For Fighting, the band name he adopted after it was inspired by his watching former Kings enforcer Marty McSorley drop the gloves and get sent to the penalty box. It's safe to say that few popular musicians have a more solid connection to or stronger love for sports than Ondrasik, who has written for SI.com.
SI: You’ve been a sports fan nearly your entire life. Did you play sports when you were a kid?
I loved basketball and growing up in the San Fernando Valley I played with some excellent players. A few teammates ended up playing NCAA Division I ball. The enjoyment of playing sports was crucial in my childhood. My relationships and experience of having teammates from diverse backgrounds still influences me today. And at the end of the day is that not the true beauty of sports?
SI: Kings great Luc Robitaille is one of your friends from the world of sports. How did you become friends with Landon Donovan?
JO: Luc and Landon are two of the finest people I know. Considering their success in their relative sports I’m always amazed by how humble and down to earth they are. Luc hired me to play his retirement ceremony, as “Superman” was an important song to his family when he won the Stanley Cup in Detroit. Landon I saw wearing a Five For Fighting T-shirt in an interview and I reached out to invite him to a gig. They both love music and I love them.
SI: Have you ever tried to play hockey?
JO: I’ve been a Kings fan since their Triple Crown Line (Marcel Dionne, Dave Taylor, Charlie Simmer) in the early 80’s but once Wayne Gretzky came to L.A. everybody wanted to play hockey. I taught myself to skate, joined an adult league and scored a goal in my first ever game! (I got checked into the crease and some dude took a slap shot that hit my helmet and went into the net.) I soon learned that hockey was not great for a piano player’s wrists and a singer’s jaw. I now coach Luc’s annual charity game in Park City, Utah. He’s my captain and still a bit slow. Fortunately my coaching makes up for it.
SI: You coached your kids’ soccer team. Did you and they enjoy the youth sports experience? Sometimes parents can get awfully carried away.
JO: My dad coached me in basketball as a youth and it was awesome. He cared but didn’t obsess. When my son started playing Little League, an opposing coach was holding secret midnight batting practice in his garage. His team went undefeated until the playoffs where they were so scared to make a mistake they folded. He would scream like Rick Neuheisel at a regiment of freshman quarterbacks. The kids were eight years old! Let’s say my coaching had more to do with work ethic, teamwork, and pizza.
SI: What common ground do you see between sports and music?
JO: Though at their base music and sports are entertainment, they both have the potential to transcend and provide powerful cultural moments.
Certainly we can escape from our daily grind by listening to a song or watching a game. But both have a voice that transcends. You don’t need to understand a language to be moved by a piece of music or a drama of competition. Sports and music also have the unique ability to capture our memories in time. How often do you hear a song and flashback to the era in which it was released and relive your memories of that period? I still remember where I was sitting when Kirk Gibson hit his home run, Magic Johnson hit that hook shot, and Gretzky scored after high-sticking Doug Gilmour.
There are great differences as well. Sports is a meritocracy where music is subjective. Music has no losers where sports is a zero sum game. And, of course, every athlete wants to be a musician, and every rock star a pro!
Finally can you imagine our lives without sports and music? As irrational as we may get sometimes they are the most important things to many of us.
SI: You wrote a song called “Michael Jordan” that appears on your album America Town. You sing “I would give anything”—including your wife and “a first-born or two”—to be him. Knowing you to be a devoted family man, I always took this to be a poke at the mindless worship of athletes. Correct?
JO: You nailed it. As a fanatic sports fan I still worry about the deification of athletes. Though many pros are good people, we have seen the effect of bad role models. We have a more selfish and narcissistic generation of kids largely because our media glamorizes both pro athletes and superstar musicians, many who fail us as examples for kids. I’m sorry. You don’t get a choice to be a role model. When you’re a superstar, you are one by default. I chose MJ because at the time (and probably still now) he was the ultimate God and I wanted to be like Mike like everybody else!
SI: Have you ever thought of writing more sports-related or sports-themed songs, maybe something along the lines of The Tragically Hip’s “The Lonely End of the Rink”?JO: I’ve been blessed to have many of my songs used by various sports leagues. “Chances” was the end title of The Blind Side and used by the NFL. My recent song “All for One” opened the NHL playoffs on Hockey Night in Canada. But nothing could top the Kings using “Stand Up” as their Stanley Cup Montage in 2014. Sports songs are tough to write, as they usually are insanely cheesy. The best sports song I ever wrote is called, ironically, “The Best” and was in the film Everyone’s Hero. It’s about a dad and his young son’s first baseball catch. No coincidence that it was my son’s first year of Little League.
