Ever since their humble beginnings at Tufts University, Guster have always sought to outdo themselves. They sell out New York's fabled Radio City Music Hall one year and perform with the Boston Pops at Symphony Hall the next. They sell out a 33-date college tour, and this past spring founded the eco-friendly Campus Consciousness Tour, with buses powered by biodiesel and performances powered by wind power. It's in this overachieving band's nature to one-up itself.
So don't expect it to be any different with the release of Guster's new album, Ganging Up on the Sun. The Boston-bred band's fifth studio release may be a melody-minded, breezy, free-spirited, literate pop record like its predecessors--2003's Keep it Together, 1999's Lost and Gone Forever, 1996's Goldfly, and 1994's Parachute--but this time around, Guster are "more fearless than ever before," says singer-guitarist Ryan Miller. They've pushed themselves both stylistically and emotionally, resulting in their most confident and superlative work to date.
"This album has our loudest song ("The Beginning of the End"), our quietest ("Empire State"), and our longest ("Ruby Falls"). "One song has one of our most sincere lyrics ("Hang On") and definitely some of our most cynical." While Miller doesn't cop to any specific lyrical themes ("I write a melody and words pop up around it"), he does note that most of the words were written against the backdrop of "a president taking a country to war based on some very dubious rationale."
You can hear a thread of dissent in songs like "Captain," "Lightning Rod," "Manifest Destiny," and "The New Underground." "But I never want to be preachy," Miller says. "I'm not telling you whose face to throw a pie in. I'm just trying to exorcise some frustration, some anger, and maybe a provide a channel for someone else's frustration and anger."
Ganging Up on the Sun's sunny, driving-with-the-top-down melodies, vintage harmonies, and warm guitar jangle do recall artists you'd associate with the '60s and '70s--bands who also wrote during a time of war and societal mistrust of government--such as CSNY, Mamas and the Papas, Fleetwood Mac, the Band, the Rolling Stones, and Tom Petty. Are Guster wearing their influences a bit more on their sleeve this time around?
"The word `classic' was used a lot throughout recording as a goal for the sound of this album," singer-guitarist Adam Gardner says, "and it definitely has a more classic rock feel to it." Adds Rosenworcel: "I think when we switched from the `just guitars and percussion' shtick to using whatever was in front of us, we ended up sounding more like bands we were listening to."
The shtick he's referring to is Guster's early years as a trio when, onstage, front men Miller and Gardner stuck to acoustic guitars and Rosenworcel played bongos with his bare hands. They've come a long way since then, and even added a member. Ganging Up on the Sun is Guster's first album as a four-piece: Joe Pisapia, a Nashville-based multi-instrumentalist who played on Keep it Together and performs with them live, joined full-time when they began recording the new album.
"Joe is by far the best musician in the band," says Miller. "He can play every instrument and has taken our level of musicianship up about seven notches. Brian, Adam, and I spent ten years together in rooms, buses, and vans--it means so much to have this new energy as part of our equation. It still feels very much like Guster, just a more confident, muscular, refined Guster."
Not only did Pisapia add texture and oomph to the tracks by playing banjo, dulcimer, trumpet, and lap steel guitar, he also served as producer for half of the songs, which were recorded at Nashville's Sound Emporium and completed at Pisapia's home studio, Ivy League, from January to April 2005. The second batch were recorded later in the year at the secluded mountaintop studio Allaire in Shokan, New York, with Ron Aniello, who also worked on Keep it Together.
"I think in the back of my mind I knew we were writing our best material yet," says Rosenworcel. One of the highlights is the lead-off single "One Man Wrecking Machine," which is about a guy who hates his life and wants to go back to "the good ole days" and hang out with his buddies, get high, and make out with the hottest girl in school, as Miller puts it. "I've had that fantasy my entire adult life," he says, "Like, what if I had the confidence of a 30-year-old man as a high school sophomore?"
Another highlight on Ganging Up on the Sun is the seven-minute "Ruby Falls," a celestial epic that features an uncharacteristic muted trumpet in the outro ("I listen to that solo and think `that's on my record'?" says Rosenworcel). "Personally, I can't wait to play `Ruby Falls' live," says Miller. "Not just because I love the song, but because I think there's a power to it that may even be bigger than what we captured in the studio. Or I could be wrong and we'll sound like the Carpenters."
"I just love that our band feels unpredictable right now," Rosenworcel says happily. "I love that no one knows what to expect from us."
Pop quiz, no cheating: name a band that, fifteen years on, is operating at the absolute peak of its creative powers, making the most inspired, timeless music and playing to the largest audiences of its career? The answers don't come easily, but we have one: Guster.
