Interview with Ryan Miller of Guster

Guster (by Alysse Gafkjen)

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Guster (by Alyssa Gafkjen)
Guster (by Alyssa Gafkjen)

Interview with Ryan Miller of Guster

As Ryan and I are walking on the frigid sidewalks of Montreal, looking for a coffee shop, a cross country skier passes us. Maybe cross city skier is more appropriate, but it was cold, and the snow was as plentiful as the ads on YouTube.  

I will admit that until this week, I was a Guster virgin.  I must have just changed channels right before their songs played on the radio, year after year, decade after decade, as if the universe was waiting for the right time to introduce me to their sound, and loyal fans.  Oh…ask them about the ping pong balls, next time you meet a Guster fan.  

I don’t know if I enjoyed speaking more with the band or the fans after their show during the meet and greet.  Talk about an interesting group of people. Some came from Ottawa, others from New York City…but they came, through sleet and snow and temperatures only a Polar Bear can love.  They sang to every song, yes, even the new ones.  They danced and swayed, and this invisible tentacle reached out to me, on my stool, and brought me to the epicentre of the musical whirlwind.  

Ryan & Randal and my +1 Cousin
Ryan & Randal and my +1 Cousin

By all accounts, it was incredible.  You can read the review here.

Montreal Rocks had coffee talk with Ryan Miller of Guster.  We spoke about the ability to pee on your own front lawn, the meaning behind “Look Alive”, the Spotify curse/blessing and the driving forces behind a band that is still going strong after decades. 

Ryan:  I really love Montreal.  Every time I come here, I want to meet more people from here.  I have a few friends here.

Montreal Rocks:  The first thing I saw about you guys was on Audiotree, right after you visited NASA.  The “take your band to work” day story.  You put out the invitation:  If anyone wants to take us to your work…  Did anyone take you up on that invitation?

Ryan:  I have a friend that was recently elected to Congress, in the House of Representatives.  I’m hoping the Government goes back to work, because I really want him to take me to work.  I told him:  Man, if you get elected, you will have to show me some stuff about the Government.  It’s next week and I really don’t think the Government will re-open in time.  That would be the ultimate, though…getting to go to work with your buddy who is a Congressman.  

MR:  It speaks to the type of personality that you guys have as a band.  Like today, just walking around, looking for a coffee shop.  Open for anything.  

Ryan:  It’s hard, because as you know, I have kids 10 and 8.  They are at that age where they ask:  Why do you have to go?  I’m going to miss you.  It’s better when you’re here.  All heartbreaking stuff.  I assume as they get to be teenagers, they will have their own life and will care less.  We are in the sweet spot where every minute counts.  We are cognizant of how fleeting this moment is in our kid’s development.  

MR:  You wake up and they are 17 and 19, like mine.

Ryan:  Exactly.  Everybody said the same thing and I know that, even from the last ten years, how quickly that’s gone.  It’s really hard to leave, at this moment, but A:  I’m really proud of the record we’re doing.  I love it.  B:  I really love being on the road.  

For example, I love this coffee shop (Cafe Olimpico).  I’ve been here like a dozen times in the last two years.  I love this other little Croissant place I ate at this morning (Croissanterie Figaro).  I love Larry’s.  I love Schwartz’s.  There’s this cool little place just south of Park Avenue.  I love finding new places, and for us to be able to come here.  

I was just texting the Barenaked Ladies.  We’ve known them for a long time.  We get to see them tomorrow and have dinner in Toronto.  I get to run around the country, even other countries and see my friends.  It’s great!  Every day, if there is something I want to do, I do it.  I have relationships in all these cities and places I love to go to.  

Especially because I live in Vermont.  I didn’t really want to live in Vermont, because I loved living in New York.  All my friends are in L.A., so I love being in the cities every day.  I love touring.

MR:  I think you are like me.  Either right in the city or the country, but nothing in between.  

Ryan:  That was the thing.  My wife grew up in Vermont.  She kept telling me we had to go, she was so over New York.  That’s a tough position to be in, because if you don’t like a place, especially New York, it really can eat you alive.  

MR:  Happy wife, happy life.

Ryan:  Exactly.  We left right after my son was born, 8 and a half years ago.  I was like:  If we are moving to Vermont, I want to live in the woods.  I don’t just want to live in a house in the suburbs.  I want to be able to pee in my front yard…(laughs)…with no one seeing me.  That way, it feels like it’s completely different, in a lot of ways.  When I come here (Montreal)…it’s only an hour and forty-five minutes from my house.  

