Just after Guster’s 25th anniversary of bandhood, lead singer Ryan Miller received the reward of a lifetime; being pulled aside at the airport not for being in Guster, but for looking like “the guy from Home Alone 1”. Not just anyone could handle the (incorrect) comparison to Daniel Stern, but Miller takes it in stride. “I look hot, I don’t care,” he says, shrugging the remark off in his comical matter-of-fact attitude that he’s become known for flaunting onstage and in his songwriting over his career with Guster. Just peep his solo song “The Clown” for the 30 Days, 30 Songs project.
Fortunately, Guster has far more than eccentric anecdotes to show for their two-plus decades of being a band. As Miller puts it, Guster is a band that “never had a hit song” — yet singles “Satellite,” “Amsterdam,” and “Do You Love Me?” spun on radio stations during the 2000s helped grow and groom their hometown fanbase, and 2015 track “Simple Machine” dropped some jaws with more warbled synth than par for their usual alt-rock course. Even in 2017, past their days of mingling in the Adult Top 40 and Billboard 200 and creeping into the more domestic sphere of fatherhood, the Tufts University grads seem to never stop announcing national tour dates, regardless of where they are in the record cycle. Twenty-five years after their conception in Medford, the demand for their signature wonky-alternative is far from “Lost and Gone Forever.”
As a nod to their quarter of a century together, this weekend Guster performs four sold-out shows at the Paradise Rock Club in Boston, a venue that the band feels an “umbilical” attachment to. And with any luck, the band’s four-day concert celebration Thursday to Sunday will be more reflective of the outfit’s musical legacy in Boston than a random airport encounter.
Victoria Wasylak: You guys have four shows at the Paradise for your 25th anniversary. Is that something where the band sat down and said “well, what are we going to do for our anniversary?” or was that a decision made for you by the people who book your shows?
Ryan Miller: It doesn’t really work that way in our band. Our manager isn’t like [husky voice] “alright kids, get on a bus, we’re going to Iceland,” you know what I mean? It’s a conversation that happens between all of us. Everybody kind of brings some ideas. We knew we were coming up on this “big deal” number. We did a big show at the Beacon at Thanksgiving, and that’s when we brought out some old relics from the cardboard box, kind of beginning to acknowledge that is our 25th year of being a band. Obviously [in] Boston we wanted to try something, and the Paradise just seemed like it made sense because that’s kind of where we started, and it’s a little bit, not totally backwards looking, but a little bit of an acknowledgement of having come this far. We kind of work all the time — with record cycles, it doesn’t matter if we have a record out this year or three or four years ago, we kind of just get on the bus when we can.
You guys tour almost constantly. How do you balance that, because all of you have families, right?
Yeah, all four of us in the band have kids at this point. It’s always kind of been flux, and luckily enough, it’s been the main priority for all of us even though we have a lot of other stuff going on in our personal and professional lives. When we all started having kids eight years ago, we knew we had to kind of take a different track — we couldn’t be on a bus for nine months a year anymore because these kids would hate us [chuckles]. To be perfectly honest, it was just practical. The wives kind of all decided to get pregnant at the same time. Because we’ve obviously know each other longer than we’ve known our wives, the wives kind of got together and said “Look, the only way to get this to work is if we all have a kid at the same time.” So Adam, Brian and I all had our daughters within four months of each other, and that was actually really kind of wonderful because we all knew what we were going through.
The thing is about having kids is that you want to be with them, but then sometimes you don’t want to be with them, and it’s really good for you to get away and for the mommies to get away. It’s a big priority for us. The fact that people still keep showing up after all this time is pretty humbling and remarkable, and that fact that we’re still putting out records that we really like and we’re writing new music now — it’s really good and encouraging, even though it’s practically hard because we live in four different states at this point. But I’ve seen that those are the kind of things that keep pushing [us] along. Obviously, friendship and communication etc., etc. I could write a novel.
How do you write song if you’re all in four different states?
