Of all the bands to emerge from the mid-‘90s Wetlands scene, Guster is perhaps the only act to perform each and every year with its original lineup still intact. That’s not to say that the trio hasn’t changed since they formed as rootsy combo based around two acoustic guitars and a bongo. Guitarist-singers Ryan Miller and Adam Gardner started to expand their palette to include electric instruments in the late ‘90s and by the time of 2003’s Keep It Together, they’d transitioned into full-on multi-instrumentalists diving their time between guitar, bass, piano and an arsenal of others instruments. (Drummer Brian Rosenworcel started using a full-kit around the same time.) Though Guster’s style and songwriting matured has matured greatly during the past 12 years, they’re commitment to merging reflective lyrics with melodic, indie-jam textures and catchy pop hooks has remained. They dropped their seventh full-length, _Evermotion_¸ this past January—their first release to showcase the talents of multi-instrumentalist Luke Reynolds. Working with decorated psych-rock producer Richard Swift at his home studio in Oregon, Guster knocked out Evermotion in a few short weeks—an uncharacteristically short period of time for the band—and explore a kaleidoscope of new trippy sounds. The album also arrived after something of a quiet period in the band’s arc. “Guster has always had momentum, but this was the first time I thought that our band was in second gear,” says Miller, who has forged a second career as a film composer and the host of the PBS web series Makin’ Friends with Ryan Miller. However, the group has had a banner year, performing at Bonnaroo, headlining New York’s Central Park SummerStage and receiving the honor of their own Guster Day in Boston.
Guster recently wrapped-up their fall tour with three shows at Port Chester, NY’s Capitol Theatre, during which they dug deep into their catalog and pulled out 60 different songs. The group will kick off the next leg of their tour at Clifton Park, NY’s Upstate Concert Hall on January 14 and on December 11, Miller will appear at New York’s LPR to talk about the intersection of music and faith. This conversation will take place exactly a year after the members of Guster spoke with Relix and Jambands.com about their new album.
In the following interview, Miller elaborates further on the band’s recent recording sessions, sonic evolution and life on the eve of their 25th anniversary.
What went into your decision to choose Richard Swift as the producer on Evermotion ?
We toured for a while after that last record and then we did a tour with Jack’s Mannequin, Andrew’s band. I love Andrew a lot, but it was sort of weird for me because his fans were younger and I felt disconnected from the zeitgeist of it.
The film scoring was happening at the same time. Safety Not Guaranteed crushed at Sundance and I was getting calls to do other indies—there were two films at the next Sundance, and Kings of Summer got bought, so I was ascending in the indie composer world. For the first time musically I just felt like there was no ceiling. Having a legacy [with Guster] is a blessing and a curse. Our fans are great. I never take it for granted, but I also think they’re never going to transcend certain things.
Easy Wonderful was great. I didn’t know how to go forward with it. This was something I felt like I could do until I was 70, but in the Guster world I just felt like we were in a box. I thought, “Does anybody care? Are we a nostalgia band? Do we have anything left to say?” There are these demons that haunt me about what it means to be in a band for over 20 years that didn’t exist with the film scoring thing.
Guster has always had momentum, but this was the first time I thought that our band was in second gear. It just happens every time our band has kind of broken up and reformed after the last couple of records—because you have to figure out what you’re doing and why. It’s a Sisyphean task ahead of you. The film scoring was going great so I had that to kind of make me feel happy about the future—that wild, potential craziness of the future.
After taking stock of everything that we had done I thought, “Wow, these songs are good, actually.” That was a mental shift that I had maybe about a year or six months before the record came out. I thought I should just concentrate on making a super rad record and not trip out about what happens after the record comes out. You can’t control any of that.
We really love new music and textures. We were thinking about what kind of record we want to make and we started talking about Richard Swift. Once he was on board, it was a real rallying cry. He had just made these Foxygen and Damien Jurado records that were so big for us and where we were with some of the synth-y sounds. His approach felt right for us—it felt uncomfortable and really scary, which are the things that we know intellectually we needed to make a cool record. We just went in there and had this pretty fucking insane recording experience—it was the nuttiest time we’ve ever had, but just so inspiring on a creative level.
There’s a huge divide in our band about what it means to capture something in the moment, to not overthink it and to work so fucking hard that it becomes great. We can have a tendency to overthink, but Swift really made sure that we didn’t have time to do any of that.
When Swift didn’t pay attention to detail like we kind of wanted, we were able to get Phil Ek in. It was the best of both worlds. Swift was bummed when we were going to take the mixes to Phil, but I think he really liked it. He thought we kept the spirit of it. I think he was afraid of it sounding really big and commercial but I don’t think it does.
