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making a name for themselves
In towns like Omaha, Guster is winning fans, one bowling alley at a time.

by tim mcmahan


More Guster?

Check out the Oct. 25, 2006, Lazy-i interview with Joe Pisapia; or

Check out the July 2, 2003 Lazy-i interview with Brian Rosenworcel.



The fact that I had first heard Guster's music only a few days prior to the interview was no surprise to Ryan Miller, the Boston-based trio's lead singer/songwriter.

"Why would you have heard of us?" he said from inside the band's tour bus "lounge," flipping through a CD portfolio in search of, but not finding, his copy of the new Wheat CD. With a headful of brown, shoulder-length curls, he resembled a cross between Kenny G and funnyman Chris Elliott (though not nearly as tall as either one).


The tour bus was hardly an extravagant rock-n-roll perk. It looked like a messy college dorm, with food lying out in the front section -- gyro bread, an assorted vegetable plate, water bottles, newspapers, a laptop computer's blaring blue screen, a roadie-guy asleep, drooling on a couch -- divided in the middle by two sets of curtained bunks, followed by the closed-door lounge area. It was rather rustic-looking, well-used, with musty-colored curtains and a smell that you can't quite put your finger on, sort of like a late-model sedan that's trying to hide its vehicular odor via car air fresheners.

"This is the Midwest," Miller said, explaining his band's anonymity in Omaha. "L.A. and New York are the epicenters of culture. It does take a while for things to get out here. And no one's playing our music on your radio stations."

So was it merely fate that a copy of Guster's new CD, Lost and Gone Forever, fell into my lap a mere five days earlier, prompting a call to their publicist and the resulting interview? "It's a bummer to believe in fate," Miller said. "Did Mercury Rev deserve to sell only a few thousand copies of its last CD? Is it fate that Wilco's latest will never get the audience that it deserves?"

In Guster's case, bad timing is the reason why the band had yet to spark any national radio or MTV airplay, Miller said. Despite a "commercial" sound, the band hasn't been able to break into an alternative radio landscape that only a year ago was playing similar-styled pop bands like Semisonic and Matchbox 20. These days, the alternative airwaves are dominated by dark, creepy, heavy bands, like Limp Bizkit, Korn and Nine Inch Nails.


"It's a bummer to believe in fate. Did Mercury Rev deserve to sell only a few thousand copies of its last CD? Is it fate that Wilco's latest will never get the audience that it deserves?"


"This is not Ani DiFranco or Fugazi you're talking to. We're not saying corporate rock sucks."


"Alternative radio can't play us," Miller said. "If you look at the alternative charts, it's all heavy music. I just read an article from one of those crappy trade magazines that talked about how this huge radio program director started shorting his playlist to help his 20 core artists, and how, consequently, it strengthened ratings. That's not only bad for new bands, it's bad for radio."

Yeah, but what if Guster was one of those 20 bands? "This is not Ani DiFranco or Fugazi you're talking to," he said, referring to a couple independent artists who have reputations for spurning fame. "We're not saying corporate rock sucks. We like our record label and we're waiting for our shot. We feel we're a commercial band, that we're real and we've been doing this for a long time. I say congratulations to the Goo Goo Dolls, Sugar Ray and Matchbox 20. They've broken through."

Regardless of where they are now, it's only a matter of time before Guster also counts itself among those MTV darlings. At this stage in their 7-year career, the band has nothing to be disappointed about. The indie pop trio has managed to make quite a name for itself through ceaseless touring and one helluva stage show, not to mention some absolutely endearing songs. Through word-of-mouth alone, they sold more than 65,000 copies of their independent debut, Parachute, and the follow-up, Goldfly, both on Aware Records. That's more units than most bands on major labels ever move.

Guster is hardly your traditional rock trio. Miller plays guitar and sings. Next to him on stage, Adam Gardner also plays guitar and sings, while behind them, standing amidst a battery of bongos, snares, cymbals and other assorted noisemakers, is percussionist Brian Rosenworcel. "Percussionist," because he plays everything with his finger-wrapped hands instead of drumsticks, looking like a spastic puppet violently, though happily, pounding out the beat. No bassist, no drummer. And yet, the band sounds wonderfully warm and full-bodied, as anyone in the audience at their Nov. 5 Ranch Bowl performance can attest. Miller's souring, multi-octave voice -- sort of a blend of Sebadoh's Lou Barlow and Built to Spill's Doug Martsch -- is the perfect counter to Gardner's deep, unfancy tenor.


