A Guster out of the north-east 

When news spread a few weeks back that legendary jazz vocalist Al Jarreau had backed out of the Savannah Music Festival, many wondered whether another exemplary artist would be tapped to fill that space -- or if there would simply be one less standout show in this year’s event.

Well, another act has been booked, and they’re a well-known group with a solid and growing fan base. However, while those who were hoping the substitute would be a contemporary of Jarreau’s may be disappointed, others who have been lamenting the relative lack of contemporary rock music in this year’s roster may be pleased to know that Guster is on their way.

Formed in the Boston area over a decade ago, this quartet built up a sizable following via relentless touring, grassroots marketing, and a string of increasingly complex and nuanced albums. One of the few independently-minded bands to successfully transition from releasing their own material to aligning themselves with a major label (in this case, Warner Bros. imprint Reprise Records), their burnt-sienna vocal harmonies, chiming guitar hooks, uplifting melody lines, and swirling organ parts openly echo the golden ages of both folk-rock and agrarian power pop. 

Out in support of their latest album Ganging Up On The Sun (their first as a four-piece), this show marks their first trip to Savannah in the history of their band. We caught up with lead vocalist Ryan Miller (who also plays keys, guitar and bass) by phone before a show in Philadelphia.


How’s the tour been going?


Ryan Miller: In some ways this has been our most successful tour, because almost every show’s been sold out. Last summer and fall we toured with Ray La Montagne. We did a bunch of amphitheaters and weren’t quite big enough to fill them. We went back to smaller ones and now they’ve sold out. It’s good for morale. Being a band as long as we have, all the traditional indicators of growth —like  record sales— have been skewed because of the new paradigm. I guess people are still digging what it is we do.


I know you both share a booking agency, but if someone had asked me who’d take Al Jarreau’s place at this festival, I would not have said Guster. How odd of a gig is this?


Ryan Miller: I gotta tell you, I really don’t know what we’re getting ourselves into. I Googled myself one day and it said “Guster replaces Al Jarreau!” Over the past few years I’ve become much more laissez-faire when it comes to booking shows. We have an agency who handles that stuff and in a sense, we just go where they tell us to. This whole Al Jarreau thing is news to me. (laughs)


When playing a wide-ranging festival such as this one, do you plan your sets any differently than you would for a straight-up rock festival?


Ryan Miller: No, we won’t tailor our set specifically for that show. I mean, what would we change anyway? All we can do is sorta show up and do our thing. The key word that makes me feel like we’ll do OK in Savannah is the word organic. That’s something we can feel comfortable with.

We try to create music without a lot of artifice. Of course we use electric guitars and keyboards and distortion, but it’s all song-based. Whenever people ask me what kind of music we play, I’m stymied.

But we’re a song band. We go back to The Beatles and The Kinks. We’re trying to be this classic rock band — but not like Grand Funk’s idea of classic rock! In roots fests, I think song-based bands hold up well, and don’t seem like a bunch of outsiders. We’re all trying to get our songs across. We’ve just chosen to express them a little differently than others.


To give you some idea of what you’re a part of, this Festival is heavily weighted toward classical, jazz and world music acts. They do feature roots music and Americana —they’ve had Emmylou Harris in the past, for example— and they were angling for Lucinda Williams this year, but even she might have been a little too edgy and raw for them.


Ryan Miller: I totally get that. I mean, if Lucinda is a bit of a stretch, and Emmylou’s been featured in the past, then it should be fun, and maybe we can wind up turning on a bunch of people who’ve never heard us before.


Guster worked hard to win underground acclaim on its own terms. Do the artistic values and autonomy of your early days still come into play for the band in 2007?


Ryan Miller: That’s a great question. How much does it influence us? One hundred percent in everything we do. I found the “most-watched” videos on YouTube, and there was this band called Cute Is What We Aim For. Their clip’s been viewed 400,000 times in the last month. You know, I think they might even be on our label. (laughs) They couldn’t be any more different than us. Not just musically, but in their whole ethos. They live or die by radio airplay. They’re very young and have those asymmetrical haircuts. They have a poppy song and if they’re lucky, they’ll get a spot on a big tour.

That’s the quintessential dream of being signed these days: somebody flies in and gives you a big makeover, and you get to be famous for a while. We never did that, even under the major label system. We have a song on the radio and we have a budget for making videos, etc. But Reprise has nothing to do with our tours whatsoever. They’re a partner in our grand scheme of things but they don’t dictate what we do. We’re still trying to make a classic rock record, so the organic DIY ethos that fueled us in our early years is still present in every decision we make. We’re very much underdogs, and our label feels that way as well.

There’s a lot of preconception which surrounds the band. That’s helpful in a lot of ways. It allows us to just go ahead and do our thing and not worry too much about how it will be perceived. We’re stuck in the middle — the big commercial stations say, “They’re not nineteen with asymmetrical haircuts and they don’t scream at me in that whiny emo voice.” The underground community says, “Well, I don’t know... They’re on a major label.” It’s been an interesting decade to put it gently.

But we need having a sellout tour under our belts. Just this last week it has started to feel like we’re still moving forward. Every record we make, we lose some fans who are locked into our old sound. But, we’re maturing and making better music than we ever have, so we’re gaining new people because of that.


Your band happens to be around during one of the most tumultuous times in the history of the recording industry. With the following you now have it seems you could really exploit this. Do you at all itch to get back to the indie business model, and completely control all aspects of your career, now that the internet has busted the biz wide open?


