Thursday, July 11, 2019

Bonus Q&A with Ryan Miller of Guster

photo courtesy: Nettwerk Records
There was so much interesting material from my recent chat with singer/guitarist Ryan Miller of Guster that didn't fit into my main story:
that I decided to post the rest of it below.

Q: The new songs are quite different than what you've done in the past. How have the songs you've included in the live sets been going over with fans?

A: Great. There was a steep technical learning curve for us. We had to redo a lot of things on a purely technical level. There’s a lot of synthesizer stuff and new sounds. It wasn’t like I could just pick up my guitar and play these guitar parts. It doesn’t work that way. It took us a few minutes to get it all together and figure out how to make it all happen.

As the tour rolled on, we felt our own confidence with the songs and people’s familiarity with the songs kick in. We’ve been doing this a long time. There’s still so much gas in our tanks, so that when we play songs from our last few records, it’s not like the energy goes out of the room and people go to take a bathroom break. 

Every song feels vital and this record is definitely not an exception at all. In fact, I watch a lot of fan groups and stalk Twitter a little bit to see how people are reacting to the record in general and it was as good as any new record we’ve delivered - if not better - in a lot of ways. It’s very encouraging.

Q: Guster seems to have a more devoted fan base than many bands. What do you think is the reason for that?

A: Some of it is just that we’ve been a band making records for twentysomething years. A lot of people have grown up with our music and maybe grown up listening to “Parachute” in junior high and are now parents playing the records for their kids. 

On our first record, producer Mike Deneen said, ‘you’re lucky that you write pop music because pop songs never go out of style.' I think there was something accidentally cool about our band. Verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus has been a thing forever. And melody wins. Even though the first iteration of our band was defined by strummy acoustic guitars and percussion, it was really about songs. 

I think the fact that we’re always focused on songwriting allows people to come back to the records. It’s not like listening to Third Wave emo or something which is super zeitgeisty. Even though I think our records have a time stamp on them, our band in general is a song-oriented band, which helps.

Q: Speaking of the fans, I read at a show last spring you invited a couple people onstage to play harmonica. Does that happen often?

A: I think we’re always looking for excuses to involve the crowd or to break out of the monotony of ‘hey, how are you guys doing tonight’ and then playing songs. Approachability, sincerity, earnestness and playfulness. Those words can be used to describe our band. 

Things like that happen multiple times a tour. We react to fans’ suggestions and we trade on verisimilitude. We want to tell the truth at all times and poke fun at ourselves. We don’t [always] invite people to play harmonica with us, but we definitely have people come onstage and involve them - either something we plan in advance or we make up a song about them - or whatever. 

Again, that's something that keeps our band vital on the road. Even though we have a large catalog, we’re not improvising. We’re not like a jam band that makes up half their set every night. Stuff like that keeps us and the fans on our toes. Anytime you can be real is always my favorite moment in a concert. When someone says, ‘oh, we messed that up; let start again.’ That’s awesome and what we’re all sort of craving in a way.

We figured out early on that we don’t have to obfuscate any of that stuff. We should just be who we are and the more we are on our own stuff, the more it works. It’s a rule in everything I do - not to condescend in any kind of way.

Q: I’ve been a fan of the band since "Goldfly" came out, but "Look Alive" drew me in immediately since I’m a sucker for synth pop music. How did you end up leaning in that direction with producer Leo Abrahams? 

A: In my PBS show “Bardo,” I talk to artists all the time. Even the show I had before that, “Making Friends with Ryan Miller” were mostly creative people. I’ve learned a lot about the process. I’ve always known this intuitively, but what’s born out of these conversations is, 'you’ve got to get out of your comfort zone and be fearful.' 

This album feels scary and different, but still really authentic to us. It’s melodic and musical and something we can represent. All of us came around to it in stages with Leo. There was a moment where Leo had tinkered with the opening track “Look Alive,” brought it back and some of us were like, ‘oh my God. This is crazy.’ Some of us were like, ‘this is crazy bad and some of us were, ‘this is crazy good.’ 

