Guster: Better with Age
After two decades, Boston’s favorite pop band is still going strong.
by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com
One of the best things about listening to a just-released Guster album for the first time: The comfort in knowing that you’re about to hear something that’s familiar, but at the same time, new and different. In other words, Guster never lets you down.
From the time the band formed in 1991 to when it released its first hit pop album on a major label with 1999’s Lost and Gone Forever, through its two successful follow-ups (Keep It Together in 2003 and Ganging Up on the Sun in ’06), and onto their latest, Easy Wonderful, released this past Tuesday on Universal Republic, the band has consistently given its fans what they want — warm, tuneful, mature rock songs with strong central melodies and sing-along choruses.
Guster frontman Ryan Miller points to that consistency as one of the reasons why the band, which includes Brian Rosenworcel on drums and Adam Gardner on guitar and vocals, has managed to keep it together for nearly 20 years.
“Our first producer, Mike Denneen, said you’re so lucky that you’re a pop band. Pop music doesn’t go out of style,” said Miller after a soundcheck in Charlotte, North Carolina, this past Saturday.
On the other hand, Miller said he’s sometimes frustrated that Guster is not considered a “cool, contemporary band.”
“It would be nice to get reviewed in Pitchfork or get invited to Coachella or be profiled in Brooklyn Vegan or get to collaborate with Dirty Projectors,” he said. “But there was a moment when this record was being made where I realized it doesn’t sound like what most bands sound like right now, and that’s something I’m really proud of. In general, our music ages a little better.”
Better than, say, the latest by indie phenoms Sleigh Bells, which Miller said “is amazing. I know it will be played in every loft in Bushwick, but that stuff will sound so 2010 forever. That’s what it is, and it’s not a knock on them. It’s really contemporary, and I’d love to make a contemporary album. Radiohead felt contemporary, too, and their records don’t sound dated.
“I love these bands. I’ve seen Dirty Projectors seven times in three years, and I know that band doesn’t give a shit about me, but maybe they could. It’s frustrating, but our goal has always been to make a great pop record that transcends genre and is still contemporary.”
While it’s true that you won’t classify Easy Wonderful alongside the latest by Best Coast or Animal Collective or Deerhunter, there is something contemporary about the album, at least in Guster terms. Opening track “Architects & Engineers” sports that classic Guster swing, the great harmonies, the shout-out chorus, but also sounds like a fresh direction. The first single, “Do You Love Me,” starts with hand claps and bursts with church bells. While dance track (yes, dance track) “This is How It Feels To Have a Broken Heart,” glides on a ’70s-flavored counter melody and a disco beat.
All right, maybe it isn’t contemporary in an indie music sense, but really, don’t we all need a break from the usual art projects every once in a while? Guster may not be redefining pop music, but that doesn’t mean their music isn’t good or relevant, and Easy Wonderful is arguably their best record in a decade. Will Dirty Projectors be able to say that about whatever record it releases 10 years from now (if they still exist)?
Ironically, the making of Easy Wonderful almost ended Guster. Miller said the band has spent the last four years since the release of Ganging Up on the Sun touring (for two years), having kids (Miller has two children, while Gardner has his second on the way) and writing the new album. It wasn’t until they found themselves in a New York studio with producer David Kahne (The Strokes, Sugar Ray, Regina Spektor) that the wheels began to fall off the wagon.
“It wasn’t a good mesh,” Miller said. “We didn’t see eye-to-eye (with Kahne) and didn’t have our eyes on the same prize. We couldn’t make it work. And while a lot of what was great about the record we did with Kahne, (he) wasn’t a great choice for us. He threw us for a loop.”
Miller said the experience left the band “emotionally battered.”
“After our first session (with Kahne) it was the darkest point where we really thought the concept wasn’t great and we weren’t communicating that well,” Miller said. “The process did a number on our confidence, and we didn’t know how to approach music again. We didn’t know what we wanted to do. There was a week where nothing was moving, and that was the first time that’s happened in 20 years.”
The band required a “hard reset,” Miller said. “The first conversation I had with Brian, we both said we want to be in this band. We built it up from there. After that, things were so good and so happy and so appreciative.” The band recamped at then-Guster member Joe Pisapia’s studio in Nashville for sessions that Miller said were “magical.”
“We had a lot of great ideas that came in big chunks,” he said. “It was our most creative moment, coming out of those depths.
“We needed that hard reset,” he added. “It’s an unnatural idea to have three dudes be in this band for 20 years after we met. We’re all growing, and we’re all alpha dudes. If you don’t recalibrate, if you don’t break and reset the bones, you’re not all going to grow in the same direction.”
Guster plays with Eli “Paperboy” Reed & The True Loves Tuesday, Oct. 12, at Slowdown, 729 No. 14th St. Showtime is 8 p.m. Admission is $25.50 adv.; $30.50 DOS. For more information, call 402.345.7569 or visit theslowdown.com.
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Tomorrow, Guster Pt. 2, where Ryan Miller talks about radio’s relevance (or lack thereof)…
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Poison Control Center might as well just move to Omaha. Seems like they play hear every couple of months, so often that people are beginning to think they’re an Omaha band (uh-oh). They’re back and completely untethered tonight at O’Leaver’s (expect some gnarly high kicks and somersaults) along with singer/songwriter genius Kyle Harvey and La Casa Bombas. $5, 9:30 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.