Long-running pop-rock combo Guster embarked on their latest leg of a national spring tour this week in support of their latest album “Evermotion.” Lead singer/guitarist Ryan Miller, guitarist/singer Adam Gardner, drummer Brian Rosenworcel, bassist/keyboardist Luke Reynolds, and a few special guests are set to perform in Charleston at the Charleston Music Hall on Wednesday.
Charleston Scene caught up with bandleader and main songwriter Ryan Miller.
Q: Listening to the new tunes on “Evermotion,” one notices quite a different production quality and overall full-band sound right away. It's cool to hear an veteran band like Guster come up with something that's doesn't sound like anything its previously done. Did the making of this new album require careful steps or did things happen more naturally and loosely?
Ryan Miller: I appreciate that sentiment. I think it's the highest compliment to hear that we've explored new sonic territory, new textural stuff, and new ways of presenting our songwriting style. I think we've done that a little bit with every album, but it was very successful this time around.
Q: Sometimes you hear a band take a musical detour, and it tends to sound like they're simply emulating their favorite bands. “Evermotion” features such an eclectic mix of styles and influences, it's hard to peg it so easily.
Miller: Right, well, we weren't trying to kill the classic Guster sound by any means, but we were trying to put ourselves in unfamiliar territory.
Q: As bands prepare for serious studio sessions, the idea of getting far away from the usual comfort zone and routines can be pretty frightening. It requires an awful lot of trust in the producer who's guiding you along — especially from the main songwriters in the group who might be a bit sensitive about unusual ideas. Did you experience any of that anxiety when you went into the studio with producer Richard Swift [of the Shins and the Black Keys]?
Miller: There are two very distinct chapters of how we made this record: the writing of the songs and the recording of the songs. It really took about two years for us to come with the new material for this record, and that's after recovering from our last tour and having a bunch of new kids. It was a long, drawn-out, steady process.
The recording process was an exact opposite. We'd never made a record in less than six weeks, but this time around with Richard Swift, we had only three weeks booked to record the entire thing. We'd never actually met him before the session. We did no pre-production. We'd purposely left a lot of songs undone, and we didn't over-rehearse. Once we got going, we knew that we were in good hands with Richard, and he did a really great job. We made sure the songs were bullet-proof, but we never felt like the recording process was overly labored. We made the record we wanted to make without worrying about things like perfectionists. We've definitely had the tendency to over-think things before.
Q: Were there any moments when you thought to yourself, “Oh no, what have we gotten ourselves into?”
Miller: We had to constantly and proactively remind ourselves to simply give ourselves over to the new process — over to this kind of guy with his kind of methods, in a way that we'd never done it before. We figured if we don't like it, we can scrap it and try something else. And there were moments that felt so uncomfortable, but we trusted the process. Every day, we'd listen back to what we'd done, and we realized it was working well, in a way that we'd never dreamed it could happen. Like, “Wow, we just cut one song in a day!” It was a totally new thing for us.
Q: Did the experience of making “Evermotion” have a lasting impact on the band?
Miller: It changed the way that we think about making records. It was really empowering to realize that some of the “mistakes” that come up can end up being some of the things you end up loving the most. We knew that already from records that we love, like Van Morrison's “Astral Weeks,” which is loose and has little mistakes all over it. We learned to not let ourselves get in our own way, which we've had a tendency to do.
Q: Was it a challenge to figure out how to render these new songs on stage? It's one thing to tinker and experiment with different instruments and effects in a studio, but it's another thing to present those ideas as a small combo on stage at a concert.
Miller: We've always stuck with the idea that records are records and shows are shows. We've used additional instruments and strings and stuff on previous recordings, and then we simply did our best to play the songs well live as ourselves. We're not trying to be the Eagles; we're not trying recreate our records note-for-note, but we want to make sure that we're not offering worse versions of the songs on stage. I think we're good at making a record and not worrying about the live component until it's time to rehearse for the band for a tour. We cut our teeth as a live band, and we have confidence as a live band. We always figure out ways round the tricky stuff for the shows, and we never let that get in the way of the recording.
Q: Will you have any special guests on stage with you on this leg of the tour?
Miller: Luke Reynolds has been with us as a bassist for five years now, so he's a member of the band. We have invited our drum techs and roadies to help us with a few parts over the years, and this year, we invited Brian's longtime drum tech Dave Butler to come on stage to handle some drums, keyboards, and bass on a bunch of the new stuff. We make it work however we can!
Q: How would you describe the overall tone of “Evermotion?” Was there a conscious effort to create a specific mood or feel, or did it naturally take shape?
Miller: I've always tried to write lyrics that are personal and feel somewhat relevant. I wrote some of our songs 20 years ago, and a lot of them came along as relationship-y songs or existential questions. I've written about various life experiences, but I've never traditionally gone into an album with an idea like, “This album will be about this.” I try to be real and true with the hopes that there will be something universal about what I write about.
Q: Some of your recent shows in Charleston have been big festival-style outdoor concerts. This time around, you and the band will be performing in a more intimate theater setting at the Charleston Music Hall. How do you feel about that?
Miller: I'll take intimacy. I like playing the festivals because we can get in front of some other people, but on these tours this year, we've been playing a lot of theaters and music halls that hold between 800-2,500 people, and they've been really great. I feel like those theater shows suit us well, especially down South where things get really deep during a show.
These new songs cook little bit more live. I's a dynamic experience. The ultimate test of a new record is when you take it out there and you can sense people's reaction to what you're doing. Some have a relationship with some of these older songs, obviously, so it's great to see how they react to the new songs. Luckily it's been really positive so far.