Its changing sonics and longevity have made Guster stand out from the alternative music scene.
The indie band has been making music and touring since the early 1990s, where founding members Ryan Miller, Adam Gardner and Brian Rosenworcel attended Tufts University.
Though the band members have spread out across the country and worked on other projects, the band has kept on keeping on, recording eight studio albums and several other live albums and EPs.
Over the last two decades, Guster’s sound has morphed and the forthcoming album, “Look Alive,” marks perhaps the starkest change in the band’s history. It introduces more synth-based sound that feels both fresh and true to the band’s roots.
Before the band heads to Upstate Concert Hall on Wednesday, the Gazette caught up with Ryan Miller to talk about how the new sparkling-pop-infused sound came together and what got him started with music in the first place.
Q: How did you get into music?
A: My origin story with guitar is that I really liked heavy metal. I heard the Scorpions song “Still Loving You” and it was like a power ballad. I was like ‘Oh I want to do that.’ So I was going to see metal shows in Texas when I was young and I was taking guitar lessons, but I wasn’t really a shredder. It was more of a means to an end, which, I figured out the end eventually was about writing songs. So it wasn’t really about being an instrumentalist. I’ve found my home as a songwriter and a frontman, but initially [I] was a guitar player.
Q: As to be expected of a band that’s been together for so many years, your sound has changed and grown. Can you tell me about your approach to this new album and how it’s [different] from your other ones?
A: I feel like it’s definitely expected of our band at this point. Maybe the only way to be a band for 25-plus years is to change your sound because if you just kept making the same records over and over again then people aren’t probably going to keep hanging unless you have a massive hit song or something.
But I think for us, we’re very creative dudes. We all do a lot of stuff outside the band so we were just interested in different things and the idea was like “what are the things that interest all of us at one time?” We had been writing songs over the period of a couple of years, in between tours and all this other stuff. Ultimately . . . this record really came through because most of the songs were made with our friend Leo Abrahams, who we hadn’t worked with before. He brought a particular skill set to it. Also, there were some things we wanted to do on this record that were a reaction to our last record that we made with Richard Swift. We didn’t want to make that record again, not because we didn’t like that record and we love Swift, but we really wanted to do something different from the last record. I think some of that was tied into fidelity; we just wanted it to sound like a high vibe record and that’s what we ended up getting with Leo and our mixture.
Q: Where did you do most of the recording for [“Look Alive”]?
A: It was kinda all over. We started at a keyboard museum in Canada called the New Music Center, which was amazing because it really helped inform a lot of the sounds on the record. Then we did some of it in Montreal and then we did a bit in New York City and we did one song with John Congleton in L.A. and we did some in Nashville. So it wasn’t all at once.
Q: What was one of the most challenging parts of making the album?
A: You know, sequencing the record was kinda the hardest part in a way because the studio stuff just went great. I mean, with Leo we were off to the races. There really [weren’t] any major showdowns.
But I think at the end, and it’s actually been my problem now, is the album is kinda all over the place. I mean, there’s definitely a through line, but the difference between “Hard Times” and “Overexcited” is night and day. So when I was starting to play the record I’m like “what kind of record is this?” If I play “Hard Times” it feels like Tears for Fears or something super contemporary but then if I play “Overexcited” [it] sounds like madness. Then if I play “Look Alive,” they’re like ‘This is Peter Gabriel on mushrooms.’ So it’s been a really hard thing to figure out how to talk about.
Q: I suppose that’s the best [challenge] to have.
A: Yeah, because you’re done! The reality is no one listens to albums anyway so the stakes aren’t that high.
Q: [How does that impact] planning your line-up for live shows?
A: We’ve been a band for so long. We honor the fact that people have spent a lifetime [listening to us]. There’s moms that have come up to us and have been like “I started listening to you when I was five” or “I heard you in high school.” So we respect that people have spent a lot of their life listening to our band. Part of the joy of playing shows is that we can be there and play those songs and have those moments, but we also don’t want to be purely a nostalgia band. So we like to try to mix it up between old songs and new songs. At this point we’ve made eight records so there’s a lot to choose from in a 27-song set and we try to vary it from night to night although there are certain songs we play every night.
Q: Can you tell me about how the song [“Hard Times”] came to be both musically and lyrically?
A: We write songs a lot of different ways. Sometimes I’ve written a song at home and that’s the whole song. Certain songs like “Satellite,” we worked on for like six months and we tried to change the lyrics a million times and we eventually ended up where it was. “Hard Times” . . . I don’t think we’ve ever written a song like that before. We were just about to go into the studio — I think it was a sound check in Rochester — and I had just gotten this vocal pedal and I was kinda fussing with it. Luke played a chord progression that he had had for a long time. So I was sitting there, looking through presets on this pedal, singing into a microphone. We did it for 12 minutes and then at the end, Brian was like “That was amazing.” and I was like “what was amazing? I was just f***ing with my pedal.” He’s like “No, no. I had somebody tape that, there was some good stuff in there.” He went and found these five little moments and then when we were in Montreal we built the whole thing up in the studio, which we’ve never done. We got a drum machine, we put it through an amp. I wrote the lyrics in the studio. I think that’s why they’re pretty on the nose in a way that most of my lyrics aren’t. It didn’t really go through the normal [process]. We wrote it and recorded it in the studio so it was kinda too late. I regret nothing, I just think it’s a really interesting way that we did it.
Q: Were there any specific influences on this album musically speaking or lyrically?
A: I was writing lyrics over the last [three years] and so I think all of our lyrics ended up being very existential; less about boy-girl stuff and more about “this is how I’m figuring out the world.” So it was written on the backdrop of what had been happening politically and I think that’s why we called the album “Look Alive.” [I was] grappling with [questions like] “How do we find the optimism in this and is it okay to not be optimistic sometimes?” I think that’s lyrically where it was coming from.
Q: What do you hope longtime fans see in the album?
A: Each record of ours has been a step somewhere and I feel like this is our most contemporary-sounding record. I hope that people can come at it with an open mind. Our fans at this point know what to expect from us. My dream is to have the album delivered in a brown paper bag because some people are like “Oh, okay, I saw Guster in college. They’re a college band.” Or “They’re like Dispatch or O.A.R.” No disrespect to those bands but that’s not the kind of music that we make right now. So I hope they respect our musical journey and our musical ambitions, which are significant. There [aren’t] a lot of bands that are even allowed to really change their sound because that’s just not how things work. So I really hope people can come at it with an open mind and take it for what it is, maybe without the history of the band in mind. That would be ideal, even though I’m not embarrassed by our history at all. I feel like it’s very different for us and that’s coming from a band that’s changed their sonics significantly over the course of their career.