September 21, 2000

Making the Band

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Last Sunday afternoon, before Fall Fest 2000 kicked off, D had the chance to sit down with Guster’s Adam Gardner, one third of the Tufts University band that is quickly becoming the collegiate band of choice. But there is something about these innocent, enthusiastic, and genuinely fun guys that ensures their popularity isn’t fleeting.

Adam, one of the band’s guitarists and vocalists, asked to go “somewhere cool” for the interview. In effect, he answered questions while skipping stones on the xylophone-like tiles on the roof of Olin Library.

Daze: Ryan [the band’s other vocalist] told me that you guys do not do interviews together?

Adam Gardner: It just doesn’t make sense to have three people trying to chime in on a question, so we just split interviews … A lot of times we’ll have a bunch of interviews a day, and that way we don’t all have to be there … We can divide and conquer better.

Daze: So how long have you been out of college?

AG: We graduated [from Tufts] in ’95.

Daze: When you were in college, what did you guys think of Cornell? Or did you at all?

AG: Well I had some friends who came to Cornell and they just complained about how cold it was, and about the suicide rate.

Daze: What do you guys want to do before leaving Ithaca?

AG: (jokingly) We want to “rock your University,” number one. And number two, I don’t know, get a taste of the local flavor. Everywhere we go we we like to sample the local food or whatever … is there one place where we have to go?

D: You have to go to Wegman’s.

AG: Okay, so we have to go to Wegman’s.

Daze: While enrolled at Tufts, what were you guys planning to do with your lives if music did not work out?

AG: I don’t think I had a plan. I definitely didn’t major in Psychology so I could become a psychoanalyst or anything like that. For me college was just a higher education. And all three of us definitely took that attitude. Ryan was a religion major. And Bryan [the drummer] was an American Studies major, which I still don’t understand.

Daze: We have that here.

AG: I don’t really understand what that means, it just seems like a joke … I think Bryan was into communications though, he was a DJ at Tufts … but no, I don’t think any of us had a real “plan” even when we were playing as a band. Initially it was just for fun, we weren’t like, “Alright, we’re gonna take this past college and really go with it.” At first we were just friends, playing.

Daze: Where did you guys meet?

AG: We met on a wilderness orientation trip before freshman year orientation … Bryan and I met in the woods in New Hampshire, and Ryan and I met on the bus, and I don’t know how Bryan and Ryan met … So we were friends and people were like, “Oh, you used to play in a band, and this guy used to play in a band, why dont you guys form a band?”

Daze: And you started playing together freshman year?

AG: Yeah, just doodling around. It’s funny there wasn’t one song that we all knew and could play, because we all just came from different backrounds. So we just started writing.

Daze: I remember that while in college you would play for free on the streets of Harvard Square in Cambridge.

AG: Yeah, we used to bust on the streets. We did that our first couple summers. It was cool, it was really fun … It really is like a boot camp for performing because people don’t have to watch you, they’re on their way to somewhere else, so you have to learn to really grab people’s attention and hold it, and Harvard Square was great for that.

Daze: Did you guys call yourself “Guster” back then or did you have another name?

AG: We used to be Gus, but there were several other Gus’s, including a group from Canada which was a heavy metal band. And they had an album featuring a song called “Fucking Nazi,” and people were buying that album thinking it was us. And people were like, “Hey did you guys change your sound? Do you have a song called ‘Fucking Nazi?'”… So we had to change our name before we signed with Sony.

Daze: What does “Guster” mean then?

AG: I don’t know, it means we had to change our name.

Daze: Who thought of the three extra letters?

AG: I came up with the “T,” Bryan came up with the “E,” and Ryan came up with the “R.”

Daze: If I ask them would they say something else.

AG: (laughing) Yes.

Daze: How do you reply to the question, “What kind of music are they?”

AG: My reply would be, “Come and see the show.” Because it’s so much easier to say “come and watch it” than to trying to explain what it is.

Daze: Would you equate yourself to other bands?

AG: I wouldn’t equate myself, or even say “derivative of,” but I would say, “If you like these sort of bands, then you would tend to probably like us.”… Like the bands that we want to open up for and have [opened up for] … was Dave Matthews — that was great, and we’re about to open up for the Barenaked Ladies, which is going to be terrific.

Daze: You started a little tradition of the crowd throwing ping-pong balls onstage when you play Airport Song live.

AG: Well, somebody did. We recorded the ping-pong ball [noise] on there [on Goldfly] and somebody picked up on that and started throwing balls … [It is] much better than the Foo Fighters getting Mentos thrown at them.

Daze: So Ryan pretty much writes all your lyrics?

AG: Yeah, well actually “Airport Song” I wrote the lyrics to, but in general, yeah.

Daze: A lot of people say sometimes that they don’t know what the hell your songs are about.

