Guster’s Easy Wonderful: 20 Years with Brian Rosenworcel
RR: What about your slow evolution towards a drum kit on the songs, as opposed to your more common hand percussion used both on stage and in the studio?
BR: You know, when you’re writing music, you have to follow your muse, and it’s where my head was at as far as making these songs speak, and making the grooves speak. I know our fans, one of the things they love about us is the presence of hand drums, and, often the presence of hand drums instead of the traditional kit. I’m conscientious of that, and I like to add percussive flavors whenever I can, but, ultimately, what we’re doing here is becoming a rhythm section for the first time after years of being a band that didn’t really have a rhythm section. It’s really exciting to me, and it’s just great to see where we can take the music. If Ryan writes something on his laptop that sounds like this kind of garage band, rubber band bass with drum machines that sounds like a Squeeze song, we’re gonna just run with that because that’s something we love. Ultimately, we do what we want, and not what our fans necessarily want. (laughs)
RR: That pulls me back to your comment you made earlier—how would you define the concept of ‘songwriters first and musicians second’?
BR: Yeah, I think that’s always been true of us. I feel like the jamband label that we have had for a good chunk of our career is a misnomer. We’re fans of jambands, but we get intimidated if we’re ever on the same bill as one of them because our skills are in arranging and writing melodies. If forced to solo, we don’t really improvise; we stick to a melodic script that you can sing along to, and each one has its benefit. When we improvise, and we test our musicianship, it’s generally on stage when we kind of write a fake song in the middle of our live set. Clearly, our skill set is on the writing side, and not on the playing side. And it’s always been that way. We just went to college [Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts] and none of us had ever really trained as musicians. Seriously, I just bought a pair of bongos and put them up on my shelf. So that’s why the fourth member of Guster always plays the hardest parts.
RR: Let’s talk about that. It is late 2010, Guster just released their first album in four years, and it is a meticulously-crafted work. How do those songs translate to the stage, and how do they integrate into the set with your older material?
BR: There is a rule in the studio that you don’t worry about how you pull it off live. You just get in there and go down the road you need to go down, and worry about it later. Now, we’re in the ‘worrying about it later’ phase. Fortunately, my drum tech, Scooter, has just become really really good at sitting there behind the drum kit and playing the hi-hat, or whatever I need to complement something, so I can play on the percussion kit. Or, he’ll go and add tambourine, shaker, and hand claps, and we can flesh out the percussion side of these things live. We use our monitor engineer to play keyboards when we need an extra set of hands. I’m always surprised at how well these things can go over live. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that the way we write the songs is often is we’ll be jamming in a room on an idea. The foundation is there to speak live. It’s just that when we get into the production, we don’t worry about having enough man power to pull it off.
RR: Guster was very DIY during the 90s, moved into the mainstream, got a major record deal, lost a lot of that jamband aura, and finds itself in 2010 with its sixth album. What has changed over the last few years for Guster in terms of the way the band presents its work, either via the record label, or its own marketing techniques?
BR: You know—I’m shocked that we’re still on a major label. We had a choice when, I think, we got dropped from Warner Brothers, or we left or whatever, we had a choice to pull a Radiohead and try to harness our fan base to support us, or to seek out another label. Ultimately, nobody wanted to do the Radiohead model because that was sort of like saying, “We’ve already reached everybody we are going to reach.” And, I think our music still has a lot of people out there left to discover it. Our music is evolving in ways that will help us evolve into grabbing new fans; maybe, at the expense of old ones. So, yeah, we pursued the major label thing that adds headaches like the ones we ran into with David Kahne, but, ultimately, it puts songs on the radio that I think deserve to be on the radio, and that I think are better than a lot of songs that play next to them on the radio. It was a decision, and I think that the way we built things up DIY, forming our own record label, and making a living off our web site, and being good to our fans, but we’re just not being good to our fans, and not making any money off record sales. (laughter)
RR: Guster’s video presentations have also evolved in numerous ways. Let’s discuss that content for Easy Wonderful, such as the video contest for “Bad Bad World.”
BR: When you called (I forgot we had a phoner), I was just about to post the winner.
RR: Jesus. The Jambands dude is holding some lucky fan back.
BR: (laughter) The fan contest was, literally, because we came up with one director short. Jeff Garland from Curb Your Enthusiasm was supposed to do one, but he got in a cab accident, and had to cancel his whole month of doing stuff. We shifted some stuff around. We said, “Why don’t we go around to the fans?” The idea was mine for shooting twelve videos for twelve songs. I just felt like if we could get a budget for it, we knew enough creative people who would really like the exposure. I just know that people are more inclined to press play on the video with a Play arrow than on an audio thing with a Play arrow when they’re on the computer. So I thought that would be cool.
It’s been great. My favorite video is the one that Al Jarnow did with his son, Jesse. They did it together when they were at the beach, which is awesome and resourceful and they clearly worked their asses off on it. “Hercules” has reached a lot of people because that video is just so damned cool. We definitely let people do whatever they wanted.
The only one we appeared in was the “Do You Love Me” video, which was the only one that had a real budget. The other ones had small budgets.
RR: How about the Fantastic Heat Brothers work on “This is How It Feels to Have a Broken Heart?”
BR: I thought their video was so funny, especially the pantomime part. That song needed a video like that to not take it so seriously. A lot of these [video] people reacted to the music just right. There’s a video for “Stay With Me Jesus,” which is one of my favorite songs and I was really hoping that whoever did that video was going to illustrate the story, and tell the story because that’s a unique song in the sense that it does tell a narrative-style story. Kathleen Judge, who was in charge of that, absolutely nailed it. She nailed the sarcasm without being too sarcastic, and I was so so happy to get that one, too.
RR: Guster has been together for almost two decades. How has family life, fatherhood, and the passage of time impacted the band?
BR: (laughs) Ummm…well, on the touring side, we certainly can’t tour as much as we used to, or even half as much as we used to. But we don’t want to, either. We’re being more efficient about how we tour, and re-drawing the lines as far as what’s an acceptable amount of time to be away. That part of it is just difficult and not easy.
On the recording side, we came and went from the writing process. Instead of holing up for two months working, we did four days together, took a couple of weeks off, and then got back together for a couple more days, and worked that way, which is good and helped us stay fresh, and not burned out on the writing side, and helped us stay with our families as much as we needed to.
Then, there’s the other side. How can we not make the predictable mellow Dad rock album that people are expecting us to make? Lyrically and energetically, that would be easy to do, so we resisted. We resisted that, and just kind of gravitated towards more upbeat songs and made a pop record that we’ve been wanting to make rather than a Dad rock record that we could have made.