Few would have predicted the evolution that Guster has undergone, but then, Adam Gardner, Ryan Miller, Brian Rosenworcel and Joe Pisapia have been quietly confounding expectations since Guster began recording 15 years ago. With their new album Easy Wonderful, the quartet has made a piece of art that rewards each listen. With the reflective opener "Architects and Engineers," the pop gem "Do You Love Me," the optimistic anthem "Bad Bad World," the wall of sound production of "What You Call Love" and the haunting ballad "Stay With Me Jesus," Guster have created the best album of their lives.
The four-year gap between their last album, 2006's Ganging Up on the Sun, and Easy Wonderful was a bit longer than the quartet had anticipated. Miller admits, "I wish that it had taken two months instead of this long, but I feel like we did everything we had to do to make a great album." Work commenced in 2008 -- which was a big personal year for Miller, Rosenworcel and Gardner, as they all became fathers for the first time. To accommodate their growing families, the band decided upon a different tack in songwriting. Miller says, "Rather than the way it was before where we would live together for four months, this time we would work for like a week or two, break for a couple weeks, work on stuff on our own and then come back. We worked really well that way."
When Guster started thinking about going into the studio, they decided they wanted to work with an outside producer. Gardner explains, "We did the last record ourselves. But this time we thought, `We all now have kids, we're all going to be fragmented, we're all going to be coming in and out of this process, we need somebody who's got their eye on the prize the whole time.'" After trying out a few different people, David Kahne (The Strokes, Paul McCartney) became the clear choice. Pisapia says Kahne impressed him with his ability to get inside their new material. "His notes on the songs were so astute and so attentive. He knew every part of every song and what was special about it. He spent a fair amount of time with us in rehearsal before we even went into the studio and he'd have very specific suggestions about certain parts - even how to play them."
The recording sessions were quick and efficient, but the group didn't feel fully satisfied with the results. Gardner says they made the decision to take a break from the recording process. "We all retreated to our corners. We all had to step away from it to see what we needed to do to improve it." During this break Miller started writing a couple of new songs by himself, but found he couldn't recapture the spark which had made the band's first group of songs so compelling. Miller credits a deep and soul-searching conversation with Rosenworcel in breaking his creative logjam. Miller says, "Brian and I had a conversation and it was like, 'Right, we can do this.' And I just kind of let go of everything. I just decided I was going to write music and I didn't care what it was. And then the floodgates opened, like it never had before for me. It was really amazing." In an explosion of creativity, Miller penned six songs in a couple of weeks. The band listened to Miller's demos and were thoroughly reinvigorated by the new material.
Guster reconvened in Nashville at Pisapia's brand new Middletree Studios, which the talented multi-instrumentalist built by hand with his fiancee. He says he wanted to make a comfortable place to work where "you could take a record from A to Z." And his three bandmates agree that he succeeded in creating a work environment that brought Easy Wonderful to the next level. Gardner says, "Physically and emotionally Joe's studio was so different, we'd been in this basement studio in New York City, cramped in this space with no windows that we jokingly called 'The Dungeon.' Joe's place is totally the opposite--, this stunning open-concept studio that has a great vibe. We found ourselves hanging out there even if we weren't recording. There was an immense feeling of freedom the moment we left New York and started recording in Nashville."
The quartet quickly recorded Miller's new compositions as well as tweaking a batch of songs they recorded with Kahne. The end result of the two recording sessions is what Pisapia calls "the classic Guster pop record. And that's what I always thought we should do. We had our period where we've tried on a lot of different hats and different musical costumes, which is a lot of fun. But this record feels a lot more germane to who the band really is." Rosenworcel adds, "When I try to describe our album to people I've been saying, we really just honed in on trying to write 12 great pop songs. I think Easy Wonderful is more consistent than anything we've done."
Gardner says that the process of creating Easy Wonderful has been a turning point for Guster. "I feel like we learned a lot and came out of it as stronger players, writers and record makers. We feel more energized about our music and playing together than ever. I think we've shot past where we've been and we've made a better record than we've ever made before."
So how does an album end up being called Easy Wonderful? Miller says his family was driving through Brooklyn one day when his wife spotted a sign that said "Easy Wonderful Corporation." Miller then told his bandmates about the sign in passing one day. "We had been talking about the album title and I told the guys my wife saw that sign. And Brian immediately said, 'I like Easy Wonderful a lot.' And I was like, 'That wasn't even a suggestion!'" Gardner feels the title is appropriate for the album he's most proud of in Guster's career. "It's a really accurate description of what making the record at Joe's was like. It was our best recording process ever. I think we're in the best spot we've ever been as a band working together, and it shows on this album."