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Interview and Concert Review: Guster

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As I walked up to Fraze Pavilion, my head was throbbing and I was drenched with sweat.  Even though I drank 33 fluid ounces of water on my drive to the show, I had the worst bout of cotton mouth in recent memory.  I was a little tipsy with anxiety because Ryan Miller, vocalist and guitar for Guster (which also includes Adam Gardner on guitar and vocals, Joe Pisapia on bass, and Brian Rosenworcel on drums), was gracious enough to give me a few minutes of his valuable free-time. This was by far my biggest media coup to date, and I didn’t want to look like Chris Farley on the Saturday Night Live skit “The Chris Farley Show.” 

Just seconds after being introduced to Ryan, my nerves were gone.  In his polite, unassuming, humble demeanor, Ryan made me feel like he was more interested in talking about me than the band.  As we walked to find a seat next to the pond, he asked questions about Blogcritics and my writing experiences.  When we found a comfortable bench under the precious shade next to a few ducks, I was able to get Ryan off my incredibly ordinary life story and focused on all things Guster.  

The Interview

What is it like to graduate from touring in a van to a tour bus?

It’s the single biggest lifestyle change for a band. We were in a van for five years and have been in a bus for five years now. In the van, the days are long, and that takes up the entire day. In the bus, we have the freedom to do other things.  We can listen to music, read books, hop on the Internet, or anything else you can imagine.  For this tour, we actually have two buses, but that won’t last for long.

Why did you bring two buses on this tour?

This is our most ambitious tour to date.  We are bringing in our own P.A. and lights. Currently, the band is in one bus and the crew travels in the other bus. 

I looked at your Myspace page today and the band already had tons of comments from last night’s show in Indianapolis. Do you read the fan’s comments, and what do you think of them?

I check in to see what the people are talking about.  It’s interesting to see the fan’s perspective.  But, I do realize that most of the comments we get are going to be positive.  Someone that doesn’t like us typically won’t take the time to write negative comments. 

Your concerts are known for several unique traditions.  How did some of those start? 

The funny thing is that they had nothing to do with us.  The fans started it.  In “Airport Song,” a fan threw a ping pong ball on the stage because that can be heard bouncing at the end of the song.  That took off from there.  During “Either Way,” the crowd blows bubbles. That kind of stuff is not done as much anymore.

Guster is frequently called a fan-friendly band, where you often provide unique access to the band (i.e. “Joe’s Place”) and regularly sign autographs for fans after shows.  Will you explain the band’s stance on fan relations?

We make a point to be accessible to fans.  If we see kids around, we try to sign for them.  We try hard not to have an ego.  We are so lucky to have fans of our music, and we are music fans ourselves.

You appear to be so humble about the band’s status.  You guys are huge stars now.   

We definitely do not feel like huge stars.  Our recent shows have been great, but there are still some markets were we are inconsistent.  We have recently become really big in Milwaukee and Utah, but in Philly, an hour-and-a-half from where we live and have played tons of times, we are very inconsistent there.  The process can be both frustrating and really exciting. 

Are you leery of a big radio hit?

We are not anti-radio, but we, as a band, are against trying to chase after that big song.  If we have a huge radio hit, we are at the point in our careers where we are still going to do things the way we want to do them.  Personally, money is not the motivating factor.  As Guster grows, the things that excite me are the opportunities to collaborate with other artists, contribute on collaborative albums like the MTV2 albums of covers where we covered the Violent Femmes (“Careful,” “Blister in the Sun,” “Kiss Off,” “Gone Daddy Gone,” and “Add it Up”), make television appearances – all those things to reach out to more fans. 

You mentioned the importance of creating music on your own terms.  Has that been a difficult mission to accomplish?

It’s definitely a lot easier now after five records. 

Do you have battles with ‘the suits’ over control? 