Well, we get together and sit in a room for a couple days — which we’ve done a few times this year. I had a buddy in Maine who had a summer house, and we went there for three days. For our New Hampshire show two weeks ago, we were holed up in this rehearsal space… We’ve done it in Nashville. I think we are going to do another writing session in Colorado. And then writing the lyrics falls on me, which is a really hard part of the process, makes it very slow. But it’s kind of in fits and starts.
With the 25th anniversary coming up, is that more like “oh crap, we’re old” or “oh my god, look how long we’ve been successful”?
I’ve pretty much made my peace with the fact that we’re old. There definitely was a long string of years where [I thought] “Oh man, we’re not a young band anymore.” But now I take it more as a point of pride. It’s cool! I don’t know. You don’t really get here unless you’re doing something right. You know what I mean? You could make a band and then put it back together 25 years later, but the fact that we haven’t stopped…. you know, we just sold out the Beacon in New York, and people still show up and the probable feeling of the shows is pretty remarkable, even for stuff we’ve written in the last couple of years.
There’s so many distractions of not living in the same states and all the projects that we do and our families, and the thing really that kind of keeps us moving is the fact that there’s still a Guster bus to get on at this point — it’s sort of driven by the fans. It’s sort of a double-edged sword because you’ve been playing songs for 25 years, and some of these people have been listening to our band for 20 years or more. I know what it’s like to be a fan of music; that’s why I’m a musician. It doesn’t take much for me to put myself in another position of like “Oh man, I’ve been listening to certain records my entire life, and watch certain bands kind of grow.” I kind of grew up with Wilco, in a way, and I grew up with the Cure, or there’s just bands that have been part of my life, so I can see that when people come to our shows, that they feel a way about me that I feel about music. That’s when it gets really heavy and beautiful, and that’s why 25 years is awesome, that’s so cool! [laughing] I can get with that because I know what it means to be a fan of a band.
It’s been such an interesting thing to do and so conventional in some ways, and super unconventional in all these other ways. We played our first of these things in New York and I didn’t actually get hyper-reflective, because it was just kind of a big New York show, but I kind of feel it will come in drifts and drabs over the next six months when we really feel it. But the other thing too is, I’m a pretty contemplative guy anyways, so it’s not like I looked up for the first time — I’m constantly figuring out what the band is, my relationship to it, and what our fan’s relationship is, it’s so inextricably a part of my identity. It’s not this navel-gazing component of “Wow I’m old.”
Is there anything you wish had panned out differently over the course of those 25 years?
I guess? It’s so hard to play that game because we’ve watched so many bands open up for us and go on to multi-platinum success. We saw the reverse curve with John Mayer and Maroon 5 and fun., and I think there’s eight or nine bands who have opened up for us who have literally won Grammys. I don’t know, I think there was this time of “Why are these bands blowing by us?” and there were all these bands that we were opening for that are gone now or just didn’t make good records near the end of their career. That game is super dangerous. I’m pretty happy with my life. I have a cool family and cool bandmates, and we’re still making music and I’ve been able to make a living as a musician and as an artist my entire life. I think that’s pretty insane, so it’s hard for me to complain or be like “Oh, I wish this other thing had happened.” Obviously, a billion mistakes have been made and are still being made. But you know, okay, we’ll try not to do that again, I guess!
If Tufts you could see where you are now, what would you think?
Professionally, personally, musically?
There was a moment when I was listening to the heavy metal band the Scorpions when I was 12 and said “Oh, I want to be a rock star.” Cut to 2016 — it’s 2016, right? — that guy could be like “Oh wow, look what you did!” And we’ve played in front of hundreds of thousands of people. I was actually telling this the other day to a friend; I’m not an amazing musician. I’m not one of those guys you can just plop in with other musicians and be like, “Cool, let’s jam!” I don’t jam, that’s not what I do, and this route to being an artist and being a songwriter and singer, it’s a really interesting track because, you know, I am musical, I’ve been scoring films for the past seven years, all this other stuff is kind of happening, but I don’t think he would have looked at me in high school and been like “That guy’s going to make it as a musician or as the lead singer of a band.”
