The three original members of Guster met as students at Tufts University in Massachusetts and released their first album Parachute in 1994, and it's only been snowballing since. They've built up an almost cultish fan base (full disclosure: this writer is a cult member) across the country and around the world that tunes in to their indie-pop-rock-slightly vintage weirdo kind of sound. It's a hard genre to classify, but those who love it are rabidly obsessed. SFR caught up with founding member Ryan Miller in advance of their first-ever Santa Fe show and only acted a bit like a sycophantic super-fan.
SFR: Correct me if I’m wrong, but is this your first time in New Mexico to play?
RM: [Sighs] Yes. No? No. I think we might have been there once before? Maybe we opened up for John Mayer. Maybe that was in Ariz—I think it was in New Mexico? Maybe it was in Albuquerque? I don't know. I feel like it might be.
I’m glad we were so memorable!
Well, I was just in New Mexico two months ago. My family did a road trip through New Mexico and Arizona for winter break, pretty much specifically to go to Meow Wolf. And also Arcosanti [Arizona], and then we filled in the gaps. We did White Sands, we spent a day in Truth or Consequences and then Gallup. It was really charming and awesome. So my most recent New Mexico memories are quite vivid and awesome.
In my estimation, the latest album, Look Alive, is the most political album you guys have put out, even though it’s not really overtly political. What would you say to that?
I don't know, the lyrics were written in the context of all this stuff that's been happening in the last couple years, and I think this is the most tumultuous and political climate that we've been in, so I don't know that I set out—and maybe now that I'm getting on in years, I'm more emboldened to speak to this stuff, where maybe when I was younger I felt like I lacked gravitas to be able to talk about it—but I think it is sort of a political record, in a way. I mean, we certainly don't say the word 'Trump' or 'Republicans,' but there's a lot of this sentiment in there.
But I don't know—and you can maybe speak to this too—I feel like it's always sort of existential stuff with us, in general. You know, it's not all boy-girl stuff, there's stuff like 'Manifest Destiny,' and there's a B-side, 'G Major,' that was very overt. … And a lot of times I don't do a lot of navel-gazey stuff about what it is, I just try and follow an idea to its completion, and it's only maybe six months or a year or six years later that I'm like, 'Oh, it's obviously about this thing.'
I woke up the morning after the election and wrote 'Look Alive' as sort of a response to that or a way to process it. It's obviously a massive thing that's happened in my lifetime, in my children's lifetime. I'm not at all surprised that it's being read that way.
Well, another part of that question was, with the song ‘Hard Times’ in particular, it seems fed a lot by being the father of a daughter.
Yeah, I mean, that one is an aberration on the record. We wrote that one in the studio, we wrote the lyrics in a couple days. Some of these I work on for a year, or have them around for a year—but we just wrote that, and it's a little more plainspoken than most of our lyrics. Probably, given more time, it would have obscured that a little bit more. But … it's talking about hard times, there's some #MeToo stuff in there, some technophobia in there, it's a little more plainspoken. I love when people do that, but we don't want to write 'Let's Roll.'
Oh yeah, when I was 16 and saw Neil Young at Madison Square Garden and he played ‘Let’s Roll,’ I was like ‘Yeeeeah!’
[Laughs] Yeah, but you're not still listening to it.
So, for more on Look Alive, I felt validated when I read it was recorded during this freezing cold Canadian winter. Because it feels cold, whereas much of your sound heretofore has been very warm. What does it feel like to record a cold record?
It's funny that you say that—I don't know if you read the press materials [writer's note: I did not], but that was actually a big rallying cry. It was a big moment that we clicked with Leo Abrahams, our producer. He had said something kind of magical on a phone call; he'd said, 'You know, your records, they're quite warm and vintagey and inviting. And I'm quite interested in an icy, cold sound.' And I was like, that's the thing! I couldn't articulate what it was that I wanted in a record until he said that. It was really nice to have someone say that. …
And for us, a lot of this record was a reaction to a record that we had put out before, Evermotion, with Richard Swift. We didn't spend a lot of time on it, there wasn't a lot of fussing with details or fidelity, it was more sort of a vibe—and we needed to put ourselves more into that process with that kind of producer. But Leo is very fussy in a great way, and we can be very fussy almost to a fault. I think we … managed to come out with something that sounds very high-fidelity, but also, working in this keyboard museum in Calgary, we found this digital sound that we embraced, and didn't try and gloss over and make it sound like a McCartney record.
I think it does sound very polished, but also very urgent, which is a hard balance to strike.
Yeah, thank you. It's a very interesting-sounding record. I was interested to hear how people would process it if we were a more popular band. There were times when we were making the record where I was like, 'What kind of music is this? Where does this slot in?' … We didn't have a target we were trying to hit, as we normally don't. But that in particular, the combination of Leo and the digital synthesizers in these songs that have these feelings, and that we wanted it to be very high-fidelity, but not too vintagey. Something that felt more contemporary and zeitgeisty. … I'm glad to hear it landed that way, especially with an old-school fan.
So, your fans are all friends. If I see someone in Kathmandu walking along with a Guster shirt, I’m like, ‘Oh, that person is my friend.’ I can’t tell you how many friends I’ve made at Guster shows who I’m still friends with. Do you think there is something you guys have done or do to cultivate that, or is that just some magic?