Breaking up the recording [into stages] gave us the chance to process stuff and make sure we were on the right track. That’s what we do with writing too. It takes years to write a record because we do everything in these 2-3 day chunks every month or something. If you still like a song that you wrote two years ago, it’s probably a good indication it should go on your record. 

Q: I’d read that the recording process with Leo was so enjoyable that you guys hope to go in the studio with him again next time. True?

A: It was so fun and he has such an interesting personality. We locked in very quickly with him. It was really inspiring.

Q: Every time I sit down for a concentrated listen to "Look Alive," I seem to hear different things in the mix. It’s a real audiophile record. Do you hope the fans discover new things upon successive listens as well?

A: In a lot of ways, this record was very reactionary to the record we before, "Evermotion," we made with [the late] Richard Swift, who was the opposite of all of this. He was a producer that really was ‘first take.’ When we went in to do that record, he didn’t pre-produce. Everything was about being in the moment. He had no patience for anything that took multiple times. He was intuitive and creative. We ended up with a record that didn’t sound hi-fi by a longshot, but had a vibe. 

We were thinking, ‘we’ve done this, now we want to go the opposite way and really painstakingly get very granular. It’s in a few of our sensibilities at this point, Brian and myself especially, to really find every little nuance in the stuff. Between Leo and our mixer Colin, we really [concentrated on that aspect]. I love that we did it. It’s not really fun sometimes, but it’s what we wanted to accomplish with this one for sure.

Q: On the new album, “Hello Mister Sun” sounds like it could’ve been recorded in the mid-to-late 60s. It's quite trippy and effusive. Was that the vibe you were going after?

A: As a pop band, we worship at the altar of The Beatles and Beach Boys and that came through in the writing. Harmonically, it’s all over the place and the time signatures change a bit. In the [rehearsal] room, somebody sang, ‘you can make a rainbow.’ I thought, ‘that was ridiculous.’ But I think we’re in that part of our lives where it is a cool sentiment. It’s gonna be fun and something we may have been more concerned with early in our career: ‘that’s not a cool thing to say.’ I’m so unconcerned with that at this point. It’s a crusher live and that is one of my favorites, for sure.

Q: You might even gain some new really younger fans with it.

A: I heard a long time ago that kids know a hit song. I have kids of my own and I think that is the goal - not to make something sound like The Wiggles. Sophisticated pop music is at its core about melody. Even with our first hit single, “Fa Fa,” it felt like a kid’s song, but that’s good. That what you want in a song, to have it be a little bit of an earworm.

Q: What has the experience been like doing the PBS series "Bardo," now in its second season?

A: Listen, I have so much empathy for you [music journalists]. Knowing what work comes in that you go and do your research. These people [on the program] were on tour and they didn’t have a lot of time. My ask of them was massive – three or four hour interviews. It would require a lot of work on my part and was nerve-wracking. 

I interviewed Meryl from Tune-Yards. I have been a huge fan for a long time, but I really had to brush up on my intersectionality, because their whole record was about white privilege. It was not unpleasant, but I came to respect journalism on a lot of different level and honoring people’s time. 

Ultimately, I really love talking to people and I am an extrovert. I don’t need to talk about myself. If I get an opportunity to talk with Tune-Yards or Milk Carton Kids, who had such a crazy experience with their band, or an EDM artist, I ask, 'how do you make this music?' I’m an extremely curious person. It was really fun. It’s great to talk to other artists in other genres. All these truths I’ve been discovering and we're kind of the same – you don’t know what you’re going to get before you go in there. You have to stay scared. All the nuances of a career are different, but the idea and processes are so similar. 

I’m trying to figure if [the program] can continue or I’m going to do a podcast or something more mobile and less expensive to make. I enjoy going out in the universe talking to people and have it not be about me. A lot of 'Bardo' is bespoke.

Guster's live dates in Southern California start tonight and the tour runs through mid-August. Go to for the full routing.

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