Right before the turn of the 21st century, the melodic Boston-born band, Guster, stood at a crossroads. The group had just put out its third LP, Lost and Gone Forever, and one of the co-founding members needed a change. Comprised of three musicians who met and hit it off immediately at Tufts University in the mid-90s, Guster stood out, in part, because of their unusual lineup: two guitars and a percussionist. No drum kit, no bass player. But in 1999, percussion player, Brian Rosen Worcel, said he no longer wanted to play bongos. He needed more. That moment, when everything for the band could have crashed down, instead sparked the necessary jolt that’s kept Guster breaking new sonic ground ever since.
“After that record,” says vocalist, Ryan Miller, “Brian was like, ‘I don’t want to play percussion. I want to groove like the Talking Heads. I want a high-hat, kick drum, snare. Adam [Gardner] and I were scared at that moment.”
Guster had recorded 1999’s Lost and Gone Forever with famed UK producer, Steve Lillywhite, whose projects included Dave Matthews Band’s Crash. But all of a sudden, the trio had to change from its acoustics and bongos to a more traditional setup. Miller found himself playing bass. The band incorporated more keyboards in their songs. Miller says he was concerned, wondering if the band was going to survive the rearrangement in a time when they were gaining more and more popularity. Already, their records Parachute and Goldfly were underground hits, with favorite songs like the sticky “Demons” and pulsing “Airport Song.”
“After ’99,” says Miller, “it set us off on a completely different trajectory. We had a rule for every record, like, what kind of band do we want to be? Each of our last five studio records is very different, sonically. After we shook off the initial shock, we felt we could do almost anything.”
In the past year, or so, Guster has released two records, the 2019 studio LP, Look Alive, which hit #1 on the Billboard US Independent Albums chart, and this month, Guster released a live album, OMAGAH! Guster With The Omaha Symphony. Listening to the two back-to-back, one gets a sense of the band’s range. On one side, there are glistening pop songs intertwined with thoughtful, well-paced ballads. On the other are rich, deep compositions with enough space to fit a few dozen violins and cellos, pushed by a conductor’s waving baton.
Indeed, Guster doesn’t shy away from new experiences. The band, over its history, has worked in the recording studio with a number of accomplished, though nuanced producers, including both Lillywhite and the late Richard Swift (Nathaniel Rateliff, Damien Jurado). Both are well known in their fields and both have at times-complicated reputations. But, for Guster, working together with each brought out necessary moments of growth.
“Until working with Lillywhite,” Miller says, “we were just a live band. We had the live thing happening but in our heads we weren’t able to record well. Steve was so amazing; he saw something in us. Having that guy in your back pocket saying, ‘Oh yeah, this is good,’ I can’t ever say enough about that.”
Working with Swift, included its share of odd moments, Miller says. In the end, though, despite Swift’s too-regular drinking and having to “throw everything we knew about recording out the window,” Guster was as productive as it had ever been, recording 14 songs in three weeks with Swift. The session, which created a great deal of “trust” between the band and the producer, who passed away in 2018 from complications due to alcoholism, left a lasting impression on Miller.
“I think about him all the time,” Miller says.
Throughout its near-30-year history, Guster has never had a platinum hit. The band never made it to Total Request Live in its heyday on MTV with Carson Daly. In fact, the band’s song “Demons” was only certified Gold “like two weeks ago,” Miller says. But what the band did create for itself was a significant and loyal fan base that continues strong to this day. Born out of Tufts University, Guster, which grew from busking in Harvard Square, went on to play shows in front of tens of thousands. For Miller, who got his first guitar on this 12th birthday, it’s been the adventure he’d wanted ever since starting to write songs in his hometown of Dallas, Texas.
“Next year will be the 30th year that I’ve known these dudes,” Miller says of his Guster band mates. “We played our first show within the first few months of knowing each other and we’ve never stopped making records. We’ve had a very unusual career compared to what we thought would happen. It’s an interesting trip and it feels very unique to be doing it for this long.”
Photo: Maia De Zan Hatch