MR:  You get the best of both worlds.

Ryan:  Which is great!  It’s great to come to Montreal.  I came here to see Paul McCartney, Radiohead and Roger Waters.  We come here to see shows and eat food.  My daughter, a couple of months ago, really wanted to try VR. We just came up for the afternoon and went to a VR house.  

I do feel the city thing, but the country life has been good in a lot of ways.  I have a PBS show in Vermont (Bardo).  I know a lot of interesting people, a different variety of people than if I just lived in L.A..  All my friends in L.A. are actors, writers, producers and musicians, but there (Vermont), they are engineers, doctors, contractors and plumbers.

MR:  You call them weirdos, but in a complementary sense.

Ryan:  Yeah.  Weirdo in a non-pejorative way.  I think weird is amazing and weirdos are great.  

MR:  Way more interesting to talk to.

Ryan:  Absolutely.  Even musically, it’s been interesting, because I can just setup and do my thing.  I feel that being in the city, like when I was in New York, I was really paying attention to all this super cool music.  There’s a lot of focus on what is new…and we are not new, by a long shot!  I think we are probably one of the older, viable bands still working.  There can’t be that many, right?

I think it was ramming me down a little, where I was constantly saying:  Oh, we are not this hip.  We are not this new.  But when I got out of New York, I realized:  Oh!  People do like our music.  It almost felt like it was real life or something.  

MR:  You are more authentic because you are not trying to be what the current bleeding edge is.  

Ryan.  Yeah.  Listen, I love music, just like you.  I was seeing music all the time in New York.  It’s the first thing I do, when I land.  I even looked tonight…who else is in town?  I love contemporary music.  I’m certainly not:  All new music is bad.  We are all so turned on by it.  

The new Album: Look Alive

MR:  When I was listening to your new album, that just dropped a couple of days ago, I was trying to describe it to somebody.  The only way I could describe it was that it was 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s and 10s.  It has a really wide depth of personality.  

Look Alive – Guster

Ryan:  It’s funny.  This producer, Leo Abrahams, who we worked with, was in London when we first talked over the phone.  We were just talking to a few producers, to see if we would get along and see about their ideas.  He’s like:  All your albums are very warm, “vintage-y” and old sounding.  I quite like cold, icy sounds.  (Of course, Ryan is doing a British accent)

We were like:  Whoa!  

<Ryan pauses, as he recognizes the song playing in the cafe.>

This is one of my favorite records, and Canadian too.  Bahamas.  

<back to reality.>

I think we tried to mix some of that stuff.  I love hearing people’s reaction to the record.  It just came out, like you said.  We are getting the Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper’s, Beatles-y, Kinks, but we are also getting compared to contemporary kind of stuff, and we don’t usually get that.  We were using instruments from the 80s!

MR:  Oh yeah?

Ryan:  We recorded the first two weeks at National Music Centre in Calgary, Canada.  It’s a synthesizer museum, ostensibly. It’s funny, we were using old synthesizers, but it ended up sounding kind of contemporary, where music is right now. 

This record feels the broadest in terms of where it draws its sonic inspirations.  Maybe not so much song writing, but yeah, I take it as a complement.  The records I was taking about, Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys, The Village Green by the Kinks or obviously The Beatles are massive influences on us.  I just listened to James Blake’s record that came out yesterday.  Bahamas I’ve seen five times in concert.  

MR:  My instinct told me that the sound of this specific record, was if The Beatles were still making music today.  This is how they would have evolved.  That was my first instinct.  

Ryan:  Wow.  That’s really cool. 

MR:  I don’t know your back history, this is all new territory for me.  

Ryan:  Fair enough.

MR:  So, I’m coming in with a blank slate.  

Ryan:  I love that because people have already decided what it is.  They know what Guster is at this point.  If you’ve been around and like music, you’ve interfaced with us at some level.  Maybe we played your college in the nineties.  Maybe you heard “Amsterdam” on the radio. Maybe you heard “Satellite” in a movie.  The way music works, because there is so much s#!+ that comes at us at all times, things happen and you slot it in, right?  So, you hear Bahamas and you think:  OK…this is kind of cool, good time music.  He’s on Jack Johnson’s label.  It all feels really good and its melodic.  If he made another record, you wouldn’t be like:  Oh…what is he doing now?  We fight that, all of our albums.  Maybe after this interview, maybe just for s#!+s and giggles, listen to our first record.  It sounds nothing like what we just made. 