AG: … I hate lyrics that are really really obvious. And I think we’re trying to get a little more specific so you have something to grab onto, like I think if you listen to Parachute, our first record, the lyrics are really ambiguous. And I think we’ve tried to get a little more specific without having the lyric be so specific that it’s not about anything but the lyric.

Daze: How do you respond to your characterizations of Guster as a “happy band.”

AG: Well we enjoy ourselves, I mean, certainly our presentation is one of happiness … but if you listen to a lot of the lyrics, they’re dark.

Daze: Every concert it seems like you guys are all hesitant to play stuff from Parachute. Do you have anything against it?

AG: No, it’s just we’ve played them for a long time. No, there’s some songs on there that we like a lot. I think “Dissolve” is good, and “Parachute” we play a lot.

Daze: Are you guys writing more stuff or just concentrating on touring?

AG: It’s so hard to write on the road, especially when you’re playing as many shows as we are a week. It’s exhausting, so you don’t really have time to be creative … We haven’t had time to all sit down together and really construct a song … basically the plan is doing a couple more colleges this week, we’re doing a cross-country arena tour with Barenaked Ladies … and then we’re gonna write — we’re not gonna tour next year.

Daze: You guys are becoming famous for covering one new song for every show. How do you guys decide what you’re going to play?

AG: For the big shows, we planned it. Something like “Celebration” we knew we were gonna play it for weeks.

Daze: Would you guys ever throw around the idea of covering one of the boy bands just to be funny?

AG: No.

Daze: For a while people knew you as the group with the drummer who plays with his hands.

AG: But it’s not like he’s standing behind a drum set playing with his hands. Those are hand drums, you’re supposed to play with your hands … [but] you’re not supposed to [play] cymbals with your hands, which he does.

Daze: Looking back at your college years,
is there anything you guys would have wanted to do differently?

AG: Sometimes we think it would have been wise to take a year off. We recorded Parachute our Junior year, and we weren’t very present at our university at that point. We were in the studio a lot.

Daze: You guys did all graduate though.

AG: We did. Two of us with honors. But between the three of us we got five incompletes that semester. I didn’t learn anything that semester … The last two years of college we made our decision that we were gonna take this past school … and we started playing a lot of other schools when we were in school, because all our friends were on their concert boards … so we just took advantage of our friends, and it was great — college gigs pay well, and that definitely helped out. Because college kids spread music faster than they spread disease, so that was something we had going for us.

Daze: Did you play fraternity parties at Tufts?

AG: We did, we played a few, but we’re not proud of that fact.

Daze: What kind of music is in Guster’s CD player right now? What do you listen to?

AG: Neil Young, Van Morrison, Marvin Gaye, we love Stevie Wonder … as for new bands, Travis is great, I don’t know if you’ve heard of them … There’s a band Jump Little Children, who you may not have heard of either, that are great.

Daze: I think you covered Paul Simon with them once.

AG: Did we? I don’t even remember. This is obvously on Napster? … That’s definitely the downfall of Napster too, it’s like everything we’ve ever done is on there. Like tapes that we literally recorded in my dorm room Freshman year is on Napster, oh my God it’s terrible.

Daze: Listening to Ryan babble on during shows, is he just a little kid?

AG: Yeah, definitely, he was always the jokester in college. There was a little while there when I couldn’t stand to be with him (laughs), because he was so obnoxious … But he’s gotten a little more funny and a little less obnoxious, I should say. But he used to be horrible, you couldn’t trust him. Like if we were eating together in the dining hall he’d always fuck with your food … he’d always fuck with you, and that got annoying after a while. But yeah, he was always that guy — that loud, sort of obnoxious guy.

Daze: I heard Brian likes to come out from behind his drums sometimes and completely ruin your songs with his horrible voice.

AG: Oh yeah, he’s a terrible singer. There’s a couple songs that we like to have him sing.

Daze: This ties into the whole idea of not taking yourself too seriously as a band.

AG: We have to keep a sense of humor about ourselves, because first of all, that’s who we are. But it also allows us to get away with things that other bands, if they took themselves seriously, couldn’t. Because we’re not the greatest musicians in the world. None of us ever studied music formally. We make mistakes, and it doesn’t matter because we’re smiling when we do it. They’re not seeing Martin, Medeski, and Wood up there, they’re seeing Ryan, Brian, and Adam, and we are what we are. It’s more about having fun.

After the interview, Adam spent several minutes trying to convince me that my hair was perfect for experiencing the “Flobee” — a vacuum-powered hair cutter that sucks your hair into a tube and cuts it. Just prior to the interview he had used the “Flobee” on his hair, and spent at least 10 minutes explaining how he never goes anywhere without it, and that he would endorse it on the late night informercials, where he found his toy. I gave in.

After my haircut we bumped into Ryan, who had just returned from the plantations on a bike he had taken from an unsuspecting Cornell student. I thanked Adam for the haircut, and he asked me for directions to Wegman’s.

Archived article by Justin Lerner