We have a good relationship with Reprise (Records). It is a positive compromise that goes back and forth. We let them know what we are trying to create, and they let us know their thoughts and opinions. There is an overlap between the record executives and the band. We both have the same interests, we want to sell records. But selling records is not the only thing we’re interested in. We’re worried about maintaining our artistic integrity, putting on great live shows, and continuing to reach out to the fans.  Our goal is to create music with credibility.  We’re happy just to have the opportunity to make music.  After recording Ganging Up On the Sun, which I think is our best record, the morale of the band is very positive.

Do you read press about Guster?

Yes, I’m an “Internet nerd.”  I’m always searching for new music or funny things on the web.  I read a lot of critiques and not just about our band.  It’s weird that I can take critics’ word on other bands, but it’s harder to do when it’s our band.  With the release of this album, Ganging Up On the Sun, we do feel a little vindicated by the positive reviews we have received.

How was the recent Jay Leno experience? 

It was very cool.  We’ll also be going on Conan with the pops orchestra.  We’re ecstatic about that.

Where you nervous before appearing on Leno?   

A little nervous.  You can’t B.S. your way through a live television appearance.  If you make a mistake during a concert, you can play it off and work off of that.  With television, you’ve got one shot to get it right. 

What is the sound quality like on the television shows?

It happens so fast, maybe in three, three-and-a-half minutes, and it’s over before you even realize it.  We are on the set the entire day, rehearsing and getting prepared, then it’s over so quickly.  But, overall, the sound quality is okay.

What’s your favorite show to perform on? 

Leno has been great to us.  He’s been very supportive.  Conan is very cool.  He is very approachable.  He’ll even come down and play guitar with us.  He’s great, fantastic.  He’s the real deal. 

How did you guys feel when Ray LaMontagne announced he was leaving the tour? 

It was a bummer, but I understand why he made the decision.  For Ray to get gratification from performing, he needs to feel comfortable in the environment, with the stage arranged in a certain way.  That’s hard to achieve when you’re opening up for a band.  Also, our fan bases are a little different.  Ray’s music is incredible, but stylistically, it is not as fun as ours.  His music is darker and filled with more melancholy.  Some of our fans were not as receptive to Ray’s music.  We are disappointed that it didn’t work out, but we are very appreciative that we had two months to tour with him. 

Was that the reason three shows were cancelled?

That was part of the reason.  The other part is that we typically book venues very conservatively.  This tour, we decided to go for it.  Booking four shows in Ohio may have been a little overzealous.  That’s what I was talking about earlier with the inconsistency.

My sister was very disappointed that the Columbus show was cancelled.  Will you guys come to those cities (Columbus, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh) soon?    

Absolutely.  Those cities are the band’s first priority.  We’ll come back in the fall.

My sister will be ecstatic with that news.  I think the band does an excellent job of utilizing technology (i.e., website, Myspace, YouTube).  I even get bummed out if I go to the band’s diary and there hasn’t been an update.

I am the same way when I go to other people’s websites.  I say ‘quit being lazy and update your site.’  We started playing a little before the rise of the Internet, but it is something that is vital when reaching out to fans and potential fans. 

As Ryan finished the question, three young teens walked past and recognized Ryan.  The fans were almost tongue-tied as Ryan started a conversation with them.  One girl informed him that it was her birthday and asked for a picture.  Ryan quickly accepted and actually took the picture of both of them.  He was very gracious with the fans, telling them “hope you enjoy the show” as they walked away. 

The band is known for allowing fans to bootleg the shows.  How was the decision made to allow that?

The idea of bootlegging intrigues me.  It doesn’t work quite as well for us, because we are not an improv band. We play the songs the same way and there is not a lot of variety from show to show on a tour.  We have fifteen songs each tour that are staples.  If you’ve heard one tape from a concert tour, there will not be a whole lot of variety from show to show.  However, there will be a difference from tour to tour. 

Will you explain the pro-environment work the band does and how that came about?

It started with Adam and his wife.  Adam’s wife’s background is in environmentalism.  I think there is a big overlap between the environment and music.  We’re just trying to do our part.  We are active in alternative energy, like biodiesel fuel.  We are traveling around the country in these huge buses and trucks.  We are just trying to do our part to inject a little philanthropy. 

