The evolution of Guster

Guster comes to Jersey on April 6; Drummer Brian Rosenworcel on the band's 30-year run, Twitter, new music and more.

Guster is almost three decades into their career, and if you’re a longtime fan—as many of us are, latching onto 1997’s Goldfly or ’99’s Lost and Gone Forever for dear life and never letting go of this band that ceaselessly churns out indie/pop/rock songs with catchy melodies and whose down-to-Earth persona and happy-making live shows become annual rituals—well, shit, that makes ya feel old.

But a funny thing happened with this threesome—Ryan Miller, Adam Gardner and Brian Rosenworcel—turned foursome (Joe Pisapia for a bit and now Luke Reynolds) in the last few years. Their two most recent albums, Evermotion and Look Alive, brought in new sounds, rhythms (electronic drums are a Dylan-goes-electric change for a band that famously started with Rosenworcel banging hand drums) and totally fresh sonic arrangements on songs that still, impressively and undeniably, bring the catchiest of hooks and the band’s trademark juxtaposition of cutting and silly lyrics. 

It’s a remarkable evolution for a band that easily could’ve fizzled away or phoned it in playing old favorites for diminishing crowds. It’s blasphemy to say—at least for the old die-hards—but Guster, today, might be better than ever. 

Rosenworcel understands how it goes.

“If you take a band like Spoon or Wilco that I love, I’m really attached to the album I discovered. And it’s hard to evolve with the band, but a lot of our fans have, and the evolution was necessary for us as artists,” Rosenworcel says. “I mean, definitely you have people who will come to a show now and be like, ‘I haven’t seen Guster in 20 years and they didn’t play any songs I know.’ That’s not actually true;  we mix it up live quite a bit, but that’s the gist. … Most people from the Goldfly days at some point couldn’t roll with the changes. That’s fine.” 

After reinventing their sound on the last two albums, Guster is actually going back to some of its roots on the album it’s finalizing now. They recently recorded a few songs with Ron Aniello (famously Bruce Springsteen’s producer) in his Asbury Park basement; Aniello worked with Guster on Keep it Together and Ganging Up on the Sun. They also worked extensively with producer Josh Kaufman (Josh Ritter, Bob Weir, The Hold Steady, Craig Finn) on the forthcoming album, and as Rosenworcel says, the producer pairing lent itself to heading back toward Guster’s acoustic foundations.

“We have been on an evolution. I think about recording in 2020 with this sort of background of upheaval that made us choose to record with Josh Kaufman … who tends to make music with acoustic guitars and pianos and softer drums, so it might be the first point on this evolutionary track where we kind of maybe brought it home a little; like, took a step back,” Rosenworcel says. “It’s tough to know because we don’t always have perspective on that. But, the melodies and the songwriting are really the focus always. We know we have an album when we have enough songs that have bulletproof melodies and lyrics.” 

The hope is that the three songs on which they’re working with Aniello will “cap off enough material for us to find an album that has some sort of thread to it,” Rosenworcel says. The songs on the album have been in the works through the pandemic and the band is feeling kind of itchy to get that work out there.

It’s a different place for Guster to craft a new album than they were some two decades ago on the heels of the uber-popular Lost and Gone Forever. That album, which catapulted the band to a new level of popularity, “just flowed right out of us with our dream producer [the illustrious Steve Lillywhite]” and captured the poppy, melodic, acoustic majesty that was early Guster. The follow-up, Keep it Together, “was a disaster,” Rosenworcel says.

The band was learning new instruments—“bass guitars, amps, keyboards and the kind of drum set you play with sticks.” Plus, Pro Tools, recording software that opened a Pandora’s box of editing possibilities. They spent hours, weeks, months working and had little to show for it. It was tough to reinvent the Guster wheel, especially as they were noticing a more mature, evolving indie pop sound coming to the fore in Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and The Strokes’ Is This It. So they brought in Yo La Tengo’s producer Roger Moutenot, asked friends like Ben Kweller to come in and jam, got a studio in New York, took a trip to Nashville, and eventually grinded out what would become Keep it Together—only to have it rejected by Warner Bros. because it didn’t have a single (“Amsterdam” and Homecoming King” eventually came together).

Twenty years after Keep it Together, Rosenworcel can look back on it with a sense of amused detachment, but also a clear memory of the frustration that recording that album brought—it was, after all, a good album, even though that wasn’t clear in the moment, and the stakes to deliver another hit album, whether Guster felt it or not, were higher.

