Guster: The Pains of Being Pop at Heart

Mike Greenhaus on April 2, 2015

Photo: Zoe-Ruth Erwin

Ryan Miller has found another high-functioning weirdo. At the moment, his subject is hunched over a crowded countertop, slicing a fat avocado with artistic precision that gives a whole new meaning to the term “slow-food movement.” It’s a snowy December day about a month before the release of Evermotion—Guster’s seventh and first partially fan-funded full-length—and the affable, curly-haired frontman is parked in a booth at Four Corners of the Earth, a Burlington, Vt., sandwich shop that he describes as more of an art space than a restaurant.

There’s technically a menu etched over the counter but unless you understand hieroglyphics, Miller suggests warning the chef about your dietary restrictions. A few years ago, Four Corners traded him a lifetime supply of free sandwiches to play a benefit for the Slovak women’s national ice hockey team with Phish key- boardist Page McConnell and local guitarist Bob Wagner, but he usually ends up feeling bad and leaving a bigger tip than his meal would have actually cost. In other words, it is the perfect place for an expat New Yorker with an artisanal, hipster palate to have a Waiting For Godot experience.

“After living in New York for so long and subsisting on this very elitist diet of what I listened to and how I got my music, I moved to Vermont and met all these new people and thought, ‘Oh, wait, you still like our band?’” Miller says while doing an admirable job of keeping his overstuffed traif sandwich out of his somewhat woolly and very Vermont beard. “I felt like I went out into the world and realized how many people between the ages of 25 and 37 had probably seen our band, or at least heard of us.”

In 2010, a decade after the members of Guster collectively relocated to New York from Boston, Miller gave into his wife and moved his family to a small community just outside Burlington. After drowning his sorrows with constant trips back to New York, Miller eventually gave up his Brooklyn apart- ment and started channeling his creative energy—and geographic frustrations—into his own PBS Web series, Makin’ Friends with Ryan Miller, during which he scours the Green Mountain State with a camera crew and catchy theme song in search of the aforementioned high-functioning weirdos. (So far, his case subjects have included wild crafters, artisans and a range of mad scientists.)

Ostensibly, Miller has carved out some time before picking up his kids after school to talk about Evermotion, a beautiful, spacey indie-pop album that is somehow both Guster’s most ragged and experimental release and producer Richard Swift’s most polished and radio-friendly effort. But as is often the case when Miller or his bandmates—singer/guitarist-turned-multi-instrumentalist Adam Gardner, percussionist-turned-drummer Brian Rosenworcel and Blue Merle-frontman-turned-Guster-newcomer Luke Reynolds— are on a tear, the conversation quickly shifts to larger issues facing the music industry, especially the filters through which young fans get their music.

And it’s for good reason. Despite existing somewhat on the fringe of the mainstream since shortly after they formed in the early 1990s—they were both a major-label band that made their mark through grassroots barnstorming, and a pop group that had the instrumentation of a ‘60s folk band—the members of Guster actually presaged a world where bands made their money through touring and interactive fan experiences at the height of the ‘90s alt-rock label boom. These days, Guster are one of the only groups in the pop landscape to pass the 20-year mark with their original lineup intact while somehow avoiding a dreaded hiatus. They have also hovered within the boundaries of the now-widely accepted Venn diagram of indie-rock, pop and jam since long before music promoters started discussing the importance of eclecticism on South by Southwest panels.

“Having a legacy is a blessing and a curse,” Miller says earnestly. “Everybody seems to have a story about our band, which I don’t say glibly. I think one of the amazing things about our band is that we were there back then and we’re still here now, but I don’t want to be a nostalgia act. That’s where you get tripped-out because I can’t control that. We’re never going to transcend certain things. All I can do is make a really great record.”

“Ryan is very sensitive about feeling current, but we’re a 22-year-old college band,” Rosenworcel points out over a few beers and a particularly salty bowl of popcorn at one of the last charming dive bars in New York’s East Village. The slim, well-kempt drummer— who used to tape his hands and use them as sticks while manically working out his percussion rig—is in the midst of one of his favorite games, a form of charades that traces a range of hipster-cool musicians back to their humble jamband roots.

“To me, and what I say to Ryan in that moment of insecurity is: ‘This is the only vector that matters.’ I don’t care if anyone hears our new record,” he admits. “We need to see what’s next because we are still honing in on a classic record, a classic song. Our legacy will be defined by the songs on this record—not just ‘Satellite’ and not just Lost and Gone Forever and things that we had previously considered peaks. The peaks are still to come.”

