brent johnson reminisces with Guster’s Brian Rosenworcel, the only drummer who’s ever offered him pasta …
Twenty years ago, three students at Boston’s Tufts University started a band with a simple setup: two voices, two acoustic guitars and bongos.
In the two decades since, Guster has evolved into a reliably consistent, subtly creative and wildly underappreciated alt-pop-rock act.
They straddle the line between commercial and cult success — never selling out stadiums, but attracting a rabid fanbase and sharing bills with Dave Matthews Band and John Mayer. On their early records, singer/guitarists Ryan Miller and Adam Gardner and percussionist Brian Rosenworcel showed that you need only a few instruments and solid songwriting to create a thick sound. In 1999, they released one of the most underrated albums of the ’90s: the richly textured, heartbreaking Lost And Gone Forever. In 2003, they scored a sizeable radio hit with ‘Amsterdam’ and began mixing banjos, synthesizers and even a full drumkit with sticks into their sound. And last year, their most recent record, Easy Wonderful, accomplished something rare in pop: exploring religious themes objectively, without sounding like Christian rock.
Guster has celebrated its 20th anniversary by doing what they’ve done for years: playing venues packed with fans. They’ll visit the Wellmont Theater in Montclair, N.J., with singer-songwriter Brett Dennen on Friday and Saturday.
Pop-Break’s Brent Johnson spoke with Rosenworcel over the phone about Guster’s early days, how they write songs, and who in the band grows the best beard.
Pop-Break: So, 20 years …
Brian Rosenworcel: Yeah, we met 20 years ago at Tufts. I don’t know when we actually started playing. But we’re up there with R.E.M. and The Rolling Stones for longevity. And only for longevity. [laughs]
PB: Do you remember the moment when you said, ‘We should get together and play’?
BR: Yeah, that was early on. We were all talking about our high school bands — kind of bragging about them, kind of mourning them. This was entering the [school] orientation, as far as I remember. So, it was early on. We said, ‘We should jam.’
PB: What was your high school band?
BR: It was called Toejamb — with a ‘b’ on the end. We played Grateful Dead covers, ‘Losing My Religion’ by R.E.M.
PB: Did you play bongos in that band, too?
PB: You had no aspirations to play drums with sticks at that point?
BR: No, I mean, it was something to do when my friends started playing guitar. I wanted to hang out with them. I had to do something, so I started playing bongos. And when I went to college, I brought my bongos with me and put them on the shelf. I didn’t expect anything to come of it.
PB: Do you remember the point after the three of you got together when you knew this was something real?
BR: You know, we played a couple of covers. We played ‘Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard.’ But from a very early point, we started writing. The first song we wrote was ‘Fall In Two’ [the opening track on their 1994 debut album, Parachute]. We got excited enough. And people would come and see us at a party or the campus center, where we could get a gig, and they were excited by our original material. So, from an early point, we put the focus on songwriting and took our pride from being able to craft a song. And that really hasn’t changed in 20 years.
PB: What is the songwriting process for you three? Do you sit down together in a room and jam? Or does someone bring in something and you work from that?
BR: It’s both of those things. We’ve been doing it long enough at this point to know that having rules about it will probably limit you. The only rule is: The best melody wins. If Ryan comes in with a song that’s three-quarters done, and we just work out our parts and arrange it, that’s great. A lot of songs come that way. But a lot of songs, we’ll just be in a room messing around, and we’ll come up with something that feels really cool, and someone will have to put a melody to it.
So yeah, we write in various ways. And now we have Luke in the mix [multi-instrumentalist Luke Reynolds, who replaced producer and longtime fourth Gusterite Joe Pisapia last year], so he’s got a lot of energy to add to writing. We’ll see what we come up with this time.
PB: Is Joe is no longer involved with the band?
BR: Luke is definitely the person who will be on tour with us and be Joe’s replacement. The circumstances of Joe leaving were: He was writing the songs for and recording k.d. lang’s album, and needing to go pursue that because he was very connected to that. That’s something we were very excited about for Joe. I really do hope that we can go down to Nashville and write some songs and do some recordings with him, because our relationship was great with Joe.
PB: Something that drew a lot of attention was all the religious writing on your last album, especially from Ryan. Do ever have anyone come up to you and say, ‘Why are three Jewish guys singing about Jesus?’
BR: There was a lot of that when it first came out. Then there was kind of the next level, where people started to figure out the song ‘Stay With Me Jesus’ was a praise song on the surface, but below the surface it was actually quite critical.
It’s kind of what Ryan’s been doing all along, with songs like ‘All The Way Up To Heaven’ and ‘Two At A Time’ and getting his Biblical references on [Miller studied religion in college]. But this was just a little bit more of a direct way of putting across his point. Some people think his point is one thing, some people think it’s another.
But we are culturally Jewish in this band. And I think ‘Stay With Me Jesus’ is a pretty agnostic song, personally.
PB: Religion has become this topic that’s so polarizing in music. You almost can’t write about it for fear of being labeled a Christian band. But it’s a topic just like anything else — like love or breakups.
BR: Yeah, and it’s where Ryan drew inspiration from when he was writing that song. It was one of the rare occurrences where Ryan’s lyrics came at the same time as the rest of the song. Usually, the lyrics are the last thing. They have to be sort of forced on less naturally at the end. So, he definitely had been inspired by the topic. I think he had seen the devastation in Haiti and seem some of the faith people had in the wake of that, which he thought was misguided. Because if one person lives, what about the 10 people next to you who didn’t?