“All that hard work, all that creativity and focus on sonics,which was the first time we really focused on sonics, I think paid off,” Rosenworcel says. “But as far as pressure to deliver a good album, I didn’t know. We released it and played a big free show in Boston that had so many people there and we signed all these albums, and I went home and checked my email and there was, like, not one message from anyone. Like, ‘Hey, good album,’ ‘Hey, good record.’ So I thought everyone hated it, but over time people kinda really started to appreciate it.”

It’s a little surprising to learn about the turmoil that went into recording that album (or any Guster album) given the happy-go-lucky persona of the band. This is a band after all that would often come out in costumes, whose “Guster is for lovers” T-shirts were ubiquitous in the pleasant indie rock crowd of the early aughts, went through and replaced all the vocals on an album with spoken ‘meows’ to combat piracy, and sometimes sent Rosenworcel out at the end of shows to (endearingly) butcher renditions of tender ballads like “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”

Guster is a knowable, relatable band, seemingly (from the outside) immune to the rigors of the music industry. Rosenworcel hilariously cataloged the bands travels in an early-internet Road Journal that was at its best when he was detailing touring capers like how Jack in the Box wouldn’t serve a sweaty drummer in the early morning who had walked up to the drive-through window. 

But, of course, it’s a more accurate description of the band. And, in time, Rosenworcel in particular has been able to flesh out his perspective as, you know, a human being and not just the drummer in this beloved band that says funny things on stage and on the internet. His Twitter account (which is a good stand-in for the now-defunct Road Journal) is a great follow and offers a platform for Rosenworcel to push outside the bounds of Guster’s relatively apolitical leanings and speak truth to the absurd world in which we live.

For instance, the Guster Twitter handle, run by Miller, “is not allowed to say Donald Trump Jr. is dumb, but I am, and that’s a great tweet right there,” Rosenworcel says.

“I got hooked on Twitter definitely in 2020, and I didn’t realize how much I needed an outlet just for my general thoughts [and to] just be an individual and not have to be, like, the drummer behind the scenes who doesn’t talk into the microphone,” he continues. “So it definitely was something that resonated with me. … I don’t think we’ve actually been shy at all about speaking out about guns or the environment or anything, and the lyrics are not subtle sometimes when we get a little political. But we’re not gonna go on stage and cram that down anyone’s throats. I think people come to a show because they want a break from that.” 

Rosenworcel, an outspoken gun reform advocate and whose pinned post is, “I am waiting for Donald Trump to wake up and start tweeting, so I can zing him with a crushing reply.  Wake up Donnie.  REFRESH.  REFRESH.  What has become of me,” is both aware of the power that a well-crafted message can have and of the limitations of the platform.  

“I think you can find allies, which is nice, but then the Elon Musk takeover of the site, which led to the loudest voices becoming the more extreme voices didn’t do anything good for my sense of, I don’t know, stability on Earth,” Rosenworcel says. “So yeah, it can be a dark place and the less time you spend on there, probably the better your mental health is.” 

The evolution of Guster, and its individual members, is not only limited to Rosenworcel dunking on dumbasses, Miller singing more lead vocals than Gardner (a circumstance of songwriting, Rosenworcel says), and the band having the freedom and confidence to explore new sounds. The band will play with the Boston Pops and the San Diego Symphony Orchestra in June and July, a match made in indie pop heaven (listen to the band’s album with the Omaha Symphony Orchestra for evidence) that displays the depth and flexibility of the band’s songwriting. 

“We have a lot of songs that we were able to go through and make charts for, and then we’re also, like, old and looking for any way to get a new thrill on; thrilled to have the power of all those awesome instruments and musicians behind us,” he says.

Gardner also launched Reverb several years ago, which works to make tours more sustainable and eco-friendly and has worked with artists from Billie Eilish to Dave Matthews, Lorde, My Morning Jacket and more. 

For three dudes who started jamming in their dorm room at Tufts in 1991, it’s remarkable where they’re at today. And that many of us, who started listening to them shortly thereafter, are still with them.

“It’s still really fun,” Rosenworcel says. “We wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t. New music injects some new life into the setlist and it never really gets old to feel like audiences are listening to your music and appreciating it. It’s an important legacy, all those albums, and getting on the bus with your friends—and, we are friends—feels more important than ever in light of COVID and everything.”

Guster plays White Eagle Hall in Jersey City on April 6.

Also this: