by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com
Column 291: These Uncynical Days
Guster’s Ryan Miller has hope for the future of music…
More with Guster’s Ryan Miller that didn’t fit into the feature story, which was posted yesterday, here, and which you should read before you read this. Go ahead, we’ll wait for you…
You’re back? Good. I should point out that I have some familiarity with Miller and Guster. I interviewed him way back in December 1999 in the band’s tour bus before a concert at the long, lost Ranch Bowl. Miller was a whirling dervish, jumping around the bus looking for a lost Wheat CD (you remember Wheat, right?) having just done an in-station performance at KCTY The City, an Omaha FM radio station that, in its day, was sort of ground breaking in that it had no real format, no play list. The DJ’s played whatever they wanted to, and Miller couldn’t believe it.
The KCTY experiment didn’t last very long, and the whole idea of a broadcast radio station that isn’t nationally programmed seems impossible now. Which brings us to the present and Mlller’s take on current-day radio. He and the band have just spent the past two weeks touring radio stations “educating radio programmers about their single,” he said. It didn’t seem much different than back in ’99, when Miller told me one of Guster’s main goals was to break through to mainstream radio. “We like our record label and we’re waiting for our shot,” Miller said proudly, almost defiantly way back then. “We feel we’re a commercial band, that we’re real and we’ve been doing this for a long time. I say congratulations to the Goo Goo Dolls, Sugar Ray and Matchbox 20. They’ve broken through.”
Now 11 years later, Guster still hasn’t broken through, though that goal remains in their sights, sort of. “It’s not thee goal,” Miller said last Saturday. “It’s a goal. We had an opportunity when (our contract with) Warner Bros was up after Ganging Up on the Sun (released in 2006). It was a moment when we said, ‘What should we do? Should we release the next one in-house on our own record label?’ We decided to give the major label thing one more shot.”
In some ways, Guster was bucking the trend when they signed with Universal instead of going indie. Miller said the band had watched how Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails did their successful pay-what-you-want self releases, and realized it wouldn’t work for them. That model “only works for bands that are already hugely established,” Miller said. “For us, it’s really helpful to have the machinery behind us, especially people who understand what we’re doing. Without it, we wouldn’t have been able to make the video for ‘Do You Love Me?'”
That video, a stop-action piece that shows the band performing dressed in long underwear while white-hooded (Klannish?) drones decorate the stage (and the band) with paint, was picked as iTunes “video of the week,” an honor that drummer Brian Rosenworcel called in a Gloucester Times article “The biggest news that ever happened in our band’s history.” Wow.
Miller said the video and its exposure is something they wouldn’t have had without the label backing. Still, he’s well aware that there are a lot of bands that are “breaking through” on indie labels.
“I’m not cynical about it anymore,” Miller said. “It’s an amazing time to be a musician. There are so many great records coming out, I download four or five every week and some are so uncommercial. What’s happening with the whole democratization of music is so inspiring, though it’s harder than hell to break into the monoculture.”
Which made me scratch my head and wonder how any band does it. Last week’s sold out Local Natives show at The Waiting Room is a prime example. Hundreds of fans were grouped around the stage singing along to songs that have never been heard on Omaha airwaves outside of small, 2-hour boutique radio shows like 89.7 The River’s stylish New Day Rising show (Sunday’s at 9). If that’s the only outlet, is radio important any more?
“I keep asking myself that same question,” Miller said. “It’s still hanging in there. I live in Brooklyn and never listen to the radio. I listen to (Seattle public radio station) KEXP on my iPhone, which plays a lot of music that I like. We still see popular bands on the radio, so we’re still willing to give it a couple weeks of our lives.”
Miller said these days publications like Pitchfork are acting as tent poles for new bands. “It kind of started with Broken Social Scene,” he said. “That band came out of nowhere and got a 9.2 rating (for 2002’s You Forgot It In People). A great review in Pitchfork can get you to sell-out 400-person venues in 15 cities, and that gets you your shot. If you’re shitty, it all goes away.”
Miller said that’s what helped break Local Natives. “All these bands — indie or blog bands — it helps them crawl up and crawl out of this Internet-only thing and become part of the culture. Today it’s Local Natives. It was Fleet Foxes before that and Vampire Weekend before that. And now Arcade Fire has the No. 1 record in the country. That band didn’t get played on the radio. That’s why I’m so uncynical about the whole thing. All of those bands are great fucking bands and they don’t sound like anything else. It’s all happening based on merit more than anything.”
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It can now be said that Eagle Seagull is no more, just as their best album, The Year of the How-To Book, has finally been released (You can find it on iTunes; I have no idea if it was physically released in the U.S.). Its availability marks the end of years of speculation if it would ever see the light of day. We all heard the Starbucks story (though I’ve never seen it documented) and assumed that after that debacle someone would pick it up. If the waiting seemed like forever for Eagle Seagull fans (the album was recorded in May 2007), it must have been an eternity for the band. When it was announced this spring that [PIAS] was releasing it outside of the U.S., the long nightmare appeared to be over. But it wasn’t. And now, eight months after that, the record is out but the band is no more.
And maybe it’s for the best. Because I just spent the last seven minutes listening to “Theologians Tell Me,” one of the demos available from Beauty in the Beast’s Facebook page, and am now listening to it again. Drenched in delay, frontman Eli Mardock sounds like early Anton Newcombe (Brian Jonestown Massacre) belting out a sinister baroque ballad in 3/4 time, complete with a two-minute instrumental interlude. Carrie Butler does a sly, graceful vocal on synth-fueled popper “If You’re With Me, You’re Against Me.” And while “King of the Crickets” is soft and dreamy (or spacey), there are touches in the effects-laden harmonies that will remind you of Eagle Seagull — but those few moments will be the only ones that do. Rounded out by veteran Lincoln drummer Andrew Tyler (Indigenous), you can catch the trio tonight at The Waiting Room and decide for yourself if Eagle Seagull’s passing is an occasion to mourn or celebrate. I’m leaning toward the latter.
A final little post script on all this: Eagle Seagull will go down as one of the most controversial bands in Nebraska history. They were hated as much as they were loved. For a number of years they were the biggest band from Lincoln and everyone thought they were poised to break through. But it never happened. My only regret is that I never got a chance to see them perform “Twenty Thousand Light Years” on Letterman. That would have been a gas.
Playing with Beauty in the Beast is Lawrence band Cowboy Indian Bear, who has become a local favorite thanks to their almost monthly treks to Omaha. Also on the bill, Chicago avant-pop band A Lull, whose rhythm-heavy style comes by way of no less than three percussionists. The Village Voice compared them to Blitzen Trapper, Fleet Foxes and Grizzly Bear — talk about your ultra-hip trifectas. $7, 9 p.m.
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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at Lazy-i.com — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2010 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.