Guster: Keep Going

Justin Jacobs on May 24, 2024
Guster: Keep Going

photo: Alysse Gafkjen


Ryan Miller, the mustachioed singer of pop-rock act Guster, is on a quest—for an excellent salami sandwich.

It’s a sunny spring morning in St. Louis, and he’s got about eight hours before soundcheck. Miller walked off the tour bus, did some quick Googling and set out by foot to Gioia’s Deli, a haven of hot salami since 1918. He’s got miles to go —a venerable lunchtime adventure that will keep him wandering for hours.

“Honestly, this is more of a geographic exploration than a culinary one,” he says. “But I wake up in a new town every day and I need to have some sort of scavenger hunt. I’d say I spend 90% of my days on tour walking and eating. I’m a professional tourist.”

When he encounters a posh, gated community, Google Maps fails him. Miller stands on the street and evaluates his options. He can scale the fence right here, find an opening and stroll through or walk all the way around—the least direct path toward lunch. He’s 51 now—no longer the spry, young man he was when Guster formed in a dorm room in 1991. After some internal debate, he decides to attempt to sneak in through the gate; minutes later, he’s inside and back on the salami trail.

“Even at my advanced age, I totally feel like a kid,” he says with a laugh. “There’s a real ‘pinch me, I can’t believe this is my job’ element to my life right now. We’ve been at this for over 30 years, and we’ve learned what it takes to keep it going—get the vibe right on the bus, give ourselves enough days off, advocate for our own needs. But this tour is our biggest production ever. We’re five shows in, and they’re all working. We’re getting on base every single night—that’ll be the first and last of my sports metaphors.”

Guster is in the midst of their Taylor Swift-copping, We Also Have Eras concept shows, in which the four band members act out pivotal moments in their history before playing cuts from each of their nine albums. It’s the closest this famously playful, schtick-adoring band of buds has come to actual theater, complete with scripted bits and costume changes. It’s self-aware, rockand-roll-mythology building that mirrors what Guster’s impressively devoted fanbase has been doing on their own for decades— tying musical chapters to personal ones.

“If you like Guster, you’ll like this show. It’s us being our most us,” says Miller. “It’s truly the kief of Guster.”

The storytelling each evening eventually leads to Ooh La La, Guster’s ninth album and one of their best yet.

Ooh La La’s title comes from their song “Keep Going.” (The line goes, “I bought a ticket but the train didn’t stop/ Ended up walking all the way, singing ooh la la.”) And that sentiment represents the whole album well: The 10 songs capture the wonder one feels when the magic of youth shows up in adulthood. Guster created Ooh La La with just one bottom line: Do these songs make us feel something and bring some pure emotion to the surface?

The album was recorded slowly and patiently over a handful of sessions in the early days of the pandemic by a group of musicians filled with gratitude and comfortable in their own skin but unwilling to create anything less than their goosebump-raising best.

They’re chasing the feeling that’s kept them in a touring band for 33 years. Or, as Miller sings on Ooh La La’s opening track, “We are not young/ But still need fun.”


In the spirit of the We Have Eras, Too tour, it’s only fair to start from the beginning.

Future Guster members Miller, percussionist Brian Rosenworcel and singer/multi-instrumentalist Adam Gardner met as freshmen at Tufts University in Boston in 1991. Within a year, they had played their first gig, and by 1994, they’d independently released their debut, Parachute. The Boston Globe called it the year’s best local debut—rootsy, warm, catchy pop-rock.

And with 1997’s Goldfly, Guster truly carved their own piece out of the same wood that birthed acts like O.A.R., Dispatch, Dave Matthews Band and Rusted Root. Guster’s piece featured melodies that felt positive and melancholic all at once, lifted up by Miller and Gardner’s tight, gorgeous harmonies and held in place by Rosenworcel’s hand drums.

It all came together on 1999’s Lost and Gone Forever—a set of stripped-down but nothing short of anthemic pop-rock, one tough-to-forget melody after the next. Guster expanded their sound— that’s jamband icon Karl Denson playing saxophone on album favorite “Fa Fa” and Page McConnell on theremin for “All the Way Up to Heaven”—and strengthened their songwriting, launching them into the mainstream. 2003’s Keep It Together and 2006’s Ganging Up on the Sun both included radio hits and distilled their intensely melodic, easily lovable style. Guster’s golden era had begun.

But within a few years, so had their dad era.

Relaxing in a hotel lobby in St. Louis, where he is decidedly not hunting down a salami sandwich on foot, Rosenworcel explains: “We were all going through the same thing at the same time. I had the first Guster baby, but we had three children in the span of three months between us. It was almost like we were a cult. That’s when we started shifting the number of months on tour from eight to four. Life was demanding something new from us, and we went with the flow.”

That doesn’t mean Guster evolved without growing pains. They describe the making of 2010’s Easy Wonderful as anything but that. “At a certain point [while recording], we all gave up and then spent nine months doing nothing. I don’t know how close we all were to calling it quits, but we certainly weren’t feeling like a band,” Rosenworcel says.

He notes that the group’s breakdown marks the end of We Also Have Eras first act, where the band “goes full-on Broadway, and we don’t look back.”

After trudging through the creation of Easy Wonderful, Guster climbed back onto the road and felt the ice between them begin to melt. Their anxiety could’ve led to a rupture. “But instead, we walked on the tour bus as sleepless dads,” the drummer says. “And we looked at each other and just knew: ‘We’re in this forever.’”


