Without a Net
As the opening credits roll, the film's soundtrack slowly fades in. On the screen, Kevin Kline shuts off his alarm and stumbles around in Fruit of the Looms as the audience hears a pleasant, bongo-led melody. Two male singers vocalize prettily, their harmonies dancing around each other, joining up occasionally in time with acoustic guitars. As the song, "What You Wish For," comes to a close, Kline greets his friendly yellow Lab in the front yard with a hearty "Hello, Guster!"
The film is Life as a House, and not only did screenwriter Mark Andrus give the band Guster a huge shout-out in the opening sequence, but he also named three of the movie's characters after its members -- Ryan Miller, Adam Gardner and Brian Rosenworcel -- and featured two Guster songs on the soundtrack.
"Our goal is to have as many people into our band, to hear it, as possible," says co-guitarist and vocalist Gardner. Andrus, in his own, vaguely stalkerish way, is helping Guster bring this about. Now it's up to the trio to follow through -- which might be a challenge, given the direction of its forthcoming album and the public's historic reluctance to accept changes in sound.
"The first impression of this record is that you could almost change the name of the band," says Gardner.
Guster built a reputation on its unique instrumentation: two acoustic guitars and bongos, with assorted other hand-percussion instruments. The players met in 1992, when they were freshman at Boston's Tufts University. It wasn't long before they started making a name for themselves in Beantown's music scene using the tried-and-true methods of daytime busking and nighttime gigging to grab and hold people's attention.
The group independently released its debut album, Parachute, in 1994, and began traipsing across the country to spread the Guster gospel, free of the restraints -- and perks -- of being on a label. "The label obviously is one way of [getting maximum exposure]; the other way is to tour relentlessly, which is what we've been doing since 1995," says Gardner.
Following their graduation from college, the boys recorded a second CD, 1996's Goldfly, again on their own label. Two years later it was picked up and re-released by Hybrid/Sire; the dark "Airport Song," which sounds like Dave Matthews gone punk lite, was a radio hit.
A year later, Guster released the triumphant Lost and Gone Forever. Recorded by acclaimed British producer Steve Lillywhite, the album is a near-flawless alt-pop venture that many liken to the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, but one that also owes a debt to R.E.M. (In fact, it's hard not to get Guster's "Center of Attention" mixed up with the Georgia band's "Near Wild Heaven.") Rosenworcel's enthusiastic hand drumming serves as a solid anchor for Miller and Gardner's soaring harmonies and pleasant strumming. Boosted by nonstop touring, including spots supporting the Barenaked Ladies and Widespread Panic, the record generated modest sales (approximately 200,000 copies) that reflected Guster's smallish but loyal fan base.
Gardner predicts that a portion of that fan base -- which has grown steadily over the past ten years -- will defect once the group's fourth record comes out next spring (this time on Reprise, another Warner imprint, which scooped Guster up when Sire folded). On it, Guster taps the talents of producer Roger Moutenot, whose work with Yo La Tengo the band admires. "This record is different from the past ones because we didn't limit ourselves to just the guitars and the bongos," Gardner explains. "We're using all sorts of stuff. I picked up a banjo and didn't even know how to play it. Ryan's playing bass; Brian's playing a drum kit, and I'm playing piano. We decided to just have fun and add more colors to the palette."
In addition to expanding their instrumentation, the players decided to broaden their lyrical content, as well. Gardner says that while he and his cohorts are generally jolly people, their music up to now has been characterized by a distinct dichotomy. "The music is happy and bouncy, but when you take a closer look at the lyrics, it's like, 'Ooh, that's dark.'" Case in point: "What You Wish For," which bops happily along even while it laments the hopelessness of dreams actually coming true.
"That's something we tried not to do on this next record. We recognized that it's easier to write downer lyrics, but we don't want a bunch of downer lyrics. There's a song on our new record called 'I Hope Tomorrow's Like Today,'" Gardner says, chuckling. "Ah! Hope! A lyric with 'hope' in it!" Quite a stretch for a band that has written lyrics about a friend's suicide, and has previously kept positive love songs off its albums.
"It's easier to write a 'Fuck you' love song than it is to write an honest, from the heart, 'I love you' song," insists Gardner. "It's so much easier to say, 'Fuck you, you missed the boat, you shouldn't have dumped my ass.' Heartache is easier."
In Guster's case, though, heartache set to acoustic instruments has been a winning formula. The decision to move in an entirely different direction feels at times like a risky proposition to Gardner.
"We've been making music for ten years, and we really want to flex some muscles that we don't have," he says. "I feel like a lot of bands that do try to go out on a limb lose their crowd." He cites the Dave Matthews Band as an example. The fans hated Everyday, which was not a total departure from the blockbuster Under the Table and Dreaming but just slightly different nonetheless. Matthews's newest effort, Busted Stuff (culled from a bunch of previously discarded sessions with Lillywhite) sounds a lot like previous work. Fans wet themselves over it when it was released on the Internet.
"A lot of people do want the same old crap out of a band. I can't believe it!" Gardner rants. "Is an artist not allowed to grow? What's the deal? I guess you have to grow in a direction that people will follow." Apparently, the secret in this biz is to establish a fan base with a tried-and-true sound that sells bazillions of records, then commit oneself to growing as an artist. That way, if the fans hate the new direction, the musicians don't starve to death while scurrying to record a new album that sounds more like the old stuff. Hey, it worked for U2 and R.E.M.
Despite some uncertainties over finicky fans, Guster finds itself in a sweet spot this summer, co-headlining a tour with recent radio sensation John Mayer. "Mayer's audience is exactly our audience. When we told people we'd be touring with him, they said that it was a dream combination," Gardner enthuses. The band has a chance to work out the kinks in its new material while playing for the same people who made Mayer a platinum artist. "There are a couple of new songs we're playing on this tour that we haven't recorded yet," he says. "Having an audience react to something -- 'Oh, okay, you like that?' It's good to have instant feedback."
So playing live is kind of like having sex? "Yeah, except you're having sex with 8,000 people," quips Gardner. Which means that, if all goes well and the men of Guster listen to the cues they are given during the night, they will have that many people coming back for another round. What more could a guy wish for?
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