Rosenworcel, a proud minivan owner who lives with his psychiatrist wife and three young children in the Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn, is the original band’s last New York holdout. (Reynolds, who came onboard in 2010, is still in the area, while Gardner, who Miller describes as a “slumlord of Park Slope,” rents out his apartment and lives in Portland, Maine.) Long before social media helped celebrities vacation as normal people and normal people feel like celebrities, the now 41-year-old drummer offered poignant, often hilarious peeks into the group’s backstage world through Guster’s online road journal.

Leading up to Evermotion‘s release, the band brought their fans even deeper into their inner sanctum through a series of experiential PledgeMusic incentives. They ranged from a bike ride with Reynolds to a private DJ set where Miller would dress up as a Passedoutwooks. net-era Chewbacca, as well as an elegantly named “Shit Your Pants with Guster” skydiving package. For $150,000, they’d even buy you a Tesla (plus a digital copy of the album). A few months ago, Rosenworcel joined some fans who raised $600 for an enjoyable evening of sake and karaoke in New York’s Koreatown. The night ended with the band being $25 in the red and Rosenworcel hunched over a sink, removing his son’s toy boat so that he could puke.

Gardner points out that, though the band set aside touring money to self-fund their next album, they talked to different labels. They ultimately decided to partner with Nettwerk, the same company that oversees the management aspects of their career, while also revving up for Evermotion’s release through PledgeMusic.

“We started from the middle-aged question of, ‘Do we like what we’re doing?’ and there was a renewed commitment to it,” Gardner says of the initial Evermotion conversations. “There was vitality after a period of static nothingness and questioning—‘I don’t know, what are we doing?’ So to me, the album was already a success from the moment we decided we were making it because it kept the band together. I didn’t care how it came out or if it came out—who liked it or who didn’t like it. We liked it. And that mattered more than ever this time.”

Dressed in a North Face jacket and collared shirt, Gardner is in the midst of a quick New York trip to play a variety-show benefit with Guster for The Ally Coalition, a non-profit that works toward LGBTQ equality. Mostly due to his muscular build and slightly preppy fashion sense, Gardner is often considered the band’s jock, but as Miller says, he’s also a “total weirdo” that’s quite a bit funnier than he gets credit for. Of all Guster’s members, Gardner has the deepest professional ties outside the traditional entertainment world. In 2004, along with his environmentalist wife, he founded Reverb, an organization that aims to educate and engage musicians and their fans to promote environmental sustainability. (Reverb has greened tours for artists ranging from Willie Nelson to Maroon 5 and John Mayer, and has blossomed into a major player in the festival space.) Gardner remains active with Reverb when he’s on the road with Guster, and at home, he works out of the non-profit’s office. He recently returned from a Reverb retreat and casually mentions that he gave fun. guitarist Jack Antonoff, The Ally Coalition’s co-founder, some advice when he started the organization. (In another Kevin Bacon-like moment, fun. actually signed with Guster’s longtime manager Dalton Sim after he saw their lead singer Nate Ruess open for Guster in New York, and Miller is slated to appear on Ruess’ upcoming solo album.)

The New York holiday season is in full swing and, wandering through Midtown Manhattan to a Thai restaurant, Gardner mentions that he and his wife have joked about starting a side business where they lug Christmas trees down from Maine to sell on the street when he comes to town for band practice. He already has another trip to the Big Apple booked with his Hanukkah-themed rock band The LeeVees, whose only album was produced by Peter Katis and was a major hit on the Judaica-store circuit. (Katis’ résumé reads like the Rosetta Stone of modern indie, thanks to credits like The National, Interpol, Jónsi, Trey Anastasio and The Swell Season.)

“For the first time, we really looked into each other’s eyes and said, ‘Alright, dude, we’re 40!’ We’ve been in this band longer than we haven’t,” Gardner says. “I’ve known those guys more than half my life, and I think it was one of those real question marks: ‘Do we want to keep going?’” He pauses and emphasizes a key phrase, “Do we want to? We were actually getting along better than ever and nobody was coming to grips with each other, but we’ve seen a lot of bands reach this point and go on cruise control. We didn’t want to be that band and we didn’t want to ride it out, ride it into the ground.”

