Guster Embraces 'Spacier Grooves' on Its New Album

For whatever reason, Guster is often considered to be a ‘90s band. Perhaps it’s because the alt-rock band delivered its biggest hit, the lounge-y ballad “Fa Fa,” in 1999. But singer-guitarist Ryan Miller takes issue with being stereotyped as a ’90s act.

“I don’t look at the ‘90s wistfully,” he says via phone from his Vermont home. “It makes me laugh when people think of us a ’90s band since we were more active in the last 15 years than we were in the first five years. We certainly came up then. We were coming up during that phase when Semisonic was on the radio. We got signed and were in the major label system after that.”

In the wake of “Fa Fa,” the band hasn’t been particularly prolific. It’s released only a handful of albums but has toured relentlessly. Miller says the band still plays to big crowds.

“We take a lot of time between records, but we’re still chugging along and playing the places where we would have played ten years ago,” he says. “Ticket sales are the only thing that feel like a real barometer for the band. They’ve been consistent for the past ten years.”

The band goes in a different direction on its new album Evermotion. Produced by Richard Swift (the Shins/the Black Keys), it has more of an indie rock feel to it and features experimentation that goes beyond the pop/rock formula the band has mastered on previous releases. You could call it the band’s foray into stoner rock territory.

“Every time out and this time in particular, I have used the metaphor of breaking the bones to reset it,” says Miller. “This album felt as definitive as of a break as any. We had a new band member writing for the first time. We were using textures we hadn’t used before. We have spacier grooves that weren’t part of the last records and were totally absent on the first records. Groove wasn’t even a word in our lexicon back then. I have used the word stoner record a few times. I think that to me is that you can lost in a groove independent of the intricacy of a lyric. I don’t want to use the word lo fi, but it was a much more austere environment and we recorded and quicker pace.”

The group recorded the album in a mere three weeks. And the fact that it sounds so layered and dense despite the rather austere setting suggests the extent to which the group used technology to its advantage.

“[It proves] you can make these amazing records out of a garage in Cottage Grove, Oregon,” says Miller in reference to the studio where the band recorded. “This is the first producer we worked at whose pace we really trusted. We had great relationships with other producers but Richard was an artist. Someone like [producer] Steve Lillywhite would be more diplomatic. He could see the good in everything. But Richard would just be like, ‘No. That’s stupid.’ That’s cool. We liked that."

With its brittle guitar riffs and droning vocals, “Expectation” comes off as the band’s Pink Floyd moment.

“I’ll take it,” Miller says when presented with the comparison. “I don’t have a Pink Floyd poster on my wall, but I don’t turn it off when I hear it on the radio. It’s that idea of openness and sincerity and trying to put some epicness and go for it in a weird way, whatever that means.

A song like “Simple Machine” is heavy with synthesizers and sounds a bit like Passion Pit with its upper register vocals and escalating tempo.

“When we wrote that song, we had a more organic treatment with a bass and an acoustic guitar,” says Miller, admitting that he’s a fan of ‘80s synth pop acts such as the Cure, New Order and Erasure. “There was a little bit of keyboard stuff. When we were at Richard Swift’s studio, I pulled up a synth I had in my computer. We tried it and it scared us at the beginning. That’s a place we wanted to be in. We wanted to be a little in fear. Part of the reason that I’m still having this conversation twentysomething years on is that we’ve changed who we are. It’s not for the sake of change. Hopefully, it’s in service of the song. When people ask me what kind of band we are, I tell them that we’re kind of a pop band. We try to write songs that will last more than a year or two, and we try to make records that will hold up ten years later.”

Miller admits the new album is enough of a departure that long-time fans might be turned off.

“With every record, we lose some people and gain a bunch more,” he says. “There are people who have decided what Guster was and are now coming back. They’re like. 'Oh wow.' We’re a gateway drug for people in junior high and high school who went on to cooler music. I want those people to check in. I have a feeling that if you’re into Wilco or the Shins, we’re not that far away.”

Guster, Kishi Bashi, 8 p.m. Tuesday, April 14, House of Blues, 308 Euclid Ave., 216-523-2583. Tickets: $25 ADV, $27 DOS,
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Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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