When bands no longer feel they have to prove themselves, many fall into stasis. They can sell tickets and pay bills, and that’s enough. Maybe they’re creating new music because they can, not because they must. If they’re really far along on the hungry-versus-nostalgic spectrum, then they simply fall back on their better days. For Guster, that would make for a one-way relationship with their fans.

“I’d go see Steve Miller Band this summer, but I also know they’ll play the same setlist from now until eternity,” Miller says. “For us, we want to honor how much the music means to people, but also keep us feeling revitalized as musicians going forward. That’s a hard thing to do after a few decades.”

With multi-instrumentalist Luke Reynolds on board since 2010, Guster has remained, to quote Rosenworcel, “stoked about being in this band.”

For their 2019 album Look Alive, that excitement manifested as a full reimagining of Guster’s sound. Their trademark organic, pulsing guitar tones were put aside, replaced by icy synthesizers, drum machines and even fake British accents.

“We had this idea that every Guster album must push the wall further and further. But that mentality ended [with Look Alive]. This time, our relationships were key to our creativity: the ability to call each other out from a place of love and respect,” Rosenworcel says.

Then came COVID. By late 2020, the members of Guster were antsy; lockdown kept these brother-friends apart. They had a handful of demos already in the bank, and the energy to bring them to life. And they knew Josh Kaufman was the man for the job.


Kaufman has become an indie-rock Swiss Army Knife in the last decade. He’s produced The Hold Steady and Josh Ritter; he plays and writes songs in Bonny Light Horseman and he’s joined Taylor Swift, The National, The War on Drugs and more as a guitarist, pianist and bassist. But he’s less versatile when it comes to his mission. He’s not interested in adding noise because it sounds cool. Kaufman wants to find the emotional core of a song. Over the course of the five studio sessions that led to Ooh La La throughout 2021, that wasn’t a simple task.

“I feel bad for Josh,” Rosenworcel says with a laugh. “We told him we had songs ready. But most were just ideas—some had no choruses. He had to do a lot of heavy lifting.”

The producer wasn’t fazed; more so, he was tickled. Here were four guys—three of whom were college buddies—approaching their ninth album with radical honesty and a blank slate.

Guster’s unorthodox songwriting approach allowed the whole team to fill in the slate, bit by bit. For years, the band has built songs by jamming and picking out melodies they like—then adding instrumental layers. The lyrics almost always come dead last. That method was a quick fit for Kaufman.

“For better or worse, we’re a melody-first band,” Miller says. “David Byrne would famously just ‘blah blah blah’ over a melody, locking in the rhythm before the lyrics. That’s what we do. Then it becomes the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle, finding the words that fit. But I search for what the song is calling for. What does this song feel like?”

Thankfully, the members of Guster are not precious as they transform a single idea into a fully realized track. During their upstate New York studio sessions, Kaufman watched the old friends “critique each other in real time, when an idea wasn’t fully baked yet.” Still sounding genuinely amused three years later, he adds, “One of them plays two measures; another says, ‘That’s too this, make it more that.’ They never get butt hurt about any of it because they’re big boys. So many years and albums have worn them down to being honest, direct and loving.”

Ooh La La’s 10 tracks—two of which were recorded during additional studio sessions with Bruce Springsteen producer and past Guster collaborator Ron Aniello— are indeed honest, direct and loving. Miller says he wanted the album to sound “like I’m sitting next to you, singing right to you.”

Though it shouldn’t be a surprise after this many releases, Miller’s lyrics all match the emotional core of the music—pieces clicked right into place. “Keep Going” feels like a meditation, boasting some twinkling guitar and a slowly unfolding bass part, with Miller singing, “Well the world brought us here/ If we let it now all good things reappear.” Then, he chants the chorus: “It’s OK I’m alright/ Keep going/ To the light.”

For the trippy, elastic-bass cut “Gauguin, Cézanne (Everlasting Love),” Miller sings a tale: “We found acid on the museum lawn/ Waited an hour till the feelings came on/ The girl at the gate said: ‘Sir, is there something wrong?’” By the chorus, he is searching for “a moment of everlasting love.”

Miller heard the dreamy, warm, spring melody of “All Day” and wrote a love song about his lasting devotion to his wife: “We laid our hands in mud and made bricks for a temple/ Wrote our names in the clay.”

And, of course, there is Miller’s “We are not young/ But still need fun” line in the sweet, swirling piano-led “This Heart Is Occupied.”

“I’ve never really credited that line with having a meta side, but really it’s our driving ethos,” Rosenworcel says. “I know that line will resonate with adults; it’s at the core of the adult experience. Am I looking to the past with resentment or yearning? Or am I present here and now? I can say: Guster is here because we are having a blast.”

If Ooh La La is to be summed up by one song, then it could be acoustic closer “Maybe We’re Alright.” All the ingredients are there—a sad-but-hopeful melody, a “bah ba-ba-ba-bah” refrain, Rosenworcel back on bongos, gorgeous harmonies and Miller’s most in-character lyrics.

“Maybe we’re alright,” he sings. “We’re just one day older/ Surprise, surprise.”

Miller is still a few miles from his salami sandwich. He’s trekked through that gated neighborhood and into a park, where leaves are beginning to return to the trees.

“Wonder and curiosity, that’s a motif in our songs. There’s a ‘keep going’ message in there,” he says, self-awareness creeping in. “But if music is where we find solace, where we take refuge, then these songs are our homes. So when we make music, I’m thinking: ‘What kind of place do I want to live in?’”

He takes another moment to reflect on “Maybe We’re Alright.”

“Amidst the overwhelming-ness of everything, my mantra as a husband, a father, a band member is simple: This is it. What other choice do we have?”