MR:  I will.

Ryan:  It’s a battle we fight, every day.  Get people to open up their minds that bands can change.  There are a few examples like maybe Sloan or Wilco.  Wilco travelled a lot from their Alt Rock days to a more “noodly” sound.  

For this record, and we are just at the beginning of it, but it feels like we may have established that every record will be different.  It always ways, but I feel that this one is such a departure from the last one that people might start to expect it.  It’s also very competent.  We pay a lot of attention to songs and production.  It’s not like we are just genre hopping for the hell of it:  Let’s do a Polka record!  Let’s do a Brass record!  We are still trying to serve the music and wherever our hearts are. 

My real dream, more than anything, is Coachella, Pitchfork or Newport Festival with people who would never give us the time of day.  If we just sent them the record in a brown paper bag and asked:  What do you think of this band?  I know our record label did that with some radio people.  They were like:  Who is this?  Is this…they would name obscure English bands and stuff.  Nope.  That’s what I love.  

MR:  That would be a good idea for a show!  Bring a blank album, like a taste test.

Ryan:  Do you know who this is?  I love that game, because it allows people to come at it fresh.  A love a fresh perspective, more than anything.  Our history, our legacy, is one of the greatest things about us, but also, in some ways, hurts us because people aren’t ready to blank slate, coming into a record.  It just doesn’t work that way.

MR:  I was taking notes.  Based on my first, first impression.  Right or wrong.  

Ryan:  Yeah, yeah…I love this.  This is great.  No bad answers here.

MR:  Love Alive – sounded very now and fresh.  What is going on right now.  Don’t Go – Abba, Disco…it’s got that vibe.  Like Arcade fire with Everything Now.  <Ryan starts humming it.> Hard Times – Twin Peaks…that background.

Twin Peaks? Hard Times by Guster

Ryan:  That’s cool.

MR:  Hello Mr. Sun – Pink Floyd came to mind.  Old Pink Floyd.

Ryan:  Yep.  

MR:  Overexcited.  Love that song.  I don’t even know if this is the right band, but Housemartins.  

Ryan:  Yeah.  Definitely that 80s Brit Pop.  

MR:  That one lyric, when you say:  “Would you like to have some sex?  And if that’s too weird, maybe just a Hot Chocolate.”  That’s hilarious.  You are a family man.  I’ve been married for over 27 years.  We don’t get to use pick-up lines anymore.  

Ryan:  Nor do I, which is why I put it on the record.    

MR:  Summertime – I got this really deep 70s vibe.  

Ryan:  Yeah.

MR:  Terrified – was where I really saw the modern Beatles.  

Ryan:  That’s cool.

MR:  Mind Control – Big sounds, 70s vibe.

Ryan:  Interesting.

MR:  Finally, Not for Nothing – Indie Pop, again big sounds.

The inspiration behind the album & the fans

Ryan:  Yeah, that was like a big thing.  We’ve always been obsessed with this album, by the band Air “Moon Safari.”  We’ve been trying to make an Air song forever.  We got closer than even on that track.  That’s where we were going with it.  

MR:  You are in Quebec, so there is some French here.

Ryan:  Oh, that’s true!  I forgot there is probably a kind of weird Air crossover here.  I know half this town is probably from France at this point, right?  I feel like people are always saying:  “Ah, the French…they are coming in!”  (laughs)

MR:  I saw also that you are one of the only bands, that I found so far, that is in the dictionary…the Urban Dictionary.  

Ryan:  It’s pretty gross, right?

MR:  No!  It says: “Guster is a kick-ass band and anyone who says otherwise is wrong.”

Ryan:  OK…I hadn’t seen that one.  I’ve always heard it used…in a sexual way. (laughs) Fair enough.   

MR:  It spoke a lot about your fans.  “Anyone who says otherwise is wrong.”  They seem to be very loyal.