Miller, Gardner and Rosenworcel met during a pre-orientation trip at Tufts University in 1991 and had already formed Guster before their first summer vacation. During their earliest days, the three musicians busked in Harvard Square and focused on Boston’s college and coffeehouse scene. At a time when the indie- rock world was reserved for pasty-skinned record-store clerks, and the live music and festival circuits were dominated by jambands, Guster earned a reputation as “the jamband who doesn’t jam,” making a home for themselves at the New York hippie-rock incubator Wetlands and scoring dates with Phil Lesh, Widespread Panic, Bob Dylan, moe., Galactic and many others. They released their first two records, 1994’s Parachute and 1997’s Goldfly, independently, but signed with Sire in time for 1999’s breakthrough, Steve Lillywhite-produced Lost and Gone Forever. With the Internet still in its infancy, they set up a team of fan “reps” to sell their independent albums and distributed their music through the AWARE network, which unfairly lumped them in with bland pop acts like early John Mayer and Train.

“There’s still a common misperception that we’re a jamband when really we just tour a lot,” Rosenworcel says while making sure to point out that both he and Gardner played in Grateful Dead cover bands in high school, and that Connecticut improvisational heroes Max Creek were his band growing up. (Miller’s teenage band covered Depeche Mode and The Smiths, but he still cops to seeing his share of Phish shows.) “It’s not based on the music as much as it’s based on our business. I love that the Dead have this cool hipster cache now. It feels like justice.”

Limited by their musical abilities, Guster’s initial instrumentation consisted solely of two acoustic guitars, a bongo and a pair of interweaving harmonies. Gradually, they baked electric guitars and an expanded percussion setup into their sound, and after Lost and Gone Forever, they opened the floodgates completely by mixing in bass, keyboards, studio toys and, most surprisingly, a traditional drum kit on 2003’s Keep It Together. Unable to pull off their latest batch of songs live, they enlisted the help of Joe Pisapia, a Nashville, Tenn.-based multi-instrumentalist and producer with a flair for Americana music, who functioned as something of the band’s Gram Parsons.

Gardner notes that they were men without a country in the time before bands like The Shins had formed. “We used to write by going into a cave for three months and coming out with the songs, and we would spend three to six months recording an album.”

Pisapia also helped guide the group through 2006’s Ganging Up on the Sun and 2010’s Easy Wonderful before leaving to work with k.d. Lang and Ben Folds Five. The 35-year-old Luke Reynolds, who happened to share studio space with them in 2003, signed on as his replacement.

Though it took the members of Guster time to get comfortable with their instruments, their lyrics were already advanced, tackling suicide, failed relationships and religion but masking those difficult themes in upbeat music, sarcastic stage banter and funny onstage hijinks. “You need the light and the dark to keep those pop songs from floating away, which is something I learned early on by accident,” says Miller, who would make a great comedic podcast host in another life. “I want to make a weird dance record like Robyn—‘Call Your Girlfriend’ is a twisted pop song, lyrically, if you dig into it. That’s what I loved about Phish, too their sense of humor and how free and fearless they were. They weren’t sitting there thinking about what was cool.”

While Rosenworcel sincerely says that a Guster Behind The Music would be the series’ most boring episode and that he’s “never had an addictive personality, except for fantasy sports,” the group has gone through its paces. As they’ve advanced, Guster has adapted their sound to include modern-indie flourishes and light electronics while keeping their focus on melody and songcraft. The first halves of their albums spawned memorable radio favorites like “Fa Fa,” “Satellite” and “Do You Love Me,” which Rosenworcel says his friend recently heard while shopping at Marshalls. But the band has balanced their singles with deep back-halves that incorporate elements of Talking Heads, Wilco, R.E.M., Fleetwood Mac and Yo La Tengo. “What we’re worshipping is infiltrating what we’re writing,” the drummer says, pointing to the Band-like feeling on 2006’s “Hang On.”

Other changes were less subtle. “Adam was our lead singer,” Rosenworcel says of the band’s early records. “That transition from Adam to Ryan just evolved that way. While not something we were cognizant of, it was one of the hardest things for us because Adam had to accept being a role player. He had to scratch his ego in a different way, and I think on Keep It Together, some of his guitar substituted for being a lead singer. ‘Ramona’ and ‘Homecoming King’ are the fucking coolest shit he’s ever done.”

Throughout their journey, Guster continued to ignite new, passionate music fans and, perhaps because their rep program functioned as something of a summer camp for teenagers with music industry aspirations, their most passionate supporters went on to help manage divergent acts like Animal

Collective, Regina Spektor and Tom Petty— and to have a major hand in tastemaking indie-promoters Bowery Presents. Bringing things full circle, they recently added Noah Chernin, a longtime fan who first reached out to the band at the tender age of 14, to their management team. Rosenworcel says they initially connected through fan emails, bonded over Pavement when Chernin was in college and, in 2004, the drummer produced his blog-band Sam Champion.

