Guster Goes Major With Steve Lillywhite (2000)

What band builds a live reputation with two guitars, three voices, and a conguero?

That’d be Guster, a trio from Massachusetts who recently parlayed acres of grass roots fandom into a major label debut.

They have no traditional drum kit. They conquered a demographic known for its beer consumption and occupation with the opposite sex with an indie album containing nary a reference to either. And they’ve shared bills with both the Barenaked Ladies and Kid Rock. Confused yet? Good.

Lyrics: Dig In or Skim Past

“I like that there’s a bit of dichotomy in our band,” says lyricist and (mostly) lead singer Ryan Miller, who’s been talking about Lost and Gone Forever, the premiere for Sire. “We’ve always worked the line between serious lyrics and catchy melodies and upbeat songs. It kind of depends on what kind of music listener you are. Take ‘Nights In White Satin’. I know every line, but I’ve never internalized it.”

You might think that a lyricist putting more thought into his product than 95% of his colleagues would need people to pay close attention, but you’d be wrong.

“I want to write songs where if you decide to go deeper, you can, but you don’t have to. This record seemed to be themed on selfishness and loneliness. But it’s not a depressing album unless you decide to go there.”

Fortunately for their fans (and their career), the music is sufficiently engaging and layered so that the lyrics really can act as just another sound. Or sounds, as is often the case, since Miller and guitarist Adam Gardner (and (percussionist Brian Rosenworcel) arrange harmonies and countermelodies as easily as Van Halen arranges for no brown M&M’s in the dressing room.

No-Sticks Lillywhite Stuck

Lillywhite manned the bass for a few songs and brought along Dave Matthews and Carter Beaufort at one Charlottesville show.

This interplay helped win over famed producer Steve Lillywhite. His resume, demeanor, and the fact that he was the only producer not insisting that Rosenworcel play conventionally (i.e., with sticks) sold the band on working with him.

They started recording some songs and writing others. Lillywhite’s gift for coaxing a quality debut (U2, solo Peter Gabriel, Dave Matthews Band) did the trick, and they emerged with a professional set that keeps the soul of the band’s sound intact.

Lillywhite enjoyed the process so much that he followed the band to a few shows for his first bass stint in eons. [2021 note: See photo, left, and an entry in the entertaining Guster Road Diary.)

“The proverbial rule is that good live bands can’t make good records, and that’s been the case with us,” Miller says, being a bit hard on Goldfly, their 1997 concept release. “Until now. I think we made a great record.”

Single Fa-Fa-Fodder

Of course, this is the part where critics start to put a label on the music, but Miller cuts to the chase.

“It’s melodic pop. We’ve gotten the Crowded House reference, and I’ll take that. Pop has become kind of a bad word, but to me, Crowded House or Semisonic … they’re great bands.”

When asked if he had any hesitation about naming “Fa Fa” a possible single, Miller reveals himself as a student of the genre.

“Pop has become kind of a bad word, but to me, Crowded House or Semisonic … they’re great bands.”

“None at all. I probably should’ve, but I didn’t. Between David Byrne (think the chorus of “Psycho Killer”) and Otis Redding (“The Fa Fa Song”), I figured I had pretty good precedent.”

The dichotomy thing shows up again here if you consider that the first record this purveyor of grownup pop bought with his own money was Def Leppard’s Pryomania, but we were all young once, right?

The Promo Parade

This is also the part where Guster has to run a single into the ground in radio and TV studios everywhere. For example …

“We did a taping for the (Canadian) Mike Bullard Show,” Miller recalls. “We rehearsed ‘Barrel Of A Gun’ four times, then we played it once,” and that’s aside from nearby FM mini-gigs, bringing the day’s total to seven.

Then there’s the occasional promotional appearance where one might feel less than welcome.

“We played with Kid Rock at this big rock festival in Florida. We came onstage, and there’s this whole row of kids flipping us off.

“But by the end, they were jumping on each other, moshing, getting into it. We’ might’ve done it in a least-common-denominator way, but it was nice to know we could win them over.”

(This was originally published as “Comin’ Up A GUSTER” in 2000 in the Record Exchange’s publication, The Music Monitor. Thanks to now-Record Store Day Empress Carrie Colliton for her blessing in sharing it here.)

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