Guster: Cold Comfort
photo by Elise Gafkjen
On their eighth full-length LP, Guster offers a career-defining return to form, signaling a new chapter in their decades-spanning career.
Every album comes with a backstory. This one’s coated in the cold.
From Maine, Colorado and Calgary to Montreal, Guster’s eighth album, Look Alive, was created and recorded amid the crisp and cool North American environs of late fall into the deep winter. And that front helped restore a sense of freshness and clarity.
“We have this thing where we never want to repeat ourselves,” drummer/percussionist Brian Rosenworcel explains. “That’s a guiding principle. If we’re rehashing something we’ve done in the past, we’re going to keep searching.”
As Guster waded into that new sonic territory, as is usually the case with the still-underrated pop-rock act, they discovered that they belonged in a newfound creative space. Look Alive is a taut, focused, evolutionary album for a gutty band closing in on their third decade of existence. This isn’t a moody record as much as it’s an exploratory one—both tangibly and spiritually. Beneath some keen lyrics, a few new arrangements and a couple of daring instrumentation decisions, you can hear one underlying result come through: These guys had fun in the lab.
“We could have only made this record after being a band for 25 years,” frontman Ryan Miller adds.
“It felt effortless in a way, even though it wasn’t,” says multifaceted musician and fellow co-founder Adam Gardner. “It was neat to break the songs down into their elements.”
Many sections of Look Alive are brittle and blue; the sound and feel of the cool affected this record from creation to completion. The album’s title track, which opens the LP, was mostly written in the chill of Maine but wasn’t fleshed out into final form until it was treated, processed and distilled in the studio. “Look Alive” makes it immediately clear that this LP is different from every previous Guster album, which follows the same pattern of all the group’s opening tracks since 2003’s reputation-adjusting Keep It Together. “Look Alive” is spare and a bit spacey in a claustrophobic kind of way; Guster’s choruses usually aren’t so naked.
“We often lead with a song that shocks people but we don’t do it for shock effect. ‘Diane’ scared the hell out of people and now it’s a classic Guster song. ‘Lightning Rod’ was too slow for people, but now people feel its depth and ask for it at shows,” Rosenworcel says of the requests for the tunes from Keep It Together and that album’s 2006 benchmark follow-up, Ganging Up on the Sun. “With our first track, we’ve evolved ahead of our fan base and we’re like, ‘Here. Here’s where you have to get to.’”
You can feel the gears turn on “Hard Times,” which features a distressed Miller on vocoder and is as forward-thinking as the album gets. Yet the song also harks back to the band’s harmony-oriented origins, with Gardner—who served as the band’s de facto lead singer early on—taking command of the chorus. This is still a buoyant band, but there was no guarantee that Guster would get to this point 27 years in. The original core trio of Miller, Gardner and Rosenworcel—and fellow multi-instrumentalist Luke Reynolds, who joined in 2010—have created what Rosenworcel equates to as their most abnormal experiment, a la The Beatles’ “The White Album.” There are disparate parts all being held together by something hard to define.
“That’s because The Beatles are pulling it all off on that record—that’s really hard to do,” Rosenworcel offers. “That being said, when we’re trying to sequence this album, ‘Hard Times’ is really serious, really dark and heavy—and ‘Overexcited’ is really not. And yet, we’re so proud of each one. In that sense, this is our ‘White Album.’”
Look Alive will no doubt have a lasting impact on Guster’s live shows for years to come. “Hard Times” is a commentary on the current state of affairs in the U.S., a harsh look that Miller felt compelled to write. (Of the album’s overall lyrical output, Miller says, “I’m hoping to be somewhat optimistic in the face of what seems like unending disaster.”)
Sequencing was its own headache; Miller indicates that a lot of the songs have crazy components but there’s a center to these tunes that buoys the album.
“Peter Gabriel on mushrooms,” he observes, then adds, “some Kinks with Beach Boys and modern production. It felt weird. And ‘weird’ is non-pejorative for me. I always want to be weird.”
The quartet began writing for Look Alive in the snowy Rockies of Vail, Colo., slipping in ski runs between their songcrafting sessions in the carpeted ballroom of a Four Seasons.
But Guster often exists in dichotomies. Shortly after that songwriting experiment disguised as a ski trip, the band decided to take the thrifty way out by staying in beat-up Airbnbs with pipes obstructing their sleeping arrangements in the wintry domains of Calgary and Montreal, the former of which is nestled near the Eastern foothills of the Canadian Rockies. During the winters, residents and tourists skate on icebound canals and streams in public parks.
