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Guster: Keeping It Together

story by tim mcmahan



Lazy-i: July 2, 2003

w/ The New Amsterdams
Wednesday, July 9
Sokol Auditorium

13th & Martha

More Guster?

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

Check out the Dec. 2, 1999
Lazy-i interview
with Ryan Miller.


Seems with Guster, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The 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.



"I 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."

"We said let's embrace the studio and production. This is our fourth time around, we must have learned something."




"My hands are getting more of a break when we play live."



But 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 something."

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 as One.

"We all love Yo La Tengo and brought in Roger with that sort of texture in mind," Rosenworcel said.

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."

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Published in The Omaha Weekly-Reader July 2, 2003. Copyright 2003 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.