Likewise, celebrity entertainers such as Katy Perry, Adam Levine, Kesha and Lena Duhnam have all outed themselves as old-school Guster fans, mostly through Twitter. “Kesha used to email me and I would sneak her into shows,” Rosenworcel says. “Her email address was [email protected]”’

Though Guster have notoriously labored over their albums for months at a time, recording Easy Wonderful was particularly difficult. Their original producer, David Kahne, turned out to be a bad fit, and the group opted to finish the record them- selves. While the album features some memorable hooks and the band’s signature themes, Easy Wonderful’s biggest-sounding pop songs felt out of place next to both the day’s radio bangers and the current hipster DIY ethos. The album sold well but, for the first time, Guster were confronted with an aging audience.

“When we were recording the first half of Easy Wonderful, Joe basically said, ‘I don’t want to be in this band where you overthink everything,’” Miller says. “‘It sucks. It’s soul-sucking.’”

Though Miller had already dipped his toes into the film-composing world before Easy Wonderful, shortly after its release, he stumbled into a parallel career when a Vermont connection led him to scoring Colin Trevorrow’s Sundance hit Safety Not Guaranteed. The film’s success secured him gigs on other indies like In A World… and The Kings of Summer. (When Trevorrow agreed to direct the upcoming Jurassic Park reboot, Miller asked if he could score that movie, too. But the director went with John Williams.)

“Guster’s been a band forever and we’ve always had momentum. It’s always been our first gig—everybody’s first priority—so for the first time, it felt like the band was in second gear,” Miller admits. “I thought, ‘Why am I doing this?’ It kind of just happens every time— our band has kind of broken up and reformed after the last couple records because you’ve got to figure out what you’re doing and why. That’s the Sisyphean task ahead of you.”

“We’re just a bunch of neurotic Jews overthinking all this shit,” Gardner says with a laugh. “It’s music—it’s supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to be from the gut.”

While Guster’s members were being pulled in different directions, the band continued to move the needle creatively, most notably through a B-side-heavy acoustic tour that included collaborations with comedian Jeff Garlin in 2012. (A choice quip from Rosenworcel: “[Jeff] Tweedy came to one of our shows with Garlin in Chicago. I saw him watching sidestage when we opened with ‘Backyard,’ and then, when I turned around after the song was over, he was gone. Why did we have to open with ‘Backyard?’”) Rosenworcel and Miller had a heartfelt talk to decide if they wanted to put the band on ice before making Easy Wonderful. When the time came to think about another record, Rosenworcel says the conversation “was even darker.”

“Some people aren’t going to listen to a Guster record, no matter what kind of record we make,” Miller says. “We all started having our second kids—there’s this family pressure—and the film scoring thing allowed me to stay home and still make music. It was something I could do until I was 70. At the same time, with Guster, we didn’t know how to move forward. I was weighing these two things and looking to choose. In the film world, there’s no glass ceiling, and in the Guster world, I felt, ‘How were we ever going to get out of this box? Are we a nostalgia band? Do we have anything left to say?’ Those demons didn’t exist in the film world. I shifted toward a place that felt more open, free and wild.”

Easy Wonderful was an ironic title. We reclaimed the album, but we were completely disempowered and lost all confidence. We didn’t feel like fighting this fight,” Gardner says. “There was a long period of wondering. There was a lot of discussion and saying to ourselves, ‘Do we care anymore? We think we do but does anyone else? Are we relevant? Who gives a shit?’”

Eventually, Guster decided to leave it up to the music. In late 2012 and 2013, they got their creative juices flowing through a series of quick, monthly writing sessions in Rosenworcel’s basement. The vibe was intentionally loose—Gardner says nobody did their home- work—and Reynolds’ youthful enthusiasm was inspiring and helped goose the band along.

“Brian, Luke and I, especially, love new, textured music,” Miller says. “The songs were in that vein. I had this mental shift: I needed to concentrate on making a super rad record and not trip out about what happens after the record comes out. I can’t control any of that.”

Through Miller’s friend and former Shins keyboardist Eric D. Johnson, the band got in touch with their dream collaborator: experimental producer and current Shins keyboardist Richard Swift, whose work on Foxygen’s We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic was retro-psych’s most recent Trojan horse. They flew out to his Oregon-based studio in early 2014 and knocked out an album’s worth of sessions in three weeks. Swift had never spent more than two weeks on an album, a far cry from the band’s usual approach. Then, Phil Ek, who has helped sweeten records by Band Of Horses, Modest Mouse and others, mixed the album.

“It felt super uncomfortable—really scary—and intellectually, we knew that was what we needed to make a cool record,” Miller says.