How does the band feel when asked if they are a Christian band when three fourths of the group is Jewish?

That doesn’t bother me at all.  I think that question arises, because, we, like established Christian bands, are big, but nobody has an idea who we are.  We are very much below the radar.

Have you considered doing solo work?  

Not really.  I like writing with other people. I feel like I get my voice heard in the band.  I have other interests besides music, like movies and books.  Joe, (Marc's brother, who also plays in the band) has a need to make music outside of Guster.  That’s how he expresses himself.  That’s not a burning desire for me.  My solo material would just be a worse version of Guster.

Will you explain the creative process behind creating a song?  

All songs happen in a different way.  Some are songs are very labored and others come out very fast.  Each song is a very collaborative effort.  Each member’s fingerprints are all over each song. 

Do you become frustrated over the labor intensive songs? 

No.  I know that we don’t make records quickly.  With Ganging Up On the Sun, we did let some of the rough edges hang out.  Bands like the Rolling Stones are able to create recordings that sound live.  To date, we have not been able to do that.  With our style, there are a lot of details, nuances, and arrangements involved.

You majored in Religious Studies at Tufts.  What field would you currently be working in if you were not in a band?   

I probably would have gone on to get a degree in architecture.  But this is a great job.  It allows me the freedom to do other things.  I am currently writing a short story for MTV Books.  There are so many possibilities.  It is really what you want to put into it. 

How was the video for “One Man Wrecking Machine” created?

We had nothing to do with it.  Drew Lightfoot came up with an idea.  We told him we did not have a lot of money, but told him to show us his idea.  He came back and we were just amazed.  He just captured all the emotions in the song perfectly.  We kind of lucked out.  We had never met the guy before.  Even though we did not contribute to the video, we are very proud of it. 

Do you have any pre-show rituals?

I need quiet time to myself to get into my own space.  Sometimes I can be chatty for a show and sometimes it takes a while.  The crowd has a lot to do with that.  We try to pull back that fourth wall.  We wear that on our sleeves.  I like the communication with fans.  It does give each venue a different experience. 

You and the members of Guster are often deliberately vague about the meaning of songs.  Why does the band take that approach?

I don’t want to say a song means this or that.  The fans will attach meanings to songs on their own.  Brian wrote the song “Ruby Falls” on new album.  The song probably means something totally different to him than it does to me, and I’m the one singing it.  Sometimes people will ask me a song means.  There are some songs that I know exactly what I meant when I wrote it, and there are other songs that I am not sure exactly what I meant when I wrote the song.

The original band members, Adam, Brian, and you, lived together starting at Tufts in the early ‘90s until 1999.  After spending countless hours together both at home and on the road, how were you guys able to avoid killing each other?       

They are my brothers, and I’m tied to them for life.  It’s like any family and can be stressful at times.  That’s why bands don’t last that long.  It’s truly a functioning dysfunctional relationship (we both laugh).  We all get along together great.  We respect that the band is bigger than the individual parts.  We realize the tremendous opportunity that we have to sing in front of fans.  It is a very humbling experience to still be able to do this.  I feel that we are making the best music of our career.   

The Show

As my buddy Brian and I descended the stairs to our seats, we continued to walk closer and closer to the stage.  I was delirious with joy when we stumbled upon our seats, a mere five rows back from center stage.  Brian said, “I’ve never been this close to a band, even in a bar.”  Neither had I.

It was a particularly amazing experience to watch the band up close and personal.  With the Fraze’s intimate atmosphere and our perfect seats, it felt like Guster was performing in my living room.

Even though I’m very appreciative of the band's thoughtful lyrics, I was more impressed with the up-close view of their musical talents.  I would pay hundreds of dollars just to watch Brian, the “Thundergod,” bang on the bongos, congas, hand snares, and cymbals.  Often playing barehanded, Brian’s hands frequently move faster than the eye can track. His hands have to be a mess, and rumor has it that hand injuries are among the reasons he now plays certain songs with a traditional style, using a drum kit. Joe is simply remarkable on the bass.  The bass seems like it is an extension of his body.  Joe also played the keyboard, banjo, and the cowbell extremely well.  In addition to vocal duties, both Ryan and Adam are mesmerizing on the guitar.