It sounds like a Swift record. I listened to some of his stuff before Foxygen, but people always associate Foxygen with Richard Swift. It’s the same vibe because it was such a breakout record for all of them.
Right, and he’d be drumming with the drummer when they showed up. That was it for me. Maybe we thought he was going to come with more ideas, but he wasn’t really like that. I had sort of envisioned him as being a member of the band. He wasn’t—he was our producer, which was great. It was what we needed.
Yeah, it was really freeing and sort of a testament to what was getting us off at this point. We put ourselves in a position to fail kind of spectacularly – to try shit. I don’t want to go on and just play this song like on late night TV. It’s an opportunity to do something. I want something more fucked up visually or collaboratively. It’s got to be great but we still have to figure something out. That’s the spirit that will run our business for the next year or two.
At what point did the band decide to partially self-release and do these fan-funded promo incentives? Do you feel like before it was more about community while today you’re allowed to do more creative things but also be a pop band?
Exactly. We were sort of candidates for crowd funding just because we have the fan base and they’re not all sixteen anymore. The pledge thing felt better to us than Kickstarter because PledgeMusic is just a preorder thing. We came up with some stupid ideas so it could have our spin on it and engage the community in a way and wouldn’t trip any alarms of feeling they needed to help us make our dreams happen. No, we made a rad record, do you want to buy it or not? Or do you want a t-shirt and a signed vinyl? That’s not any different from anything else we’ve ever done.
In terms of what pop music is—I mean, that’s not really what we’re doing anyway. I think our aesthetic kind of fits more into the traditional indie rock textures now. Mike Denneen, who made our first record Parachute, said to us early on, “It’s lucky that you guys write pop songs.” And I said, “Oh yeah, we’re still a pop band. We’re still trying to write these pop songs after all this time.” Maybe the textures have changed a little bit or the tempos and grooves but still, melody wins every time.
I wonder how many bands have been around since you guys formed who have played every single year with at least the original lineup intact? People come and go and you’ve had the three, but you guys are still together. There are very few bands that have done that. There are four different bands who have been Wilco.
That’s true, but I like the way that it feels like a legacy band. There are some bands that do it and some that just keep changing. That’s why I love the Wilco; they’ve morphed over all these years. I don’t know if their latest incarnation is my favorite, but I still respect the hell out of them for pushing boundaries. I love that career trick, man. I think of all the bands’ careers that I would like to emulate, that’s a really good place.
“I don’t think that musicians are necessarily owed a living. It doesn’t matter if you’re right or wrong, it’s happening. There’s no point in pulling your music from Spotify then just to make a point. I get it. I know the democratization of recording and distribution is an amazing thing; just to put out a record and have everyone in the world able to hear it—that’s pretty fucking amazing.”
Each of your albums feel like bookmarks in your career. Do you think in the last ten years you’ve gotten a new fan base and lost some people or maybe got some different people? How does this album fit into that?
I think of it in chapters. Parachute and Goldfly were our first records. We really didn’t know how to make records on Parachute. Lost and Gone Forever was us at our best. We were writing some cool songs; percussion was in full effect and after that record Brian was into Talking Heads and REM and just wanted to play fucking kick and snare. Groove entered in the conversation but we didn’t know how to play any of those instruments. I think we thought we had to keep it together. Ganging Up on the Sun and Easy Wonderful were a very specific trajectory of learning how to be comfortable.
Now with Luke coming in and with where our heads are and how we’re communicating, it just feels like this is a beginning…like Guster 3.0. It feels like we know who our peers are and can have conversations we wouldn’t have been able to have.
This record is still Guster in that sense. Swift is one of the hottest indie rock producers, but it still feels connected and isn’t forced.
It’s a very willful movement. It’s not accidental. We’re constantly thinking about what we’re into, like with Swift’s stuff, and keyboards, and all that. I barely play guitar on the record, mostly because I just wasn’t inspired. I didn’t know how to get out of my patterns and I didn’t want that to limit us. I wanted us to be able to play with textures. A huge part of it was just realizing that I’m not going to play guitar, which would maybe help us get a little bit freaky.
Do you play keyboards through most of the record?
I play a lot of keyboards, but I also thought a lot about melody. Not trying to write parts, but writing melodies and lyrics and figuring out the spirit of the song. I think I’m going to play more keyboards on stage. I still want to figure out a way to make it really dynamic. We’ve been rehearsing “Simple Machine” and the way I think we’re going to do it live might even be with the three of us on keyboards. We’re still really interested and we don’t know how we’re doing it or how we’re playing these songs, which is always kind of fun.
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