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New Groove

Published: 2002/11/24
by Todd Justus


The guys in Guest look tired.

You may have heard of “Guest”: lately. Relix Magazine tapped them as a band on the verge earlier this year. Their debut album, Entrance, received critical acclaim and features an appearance by percussionist Count M'butu on several tracks. They've also forged key strategic alliances with outfits like The Homegrown Music Network and Simon Says Booking. Things are taking off for Guest in a major way.

As part of a new school of thought in the jamband scene, Guest is probably most frequently associated sound-wise with their Midwestern cousins Umphrey's McGee. I had the good fortune of catching both groups at Little Brothers in Columbus back in June, and walked out of the venue convinced that I had witnessed the future of this genre in that potent one-two punch. Guest is unique in that they have managed to create a sound that reflects styles and sounds of which other jam groups have only scratched the surface. Their sound is melodic and floating in the familiar jam way, but refreshingly tinged with the wit and progressive spirit of late 70s and early 80s New Wave.

In their relatively short life span, Guest has managed to assemble an arsenal of more than 70 original songs to go along with an impressive and diverse list of cover selections including Thomas Dolby's "Blinded Me with Science" and Pink Floyd's "Echoes." Where many jambands take the no-prisoners approach of a full-on guitar assault, Guest has proven themselves more subtle in creating a rich sound that highlights each player's strengths. Lead guitarist Drew Slayton and rhythm player J.R. Hecker are more than capable of shredding, but often display a mature patience in not overcrowding the music's soundscape. They leave ample room for a talented and potentially lethal rhythm section consisting of Mark Mantrella on bass and drummer John Garrett, who tactfully guide the songs through changing tempos and styles. The icing on the cake is left for keyboardist and synth-master John Hruby. Hruby is an extraordinary talent, always finding the right sounds and effects to accentuate the songs and continuously surprising you with his ability to solo.

On a chilly, post-Sopranos Sunday night, they file into my living room behind their manager Louis Kontos. I figured there was no better way to get inside a band named Guest than to have them come over to my house. They've played 27 cities in 36 days, and not even 24 hours ago finished a gig in Bowling Green, Ohio, that was the last stop on a tour that took them on a winding route throughout the Southeast. Yet here four of the five of them stand, a bit road weary but still charged from a successful run. Things are certainly taking off for them, but on a November evening in central Ohio, you'd be hard pressed to find four guys more down-to-earth. Tell me about your origins as a band.

John Garrett: We met at Ohio University, some of us went to school there and some of us were just living there at the time. Louis, our manager, knew Mark and John (Hruby)...

J.R. Hecker: He kind of knew us all individually. None of us really knew each other.

Garrett: Yeah, Louis knew each one of us so he got Mark to play with Hruby…

Hecker: And I was playing with Hruby at the time…

Garrett: And Drew and Rhuby knew each other…

Mark Montrella: And there were some other random people that were there.

Hecker: There was a Monday night gig at The Swindlefish in Athens, and these guys had gotten the bar to guarantee that they'd be able to take that night, so it was really a matter of who else was gonna play. It was like three guitar players, and some singer guy showed up, and some people got cut and some people made it. It just kind of ended up being what it was.

Louis Kontos: Their first practice session was on a Saturday and their first gig was the next Monday.

John Hruby: There wasn't even a song at that point. We didn't have a name or anything. Can you share some thoughts on your influences. I think they may be different than what people expect from a jamband.

Hecker: The five of us, being that we met in such strange circumstances, we all came from really different backgrounds musically. What we prefer to listen to individually is very different from what we play together as a band. When I spend my free time listening to music, it'll be something like Paul Simon or Bob Marley, which wouldn't necessarily make it into the music so much as it would influence it. John (Garrett) listens to a lot of the guitar singer-songwriters, Willie Nelson, stuff that doesn't even have a drum in it. And Mark comes from a heavy metal background. Hruby's influences are probably the most played out in the music because they're more from forms of music that are very orchestrated and thought out. You know, like Genesis, Yes, bands like that.

Hruby: All of our influences were put together, and basically spilled out over a short period of time. We all have different opinions on what we like. Talking Heads is one of the themes we all agree on. I noticed you cover "Found a Job."

