By ALLISON CONSIDINE
Ryan Miller is the lead singer of Guster, an acoustic-pop/alternative rock band that formed at Tufts University in 1991 and has built a dedicated fan base over the years. Their seventh album, Evermotion, came out this January and marks a synth-inspired departure from their previous records, while maintaining their strong melodies, catchy hooks, and dense lyricism. Produced by Ryan Swift, who has also worked with the Shins and Foxygen, they are back on the road touring.
Guster will perform this Friday at the State Theater, with local group, Darryl Rahn & the Lost Souls of SUNY Purchase opening for them. The Sun had the opportunity to chat with Ryan about the magic of live music and how they stay engaged in after two decades of making records.
The Sun: I noticed you’re having a college band from SUNY Purchase open for you. What inspired that decision, and how has that influenced the tour?
Ryan Miller: Well, we have a long list of bands we love, but some of them aren’t touring, some are too expensive, it’s just kind of a hassle to find somebody that really works that hits all the sweet spots. So we have this idea, like lets do a local band in every city, that’s kind of young: high school or college. So we were thinking about the local band idea, and the young bands, because its really how we got our start in college in Boston. We just opened up for a ton of national acts that were coming through, that really sort of showed us, this is how it can work. There were a couple touring bands that came through and it was like “Wow, this is something you can do as a job.” And this encouraged us, as 20-year-old dudes, that we could just get in a van and make a living, do it. We just thought it was kind of a winner on all levels. And it’s been great. Actually, the bands have been all over the map, stylistically and personality wise, and there’s been some super highlights we’ve been playing songs with them almost every night, and yeah it’s just been kind of a home run.
Sun: Did you have a sense when you guys were in college that this is what you’d be doing for the rest of your lives?
R.M.: Are you kidding me? Who’s even been in a band for 24 years and made a living? Like, Wilco. There’s like three bands that got to do that. It definitely was not on the radar, not in the plan, I think every record it’s sort of like “Oh, are we gonna do this again?” Even now, I don’t know if we’ll be around in like five years, it all has to come from the music first. That said, we’ve worked really hard to try and grow and change and get better … in a very organic way, just being in a van or a bus, those are sort of staples for being able to stick around. And we made a lot of astute choices, even though we didn’t know it at the time, that sort of help us if we want to keep playing music. Even know, you know, we’re in Ann Arbor, playing the Michigan Theater, and I was just talking to my buddy and he was like “Oh, that’s the first time I saw you, it’s on that record,” its like oh my god that’s so long ago.
So I think we’re still very grateful and humbled by the fact that people are still engaged with the music that we made, and that we’re still making. It’s just an interesting place to be, I don’t think we have a lot of peers in the sense of this kind of longevity of touring at this mid-level that we’ve been doing for the past two decades. Tons of bands have come and opened up for us have become super famous, and a lot of bands that were super famous are gone now, so we’ve kinda been on this weird, middle-class band route for a while now and it’s actually not too bad.
Sun: A lot of the songs on Evermotion do feel very atmospheric and Shins-inspired. How much of this was planned before you went into the studio, and how much came out of the collaboration with Richard Swift?
R.M.: The songs were done, we didn’t write any songs while we were there, so the actual architecture of the songs, like chord progressions, the lyrics and melodies, are all kind of there, in place before we stepped foot in Oregon, but obviously a lot of the textures on the record, we figured out while we were in the studio, and … there’s a in line with this record and some of the other records he’s made, Damien Jurado and Jesse Baylin and Nathaniel Rateliff, and Swift has his sound, and it’s a sound we really like. It’s not, not all of his records sound alike, but there’s definitely a through line and sort of reverse engineering you can kinda tell what it is that he brings to it. I think the overall thing that he brought to us was, other than sonics, we just really moved quickly, we made a record, 14 songs, in three and a half weeks, which was really by far the fastest we’ve ever made a record. And having someone who was saying, we’re not gonna ho-hum over this, we’re gonna make a decision, commit to it, and keep moving. It was really good for us, ‘cause I don’t think we’d ever been pushed in that kind of way before, and I think we were ready for it, and it’s gonna change the way we make records moving forward too.