Guster eventually signed with Sire Records Group in 1998, the label that released Lost and Gone Forever earlier this year. With maverick producer Steve Lillywhite (U2, Dave Matthews) and engineer John Siket (Yo La Tengo, Sonic Youth) behind the knobs, the band finally made the great studio recording it always wanted "with all the depth and subtleties and candy and glue," Miller said. "Lillywhite got it the first time he saw us play live. He didn't try to change the way we do things."

Lost… took Guster to new corners of indie-pop paradise that have only been explored by bands like Folk Implosion, Semisonic and its predecessor, Trip Shakespeare. Though Miller says there's no "obvious single" on the CD, Lost… is one of those rare experiences where every song sounds like a classic, every track has a special moment that pushes it above all the current dreck heard on commercial radio, and there's not a clinker in the bunch. It's a pity that the CD and the band have yet to find a home with the mainstream audience they so desperately crave.

"The whole fame thing is relative," Miller said, talking slightly faster than I can type (100 wpm on my laptop), while he continued to flip though his CDs. "For example, we got on this bus at the beginning of the tour -- our third bus in our career -- and I looked in my bunk and there was no power outlet. It's not as good as the one we had on the last tour. It's a little thing, but you notice it. You have to wonder what Pearl Jam feels like, lured by fame and then wanting to be anonymous when they go out for a meal. You want to say, 'Shut up. Yes, you deserve to have your privacy, but you wanted all of this.'"

In Guster's case, the band's closest connection to fame is all the demands on their time. They had left Des Moines at 3 a.m. the night before, after playing to 150 Drake University students, only to wake up four hours later to do the morning show at KCTY FM, The City. Miller said the constant grind is how the band keeps their heads together. "As pretentious as a tour may seem, it's still our music and we want people to hear it," he said. "We'll be bummed if we go under before we have a hit, but I'll only be disappointed if we don't do what we could have to reach everyone."


"We'll be bummed if we go under before we have a hit, but I'll only be disappointed if we don't do what we could have to reach everyone."


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"We have the best fans who, instead of bitching that we're sell outs, will call the radio stations and request to hear our music. We can't ask for anything more than that."


And that means playing to 300 fans in a bowling alley called The Ranch Bowl. It's quite a contrast to the show a few nights earlier, when they played to a hometown crowd of more than 3,000 in Boston. "Bigger is better for us," Miller said. "It's not about playing in the corner of a smoky bar. Our whole schtick is about interaction with the audience. The more people give us energy, the more we give back. I know it sounds New Age-y, but it absolutely works. It's about emoting and having them emote back to you."

The band coaxes reactions by getting the crowd on their side right out of the gate. At the Ranch Bowl show, Miller strode onto the stage wearing a white Michael Bolton T-shirt and after their third number, belted out an off-the-cuff tribute to Chris Deburgh by singing the first verse to "Lady in Red." It's all part of the onstage hi-jinx that Guster weaves into its live show.

Their performances and independent CD sales were what initially caught the eye of Sire Records executives. Guster also had a well-established "Rep Program," a marketing campaign run by loyal fans who passed out flyers, helped distribute CDs and spread the word about upcoming performances. "It started as a few hundred kids and turned into a thousand," Miller said. "It’s a way to promote ourselves when we can't rely on radio and MTV, especially these days."

Now with Sire in their corner, things could get a lot easier. Miller said Sire makes sure the CDs are stocked in the stores and are in the hands of radio stations. They also help book the tour and wrangle media.

"Sire is notorious for picking 50 bands and working five," Miller said. "We're one of the five, maybe because we've been working hard at it for years and they know we'll do what it takes. They're losing money on us, but when we have a hit song, they know we're a franchise band. We're not going to go away over night. It won't be a fly-by-night success, like Lou Bega (the artist behind the annoying "Mambo No. 5"), who has sold 200,000 copies this week, three times what we've sold over our entire career. But it's a novelty and an anomaly.

"I'd love to have a hit," Miller adds. "But it's all relative to us, because we haven't had huge levels of success. We're all well-adjusted, middle-class guys and understand how the whole thing works. We have the best fans who, instead of bitching that we're sell outs, will call the radio stations and request to hear our music. We can't ask for anything more than that."

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Published in The Reader Dec. 2, 1999. Copyright 1999 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.