Ryan:  Yeah.  First of all, we’ve been a band for a long time. I think at this point, the people who are still listening to us, they’ve grown up.  I meet grown women all the time who are like:  I was listening to you in junior high.  They are like moms, right?  The math works that way, if you saw us in the 90s, it’s very possible.  A band can be a soundtrack to your life.  I don’t know if you have bands like that for you, but there are definitely for me.  Wilco comes to mind.  I still like Uncle Tupelo.  So, I get that, on that level.  

We played to Boston on Saturday, a sold-out show of 2,500 people.  That’s just crazy after all this time to just go up there and wing it.  We make up songs and just try stuff.  We feel very supported by our audience.  It’s kind of small, or medium, but mighty.  I think it speaks to all of it.  There is so much in the Guster ecosystem, you know.  Adam has an environmental non-profit that he’s been working with for 15 years. (Reverb)

MR:  Yeah…Vegan guitars!

Ryan:  (laughs)  Exactly, or sustainably harvested wood guitars.  I score films and TV shows.  Luke’s been playing on a bunch or records.  There’re all these things that feed into the band.  We are pretty much, what you see is what you get.  Like, I wouldn’t talk to you any differently than I would on stage.  

You can posture as a rock star and be Rihanna, Beyoncé, Kanye or Tom Yorke and that’s really cool.  You can have this mystery about you.  We just never went that way, we went the opposite way.  These are our family.  We bring our kids on stage once a year for a thing.  We pretty much lay it out there.  That was the only way we know how to do it.  That helps ingratiate yourself with your fans, when you are just like:  This is us.  They feel like they know you and they kind of do, in a way.  

MR:  I find that you guys have a mindset of abundance, as opposed to a scarcity mindset.  Just with your taping policy, you are ready to give stuff away.  That says a lot about who you are as a person, as a band.  How does that affect the way people give back?  

Ryan:  The main thing I take from all this is that we still have a career.  We have a record label.  We have a publicity department.  We have an amazing management team that organizes interviews.  We have a great crew that comes out on the road that are super pro.  We can play a show…well…tonight will probably not be well attended…I don’t think.  In the States, we can go and play a certain size venue and people show up and they like it.  We just feel really supported.

MR:  You might be surprised.  I came here once for The Staves.  Snow storm, like it was yesterday…and it was still packed!  We aren’t going to fit 2,500 people at the Fairmount…

Ryan:   Dude, I would be psyched with 200.  Really, what they have given us, at this point, is A:  Permission to be our freaky selves.  I’ve been reading every comment on the record in the last week, just to see how it’s landing.  There is always every iteration:  “I wish they would play “strummy” acoustic guitars and bongos.”  That’s where we started, and Brian had a very unusual way of playing drums.  It was a visual thing.  It didn’t help us groove.  Then there are a lot of people that say:  “I love that this band re-writes their playbook every time.”  

MR:  Imagine if you are eating the same meal.  You have to vary it up.

Ryan:  Yeah.  That’s who we are as people.  That’s what I’m saying.  That’s why I was listening to the James Blake record yesterday.  Why I go see music.  Because we are all turned on by all this stuff.  Why I like being on tour, because:  “Where do you want to go for lunch?”  This is who we are as people.  We are very curious people.  We are willing to try new things and fail in a way to maybe succeed in a way we haven’t succeeded before.  That even means making a better record that we’ve ever made before, which is the goal.  I don’t think we made the classic Pop record that we feel we have within us.  I feel like we got really close this time.  Time will tell.  

MR:  The White Album.

Ryan:  Yeah…who knows?  We talked a lot about the White Album making this record, because stylistically, that record is all over the place.  You got “Rocky Raccoon” and “Back in the U.S.S.R.”  I’ve read once that if you took the White Album, you could trace every genre of modern music.  

MR:  One degree of separation.  

Ryan:  Right.  That was never the intent, but we felt confident about it.  Going back to your question…How do you put “Hard Times” on the same record with “Overexcited” where I’m signing with a fake British accent?  Kind of goofy next to Hard Times where there is no irony, no winding, no nodding, no nothing.  Or, “Not for Nothing” and “Mind Control” or “Look Alive”.  Those songs are not similar.  They don’t make for a play through.  The way I can put on a Bahamas record and be like: “This is the mood when I put on this record.”  I love that about the Bahamas, they can go around a theme.  For us, we are empowered to do this because we have fans that support us and will come with an open mind: “Alright, what do you have for us?”  

MR:  I think the days of the album are numbered.  Everything now is singles and playlists.  

