Skip to main content

Sensi Magazine

It's Miller Time

May 07, 2019 06:39PM ● By Dan McCarthy
If you ask Ryan Miller, vocalist, songwriter and founding member of Guster, how the Hub-born band that nobody could ever quite accurately peg in its up-and-coming days has outlasted other musical children of the early/mid ‘90s local New England band scene, and for that matter have been playing and writing music together longer than the majority of their core fan base had been alive when the band began its first post-college blitzkrieg road tour, he doesn’t really have an answer for you.

“I’m still trying to figure out how to tell the story of us,” he chuckles as we stand outside 32 Aberdeen Road in Somerville, the band’s former home. “Version 1.0 of us 100 percent begins when we meet in college here and basically ends around 1999 when we got our label deal. Up until then, we only had acoustic guitars and percussion to work with, so it was figuring out what kind of music we wanted to continue to play once we started to change things up. We’re probably in Version 3.0 at this point.” Beat, and a laugh. “Maybe 4.0.”

Whatever the current version could be called, it’s in the middle of a national tour in support of “Look Alive,” Guster’s eighth studio album. Besides the songwriting and band-on-the-run hustle, Miller serves as the band’s Twitter overlord, where he’s built their social following from a couple hundred to over a half a million organic followers today.

“People talk shit on there about us all the time,” he says, laughing, “But it gives me an unfiltered look at how our band is viewed in the current pantheon of pop culture. It’s an ego thing. I google our band name multiple times a day to see what pops up. Although I have to take the TV show Psych out of it,” he laughs, “as they have a character called Guster.”

Standing before the former house that Guster built (or the other way around, according to him) has got Miller catching feelings. Miller and the rest of the original lineup of the band Adam Gardner, Brian Rosenworcel (the current line-up also includes songwriter and guitarist Luke Reynolds) have come a long way from the days of heaving couches off the second-floor porch at Aberdeen. “One of the rooms we used for an office for the band, and two of the bedrooms were normcore, like a 10-by-10 box,” he recalls fondly. “But the other bedroom was this massive attic room, and we’d rock-paper-scissors for it, which right out of college was like a luxury suite.”

As a band, the group has averaged a new studio or live release once every four years. Miller offsets his downtime with passion projects, be it scoring films (one required he teach actress Naomi Watts how to play ukulele for a scene) or shooting his PBS show Bardo, a sort of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee meets “Austin City Limits,” spliced with super high definition live music performances of artists pro-filed by Miller, who interviews his subjects while engaging in their chosen pastimes, be it screen-printing with singer songwriters, bird-watching with EDM artists, or even rock climbing with fellow Boston born turned NYC based band Lake Street Dive.

With over two decades behind Guster, Miller looks back fondly at the early days when the band went from writing songs and busking in Harvard Square in the mid ’90s, to landing its first post graduation gig touring a connected network of colleges around the country. “We made this shitty demo tape in the basement where I lived [on Tufts campus], and then suddenly we were booked for 20 shows and could pay our rent for a year,” he says. “That’s when we officially went from a funny little college band to ‘now we don’t have to ask our parents for living money,’ right out of school. None of us even got real jobs after college. We say how lucky we were that college really was like training wheels for what we wound up doing.”

But it was busy Harvard Square where Miller says Guster’s early pre Soundcloud, pre-cell-phone era of success took root. “We were playing for thousands of people a day that would walk by, give us 10 bucks for a CD, but then go back to their home state and share our music with friends. It was all very organic,” he says. “But we always felt completely extricated from the scene here so when we left we didn’t feel like we were losing a part of our culture, considering we were living in our van eight months a year.”

At different times, Miller says despite the band’s arrangement and melody focus, and culling influences from everything from Toad the Wet Sprocket and The Cure to New Order, The Smiths, James, Pavement, Unrest, and others, its sound is regularly lumped together with jam bands or folk acts. “We didn’t know how to solo or improvise like a jam band, and when we’d play folk rooms, they’d say we were too loud, so we didn’t really have a home anywhere,” he says.

And while Boston gave the band its start, including being taken under the wing of The Paradise for early opening-act billing for John Wesley Harding, Bob Weir, Rusted Root, Thanks to Gravity, and other acts, Miller says, “each show we’d have elements that those acts’ crowds liked, so we’d peel off some new fans each time. But we weren’t friends with Letters to Cleo, weren’t cool like the Lemonheads or anything. I remember a big moment for us was when the Boston Phoenix interviewed us about our first album before a show we were playing at the Paradise, but it was for a hit piece about how much they hated our album and couldn’t understand how we sold so many records.”

That near-unlikely success then, as now, depends on a rabid, devoted fan base. Talk to a hardcore Guster fan born before the Regan administration, and you’ll be regaled with stories of days when they were part of the experimental class of a new thing called “college street teams” for fans looking for perks, from selling the band’s record on their college campuses to helping organize shows.

Regardless of any formal declarations of regional identity, the Hub still has a meaty place in Miller’s heart, as evidenced by his glowing savaging of a spread of Red-bones BBQ during our interview. He comments on the fact the bar area is the same as it was since he was a regular fixture downing fried buffalo shrimp. “That’s the shit I appreciate, the way some things around [Boston] are preserved” he says. While lamenting the loss of local color like staple Somerville music haunt Johnny D’s and beloved record shop Disc Diggers, Miller says the Hub hangs onto its old favorites as long as it can, more so than Manhattan, and the community keeping that love alive is still present. “I love that Toad is still doing shows and alive. And The Plough and Stars. Or just seeing the ‘Live Chickens Fresh Kill’ sign when I’m hanging out in Cambridge. And Mr. Bartley’s Burger Cottage, which is normally my first stop in town.”

As for his most cherished Boston story, Miller, like many people, turns to Stevie Nicks. “It was right after Trump got elected, and I was at the Garden to see her show,” he says. “I had hung out with her in a recording studio recently, and she’s the coolest person I’ve ever met in my life. I went to see her that night, and she was casting her spell and really funny, relaxed, not a canned performance. Outside in the world was very troubling, and inside there were probably thousands of people that voted for Trump, yet we were all just in Stevie’s living room, unified. She crushed it.”

Could the shawl-draped enchantress-in-winter be an untapped avenue for healing a polarized and fractured American character? “I wouldn’t be surprised,” Miller says matter of factly. “Everyone loves Stevie Nicks.”