Guster | Throwing Out All the Rules


"It was…pretty much the band throwing out all the rules that we'd been using to develop an identity over the course of a career, which is something you need to do every now and then."



Guster | 02.23.07
w/Mason Jennings
at The Pageant, St. Louis

doors 7, show 8 | $25 | all ages


Self-imposed restrictions can create stunningly creative results. When those restrictions get too, well, restrictive, the shedding of those limitations can lead to even greater heights. Case in point, the Boston band Guster was founded as a trio, and built their sparse folk songs solely on the interplay of Ryan Miller and Adam Gardner's dual vocal melodies and acoustic guitars with Brian Rosenworcel's ornate hand percussion. Their first two albums (1995's Parachute and 1997's Goldfly) made buzz, but it was 1999's Lost and Gone Forever, their debut for major label Sire, that made the band a mainstay on the same college folk-rock circuit that birthed O.A.R. and Dispatch and sold out many a Dave Matthews concert.


Super producer Steve Lillywhite beefed up the band's sound for Lost, peppering the songs with subtle horns and non-traditional instruments (typewriters, for example). Four years later, the band teamed with producer Ron Aniello (Lifehouse) for Keep It Together, an album that consolidated the band's pop-rock sound on songs like the hit single "Amsterdam." The songs' complexity had finally surpassed what Guster could perform live as a three-piece, and on the ensuing tour, the band added multi-instrumentalist Joe Pisapia to their touring lineup. Pisapia, who had first teamed with the band on Keep It Together's countrified "Jesus on the Radio," brought an all-new dimension to Guster songs new and old with his keyboards, bass, banjo, and guitar.


The band entered the studio with Pisapia in tow as a full-fledged fourth member to record last year's Ganging Up on the Sun, and the difference shows. The album is packed with sonic detail, from the slow-burning slacker anthem "One Man Wrecking Machine" to the epic, shimmering outro of the seven-minute-plus opus "Ruby Falls." Yet the band never loses its pop edge, and songs like the jangling "Satellite," the banjo-fied hootenanny "The Captain," and the Ben Folds-ian piano pop of "Manifest Destiny" will burrow their way into your head and never let go.


We caught up with drummer/percussionist/"legendary conguero" Brian Rosenworcel as he prepared to leave on a very unique tour—but more on that in a bit.



The big change on your newest record is Joe joining the band. How has having a fourth person present changed the way you guys write your music?


It changes it a lot.  Joe brings a lot to the table. He can write melodies, he can play bass; he's good at, like, ten different instruments.  It really does change things when you're in a room and there's somebody with a lot of ideas contributing.  It's also different when you're a quartet. It's another set of hands to do something and to free somebody else up. We definitely went into this record and felt like we could play all of the songs; the songs actually existed because we could play them. Whereas with Keep it Together, a lot of songs we went into the studio with, it was kinda like they were just these vague notions of songs or ideas that we knew could turn into songs, which is not really how I like to record.


Is that one reason why Keep it Together is the only one of your albums that has a lot of co-writing credits from people who weren't members of the band?


No, that's a separate thing. There was a batch of time there where we were writing songs with people: [with] Ben Kweller, and with our friend Tony Chavez and with our producer, Ron Aniello. Sometimes you get into a writer's block mode and you need people to give you some ideas. That wasn't really the case with making Ganging Up on the Sun.  In large part, that's because Joe was there to give us a kick in the ass.


One of the big changes for you is that on some of the songs you've been playing a drum kit instead of the hand percussion. What brought about that change?    


That change happened somewhere around 2001 or 2002 when we were writing songs for Keep It Together, and it was just clear that in order to feel excited about making another record we needed to change some things. It was a musical decision.  It was just feeling stale and wanting something to inspire you. It was me shifting to drums for a bunch of stuff, Ryan shifting to bass, and everybody learning piano, and pretty much the band throwing out all the rules that we'd been using to develop an identity over the course of a career, which is something you need to do every now and then.


How do you decide which songs you play the drum kit on versus the hand percussion?


That's a good question. It's just the way we write songs. It just develops organically from an idea. If I happen to be working on one kit or the other, or if somebody's playing an acoustic guitar with a lot of rhythm in it, there's some room for me to play the percussion kit which has no high hat, for instance, and to play more of a sparse rhythm on it and let the guitar be the rhythm. It kinda just happens. It's nice for me to have two kits and to use whichever one feels appropriate based on the material we're working with. This album was 75 percent drum kit and 25 percent percussion kit.  Who knows what the future will be. I hope to integrate the two more in the future than I have in the past.