Ryan:  Exactly.

MR:  Did you build this album to be a continuous thing or like a buffet, where you get a little of everything?

Ryan:  We’ve been talking about this conversation, for what?  10 years?  The album is dead.  But bands still make records!  Who was the last artist that just abandoned albums altogether?  Pop artists, probably, but bands still make records.  

MR:  I’m seeing a lot of new bands making just EPs.  That’s the budget they have.

Ryan:  That was the idea behind this.  We were going to make 3 EPs with three different producers.  We ended up just crushing it with Leo.  We worked with John Congleton on a couple of songs.  One of them, “Mind Control”, is on the record.  I was like: “Yeah…nobody releases albums anymore.  Let’s just do it.”  

The importance of storytelling

The other thing I’ve been hot for, the last couple of years, is how storytelling really dominates how we consume things.  Who we decide to marry.  Where we decide to go have coffee.  What jobs we have.  I’m going to go to Mexico…what’s the story there?  You had a story in your head: “Why don’t we just do that?”  …and you do it!  That was because of the storytelling component that we all have.  In the context of an album, the storytelling is important, because there is no real story when you just drop a song.  You release these things and go: “Whoa!  This goes with this, and with this.”  Then you, I and our listeners somehow come up with a thread, hopefully, that connects it all.  

That’s what’s really interesting about this part of the process, now that we’ve done it.  What’s the story in your head?  Is it this 60s psychedelic thing that meets contemporary production?  What’s the lyrical themes that are coming out of it?  That stuff all feels really interesting to me, especially because it wasn’t really top down…like this is what we want our record to be.  We don’t know what it’s going to be. We just know how to make these little moments and we will see what the big story is.  

I still think we will do singles and things like that because you constantly need to create.  Management is like: “You guys have taken four years between records.”  You have to keep your fans engaged.  

<Fruit Bats plays in the café>

Oh…Fruit Bats.  That’s my buddy too.  This is great!  I didn’t know they played cool music like this here.  In my mind, this place was always playing Italian instrumental music.  I didn’t know they had that cool, hip indie vibe.  

MR:  It was interesting that I was interviewing a local band called What If Elephants and one of the singers works in a coffee shop.  She talked about the playlists, and requests.

Ryan:  Dude, the playlist stuff is crazy.  The guy that is on tour with us tonight, Henry Jamison lives in Burlington.  I’ve lived in Burlington for four years.  People asked if I knew this guy Henry.  Now…I know pretty much all the musicians in Burlington.  I’ve lived there long enough.  He’s got 50 million plays on Spotify, they said.  Huh?  I’ve never seen him or heard of him.  He and I played a couple of shows together.  

Henry Jamison – Spotify Champ

He is the exact opposite of us.  He’s hardly ever toured.  I think he just made his second full length record, but he has 80 million plays on Spotify now because he got onto this playlist algorithm.  His music is hyper literate, perfect acoustics, tasteful production, and not too offensive in certain ways.  He’s coming at it from the opposite way where he dominates our amount of plays, but he doesn’t have fans yet.  He’s just now starting.  It’s funny to have us both on tour together and be like: “Here is another way you can do it.”  He’s made a good amount of money…you know…when you get to that amount of plays, you can kind of make a living.  

MR:  Especially if you own the rights.

Spotify

Ryan:  Right.  We just played a Spotify event 2 nights ago, at the place where they invented all this algorithm stuff.  It’s literally the algorithmic lab, or something.  I was talking to some of the guys and it’s a dark, fascinating art.  

MR:  It’s a little odd to me, because of my tech background.  You only get paid if you pass 30 seconds of the song.  Does that affect the way you guys write?  

Ryan:  No.

MR:  I didn’t think so, because you already have the fans.  For a new artist, they have to catch people with a hook within 30 seconds or else they don’t get paid.

Ryan:  Yeah.  I do film scoring, commercials and TV shows.  When I do commercial stuff, I sign a deal with a company and it’s basically that.  You have to get them in the first 30 seconds.  You have to change something every four bars.  There is this whole way of doing it.  But we would not put that in our music.  It’s a fun writing exercise to try and make music like that, but I wouldn’t want to do that for Guster.  

