When Guster went to Calgary to record the band’s new album, Look Alive, producer Leo Abrahams made it very clear: “The world doesn’t need another fucking Beatles pastiche!”
Guster, known for quirky folk rock and pop songs, has constantly evolved since the band started in 1991—now fusing colder sounds with the usual warmer sounds. Look Alive is by far Guster’s most bizarre and darkest album so far—and it’s brilliant.
For the first time, Guster will be appearing at Pappy and Harriet’s, on Saturday, July 13.
During an interview with frontman Ryan Miller, he agreed that Look Alive is the band’s most distinct album to date.
“I think if you saw us back in the ’90s or when we opened for Barenaked Ladies, and you’re just sort of plugging back in, it’s a pretty massive shift,” Miller said. “But I think every record is a different approach. This is the eighth record for us, and I don’t think we approached any of those records the same way. They were all super-informed by songwriting situations, instrumentation, and a lot by our producers. This one was really different; all of them have been different. But this one feels like more of a definitive statement.”
Miller said Abrahams was an appealing choice to produce the album for a number of reasons.
“We talked to a few different producers before we started it, and he said something pretty interesting about how all of our records have a warm vintage feel, and that we were super-cool Paul McCartney kind of dudes, and that we love The Band and The Kinks,” he said. “But he said, ‘I’m more interested in cold and icy sounds.’ I think that was really intriguing to us. It’s not like we wanted to chase the zeitgeist or be like, ‘This is the hit sounds that the kids are listening to!’ We’re very avid listeners and consumers of music, too. I listened to a James Blake record and was like, ‘Whoa, what is this?’ I think there was a purposeful idea of how we would approach this, and we gelled really quick with Leo.”
When the recording sessions began, they had to venture to Canada in the middle of winter.
“We were booked at a studio in El Paso, Texas, called the Sonic Ranch. Leo is from England. About two weeks before, he said, ‘I’m having trouble finding my visa, you guys.’ So we had to scramble and go to Canada. … We did a few weeks in Calgary and a week in Montreal. Then the visa issue was sorted out, and we did about a week in New York, and we also did a week in Los Angeles.”
Guster was once known for a sound with just two guitars and bongo drums. Miller said he is happy with how the band has evolved over the years.
“When I play the new stuff, it’s the most fun for me when we’re out on tour. But we just did this NPR show, and we really stripped it back to two acoustic guitars and a drum kit. We can present ourselves that way still, but I think we tire of those textures and rhythms over the course of a set. It’s really hard to be dynamic that way. I’ve seen few shows where it’s just dudes with acoustic guitars, and it feels compelling. Neil Young might be the exception. I think at this point in our career, the reason that we’re still able to keep going is because we keep it challenging and changing it for ourselves. I don’t think we’d still be a band after 26-plus years if we would have stayed in the same lane.”
Miller shared an amusing story from the band’s touring experiences in the ’90s.
“There was an infamous show at a very corporate festival that was put together … like it was done by someone who has never put on a concert before—like, ‘Let’s get the biggest names in music and put them on a festival together,’” Miller said. “It was us, The Tragically Hip, Barenaked Ladies, Limp Bizkit, and probably Metallica or something. It was sponsored by Oldsmobile. There was this huge Oldsmobile banner behind us, and they were showing commercials. I was freaking out, given I was in my 20s and was like, ‘I don’t know, man. This doesn’t feel right.’ Gord Downie from The Tragically Hip was there, and we were on the same label, and I told him about how I didn’t feel right about it and asked him what I should do. He said, ‘Speak your heart, Ryan.’ I said something into the microphone and got in a trouble with the people who were supposed to pay us, and it was documented in papers like the Chicago Tribune. That was some real low-hanging fruit for sure.”
Miller said the band’s popularity has led to some odd tour pairings.
“We opened up for Widespread Panic for an entire tour, and it was our first national tour. It was a disaster! Their fans hated our guts,” Miller said. “They hated us so much that they wouldn’t even go into the building. We’d finish playing, and 20,000 people would stream in. We were the go-to college band, and colleges would be like, ‘We’re going to do Guster for these guys, but we’re also going to do hip hop.’ We opened for Nelly, and we opened for Kanye West. There was no overlap between fan bases. I can’t believe we opened for Kanye; that’s crazy, in retrospect.”
Miller said one of his favorite things to do while on tour is check out the Atlas Obscura website for odd things to see in each place—and, of course, Pappy and Harriet’s is listed.
“I celebrated my 40th birthday there,” Miller said. “I took a few friends of mine from Los Angeles, and that was our first stop. I have crazy stories from that weekend. (Performing there) has been on the bucket list for a long time. It just ended up being part of a weirdo West Coast run that we’ve had in our dreams for a while.”
Guster will perform with Kolars at 8 p.m., Saturday, July 13, at Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, 53688 Pioneertown Road, in Pioneertown. Tickets are $31. For tickets or more information, call 760-365-5956, or visit www.pappyandharriets.com.