The songs on the new record have a lot more complex arrangements than some of your older stuff. As the songs get more complex and have more and more parts to them, how do you guys decide when a song is actually done?


I think that it just comes with instincts as a musician. Certain songs like "Lightning Rod" only need very few elements, because it's a song that Ryan wrote on his guitar, and it sounds good with just a guitar and a voice. It doesn't need to be "souped up" a lot to come across. So I think all we added was a keyboard and a conga on that song, and it was like "This feels complete." Certain other songs, like "Ruby Falls" for instance, you know what you're going for, but you don't feel like you've reached it until you've filled out the sonic spectrum—like a three minute outro that meanders like that one does, it needs enough stimuli in there to keep you listening for its entirety. You just follow your gut with that stuff and it varies from song to song. That's kind of the theme of our band: we vary from song to song.  


You've started writing a lot more lyrics over the last two albums, do you ever run into any difficulties writing lyrics for other people to sing?


Yeah, it's not the way I think it would work ideally. I think, ideally, the person singing the song is singing something that they've conceived and that they're meaning and feeling from the heart. Which is not to say Ryan dislikes the lyrics I write, but it just means that it must be a weird thing for him. Like him, I write sometimes ambiguous lyrics and I'm not sure what they mean to him is what they mean to me. I started pitching in on lyrics around the time of Keep It Together, just in the same kind of spirit of pitching in where there were voids. I only contribute on two or three songs on the new album, I just like to fill in where nobody has any ideas and I might have a little bit of inspiration.


The big thing you guys have coming up is the "Ships and Dip" tour with Barenaked Ladies—the cruise you guys are going on [which took place in late January—JG]. How did that come together; was it something the Barenaked Ladies approached you with?


Yeah, they were going to do it with or without us, because they're the Barenaked Ladies and they can sell out a Carnival cruise ship. We were just kinda excited to have a free vacation; we thought it would be fun, so we're going. I really don't know what to expect. Those guys are always a lot of fun to hang out with and very entertaining on stage, so I'm sure it will be a lot of good times. I'm just worried about the part where I realize I'm stuck on a boat and I can't get off and I freak out. [laughs]


As you guys have continued touring, a lot of the older songs have fallen out of your set list, but "Demons," I've noticed, is one song that you continually seem to play. What is it about that song in particular that keeps it around?


Yeah, you're right. That song sounds better live right now because we've rearranged it with Joe and with a little bit of maturing.  It sounds better now than it did on our records, I went back and heard the recorded version and was kind of depressed.  It's one that just happens to come across well live. There are a lot of songs I'd love to be playing live, but they just don't sound very good live. "All the Way Up to Heaven" sounded good when Ben Folds was playing a salsa piano on it [Guster, Ben Folds, and Rufus Wainwright toured together in the summer of 2004—JG], but since he left it hasn't really sounded good, so we've put it on the back burner. "Demons" just comes across well in our set and it's one of the older songs that we're able to work out well. I wish we had a little more variety though. It's just a matter of some of those songs we just can't stomach.


Do you go back and listen to your CD's very often to see what they look like from your current perspective?


I try my hardest to avoid listening to our old records because I'll only get critical of them. Every now and then, I'll find a link to someone's video, and I'll catch a minute of a song and it'll strike me as "Wow, we played this really slow on the record," or "Wow, the fidelity sucks on Goldfly."


You guys recently filmed a parody of the opening scene of The Last WaltzWhat possessed you guys to do that?  


Yeah, we did a parody of a bunch of the interview scenes too. We tried to take our favorite moments from The Last Waltz and put them in a promotional video for The Band tribute record that's coming out later this month [Endless Highway: The Music of the Band was released January 30, 2007, on 429 Records—JG].  I'm not sure if you're aware of that, but we covered the song "This Wheel's on Fire" and they actually put that song first in the sequence so we're pretty excited to be on it. We love the band and we love The Last Waltz and that was just a fun thing. The record label that's putting out that compilation asked us to do some sort of promo and we tend to take these sort of assignments way too seriously.


How long do you think the wait will be before the next Guster record?


In a perfect world, we'd write the songs then we'd record the songs and then the public would have the songs.  One of the most frustrating things is to be sitting on a record for six to eight months after you've mixed it while your record label puts it up to promote it. It just feels totally, totally wrong and totally unnecessary in this day and age.  So that being said, it's not just that six to eight months that has left the large gaps between our albums, it's us, and us not writing on the road, and us taking a long time to write when we write, and a long time to record when we record. I think it's possible we'll get back to writing later this year, but you never know.

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