The algorithm stuff is fascinating, like Spotify Discover Weekly.  I found a song based on my listening and we are covering it now.  This obscure 70s artist named Labi Siffre with a beautiful song.  (“Crying, Laughing, Loving, Lying”) I never would have known about that song without the algorithm.  I told that story at Spotify.  I was bagging on them a little bit:  “We are all in the algorithm now!”

MR:  That goes to show that we need a bit of curation.  It can’t all be about the ones and zeros.

Ryan:  There’s been a million articles written about this.  There is a really interesting one written by Damon Krukowski of Galaxie 500, the indie stalwarts from the 80s. (Link) He was saying how this one song of theirs fits the algorithm more and it became their most popular song, even though it has nothing to do with their sound.  It was an outlier but got caught up in this whole algorithm.  People taught that was what the band sounded like, but it was just this one song.

So yeah, we need human curation, which is why we are out there on the road, playing shows to real people…IRL.  We are trying to do things that connect us with our fans.  

That’s why Henry wanted to get out of his bedroom as well.  He’s thinking: “This is great, but are people even listening?”  You know what I mean?  Out of the 80 million people that streamed those songs, how many will go hear him play?  I guess we will start to find out.  He’s ready to do that work now.  The streaming is great, but it’s not the whole thing.  It can be, but I don’t think so, at least not for him.  Fascinating stuff.

MR:  Obviously, when you are live, you get the validation, the feedback from the audience.  You get to see the effect of your music.

Experiencing the music, from the other side

Ryan:  I came to the Bell Centre, six months ago to see Radiohead.  It was like church.  I was weeping.  I was ecstatic.  I was with people who had seen the show the night before who said it was incredible.  I was outside of my body.  I’m not even a massive Radiohead fan.  It’s not like I listen to their music all the time.  I was seeing them at the Bell Centre and they were playing this very complicated music with weird time signatures and almost indecipherable lyrics…some weird dudes…and I felt like I was transcendent.  It felt almost spiritual to me.  All of us strangers, in this place…

MR:  In this one time…

Ryan:  In this one time…this one moment…being siphoned through this one band…with the lights and sound…in this beautiful arena…we are all having this moment and it felt spiritual to me.  It felt like church, even if I’m not a religious person.  

I get the music thing, from that other side.  I’m moved by music, all the time.  I just did a playlist for USA Today, this big national paper.  I’m building this playlist for my kids and I so we can listen to it when I’m far away.  It’s called “The Best of The Best.”  I think I’m at 300 songs now.  I put that Bahamas song, and that Fruit Bat song on there.  It connects us in a way that other things don’t.  They’ll (Ryan’s kids) sing melodies from some of the songs on the list every once in a while, and it breaks my heart open in the best way.  I’m like:  OK, this is part of what I’m supposed to be doing right now, helping them in this way.  

The Best of The Best Playlist

MR:  Yeah, giving them that musical education.  It brings generations together.  There is always the rebellious teen who wants to find something their parents hate.

Ryan:  Of course.  I did too.

MR:  But eventually, you grow out of that, and find a common ground and you can really connect.  Music is emotions to me.

Ryan:  It really is.  That’s the driving part of all this stuff.  We know that is true and we take that responsibility seriously.  It’s also emotional with us.  That’s why I rarely sing about bulls*t stuff.  That is why most of the songs we have ever written are these vaguely existential questions of:  Who am I?  How are we living?  What am I supposed to be doing?  

I feel a heaviness.  I put that in the songs because it weighs them down and makes them richer.  

MR:  This is a question I’m going to borrow from Tim Ferriss:  If you could have a billboard with a message on it that everyone could see, what would it say?  

Ryan:  That’s a great question.  This record is written against the backdrop of what has been happening in the States for the last couple of years.  Kind of !@#$ed us up in a lot of ways.  Ultimately, what I wanted to come through on the record was a sense of optimism.  That’s why we called our album “Look Alive.”  It’s just something I say to my kids.  In the morning, we are trying to get ready for school and I’m like:  Alright kids…look alive…let’s go!  It’s a nice thing to say.  “I know you are tired.  I know this is weird.  $#!+ seems like it’s all upside down.  Look Alive…we got this.”

It’s a weird way to promote the record, but I do like that these days.  I would just say:  Look Alive.

MR:  I’m just picturing in my head the album cover and the crazy hat.  I remember going to your merch store and seeing this $999.99 bathing cap…sold out! 