Gardner and Miller at Guster’s On the Ocean weekend in Maine (photo by Josh Frances)
It was in chilly Calgary where the band established their new sound and found a new muse in the form of Englishman Leo Abrahams, a producer hired initially for spot work on the record, who ultimately wielded his influence and production savvy on eight of the record’s nine tracks. Abrahams encouraged the group to ditch their inclination for cozy harmonies and earthy-warm songwriting for the splintery coolness that can be conjured and manipulated in a studio setting. The opening track is a perfect example of Abrahams’ vision of Guster’s next phase.
“I feel like Evermotion was 3.0; now we’re at 4.0,” says Miller.
Abrahams took an icy-cold touch and clashed it with how the members of Guster modeled their tunes. The trick of it all is how uplifting much of the album is.
Rosenworcel affirms, “Everyone was really enamored with Leo—he’s a big part of this record and is someone who takes everyone’s thoughts seriously. We haven’t always had that. We didn’t have it with [Evermotion producer] Richard Swift—rest in peace—and didn’t feel that with David Kahne [who worked with the band on Easy Wonderful]. But Leo was pushing us in directions we’d never been.”
The members of Guster trudged through the snow, across overpasses, with their heads covered in winter gear in order to get to Studio Bell, a modern recording wonderland perched approximately 145 miles north of the United States border. Walking to work past unplowed backstreets, snow crunching underfoot, wind wickedly whipping, felt like an accomplishment. And since getting there felt like the work, this made the actual work—creating music—feel all the more rewarding. Attached to the sleek Studio Bell is the Calgary’s National Music Centre, home of TONTO, the world’s largest analog synthesizer. Having those toys at Guster’s disposal gave way to perhaps the most inventive sessions of the band’s long career.
“It looked like NASA, with mainframe-type computers everywhere,” says Gardner. “There’s only three of those in the world and this is the only operating one—a lot of those sounds influenced the record. To stumble on this treasure trove of synthesizers and weird noisemakers—there’s a harpsichord from the 1400s.”
And when it came time to record, produce and mix, the cold deepened. Sonically, much of what Look Alive exudes sounds perfect on a 33-degree day.
It’s also got a song titled “Hello Mister Sun.” Again: Guster exists in dichotomies.
“If you want to get out of your comfort zone, you work with someone who has a completely different skill set,” Rosenworcel notes. “Leo came to us with an absolutely opposite approach to sonics. We would be talking about warm sounds and vintage sounds. He would be like, ‘I don’t like warm sounds; I like cold sounds. They challenge me.’ It wasn’t until we had actually finished the recording that I understood it.”
Guster’s pivot is noteworthy, if not central to the plot.
In an effort to stay fresh, the group completely ditched their approach to 2015’s Evermotion, which Miller has often proudly described as the band’s “stoner” record. Swift induced the quartet to let their guard down in those sessions and approached the production process with a casualness that brought an organic, if not slightly messy, vibe to the songs. It was a fast operation and a needed departure from their fouled-up Easy Wonderful sessions in 2008-09.
“We’re still evolving and we’re still getting better. We’re still hungry, we’re still excited and passionate about what we do,” says Gardner. “Some of our records were really difficult to make. Keep It Together was called that for a reason. Easy Wonderful was an ironic title. For me, record-making was, historically, my least favorite part of being in this band. That was not the case with the last two records.”
Miller adds, “Everybody’s feeling good and has been feeling good for a while. We had some major blowouts in the past, especially with Easy Wonderful, which almost cracked the band open—or did crack the band open. But this is our second record with Luke; we’re able to do our thing. For better or worse, we weren’t trying to write a single. We were just trying to make a cool record.”
The recording process was more of a digital and analog adventure, a journey into hi-fi, with the band also dropping back in time to record with synthesizers that almost no one uses anymore.
“Some songs, like ‘Look Alive,’ sound shiny,” Reynolds says. “Others, like ‘Hard Times,’ have a heft. When I think about the record, mostly I think about where it was recorded. We made most of it in the winter, in Canada—Alberta and Quebec—and finished it in Manhattan.”
Still proudly weird: Gardner, Miller, Reynolds, Rosenworcel (l-r) (photo by Josh Frances)
Look Alive is the densest—and shortest—album of the band’s career to date. The LP is just nine tracks and clocks in at 35 minutes and 26 seconds. Abrahams wound up being the ideal producer at this moment in Guster’s career. And even then, he was inspired by John Congleton’s work; Congleton produced the fuzzy, palm-muted “Mind Kontrol,” a curveball of a song that manages to fit into the ethos of the record’s arc.
