Keeping It Together
story by tim mcmahan
Lazy-i: July 2, 2003
w/ The New Amsterdams
Wednesday, July 9
13th & Martha
with Guster, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
last time we talked to the band was from
the confines of their tour bus parked in front of Omaha's Ranch
Bowl bowling alley/night club. Guitarist / vocalist Ryan Miller
explained how they so desperately wanted to break through to radio.
"We're not saying corporate rock sucks," Miller said.
"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."
That was three and a
half years ago.
Since then, Guster has
managed to walk through some important doors on their way to fame,
gaining alternative rock airplay with their '99 release Lost
and Gone Forever. They've made the obligatory appearances on
Letterman and Conan and Kilborn, even had a couple songs on the
sound track to the Kevin Kline / Hayden Christensen coming-of-age
flick "Life as a House." Still, about as many -- or few
-- people know who Guster is as they did way back then.
And that's just fine
with Guster percussionist Brian Rosenworcel. He's never thought
the band fit into the corporate rock model.
know our music is very pop and mainstream, but I don't know how
much I'd call us a commercial band," he said from the band's
hometown of Boston, where they kicked off the tour that brings them
to Sokol Auditorium July 9. "A couple tracks on our new album
sound radio-ready, but a lot of tracks flex more creative muscles.
I think Lost and Gone Forever was an album where all the
songs were undeniably radio-friendly. This time 'round, we've taken
a more experimental approach."
Keep It Together,
the band's just-released fourth album, is a departure for a trio
that has been anything but conventional to begin with. For example,
Miller shares the vocal chores 50 / 50 with fellow guitarist / vocalist
Adam Gardner, leaving no one to play bass.
Then there's Rosenworcel.
While Miller and Gardner stand side-by-side on stage strumming their
guitars and crooning wistfully into their microphones, Rosenworcel
bounces like a spastic Ricky Ricardo, slamming drums, cymbals and
a dozen other assorted noisemakers with his bare hands. The sound
of flesh on steel and snare is uniquely bouncy, almost buoyant,
and downright painful to watch. It's also become a Guster trademark.
It must hurt to slap
bare hands on drum equipment night after night, right? "Yeah,
my hands get swollen, callused and split," Rosenworcel said,
sounding a little tired of what has to be a routine question by
witless journalists. "We played on the H.O.R.D.E. tour in 1998
and I had tendonitis and couldn't bend my right wrist at all. I
had to go with the ol' reliable cortisone shot to the tendon, knowing
that I might be able to play but I was only exacerbating the problem.
Fortunately, the tendonitis went away and hasn't been a problem
since. Now I only suffer little nuisance cuts and bruising."
Yeah, just a little nightly
bruising -- no big deal. To keep the cuts to a minimum, Rosenworcel
wraps his fingers in hockey tape like a boxer preparing for a bout.
He'll get some relief on this tour since he'll actually be playing
with drum sticks on at least a few songs -- a switch that was "intended
to be creative" not an escape from the usual torture sessions.
"I didn't want to
make another album playing with just my hands," he said. "I
added sticks for the sake of grooves and textures. The byproduct
is that my hands are getting more of a break when we play live."
Rosenworcel wasn't the
only one stepping out of the usual routine. He said the whole band
took time to learn new instruments just to avoid repeating themselves
in the studio. "Ryan's playing bass and Adam's playing piano
and doing string arrangements," Rosenworcel said. "Our
whole approach changed."
With more than three
years passing since their last CD, Rosenworcel said the band had
to "relearn the songwriting process."
"It feels like we're
Guns 'n' Roses or Peter Gabriel because we've taken so much time
between CDs," he said. "But bands like us are accustomed
to touring. We spent two years on the road."
said let's embrace the studio and production. This is our
fourth time around, we must have learned something."
hands are getting more of a break when we play live."
while the band was breaking their backs (and hands) selling CDs
in tour stops throughout the nation (they've yet to tour overseas),
their record label, Sire, fell victim to the label consolidation
wars of the early '00s. Reprise, which lives under the same Warner
Bros. umbrella that encompassed Sire, picked up the band. Rosenworcel
said Reprise liked what they were doing, but was a challenge when
it came time to put out the new record.
"We turned it in
and they wanted to hear more," he said. "Instead, we went
on tour with John Mayer last summer, then came back and recorded
a few more songs. The whole process was time-consuming."
Guster ended up spending
more than six months in studios in Los Angeles, New York and Nashville.
"For the first time, we didn't treat recording as 'Let's make
a cool version of our live set.' We said let's embrace the studio
and production. This is our fourth time around, we must have learned
No slouches when it comes
to picking producers (Steve Lillywhite worked on Lost and Gone
Forever), the band brought in a two seasoned veterans -- Ron
Aniello, who has worked with Lifehouse, and Roger Moutenot, who
produced Yo La Tengo's landmark album I Can Hear the Heart Beating
"We all love Yo
La Tengo and brought in Roger with that sort of texture in mind,"
Not surprisingly, the
Aniello-produced tracks, like the first single, "Amsterdam,"
would sit perfectly alongside AOR hits by the likes of Semisonic
and Matchbox Twenty. While the Moutenot-produced songs -- like the
quiet, moody "Come Downstairs and Say Hello," trippy soother
"Long Way Down," and gorgeous, resolute closer "I
Hope Tomorrow Is Like Today," are the most challenging, risky
and creatively rewarding songs on the CD.
Looks like Guster has
changed after all, and for the better, though it might not help
them reap their much-deserved fame.
"We're not so much
trying for a hit or to get played on the radio," Rosenworcel
said. "The focus is on making pure, classic pop music. That
is where we really want to go."
Published in The Omaha Weekly-Reader July 2, 2003. Copyright 2003
Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.