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Less Phish, More Coldplay 

Guster says bye-bye to its dorm-room shenanigans while embracing smooth modern rock.

"I would like to just make an album that just sort of rocks," says Miller (second from left).
  • "I would like to just make an album that just sort of rocks," says Miller (second from left).
It's been more than a decade since the guys in Guster graduated from the school of college rock. In 1994, the Boston trio wrote their debut album Parachute in their dorm rooms at Tufts University. With its unplugged dueling guitars, luminous two-part harmonies, and bongo-led percussion, the disc became a cult classic among fellow collegians, and the group's incessant touring earned it a place in the Valhalla of dedicated-fan folklore.

But that Guster has been quietly growing up over the last 13 years. Its latest album, Ganging Up on the Sun, released last June, revealed a band that's put its former sound on sabbatical while exploring a radio rock and roll that falls somewhere between Coldplay and the Killers.

"I see us as being two separate bands at this point," says lead vocalist and guitarist Ryan Miller. "That first album was sort of a culmination of the first chapter of the band, and that was the guitars and percussion era. Now we're approaching music in a new way. Some of our fans really like that first record and think that's the best record we'll ever make. That's totally fine, but they're wrong."

Simply spin "Satellite," the second track on Ganging Up on the Sun, and enjoy a bass-driven, adult rock ballad that introduces a classic rock reverb that makes previous albums sound like dorm-room demos (which is what they essentially were). The tune's undulating groove, sweet lyrics, and ethereal production are partly influenced by your parent's soft rock. "We were going for a late-night Fleetwood Mac-type sound on that song -- simple but evocative," explains Miller.

The changes don't stop there; Ganging Up on the Sun is full of left fielders, featuring the band's loudest, longest, and quietest moments to date. The group even busts some slow jock-rock: "One Man Wrecking Machine," where Miller basically comments on his band's new direction -- "I want to pull it apart and put it back together." And then there's the audacious alt-bluegrass rock of "The Captain," with countrified piano, banjo, and guitar dipped in whiskey and grits.

The band's new range is fleshed out with help from its now official fourth member, longtime collaborator and multi-instrumentalist Joe Pisapia -- who brings his piano, banjo, guitar, and Nashville chops to the studio and stage sets.

"When I talk about doing all these different styles, whether it's polka or heavy metal, I want it to feel real. Everything has to feel real and authentic, and Joe allows us to do that in a way that makes it feel authentic," says Miller. "Like we're doing a bluegrass festival this summer, and part of me is like wow, that's weird."

But instead of sharing Miller's jubilation, some veteran Guster fans ain't feeling the smooth-rock revival. Besides, they're pining for the band's original live show. "It's interesting to see how our fans are reacting to it, how the whole thing is sort of unfolding," says Miller.

You see, since its college days, Guster's spirited, almost theatrical live sets and humorous stage antics (sometimes opening for itself as Trippin' Balls) earned a strong grassroots fan base that has spread across the country and over the internet (just visit www.guster.com and revel in the band worship). In fact, tales of the trio's live shows were often mentioned in the same breath as gigs by Phish and They Might Be Giants; this was a time when Hootie & the Blowfish and Dave Matthews (who also had a famous song called "Satellite") ruled college radio.

Back then, Miller and partner Adam Gardner would sword fight with guitars onstage and exchange lead harmonies on crowd hits like "Fa Fa" and "Airport Song," while Brian Rosenworcel (known to fans as the "Thundergod") would stand and slap bongos and percussion with his hands, never using a traditional drum kit.

But those close-knit and sophomoric, college-party-type gigs have grown into straight-up rock shows in venues like the House of Blues. And now Rosenworcel's fists of fury are often occupied with a traditional set of drums. Add those loud-beating skins to Pisapia's many instrumental talents, and the fellas from Guster can fill an arena with sound.

"We were always plagued by the fact that our albums had way more instrumentation than the live show represented," says Miller. "We were always playing with octave pedals and samplers to try and fill out our sound. We just knew we wanted more hands on deck."

Guster is optimistic that its new expansive buzz will continue to grow, and six months after the release of Ganging Up on the Sun, the band is still garnering live television performances and co-headlining tours with the likes of Ray LaMontagne and Mason Jennings (the folksy singer-songwriter who will play with them in Cleveland). And even though early outings like Parachute and Goldfly will continue to keep die-hard Guster fans attending shows, it's the opportunity to try new things (and break old rules) that keeps Guster interested in writing new material.

"I think from the very beginning we tried to make records that just had a lot of guts to them. But now, I think, in many ways, I would like to just make an album that just sort of rocks," says Miller. "Right now, we're trying to write that great Guster rock song."

More by Keith Gribbins

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