There are two particular Look Alive elements that stand out. Not because of what’s there, but for what’s missing. The acoustic guitar, one of Guster’s two main instruments during their rise on the jam and indie circuits, is hard to discern. And Rosenworcel’s role has evolved yet again. Keep It Together marked the first time a traditional drum kit was introduced into Guster’s sound. On this album, there’s a lot of electronic backbone to the beats of the songs. Rosenworcel says that taking samples and “fake sounds” and incorporating electronic elements was crucial to the aesthetic. Certain songs needed to feel stiff, others thin.
It’s a jarring move—and some songs do have traditional drums on them—but the electronic approach tends to work on tunes like “Hard Times,” “Summertime” and “Not For Nothing.” Abrahams’ fastidious touch and Collin DuPuis’ mixes create something that pulls from the past, present and a touch of the future. At one point on “Don’t Go,” Miller even wraps their decision to seemingly only look forward into a quasi mission statement, singing, “Nostalgia she’s a shit disease/ It’s a shame to reminisce.” It’s a theme they’ve wrestled with since their earliest days, when they sang the pronounced line “Don’t fear the future” on one of their first signature songs, “Mona Lisa.”
“Shit was coming out and there were all these sounds and textures we had never heard before, but were all great,” Miller says. “Whereas Swift was like, ‘Ah, it’s cool man. Don’t worry about it.’ Leo would get in and move every molecule. We have a propensity to do this and do it too much. For him to take that on his own and come out the other side, we were like, ‘We’ve got to keep going.’”
The result is anything but predictable.
“It was magic,” Gardner says of the process. “We were like, ‘Oh damn.’ We should just do a whole record with Leo. We all really felt an instant chemistry that we haven’t felt in a long time.”
The group seems restored and happy to be back promoting and touring with a lot of new stuff to display. As the band ages, they have become more of an abnormality. Look around at the music scene and see how many guitar-bass-and-drum acts are still touring the United States annually and putting out genuinely different albums every few years and still have their core members from the very beginning. Guster is defying the odds. For Gardner, the buildup to Look Alive was a critical point in the arc of the group’s lifespan.
“This round feels more significant than any other,” Gardner says. “All right, 25 years into this thing, we all have kids and we’re all into our 40s. Are we going to keep doing this or not? To me, it felt the most palpable before this record happened. In a weird way, it didn’t put pressure on us. It was a nice, freeing choice.”
Did this band have more to say, more to create? Yes. But Gardner says they originally weren’t even sure what they were making. Would it be a record, or was it time to adjust to a new landscape and just release EPs over digital streaming services?
“It should have felt like a horrible pressure-filled situation,” Gardner reflects. “‘Well, let’s see if we come up with anything good, and if we don’t, we’re over.’ It wasn’t ever said like that, but I feel like there were elements of that. But it didn’t feel like a pressure cooker. It was out of curiosity. ‘Let’s see if we have more in us.’ We exploded with ideas right away, the first session.”
Ironically, a lot of the songs from the first big writing session are not on this LP. Even a song called “Zeno,” which the band figured would be the record’s flagship track, didn’t make the cut. It’s taken on a fatalistic quality, in fact. Miller says trying to complete the song sent him into the first full-blown depression episode of his adult life, and Reynolds was so worn out by trying to flesh out the song that he threw his back and neck out.
“I almost gave myself a heart attack working on lyrics going into it,” Reynolds confesses. “I was a total mess. I let myself totally fall apart. That song destroyed me. It debilitated Ryan. I showed up at the studio in Calgary in a back brace, having spent weeks in chiropractic work and naturopathic body work and massage therapy. I was putting myself into ‘Zeno’ and it didn’t even make the record. I couldn’t crack the code on it.”
The upshot of the “Zeno” setback was an efficient, impassioned, focused run in the studio with Abrahams and Congleton. Rosenworcel reveals that there were some “moments of drama and moments of difficulty,” like how to put the puzzle of the title track together, but the creativity involved here was a special circumstance. It all started in Vail, and things got more interesting as the months crept along.
“I feel like we’re gaming the system here,” Rosenworcel discloses. “If you’re going to get together to write songs, you may as well feel awesome. You may as well be your best self. That was a revelation because you do your best work when you have an open heart, you feel proud and you feel respect for your bandmates. And the relationships are strong. Everyone’s feeling like they want to be there. That’s what was happening this time. I don’t know why bands make worse albums and why bands break up, but I feel like a big part of a band’s success is the relationships and the communication, and everyone feeling like they’re in it for the greater good. That’s what we had this time in the writing and the recording.”
Look Alive is not bizarrely experimental, but it isn’t conventional either. In short, it’s a Guster album. The formula is to always change the formula.
This article originally appears in the January/February 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.