Sun: How do you keep songs you’ve played thousands of times fresh for yourself?
R.M.: Well I think, for me, it’s like we used to before every tour go through and give them a little polish, but it’s also like I’ve seen bands do that, they update the song or something, and you know it kinda sucks. As a fan, I don’t want to see you do a cool weird version of a song I love, I want to see the song I love. So we try and stay relatively true to the recordings or at least how we’ve played them over the last whatever years, and hopefully we’ll perform them well, and they’ll sound better, stuff like that, we have a fifth guy on drums that helps us with drumming, stuff like that, but I think for me, they aren’t really fresh. The joy of doing it has very little to do with my own personal enjoyment of playing the song, it has everything to do with how it’s being received.
So, You know if I’m playing “Barrel of a Gun,” probably for the 5,000th time, I have no joy in playing that song. But I go, and look out and see people singing and interfacing with the music in this way that’s nostalgic and also contemporary and it kinds sets up this dialogue, quote unquote dialogue between the audience and us, like we’re playing for them, and they give us energy, we get that back, that’s kinda the magic of seeing live music, I think. Only playing new songs would be fun, for us, on some levels, but it’s also fun kinda turning off your brain and going through the motions of these older tunes because they really mean something to people and that’s palpable, and so I think we’re really appreciative of that and it is fun to, and my joy doesn’t come from the musicality of it, though some of the songs age better than others, like a song like “Come Downstairs and Say Hello” which is 10 years old, I still really love to play it live. But certain songs I just don’t and that’s totally fine, because I don’t try and betray that. That’s why we hardly play anything from our first two records because we can’t actually stand behind it. So I think songs that have stayed part of our live show, especially older songs, are songs that we can stand behind. Some stuff from our earlier records it just doesn’t feel good to play.
Sun: Sounds like it’s sort of a give and take with the audience.
R.M.: Yeah, you gotta strike a balance. There’s probably 25 songs in a set, maybe less, maybe a third from the new record, so you know, we try and mix it up. You know the thing that’s driving this, it’s just that we’re all fans of music, and we all go see live music all the time, so I know, as a fan of a band, what I want to see. So we try and make that part of how we present.
Sun: What new music is inspiring you? Would you ever collaborate with some of these other artists?
R.M.: We’re super still listening to new music all the time. [Gets in the car with the band]. Or I can put this to everybody: everybody, give me a new band that they’re listening to that they like. Except for Adam. Sturgill Simpson, Luke says, Sturgill Simpson … Brian you got a new band, in the last year? Doesn’t have to be brand new. Kasey Muskgraves? We’re gonna go all country? I’m gonna go with like Disclosure and Sylvan Esso, I’m super into weird electronic. Bass Nectar … you haven’t been listening to Bass nectar! We’re still … really like Kevin Warby records…
Collaborations? We love that, I think that’s part of the whole idea of moving forward. As much as we can interface with artists and musicians and songwriters, I think that’s what kinda keeps gas in the tank at this point, just getting some fresh energy, you know not just from new music but from other sort of like-minded co-conspirators. We’re very very open to stuff and hope that we can do more stuff on that front.
Sun: What’s your personal favorite song off of the new album?
R.M.:I think I’m gonna go with the first tune, “Long Night.” I fought really hard for that to be the first song on the record and I think it has a sort of charity and patience that we didn’t have in the first era of our band, the era that’s sort of … a slow burner like that, a really lethargic tempo, the melodies our good, it kinda tells a story, it’s a little bit of a journey song. Not the band. Lower case journey, not uppercase journey. I don’t really think it’s a Journey song.
Sun: Thanks for talking with me, I’m really looking forward to seeing you guys play on Friday and I hope Canada treats you right!
Guster will perform at the State Theatre on Friday. Doors at 7:00 p.m., show at 8:00 p.m..
Allison Considine is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She can be reached at [email protected]