The Universal Language
Talking with Guster
By Lindsey Lowe Osborne
Have you ever seen a toddler dance to music? I have a two-year-old son, Emerson. The other day I caught him on video singing “Rivers and Roads” by The Head and the Heart—he has great taste already. That song must be like a lullaby to him; I’ve played it over and over since he was a baby because it gets me.
But back to babies dancing. A few weeks ago, I caught Emerson really jamming out in the backseat. “This cool song!” he yelled as he bobbed and jabbed his fingers about somewhat rhythmically (he got both my good musical taste and my dancing skills).
The song? “Raspberry Beret” by Prince. Gifted though he is, Emerson has very little grasp on the kinds of things you find in a secondhand store; in fact, he grasped nothing about the song except for how it made him feel. He didn’t need to get it to love it. He didn’t need to understand it to know what it said.
That quality of music—we have all bobbed our heads and a fair amount of us have jabbed our fingers around because we’re feeling it—is what Brian Rosenworcel of Guster says has kept the band alive for 27 years. “Music affects everyone. I can’t think of many languages that are universally spoken the way music is,” Rosenworcel says. “And the songs come from a creative space within you. You don’t have to think too hard, you just feel it. I’m lucky to make a living this way.”
Rosenworcel—known as “Thundergod” to the band’s fans—is an original member of the band, which was born in Boston in 1991 after he met Adam Gardner and Ryan Miller at Tufts University during their freshman year. They began playing together two months later and released their debut album, Parachute, in 1995. Their third full-length album, Lost and Gone Forever, released in 1999, took the band into the mainstream music realm, with their song “Fa Fa” breaking into the Top 40. (Luke Reynolds has joined and made the group a quartet, if you will.)
After doing something for 27 years, you’re bound to get better—and you’re bound to change. Rosenworcel says the band’s hallmark has been their shape shifting from coffeehouse acoustic jams to rowdier, riskier rock, and sometimes back again. “We had a collective and very difficult epiphany around the year 2000. We had just released Lost and Gone Forever, which was our seminal record, and the one that captured our original instrumentation in a satisfying way,” Rosenworcel says. “I think we sat down to write songs and no one wanted to play the same instruments anymore. The next few years of teaching ourselves bass, drums, piano, etc. were very humbling but ultimately liberating. Keep It Together (2003) is an ambitious transitional record that came out of our ‘aha’ moment.”
Beyond that, the band is also beloved for its humor at shows—they once started a show with an empty stage and then charged the stage as excited game show contestants with “The Price is Right” music playing—and their connection to the people they play for, often signing autographs and regularly updating their road journal on their website, guster.com. “Every time we show up somewhere and the room is full, I’m grateful and relieved,” Rosenworcel says. “It’s not something to take for granted, a dedicated fanbase. Part of me thinks they’ll all bow out one day, like a light switch. Hasn’t happened yet.”
They’re also well known for their harmonies, with both Miller and Gardner on lead vocals (sometimes at the same time). Over the years, as Rosenworcel explains, they’ve shifted their sound and thus the way they create it shifted to include more instrumental variety; to keep things interesting, Rosenworcel also occasionally sings covers for the band’s encores.
Guster has a new (still untitled) album on the horizon, as well as a show for you Birminghamians on Nov. 9 at Saturn. Included with the price of your ticket, you’ll get good music, rollicking humor, and the chance to feel alive. That’s what music does to you, after all. “Of course you hope listeners connect to it; after all, we connect to it. It totally validates us when other people connect to it, too,” Rosenworcel reasons. “But when we’re writing music we don’t take that into account. We write for ourselves and if we concerned ourselves with what our fans might think about this lyric or that keyboard sound or this-or-that musical direction, we’d end up going nowhere. So we push the music outside our comfort zone with every album. My dream for it is the same as ever—that it falls upon open-minded ears.”
*12/4: Atmosphere at Saturn
*12/6 moe. At Iron City
*12/31: Anderson East at the Alabama Theatre