Guster: Nope, Not a Jamband
Guster isn’t a jamband. Yet, for the past twelve years, the Boston-bred trio has thrived on the fringe of jam-nation, nurturing their quirky brand of pop at the Wetlands and gradually blossoming into one of Bonnaroo's biggest draws. Comprised of collegiate friends Adam Gardner, Ryan Miller and Brian Rosenworcel, Guster spent their first decade working within the confines of two acoustic guitars and a bongo, eventually layering their sound with electric instruments, strings, and a full drum-kit. Adding multi-instrumentalist Joe Pisapia as a roadside singer, Guster has further bridged the gap between organic pop and mainstream rock.
After spending nearly two years crafting their fourth album Keep it Together, Guster returned to the road last summer, clocking in a year’s worth of dates at theaters, clubs, and colleges across the country. Last December, veteran photographer and filmmaker Danny Clinch also captured Guster’s two-night stand at Portland, ME’s State Theater, which resulted in the trio’s first DVD and accompanying live set: Guster on Ice: Live from Portland Maine.
Following an appearance at Bonnaroo, the Boston-bred band completed a co-headlining tour with two of their favorite piano-men: Ben Folds and Rufus Wainwright. Alternating set times each night, and featuring a healthy dose of cross-pollination, Guster pushed their improvisational abilities in a new exciting direction, culminating each night with Folds sitting in for a pair of piano duets. Guster's Central Park SummerStage performance will air on WABC Saturday August 7 at 11:30 PM and on the HDnet Sunday August 1 at 9 PM.
While watching an impending rainstorm circle the roof of his Brooklyn apartment, Guster percussionist Brian Rosenworcel reflected on his recent road stint with Rufus and Ben, Bonnaroo, and why "passed out wookies" make great web fodder.
M-What was the highlight of your recent tour with Ben Folds and Rufus Wainwright?
B- The collaborations: We were clearly having more fun playing Ben's songs than our own [laughs]. It's also fun to have Ben sit in with us on a song like "All the Way Up to Heaven," which has a new energy because someone is playing this ridiculous piano solo. Each of those guys can hold their own with just their piano and voice.
M- At times, each artist on this triple-bill seemed to draw a completely different crowd.
B- I am impressed by the fans who are able to appreciate all three artists on this tour—-it definitely runs the gamete. Rufus is a bit of a wildcard here, but Ben is kind of the glue holding us all together. But all in all, I think the tour has been a huge success and a lot of fun. We actually talked about doing some dates on the West Coast or in Canada if we can work them out.
M-Did you rehearse with Ben before jamming onstage?
B- We'd like to have been rehearsing, but Ben wouldn't let us! He came up to me in Sayreville, NJ and said, "I got this song, Steven's Last Night in Town.' I'm going to play this solo and maybe you can get a jungle beat going and then [speeds up] I'll get behind the kit and we'll both play eights and fours, and then two twos. I was like, "Uh," and he was like, "Great we'll do that tonight!" We're definitely not used to improvising [laughs]. Usually, I refuse to play drum solos. But with Ben involved and the way it unfolds, no pun intended, it's what I look forward to the most every night. When we're onstage, we have this excitement which often leads mistakes, but also leads to a fresh feeling.
M- True or False: Guster is a jamband?
B- I always have a hard time figuring out how we managed to be labeled a jamband, but I guess we do have outros which can be considered "jams." But for a band that is so cerebral about their music, and so focused on melody, it's an interesting tag and it's one we've had for a while. I guess it's something about the eccentric side of the band that resonates with some jamband listeners. Also, we grew up playing the Wetlands, which is known for jambands. But, just because we tour like a jamband and cover a similar demographic, doesn't mean we're a jamband!
M- You shared a bill with many of your former Wetlands’ associates at Bonnaroo. What were your impressions of the festival?
B- Oh, man it was fantastic. We were part of Woodstock '99 which was not, uh, fantastic. [laughs] The people felt like they were being taken advantage of, it was poorly run, and it ended in torches. Bonnaroo really seemed to keep the experience of the concertgoers in mind. The tent areas are well set up, the campgrounds are convenient, and everything is priced moderately. I set up a tent Thursday and Friday night and saw like 15 bands. I wrote reviews of all of them on our web page, so it was good for me as a musician and as well as a fan of the music.
*M- Plus, you found some excellent fodder for Passedoutwookies.com*
B- Yeah, our manager Dalton [Sim] is very much responsible for that. [laughs] At Bonnaroo, there was one guy that was passed out during Primus but still standing. He was wavering like he was about to collapse and people around him were nervous and not sure if they should support him. [laughs]
M- Who would you book to play Guster-roo?
B- I just discovered this guy named Cass McCombs from Baltimore. I think this guy can be the next Neil Young. He is such an amazing songwriter—his songs have a great, mellow feel. But, for something as high profile as Guster-roo [laughs] I'd pick Wilco for sure, Steven Malkmus, and maybe Ween would play with us. But they'd probably be like, "Who the fuck is Guster and why are they putting on a festival?"
M- Guster recently released its first live offering accompanied by a DVD filmed by Danny Clinch. Describe the experience working with Danny?