Ryan:  Yeah, it was a joke.  (laughs) We just put it as sold out, we didn’t sell any.  This sense of humour is part of this universe building we are doing.  Somebody had a stupid idea.  “Yes, that’s stupid.  We need to do it.”  We don’t care too much how things will be internalized.  Does it make us laugh?  Does it make us happy?  Then we do it.

MR:  I believe that when you stay true to yourself and follow your instincts and not try to fit the algorithm…that’s when you get the fans that will follow you…for decades.

Ryan:  Exactly.  It’s the same thing with the weirdos, right?  It hit me heavy in a way.  Bowie and Prince died within a few months of each other.  I was thinking:  What !@#$ing weirdos those guys were.  Bowie couldn’t have been further out.  Prince, what a strange mother !@#$%.  Meanwhile, the entire world is mourning.  These were the weirdest dudes.  They were made fun of their entire adolescence, all the way through adulthood, in some ways.  These are now icons.  

MR:  Now they are gone.

Ryan:  Even before they were gone.  Bowie and Prince both got their day.  They were outliers.  You just have to put your head down and forge your own path as much as you possibly can and block out all that negative stuff.  Embrace all your eccentricities.  Follow all your weird instincts.  Know that you will fail sometimes, but that is where the thing is.  

We are a Pop band.  We aren’t Ween.  We’re not Phish.  Within the context of being a Pop band, I feel we are on the outside, in terms of the path we chose.  

MR:  I will finish with another borrowed question from Clay Hebert.  If we are opening up a bottle of Champagne, 1 year from now, to celebrate an accomplishment you just achieved…what would it be? 

Ryan:  We will probably have been on the road with this record for a while.  A great accomplishment a year from now is if we have the same enthusiasm for our album and our career as we do now.  It’s never a forgone conclusion that we’re just going to be a band.  Every record, we have to do a gut check: “Alright.  Do we have anything left to say?  What do you want to say?  Do you want to say what I want to say?”  

Guster (by Alysse Gafkjen)
Guster (by Alysse Gafkjen)

MR:  The statistics are around 7 years.  Most bands fail after 7 years.  They have the high…then the low…then the break-up.

Ryan:  It isn’t riding completely on nostalgia.  We aren’t just playing our 1999 album “Lost and Gone Forever” in concert.  It’s not The Steve Miller Band or something.  We are changing the rules every time out.  I feel confident that we will still be a band in a year, or two.  I think we will probably make another record.  It feels like it.  I hope so.  There’s a lot of good will around us and it’s been a cool job and I like that job.  

Kids and the importance of being present in the moment

MR:  Cool…and get to spend more time with the kids.  Just to put it in perspective, a friend of mine wrote a book called “The Family Board Meeting.”  For him, a board meeting is surfing with his business partner.  He applied this to the family.  He has these board meetings with his kids.  The way he frames it is that we only have 18 summers.  That really hit hard.  

18 Summers

Ryan:  That’s what I’m saying about being present.  The reality is that when I’m home, I’m not going to my day job.  I was home for six weeks before this tour.  I dropped them off at school every day.  I picked them up at the bottom of the hill every day.  I wasn’t the dad coming home at 6 o’clock, eating dinner, reading them a story and putting them to bed.  Maybe this is the story I tell myself, but I feel that, in aggregate, I’m seeing a lot of them.  When I’m gone, I’m gone.  When I’m home, I’m home.  Because we have kids, we put the brakes on a lot of stuff.  

MR:  The way that your present with your kids…and I haven’t seen you live yet…but I think that’s the same way you are present with your audience.  You are present when you make the album.  Being present is what got you this far.

Ryan:  That’s the whole thing.  I’m not a Buddhist by a long shot, but I’m constantly reminding myself to be present.  That’s why I like being on tour.  “Let’s go get coffee.  Where are we today?  Oh $#!+, we’re in Rochester.”  There’s not a lot I love about Rochester on the surface, but Kodak is here, so let’s go to the Kodak Museum!  

I’m trying to be exactly where I am.  Being on stage and being present.  Not being on my phone when I’m around my kids.  Doing the work where I can lose myself in that work, like scoring films or making a TV show.  I agree, being present is the goal.  That’s the most Buddhist thing about me.  That’s where I’m trying to be.


Randal Wark is a Professional Speaker and MasterMind Facilitator with a passion for live music.  You can follow him on InstagramTwitter and YouTube.

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