0
Posted July 21, 2015 by Jeff in Tunes
 
 

Guster: Definitive breaks and stoner grooves

Guster
Guster

Once a fairly straightforward pop band, Guster goes in a different direction with its most recent album Evermotion. Produced by Richard Swift (Shins/Black Keys), it featuers Guster’s “most layered arrangments and wild instrumental experimentation.” TIME hailed the sonic evolution of “frantic beats and crawling synthesizers,” and Vice’s Noisey praised the “dark edge and brooding sense of romance.” You could call it the band’s foray into stoner rock territory. Singer-guitarist Ryan Miller spoke to us via phone from his Vermont home.

Is it true you met at a “wilderness orientation”?
Well, yeah, when we were at the first day of school. I think it’s a liberal arts thing. They ease you into the first day by taking you into the woods to be free or something. We did meet there. Now look at me.

Was it the case that you all had really good senses of humor from Day One?
I don’t know. We’re all funny in our own ways. I’m sure that was a part of it. I don’t think I have any friends who don’t have a good sense of humor. I traffic in that 95 percent of the time — sarcasm and irony.

How significant was it that you changed the band’s name from Gus to Guster?
Not very. It felt monumental at the time because we had already put out a record. A name change can do a lot of damage. But that was in 1994 so there’s a lot of water and a lot of bridges since then.

Were the ‘90s a good time to be an up-and-coming band?
I don’t know. It’s incredibly different. What’s happening now is that there’s a huge democratization of recording equipment. Before, you didn’t have the option to make a record in someone’s dorm room or basement. The cheapest record we could have made was 10 grand. You had to get a distribution deal. There weren’t a lot of indie labels back then, especially for what we were doing. Now, you can put anything up anywhere and people can get it two seconds later. I don’t look at the ‘90s wistfully. It makes me laugh when people think of us a ’90s band since we were more active in the last 15 years than we were in the first five years. We certainly came up then. Our first record of any real note happened in ’99. We were coming up during that phase when Semisonic was on the radio. We got signed and were in the major label system after that. We take a lot of time between records, but we’re still chugging along and playing the places where we would have played ten years ago. Ticket sales are the only thing that feel like a real barometer for the band. They’ve been consistent for the past ten years.

You can’t base anything on record sales.
Not at all. Billboard has moved to now count streaming and Pandora and YouTube plays so maybe that is something. I guess that is useful data, but I’ve never even seen that data for our band. Needless to say, it hasn’t been a huge part of defining who we are.

Talk about this album. What were you going for as you started to write songs?
Every time out and this time in particular, I have used the metaphor of breaking a bone to reset it. This one felt as definitive of a break as any. We had a new band member writing for the first time. We were using textures we hadn’t used before.  We have spacier grooves that weren’t part of the last records and were totally absent on the first records. Groove wasn’t even a word in our lexicon back then. I use the phrase stoner record a few times. I think that to me is when you can lost in a groove independent of the intricacy of a lyric. The producer choice was very different. I don’t want to use the term lo-fi, but it was a much more austere environment and we recorded at a quicker pace. We recorded it in three weeks and we used a guy with no engineer. That was what we were going for. This is the first producer we worked at whose pace we really trusted. We had great relationships with other producers but Richard was an artist. Someone like [producer] Steve Lillywhite might be more diplomatic. He could see the good in everything.  But Richard would just be like, “No. That’s stupid.” That’s cool. We liked that.

Did you know what you wanted to do before hooking up with Richard Swift?
I think we did in a way. His records hang together in an aesthetic clump. The Damien Jurado records and the Mynabirds records are all in a family. It was what we were writing to. It came out and doesn’t seem like an outlayer in his world. It feels like a Swift record, in a great way. We kind of new we wanted to go in that direction and we recorded 14 songs in three weeks. There’s not a lot of exploration. We were careful in rehearsal and writing to finish and polish everything.

We left some room for spontaneity in the studio. That definitely happened.

“Simple Machine” is pretty heavy with synthesizers. Talk about what you were going for with that tune.
When we wrote that song we had a more organic treatment with a bass and an acoustic guitar. There was a little bit of keyboard stuff. When we were at Swift’s, I pulled up a synth I had in my computer. We tried it and it scared us at the beginning. That’s a place we wanted to be in. We wanted to be a little in fear. Part of the reason that I’m still having this conversation 20-something years on is that we’ve hanged who we are. It’s not for the sake of change. Hopefully in service of the song. When people ask me what kind of band we are, I tell them that we’re kind of a pop band. We try to write songs that will last more than a year or two and we try to make records that will hold up ten years later. We have had some synths in our basement. I grew up on the Cure, New Order, the Smiths, Erasure and Depeche Mode.  It all felt at home. They are textures we love in other bands but haven’t experimented with. I was uninterested in writing with an acoustic guitar. I’ve done a lot of film scoring in the last few years and I learned that anything can be the base of a song. Picking up an acoustic guitar, you’re going to write a certain way. Because we want to become a better band, we didn’t want to get stuck in a rut. That was the impetus. After Lost and Gone Forever we were a trio with two acoustic guitars and a percussion kit. Then, Brian [Rosenworcel] said he didn’t want to play the percussion kit. He wanted to play drum kit even though he didn’t know how to play it. That was a huge part of our aesthetic. He said, “I wanna groove like the Talking Heads and like R.E.M. groove.” He felt he couldn’t do it with the percussion kit. That spoke to how we spoke about things in general. I didn’t write a strummy thing. I wanted to write with space and so in that sense what we were attempting was very purposeful.

I think of “Expectation” as your Pink Floyd moment. Is that an accurate comparison?
I’ll take it. I don’t have a Pink Floyd poster on my wall but I don’t turn it off when I hear it on the radio. It’s that idea of openness and sincerity and trying to get some epicness by going for it in a weird way, whatever that means.

Have the fans followed you?
Some haven’t and some have. None of this is a new experience. It’s not like Dylan with the electric record. After that Lost and Found Forever and I picked up bass for the first time everyone was like, “What have you done?” I’m never going to listen to you again.” Every record, we lose some people and gain a bunch more. We’ve been going on our own journey and people are looking back in in a way that they haven’t before. The ultimate decider is that people are coming to shows and there’s not a noticeable drop-off when we play the new songs. The new songs are resonating with the fans. That’s what tells you you’re on the right track.

 

 

 


Jeff

 
Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at jeff@whopperjaw.net.