I think we're aware of it more now than we were maybe 10 years ago. I unironically use the word 'energy' a lot in my life, all the time. … I'm very aware of how energy is perceived and reciprocated and perpetuated. And so I think that part of it is that we've always tried to be very sincere, and tried to trade in verisimilitude. We try not to condescend. I think that ethos of our band, where you make fun of yourself, or you call yourself out if you miss something, or you're gracious—I think that kind of thing creates an environment and a fan base that appreciates that. I think that's a self-actualizing thing, and I'd be open to the argument that we didn't even know about it until we saw it happening in our fans. …
It's very humbling and it's really wonderful, because this thing that we do can feel very egocentric and narcissistic. And you go to these shows and you see all this energy process that's happening, and you're like, 'Oh, okay, this is good. It doesn't matter that we've been a band for 27 years. It doesn't matter that Pitchfork wouldn't review our record.' Some of the things that normally I would have been concerned about, it's like—well, no, we're out here making something, or creating this thing every night when we go on tour. … I'm totally humbled by it, and also want to honor it. So we definitely keep it in mind. … And I think it has a lot to do with why we're still a band and why people still show up. Because people are like, 'It just makes me feel good.'
I went to a show two nights ago, this guy Rodrigo Amarante [of the band Little Joy]. I've known him for a long time, but have never seen the music. Everybody in the room—there were, like, 100 of us here in Burlington—afterward we were just all elated. I was like, 'Am I crazy, or was that incredible? That was incredible.' They didn't have a great show; they were like, 'The sound was off! It was our first show with the band!'—but I was like, 'Dude, that was magic. I felt that so heavy.' I'm still even thinking about it, it makes me so happy.
So it's really easy for me to tap into these feelings as a fan, you know. I'm still such a fan of music, and I still go see music multiple times a week. So we're not just doing this stuff from on high, dispensing truths and picking up a paycheck. I know what it's like to be a fan. I honor that.
You mention being a band for so long, which leads into another question; up in Estes Park in February, you guys played ‘Great Escape,’ and after, Adam just yelled, ‘Fuck yeah!’ all excited. And you laughed and said, ‘Who has ever said that about ‘Great Escape’?’ But apparently, this 22-year-old song from Goldfly was still so new and exciting. Why do these songs stay new?
You just have to find the joy in it. If that's not playing 'Demons' for the 7,000th time in your life, then it's playing 'Demons' and cluing in on people who are feeling it. Like, 'Oh, that's real. They're having a moment.' That's gotta be the gas in your tank. … I don't know what the combination of our personalities is that it has allowed us to go out there and be uncynical about performing 20-year-old songs—they're not so fun to play, musically. I really enjoy playing the new record, because there's a lot still to discover about it. But then you get to a point where you can play it in your sleep or you can think about your laundry or your emails when you're onstage, and that definitely happens. But I think it's a practice of mine and ours and a lot of people who have been doing this for a long time—I just read a quote from Trey Anastasio about just that, 'I try and feel every note'—and I do kind of think that way.
So something like 'Great Escape;' I don't think it's a great song, I don't personally think it's a great recording. But maybe if you play it, you can think, 'Oh, I see what was good about that.' Or, 'We don't need to do that again, but that was kind of fun.' Whereas something like 'Come Downstairs and Say Hello,' there's a thing that happens in the room almost every night where you're done, and you can feel it, and you're like, 'This is an important song for a lot of these people, and we still really feel it.' And then that whole feedback loop happens on the energetic level. But I also feel it in playing 'Look Alive'—there's just something happening … where I can feel an energy shift and I can feel people key in in a way that maybe they don't with some other of the newer songs, and that's that very esoteric thing. … It's a critical, palpable moment in a show.
Okay, yet another direction: There’s a rumor that you’re retiring the Pac-Man suit that you wore for almost every show last tour. Is that true?
Oh yeah, 100% true. I think I saw it on TV on a sports broadcaster, and I was like—oh.
Yeah, it’s done. So what is going to replace it?
I don't think it's going to be [one] thing. I have to pack, actually, tomorrow, but I do have some things I'm going to start working in and see how they go over. I don't know, I just kind of feel like dressing up a little bit. Again, it's like verisimilitude, but I'm getting older and I'm getting weirder and I want to be weirder and I want to, like, dress up for a show and be like, 'It's showtime, everybody!'—I just like that I would put on a suit.
Also, with this record, I was playing a lot less, playing less guitar, playing less piano, and just being a front man. I don't know, I like playing rock star a little bit, but in a way that's not like, 'I'm the rock star, pay attention to me.' It's like, me telling you I get to play rock star. Which I feel is a very crucial difference, and which I also feel is pretty on-brand with all the stuff I've been talking about the last half hour. [Laughs]
So, when you come here, you’re playing Meow Wolf. Thoughts?
I can't say enough about the Meow Wolf experience and how cool that is. We went all the way out there to just luxuriate in there. We watched the documentary, and it's such an interesting story. We were in Santa Fe for three days, and … I couldn't really crack Santa Fe, but I love the story of what they did there and what's happening now and what they're trying to take on. It's so cool that this is our first show [in Santa Fe]. … I love that there's these little iconoclastic places that pop up in the middle of nowhere and take on a life of their own. Conceptually, I'm such a fan of it, as an artist. I can't throw enough goodwill that way.
Yeah, in the beginning of our conversation, I was thinking, ‘If they didn’t remember the first show in New Mexico, they’re sure gonna remember this one.’
We literally took this trip so we could go to Meow Wolf my kids, who are 11 and 9, they were amped up to do the whole thing. I can't wait to go back.