Ryan Miller: Well, we’re part of Nettwerk Management. We’ve had the same manager for twelve years, and Perry Geyer —the head of Nettwerk— is the poster boy for breaking the rules and looking at things in a new way. He had a five-page spread in Wired about busting apart traditional paradigms. So, we’ve talked about this a lot. Our contract with Reprise was up in January, and everybody said this is going great. Let’s finish the album cycle and see how everything went. Reprise doesn’t “get it” on a lot of levels, but on plenty of them they do.

You know, The Flaming Lips are also on Reprise, so the label’s already been through this same sort of thing with them. They don’t have a big hit, but they make a lot of money for the label. They do DVDs, they put out singles. They’re not a precious indie-rock band. They’ll go on TV. They wanna get their music out there.

There was a conversation at the label about how pop music can work within those confines, and we’re really brothers with the Lips in that sense. We wanna make a record, and sell a couple hundred thousand copies. We won’t get rich, but it’s a good cause. Until then, we’re just gonna put our heads down and work with the label. Maybe one day we catch a break and have a hit and play on the Grammys or something.

But, if things keep on like they have for the past ten years, I don’t know what could be much better. I never feel “The “Man” aspect of the label situation. They don’t have any authority over us image-wise, touring-wise or material-wise. We have discussions with them, obviously, but we’re a really established act. They don’t fuck with us a bit, and I think they’re doing a great job.

Our single is still doing well at radio, and we’re gonna play Leno for the second time on the same album. It’s important to remind people you’re not some nostalgia band. “I wanna see Guster ‘cause they’re cute. I saw them in high school.” Fuck that. Don’t just listen to the record we made in 1999 or the one we made in 1996! We’ve moved on and so should they. Now we’re making the best records of our career. So, I don’t see leaving Reprise as being liberating. What would we be liberated from? A lot of people there work really hard for us.


How has the dynamic shifted in the band now that you’re officially a four-piece?


Ryan Miller: Well, there’s a musical component to that as well as a political and personality component — both of which have been greatly enhanced. There’s a lot of power in being a trio, but Joe Pisapia is a wonderful addition. He’s extremely musical. He produces his own albums, he’s a great engineer, and he has an incredibly giving personality. I always throw around words like organic, and this happened in a very organic way. He was a buddy that we’d brought on as an extra set of hands for a tour and after two years it was a time to make the next record and we realized that we just couldn’t do it without him. It was like we woke up one day and he was already in the band. There was no discussion, really. It was like, oh yeah, sure. How could you not be in our band?


You haven’t played here before, have you?


Ryan Miller: No we haven’t, and that’s really amazing in a way because we have literally spent the last twelve years doing loops around the country! I have a lot of love for the oasis of the South, like Athens, New Orleans, Asheville and Charleston. Places with a rich sense of history and architecture and culture. Everyone I’ve ever talked to has said that Savannah is in that elite clique of cities that exude uniqueness.

We were gonna have a few days off after our Atlanta date and were planning on making a trip down there anyway. Then we got this booking, so everything worked out really nicely. We’ll probably have less than a  day to see Savannah, but I’m really looking forward to our visit and wish it could be longer. It feels like I’ve been everywhere in the U.S., but not there.


You should have seen it a few years ago, before some folks started trying to turn us into another Charleston. This used to be a more rustic and funky place, without as much “upscale” development.


Ryan Miller: I know exactly what you mean. I felt that a little bit in Charleston the last time we were there. It seemed a little bit shinier than I remembered it. I don’t know. Perhaps I’ve romanticized it. Maybe our set at the Music Festival will kick everybody in the ass and we can make it a regular stop. I’m going in with eyes wide open, and looking forward to eating some good food and seeing some cool buildings.


I’ve gotta ask you about Guster’s great Last Waltz parody video that’s on YouTube now. How long did it take to make that, and what has the overall response been to it? I loved it, but I know some people thought you were taking a knock at some of The Band’s members.


Ryan Miller: Well, we were asked to do a track on a tribute record that came out in January.  My Morning Jacket and Gomez and Bruce Hornsby and LeAnn Womack are on there as well. We were super psyched to be a part of it because we love The Band. I’ve listened to their albums and —of course— The Basement Tapes about five million times.

When the label was making a little promotional video for the album they wanted us to talk about our love for The Band. That seemed a little dry to us. Our buddy Dave  —who serves as our collaborator on all things visual— thought it’d be cool to try and duplicate a short bit of The Last Waltz, but with us in the various roles. It came together in about a day and a half. We found this blue pool table just like in the opening shot of the real film. It was really fortuitous. (laughs)

He did a great job, and of course the whole thing comes from a place of love. You don’t spend all that time and effort working on getting something so close if you aren’t completely enamored with the subject. You know what I mean? To be honest, I wouldn’t even want to defend it, because we’re such big fans. I don’t think that many people have actually seen our little tribute video, but maybe that’ll be the most watched thing on YouTube someday soon! (laughs)

Maybe you have to know both the movie itself as well as our band to understand where it’s coming from. For people familiar with The Last Waltz, I think they’ll agree Dave did a wonderful job. In the end, I think that’ll be a really cool seven-minute part of our legacy.


How would you describe your artistic legacy?


Ryan Miller: I don’t know, but we can only hope we’ll live up to the artistic legacy of Al Jarreau!


In that case, you realize that people will be expecting mellifluous jazz vocals.


Ryan Miller: You know it. Hey! Find us the most mellifluous jazz singers available! Oh yeah, how about Guster? (laughs)


Guster play at the Lucas Theatre 7 p.m., Thursday, March 29, as part of the Savannah Music Festival. The Format open. Advance tickets range from $20 to $25 and are available online at www.savannahmusicfestival.org, or by calling 525-5050.


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Jim Reed

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