But I agree: It’s a topic that shouldn’t be taboo. And it’s a topic where the people who couldn’t believe we got all Christian on this record probably need to listen a little closer.
PB: You yourself started writing lyrics a few albums back. How did that come about?
BR: Part of being in a democratic band is you need to pitch in where you’re needed. Lyrics have always been something that have kept our records hung up. They’re a hard part of the process for us. During the Keep It Together record, I just had to fill some voids. ‘Keep It Together’ is one of my favorite lyrics that I’ve written, and ‘Red Oyster Cult’ I like, too. So I wrote four songs on that album and then three or four more on Ganging Up On The Sun. Which was great, but ultimately, if Ryan has something he wants to say, it’s better for him in my mind to be singing his own lyrics. He’s got to be on stage feeling it as he sings it. So this time around, I think I really only wrote ‘Hercules,’ and the rest were all Ryan’s lyrics.
PB: You guys have a pretty devoted fanbase. Has it gotten to the point where you recognize people from the stage?
BR: Yeah, we’ve had a lot of people that have stuck it out with us as we’ve changed from album to album. Now, they’re all in the front row and I make eye contact with them, and they kind of roll their eyes at me if we play ‘Amsterdam’ or whatever.
There’s also a lot of new people. We like that. It’s awesome when people can hang with us and roll with the changes and that people are just being exposed to us, even in our 20th year.
PB: You played bongos with nothing but your hands when Guster started. The liner notes to Lost And Gone Forever even state that ‘No sticks were harmed in the making of this album.’ But you’ve played full drums with sticks more and more over the last decade. Is that easier now? Do your hands hurt less?
BR: It’s easier in some respects. Definitely physically, I can live my life without pain. And I can get through a show a lot easier without bruising myself, which was an important thing for my own longevity. But it’s also not easier and not as good because I can’t always articulate with sticks what I’m thinking in my head. Which was not a problem on the hand drums. The challenge for me is to try to mix the two together in cool ways. That’s what I try to do every record. But ultimately, if the hand drums are being forced, I don’t want to do that. I want them to be useful hand drums.
A lot of songs — like ‘Satellite’ and ‘Homecoming King’ and ‘Bad, Bad World’ — there’s a kit, but a lot of my percussion overdubs are worked in and there’s congas and there’s bongos. That’s what I’d like to do in the future: Mix the two up.
PB: I remember you played Rutgers University in New Jersey in 2002, and you spent two hours slamming your fingers onto bongo skins and metal cymbals. I met you backstage, but when I went to shake your hand, your palm was filled with ice cubes. I felt bad. Then, you offered me some of the pasta you were eating, which was nice. But I wondered how much your hands hurt after a show.
BR: You know, when I look back on it now, I can’t believe what I put up with. But when you’re in that moment, it’s really intense on stage. Trying to put the band on my back and carry a song, certain songs especially, to another level was very important to me. So that was more important than whatever the repercussions were.
That time at Rutgers, I was actually in pretty rough shape. In 2002, I remember a show in Montreal with John Mayer. I had a finger where I feel like I did some nerve damage. I did something to it, and it didn’t ever respond the same way. That was part of when I realized I needed to make some changes.
PB: Did you ever break a bone in your finger?
BR: No, I’ve never broken a finger. I’ve never done anything more than flesh wounds live. I’ve heard some rumors from people like, ‘His finger had flown off during the show.’ That always makes me very happy. I love legends to be like that.
PB: Did you ever think Guster would still be going 20 years later?
BR: God, no. We had no expectations, we were surprised by our popularity and have been very grateful and tried to nurture it as best we can. Things for us are changing. We have kids now. The number of months that we can tour and the amount of time we can get together to write can’t be as long as it used to be. So we have to adapt. It takes us three or four years to put out an album, but the important thing for us is: Every time we do, there’s not a weak track on it and we’re breaking ground for us.
PB: What’s next for the band? A tour? Another album?
BR: I think we’re going to start working on some new material. We have two shows at the Wellmont that we’re excited about — with Brett Dennen. Then, we’ve got an acoustic tour we’re talking about for March, which will be really cool. We’ll change up the setlist and play some songs we don’t ever play and bring some strings with us. No electric guitars, no keyboards. That’s in the works for early next year.
PB: I was at the show at the Beacon Theater in New York last year where you played your classic album Lost And Gone Forever in its entirety. And it was fantastic to hear it all live — especially hearing rare songs like ‘Rainy Day.’ Are there plans at all to do that for Goldfly or another record?
BR: Our first album, Parachute, is turning 20 in two or three years. There’s not a ton of love for that album in our band. But a lot of fans would want us to do that with that album. Anything’s possible.
Lost And Gone Forever is a special record because you can go play it live and it sounds almost exactly like the album. By the end of that tour, ‘Rainy Day’ was the one song I was looking forward to every night. [laughs]
PB: The stuffed animal on the cover of Parachute — does anyone still have that?
BR: That was given to me by my aunt when I was 9 years old. I called it ‘The Big Friend.’ I brought it to college with me and we put it on our album cover when we were juniors. It has since been stolen out of a trailer in New Jersey. [laughs]
PB: That’s horrible. I’m from New Jersey. So I apologize for my home state.
BR: It’s not your fault. It just kind of happened.
PB: Each of you have had beards at some point over the past few years. Who grows the best one?
BR: Wow. I think Ryan, only because he’s worked on letting himself go. He’ll get Old Testament on it. I think my facial hair grows faster than anyone. Adam doesn’t even have it connected yet. [laughs]