Reel Time: Guster
“It’s still so weird to me that an album is now almost a formality in the process of just releasing tracks, and that content is foremost, but I’m getting used to it,” Guster drummer Brian Rosenworcel admits on an early February day while working on the group’s eighth full-length LP. “We used to be the kind of band who said, ‘We wrote ‘Fa Fa,’ let’s go fucking play it.’” And now, when we write songs, they’re theoretical ideas and we declare them a song when we have melodies and an arrangement that feels like it’s going to work. It’s a studio-focused approach to declaring something as finished.”
Rosenworcel has recently returned home to Brooklyn and is currently in “birthday-party mode” with his kids after Guster spent the first part of the winter recording with producers Leo Abraham and John Congleton during separate sessions in Canada and California. Though Guster—Rosenworcel, Ryan Miller, Adam Gardner and Luke Reynolds, who entered the fold in 2010—have been quietly working on new material for a while, the drummer has shied away from documenting the proceedings through the studio journal entries he traditionally posts on the group’s website. “I just follow my gut on that. It doesn’t come from a place of being disappointed—it actually comes from the opposite place of wanting to make music and surprise people with it.”
A few friends have stopped by to lend a hand—and Rosenworcel borrowed some instruments from in-demand LA producer and musician Jonathan Wilson—but, for the most part, the sessions have been insular. And while tracking with stoner-rock wizard Richard Swift for their previous release, 2015’s Evermotion, taught the members of Guster that finishing an album could take days instead of years, Rosenworcel hints that their latest batch of material is among their most produced yet. “We have 10 songs recorded, one waiting in the wings, and we are about to record two more songs with Leo and one with Sam Cohen in New York,” the drummer says, hinting that the Cohen session may be released as a B-side. “We’ll see if what we have so far adds up to an album and then, we might start mixing. We’re taking stock, but I really think we might finish this up, start releasing songs and have an album ready this year.”
THE GREAT WHITE NORTH
At the end of last year, we spent 11-12 days in Calgary with Leo Abraham. He’s British, but we had to meet him in Canada because it’s really hard to get into our country these days. Luke found Studio Bell, which is this government-funded museum in downtown Calgary, and we’re one of the first bands to record there with full access to their insane collection of vintage keyboards. It’s floors upon floors of incredible gear—old and new. We didn’t have time to get through everything, but it’s heaven for a certain kind of band. And then, in January, we went to Montreal for about nine days with Leo. All told, we did seven or eight songs with Leo and [a few weeks later] we did three songs in six days with John Congleton.
It was a conscious choice to work with different producers this time, whereas, in the past, we’ve always gone with one producer and then, maybe, brought someone in at the end to do some extra songs. With three or four years between albums, there are so many people we’re excited to work with—we decided to split it up and see what we got. We’d been talking to people, trying to figure out who they liked working with. Regina Spektor gave Leo a ringing endorsement, and hearing his solo stuff, which is pretty undiscovered, got us really excited. He’s been Brian Eno’s guitar player and toured with Pulp, and the way he approaches sonics and keyboards was really appealing to us. He’s really outside of our box.
A SHOCK TO THE SYSTEM
Leo and John have really similar aesthetics, so the songs can blend seamlessly on an album, but their process getting there couldn’t be more different. So it was a bit of a shock to the system to get in there with Congleton. Both of these guys are going to create a recording that doesn’t sound like Guster’s ever sounded in the past and, at this point, that’s what we’re looking for. Luke’s friend Jenny O. sang on one song we did in LA. I hope we can fix it up because it’s so close to being amazing—a perfect album closer. And Jon Natchez, this horn guru who plays in The War on Drugs, added some parts.
We wrote during these successful two- and three-day chunks about once every month or two. But instead of my basement in Brooklyn, where we wrote Evermotion, we’d rent someone’s studio in a cool neighborhood somewhere random, or we’d go out a few days before a show to work. We even took a ski gig in Vail and said, “You need to hook us up in the Four Seasons conference room.” We were in a carpeted ballroom in the Four Seasons for a week with all of our instruments set up, just working, and came up with three awesome songs.
It was a big bonus to have Luke as a fundamental part of the writing process. He wrote Evermotion with us, but we hit a new level with him. Every time, I worry, “This will be the time that the songs don’t come, and that’s OK because we had a good run,” but that didn’t happen. In fact, we got to the place I was hoping we’d get to very easily. We even wrote a song during soundcheck in Rochester in January and recorded it the next week with Leo—it’s one of our favorites. Usually, we write something and it takes us a year and a half before we can finally record it. The only song we recorded immediately after we wrote it is “I Spy” off Lost and Gone Forever.
HOW IS THIS GUSTER?
This is a studio record. A lot of the marathon recording sessions we’ve had in the past have been completely unnecessary and working with [Richard Swift] showed us that. That being said, this has been nothing like working with Swift: Leo has a crazy work ethic and really dots his “I’s and crosses his “T’s.” Every Guster record is a bit of a reaction against the last one, so this is gonna sound like a studio record, with the exception that working with John Congleton was very Swift-like.
I wish the lyrics were done earlier in the process because that always ends up stinging us at the end but, we got there. We played a couple of new ones at a few shows in January, mainly to force ourselves to hunker down and figure ways to work them out live, and we wanted people to get excited about the new material. The type of band we are now, when we finish a song, we’re like, “How the fuck do we play this one?” Every time we make an album, I feel like peoples’ reaction is: “How is this Guster?” and we’re more than OK with that. It’s actually what keeps us going. But how we do these songs live may require a lot of hands on deck—we gotta get [drummer and jam-scene mainstay] Dave Butler back in the band. I’m so crazy excited about this stuff. Every album, we jump a level and I feel like, this album, we jumped four levels.
This article originally appears in the April/May 2018 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.