Dodging bird crap throughout the night, Guster energetically cranked out nineteen songs (a mix of old and new hits), and the crowd matched Guster’s enthusiasm every step of the way.  A lot of Guster concert traditions were kept alive (i.e., throwing ping pong balls and singing ‘Dirty! You’re so dirty!’ on “Airport Song”).

Earlier that night, Ryan frequently spoke about how lucky he was to have this opportunity.  As a music fan, I feel lucky to have musicians like Ryan and bands like Guster that cater to their fans.  Undoubtedly, Guster has not allowed their fame to go to their heads. 

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About M.D. Sandwasher

  • http://www.djradiohead DJRadiohead

    MD, it’s great to see another member of the BC Cult of Guster (me and Saleski being two of the others- we should get t-shirts).

    Great interview. I am thrilled to hear there will be another run of dates in the fall. I need to see them again. They were fabulous in Birmingham.

  • http://www.sandwasher.blog.com M.D. Sandwasher

    DJ Radiohead,

    Thanks for the great compliments. I’m very appreciative.

    I thank I owe you a great deal of gratitude for securing the interview. When Ryan and I first started the interview, he asked me if I was the person from BC writing all those nice things about the band. I said, “No, that would be DJ Radiohead.” That led to a long discussion about BC and bloggers in general. Ryan even went on to say, and I’m paraphrasing, that he often trusts and respects bloggers work more than the traditional press, citing that our work is often more insightful and well thought out.

    So, if you didn’t write those great Guster articles, I don’t think I would have been granted the interview. Thanks so much!!!

    And, I’m all for the T-Shirts. Let’s send a design to the printing press.

  • http://www.djradiohead DJRadiohead

    MD, that’s one of the coolest things I have read/heard in a long, long time. My feet might not touch the ground for the rest of the day.

    T-shirts are a must now. Well done! And thanks for passing that along. That’s just all kinds of cool.

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    md, this comes close to braggin’, but you might want to check out the current issue of the magazine “american songwriter”. i wrote a feature on Guster.

    spoke to both Ryan and Adam…yow, two of the nicest “rock stars” you’d ever want to yak with.

    nice interview.

  • http://www.sandwasher.blog.com M.D. Sandwasher

    D.J. Radiohead-
    I was trying to figure out a way to put that into my article, but I couldn’t get it in sync with the flow. Work like yours, Mark Saleski’s, Sussman’s, and others, gives me instant credibility. I just ride on your coattails into the interview room.

    Mark-
    Thanks for the compliments. I found your article. Due to the log in/subscription difficulties, I had trouble reading the entire article. But, if the last half of the article is anything like the first, my article doesn’t hold a candle to yours. I’m definitely interested in reading your interview with Adam and Ryan.

    I agree with your comments about Adam and Ryan. Both are incredibly nice and humble individuals.

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    the web version contains just about all of the intro…the rest was interview.

    c’mon, you’ve gotta give yourself more credit. this really was a fine interview.

  • http://www.sandwasher.blog.com M.D. Sandwasher

    Mark-
    Thanks so much for your compliments. That means a great deal coming from a professional, experienced writer like you. I have a very difficult time rereading my own work though. It gives me the creeps, like hearing your own recorded voice.

  • http://www.sandwasher.blog.com M.D. Sandwasher

    I wanted to pass on that Guster will be appearing on Conan O’Brien with the Boston Pops. Here’s the release from Guster’s website (guster.com):

    “Put your cassette tapes in your VCRs and program them to record next Thursday night, August 10th, as we’ll be making an appearance on the Conan O’Brien Late Into The Night Television Show on NBC along with our old friends, the Boston Pops Symphony Orchestra (or, as many of them as we can fit on stage with us — probably about 10 of them).”

    That’s what I call “Must See TV!”