SI: What arena anthems or sports songs (e.g. “Centerfield” by John Fogerty) do you like?
JO: “Centerfield” is killer as it’s nostalgic and captures the spirit of baseball. Also Fogerty is a bit of a genius. Many times the best music for events has really nothing to do with sports. The L.A. Kings used “Welcome to the Black Parade” by My Chemical Romance during the 2012 playoff run and it was chill inducing. That said, I’m a classic rock fan so you can never go wrong with AC/DC, Queen, or Aerosmith! Admit it, nothing will ever eclipse “We are the Champions.”
SI: You’ve played a number of sports-related events such as the 2014 Kings-Ducks Stadium Series game at Dodger Stadium. Which one stands out the most and why?
JO: Beyond Kings/Ducks, the Daytona 500 was one of the most surreal experiences of my life. You are playing for 250,000 people at the track and over 20 million on live TV but the event feels like a high school football game. The drivers were standing in front of the stage 15 minutes before “Start your engines.” The only other event I can imagine has that kind of pageantry would be the Super Bowl, and for some reason they haven’t called yet …
SI: Have you ever played with any musically inclined athletes like Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist?
JO: I actually saw Hank at a charity event this summer and was pitching him on playing a gig while reliving his incredible goaltending in the 2014 Cup Final. Luc will hate this but we always do a song or two at his events. He does a decent Axl Rose. Not! And Landon Donovan is singing background vocals on a song on mine that’s floating around. He really needs to reconsider his retirement.
SI: When you started out as Five For Fighting did you ever imagine how much your music career would open the door to the world of sports?
JO: Never. Frankly the Five For Fighting name has probably cost my record label a million records in sales. In one sense it was a marketing disaster. FFF sounds like a heavy metal band and though many folks know my songs, few know who sings them. That said, so many of my career moments have had to do with sporting events. Playing Dodger Stadium for the Kings-Ducks outdoor game last year being just the latest. I used to sit in the bleachers with my dad as a child and try to catch batting practice homers. Our family has been Kings season ticket holders for 30 years. To sit at home plate and sing my songs for 55,000 people with Vin Scully and Bob Miller in the house was an honor. And let’s be frank. John Ondrasik probably doesn’t play that gig. But Five For Fighting does. I’ll take the trade.
SI: You got to drink out of the Stanley Cup twice and, as you said, your song “Stand Up” was used on the Kings’ 2014 Cup highlight video. I assume those moments are the pinnacle of your Kings fandom or was there a greater thrill?
JO: As we are in the Golden Age of Kings hockey I still have to pinch myself every morning. I never thought we’d see another Final after ’93 but thanks to Dean Lombardi, Darryl Sutter, and our players we have lived the dream. I’m told a few of the team’s execs had a picture of me crying after the 2012 Game 6 clincher as their phone screen saver. I take no shame in that!
SI: Is there anything left on your sports bucket list?
JO: Sports team ownership. Working on it.
SI: What is Five For Fighting up to these days and what do you plan to do musically in the foreseeable future?
JO: It’s a bit of a hodge-podge. While continuing to do symphony shows, FFF gigs, corporate and privates, I am embarking on projects that my past recording and touring schedule had not allowed me to do. I have a music driven TV show in development. I’m writing a musical. I am signing and nurturing up-and-coming songwriters and expanding my concert/speaking engagements, which is basically a TED Talk with a musical performance. Oh, and writing for another FFF record and various projects. This retirement thing is exhausting.
SI: What’s your outlook on the Kings for the upcoming season? They’ve had a bumpy patch of late with the Slava Voynov, Jarret Stoll and Mike Richards cases and then there’s the Anze Kopitar contract situation.
JO: What a roller coaster! The Kings still have one of the best cores in the game and Milan Lucic/Kopitar/Marian Gaborik along with That 70’s Line should provide enough offense for Quickie (goalie Jonathan Quick). The question is on defense. The Voynov situation has hamstrung the Kings for a year now. That said, I have little sympathy for domestic abuse and some things are more important than sports. The Mike Richards situation is very sad and disturbing. We don’t win in 2012 without him but his poor decision-making speaks for itself. Dean will figure out Kopi. He always does. I can’t wait for hockey. GO KINGS!