“Swift’s high around the clock,” Rosenworcel adds. “He doesn’t get caught up in the minutiae that Guster does, so the record’s raw, more real.”

Much like Brian Eno’s work with Talking Heads, Swift added his distinctive fingerprints to the tracks, but there are traditional Guster songs buried beneath those spacey effects. The results place the group on the crest of the modern psych-pop wave. The opening number, “Long Night,” features one of Gardner’s adventurous “lead-singer” guitar parts, while “Simple Machine” marries an electro-charged acid freak-out with a future yearbook quote.

There is space throughout songs like the Pink-Floyd-inspired “Expectation.” On “Endlessly,” Miller’s voice floats over a synthesizer jam and a grandiose, Bon Iver landscape. “Doin’ It by Myself” is anchored by a ‘70s-funk bass line, while Reynolds started toying with the more traditional “Gangway” on the band’s bus at Red Rocks. A sharp departure from the group’s early days, Miller barely plays guitar on the record, and he’s currently considering how to work a keytar into his live set. As Gardner says, “It’s our stoner record.”

“Mike Denneen, who made our first record, said to us really early: ‘You’re lucky you write pop songs,’” Miller offers. “I didn’t get it until recently. Maybe the textures have changed a little bit, and the tempos, but melody wins every time.”

Guster have grown up in front of their fans and, as they’ve matured musically and experienced the ups and downs of life, a new, natural weight has emerged in their songs. The quartet’s relatability has remained one of their secret weapons and easiest access points. It’s a thread that’s continued as Guster’s principal members have evolved from college friends to elder statesmen in the organic-pop world. Miller’s wry wit and warm personality still come through as he recounts his PBS show experiences, but so does his current life perspective. Due to his film work, he spends a few months every year in LA, where he’s seen his music’s reach. He mentions a recent Vice article where the author says he lost interest in the group when his Guster poster fell off his wall freshman year.

“People love a comeback story in Hollywood and I don’t know if that’s the case in music,” he says. “I am confident enough now that I can meet a writer from Pitchfork and know he’s not smarter than me. He doesn’t know more than me. I’m not embarrassed to send my record to Lucius, Sharon Van Etten or Lena Dunham.”

Miller can put his money where his mouth is, too: Shortly before Evermotion’s release, he sang with Lucius in Vermont, worked on a song with Van Etten and watched Dunham sit on the floor and mouth the words to “Satellite” during that Ally Coalition benefit. (Likewise, Miller says Rosenworcel likes to drop his wife’s psychology terminology when he’s forced to talk with particularly ill-prepared journalists.)

“Guster was a gateway drug for cooler music,” he says. “I appreciate that, but the one thing I want to do is make sure that those people know that it’s possible they can come back around, sonically. If you put The War on Drugs record and Evermotion in brown paper bags next to each other, they are just two weird, cool albums.”

“There are lots of people who loved Parachute who are excited for Evermotion and there are also people who miss the bongos,” Rosenworcel says. “I’ve lost the passion for some of my favorite bands like Wilco or Yo La Tengo. It’s hard to recapture that feeling when you first got hooked. I’m always surprised, when we write an album, that we still have it. I expect, one day, we’ll go in there and none of the ideas are good enough and it’s over, but we’re still good at writing melodies and that’s what carries the songs.”

Gardner sees Evermotion as the first album in the start of a new stylistic trilogy: “Lost and Gone Forever marked the end of the first trilogy—we actually nailed what we did live in the studio and there was a natural progression throughout the next three albums.”

But Miller sees it slightly differently: “I can see us making records every three or four years while still doing our other shit, too. We are confident that we made this really fucking cool record, so even if it doesn’t totally ‘set the world on fire,’ we’ll find a way to make another record.”

Though Gardner says their upcoming tour will mark the first time that their kids are old enough to really feel their absences, Guster are about to embark on an extended journey that will include everything from their first true European run to a coveted NPR spot. There isn’t a shortage of original ideas either. Their album rollout included a surprise set near a dumpster in Portland, Ore., when a journalist didn’t show, a selection of fan-assisted “trilogy one” songs at the W Hotel in Washington, D.C., and a Colorado “pot jam” where they, well, smoked weed and jammed with fans.To mark Evermotion’s release, Boston’s mayor even proclaimed January 14 as Guster Day.

“We’re just four weird dudes who went to college and had families who loved us,” Miller sums up. “All of our parents are still together. We’re not playing in the fringes—we’re not making art rock—but we’re trying to make pop music that, at least in the context of what we are, keeps pushing us a little bit more. I think we’ve developed into way more interesting people.”