B- I'm just going to gush: He was our number one choice. We're big fans of that Bonnaroo DVD. He manages to capture a band's essence and not just recreate a rock concert. It's rare that with something like this you can just trust the instincts of your director, but we felt that way with Danny. Towards the end of the concert, they interviewed one of the guys that worked security at the State Theater in Portland, ME. He had this long, curly mustache and there is this artistic interview of him talking about how rowdy fans can be, interspersed with footage of our fans. It really fits in with our aesthetic and we had nothing to do with it. We were watching it and all of the sudden we were like, "Holly shit, this is awesome! Who did this?"
M-Guster On Ice: Spinal Tap or Some Kind of Monster?
B- Well, it's definitely not Some Kind of Monster. [laughs] I mean we could have left the soundcheck fight in there—with me and Adam fighting it got kind of nasty. [laughs] But we were like, no, let's just keep this upbeat and positive. [laughs] If you want to capture the turbulent side of Guster that happens more in the studio than live. [laughs]
M- Do you still plan on returning to the studio this fall?
B- We'll see how it goes. It took us a really long time to record our last album because we were all learning new instruments. This time around, I think it's going to go a lot smoother and I think Joe [Pisapia] is going to produce. I don't think there will be any reverting to old minimalism, but I also don't think it will be Keep It Together 2. I want to bring some percussion and drums together and worry about playing the songs live later.
M- How do you hope to improve future recording sessions?
B- For one, we are going to have the songs written before we record them. That was a big hang-up on KIT. I think we are also going to rehearse them so they feel a bit more live. That’s not to say that we’re not going to overproduce them, because we like over-producing stuff, but the foundation has to have a live feel first. It’s amazing how many of Keep it Together’s songs were born out of just computer riffs and ideas that were pretty scattered and then pieced together in the studio. Now that we're more competent on all these instruments and have Joe involved things will come together a lot smoother.
M- Do you plan to keep Joe on the road for the foreseeable future?
B- As long as he's willing to stay! He's become indispensable to our live show and he is an amazing producer. I think we are going to both co-write and co-produce with him and see what we can come up with without involving any outside forces that be.
M- What’s you favorite track on Keep it Together?
B- I am a fan of "Come Down Stairs and Say Hello." It's the [laughs] six-and-a-half minute epic on there. It's really like two songs in one, which is more of a Rufus Wainwright muscle for us. I feel like the jam, if you will, at the end is much more mature than the one we've been doing at the end of "Fa Fa" for the last five years. [laughs]
M-What does "Come Down Stair’s" lifeline look like?
M- It was built up in the studio. We didn't think we could ever play it live and now it's the first song I put in the set. It goes to show you can adapt anything into a live set if you have enough people in your band.
M- As Guster’s setlist scribe, how do you structure your shows?
M- I make pretty drum-centered set lists. I'm sure if someone else was making them they'd think about who is singing each song and the key each song is in, but for me, it's all about the drum kit, the percussion, and the tempo. But in terms of the flow of a set, I think those things are pretty important. I know a lot of our fans wish we'd play some of the old songs we seemed to stop playing, but when you're up there on stage and really not feeling a song, that shows.
M- Do you think Guster has birthed their "Brick" yet?
B- [Laughs] Not at all! I think "Amsterdam" gets kind of annoying after a while and the same with "Fa Fa." I think "Barrel of a Gun" sounds too thin and I'm not surprised at all that we haven't had our ubiquitous hit yet. [laughs] I think it's all in the writing. We don't try to write hits, but our inclination is to write three-minute songs anyway. If we had a hit, I'd want it to be like a Talking Heads hit.
M- Recently you also added the Talking Heads’ "(Nothing but) Flowers" into you set.
B- We're huge Talking Heads fans. Everything about that band blows me away. We tried to get David Byrne onstage at Bonnaroo, but, alas, no. [laughs] We even tried to use his hairdresser-in-common-with-Ryan liaison, but he had to prepare for a big show on the main stage.
M- For the first time on KIT you also took a stab at writing Guster’s lyrics.
B- Well, we were up against a gun and Ryan had thrown in the towel. [laughs] I spent a few days on "Keep it Together," but with "Amsterdam" and "Homecoming King" it was like, "We'll, we have to sing this tomorrow—-someone write some lyrics." I've had a longtime to regret certain things about that, but I do like the idea of writing a few songs on an album.
M- What’s the forecast for the rest of Guster’s summer?
B- We are playing some dates with Dave Matthews for a week or so in August. I am not sure if that's the Dave Matthews Band or Dave Matthews and Friends, but I am sure Dave Matthews is involved because they sold seventy-five thousand tickets. [laughs] [note: Guster is opening for the Dave Matthews Band] Then we are doing some dates on the West Coast with O.A.R. and we get to play the Greek, which should be great. Then we are going to start writing the next album.
M- Do you see yourself as a musician in ten years?
B- Possibly. I think I'm a good percussionist and a mediocre drummer, but I don't think the hand drum thing is going to last another ten years because of the state of my fingers. We are all kind of producers in this band—songwriters and micromanagers. I'd love to keep up with this for a while, even if that means we're going to be playing "Fa Fa" when I'm forty. [laughs]