Hruby: Yeah, I love that tune. And some of the electronic music, too, is what I've been into, because we're making a shift more toward…a lot of the jambands are pushing the envelope a little harder. Like Particle and Sound Tribe, they're doing their own thing but they don't have any words. We're more into the songwriting aspect of it. We still want to keep it danceable, though. We definitely want people to dance.

Montrella: I think over time people have something more to grab on to with better songwriting, lyrics, structure. We've seen some bands hit it kind of quick with one specific sound, and I don't think you can put Guest in one specific category.

Hecker: That's what we don't want to do – stereotype ourselves. It’s interesting that you guys bring that up, because in the press I’ve read about the band it seems that much has been made about the electronic or organica aspect to your sound. But when I listen to your music, I hear characteristics of really good 70s and 80s rock and New Wave that you don’t expect to hear from a jamband.

Hecker: I think that's the thing. We can call ourselves rock & roll still. There's definitely a huge element of rock & roll in our music, and that's what people relate to – the raw aspect, but bringing a little bit of that complication, syncopation and just pure groove aspect of electronic music into the mix.

Hruby: It's about timing, too. We're having another shift in music culturally. Not so much for jambands, but like the 70s to 80s switch with Punk moving toward New Wave with the Heads and Blondie and all that. I'm looking for something like that to happen jam-wise. You're seeing The Strokes, The Vines and whatnot come back and try to do this rock & roll thing, and I think there'll be more of a switch to…not so much 80s electronic music, but something a little more dancey. It's gonna be a little more synth-oriented, but still rock. It just seems to go in cycles like that, and I feel we're in one of those cycles. It's a newer New Wave. There are a couple of bands doing that in the mainstream, but nobody's ever done it in a jam sense.

Garrett: And we've got a whole host of gear options these days that the old jam scene never had. So that maybe incorporates a different element, too. And me and Drew, we're the oldest members of the band and we're pure products of the 80s. So that influence, whether conscious or not, it's still in my head somewhere.

Hruby: We love the 80s. It's a guilty pleasure.

Hecker: We definitely like the 80s a lot…there's nothing wrong with that. It’s great that you’re unashamed about it. And you pull it off. A lot of jambands, if they’re playing an 80s song, they do it tongue-in-cheek, kind of as a parody. But you guys do it and rock it out.

Hecker: We did a Blinded Me With Science once that was like 23 minutes long, and the jam in the middle went off into this straight techno thing before coming back into Blinded Me With Science. People didn't know whether to laugh or just dance, like get down like they did when they were 12 years old or what.

Montrella: But let it be said that there's a lot of bad stuff that came out of the 80s as well. Lest we forget. You just finished a substantial tour of the Southeast. How does being on the road for extended periods of time affect your creative process?

Hecker: I think that's the number one thing we discovered in the last month: six days out of seven playing is very good for us from a performance perspective. In the first leg of the tour we hit Richmond (VA) and it was our tenth show in eleven days. It was the longest continuous span of music we've ever done and everything just kind of changed that day and it's been consistently different since then, and I think it has a lot to do with playing six shows in seven days.

Montrella: At some point in that situation, you have to start trying different things.

Hecker: If you have four days off between gigs, you can forget that you played that one line three shows in a row.

Garrett: It becomes more automatic, plus your chops are just there continuously.

Montrella: You just push it until everybody gets into it. Then, when you reach for something, it's there. So from a musical perspective what did you learn about yourselves on this last tour?

Montrella: We went into this last tour with a pretty good idea of what we were in for, I think, because we have been consistently on the road. So I think it's a culmination of the first show until now and us just using this most recent thing as a stepping stone. The good thing about us is that once the music starts, everything else is bullshit. It's like, "Here we are, we're playing another show and we're all having fun."

Hecker: That's the interesting thing about us – we weren't really friends before we got in the band. I think a lot of bands have started out as friends. We had to get to know each other through playing in a band. The most familiar thing for us has always been the music.

Hruby: We're just trying to get fans to like our music. We're trying to find out who those people are that like our particular style. 'Cause we don't even completely know what we're doing yet. The style is still evolving. I think the next year will really define what we're gonna sound like. We've been moving towards…something. You just have to go with it.

Garrett: That's what you learn on the road, to go with it. Roll with the punches when the Chinese food delivery guy runs over a thousand dollars worth of lights!

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