I didn’t have that kind of charisma of confidence, or any of that stuff. Younger me I think would have definitely been freaked out. But it’s kind of been this reasonable career of just like, we never had a hit song, we never had our big moment where anything massive happened to us. It’s been this thing that rolls along and generally got bigger, and it kind of it where it is now, so I don’t know that there was any context for old me to even understand what this would be. You know what I mean? I feel very lucky, it’s pretty incredible to have children and be able to talk to them and say “This is what Daddy does, he’s an artist.” I feel like one of my kids has a really artistic soul and it’s pretty amazing to be able to say like “You can find a way to live creatively, you don’t have to find some job that you don’t love” or maybe there’s a way to — this sounds so corny, but — to make your dreams come true. I think a lot of kids dream of being artists, they don’t dream of necessarily being accountants. My Dad’s an accountant and he loves being an accountant, but…
It’s funny that you say that you’ve never had a hit song. Do you not consider “Amsterdam” and “Satellite” hit songs?
I mean, did you grow up in Boston?
So, Boston is different. I’m not trying to be an asshole, that might have come off the wrong way, I just mean nationally. Boston radio was great, and we had an amazing record company guy who knows everybody and is a really dear friend of mine, and he asked everybody and just kind of made it happen for us in Boston. It trickled into Maine a little bit and a little bit in Vermont, you know, but if you were to ask somebody in Texas if we have a hit song, or California, or Oregon… no. In Boston we’ve had a lot of support for a long time, but I don’t think that’s been the trend in general.
Maybe this is hard for you to answer because I’m not sure how many years of your life you’ve lived here — I know you’re not from Boston — but how would you say that Boston has or hasn’t changed over the course of your career?
I lived there from ’91, when I got to college, to ’99, so we were there for eight years. We met there, we graduated from Tufts and then we moved to a house in Medford and we moved to a house in Allston, and then we spent three years in a house all together in Somerville. I live in Vermont now. I’m actually I’m in Boston every couple of months, I’ve got a bunch of friends and stuff. The thing about Boston is — I was back actually a couple of weeks ago — Davis has changed, obviously, but I always feel like my relationship changes with Boston. And obviously, Boston is super dynamic, but I always feel like I’m much more dynamic than the city is. I knew that I wanted to go school in Boston, and it was great for us to be there as a home base even for four or five years after we were done. I’m from Texas, Brian’s from Connecticut, Adam’s from Maine — we wanted to keep exploring. That’s part of even what we like about our band is this sense of adventure. We’ve all lived in New York City and lived in different apartments. It felt like Boston, for me, was great to be a college kid, and great to be a parent, but that in-between time, that late-20s time, I felt like it wasn’t gonna serve me in that era. I don’t know if that’s true. I’ve said that out loud before; I’m like “Oh yeah, Boston’s great if you’re in college or you’re like, older.”
I lived in New York City for 12 years with my wife and we left six and a half years ago, and I would have moved to Cambridge no problem. I love Boston, and I’ve had a renewed love affair with it over the last 10 years. I find it so unique and I love the pervasive blue-collar-ness of it. So yeah, I’m probably not the right person to [explain] its changes because I come so infrequently. I’ve been really happy with how much certain things that I’ve loved endured. When I think of a lot of contemporary/modern cities, that’s not happening in San Francisco or in L.A. or New York, where you can leave and you come back 15 years later [and everything has changed]. Toad’s Place is still there and Christopher’s is still there. I love it and I’m still exploring it, and now that I’m completely dug into Vermont, even though Montreal is the closest city, I’m like “I want to keep getting to know Boston.”
Who runs the Twitter account for the band, is that you?
I do the Twitter and Brian does the Instagram. Yes, I do the Twitter.
It’s funny, I can read your personality through it. So was that you when someone thought you were in “Home Alone” at the airport?
Yeah that was 100 percent me. And that a 100 percent true story! A woman literally came up to and was like “Are you…?” And I don’t get recognized every day, but I do get recognized more frequently as a weird-looking dude at the airport with my hair all sticking up. It’s always cool, and it’s never weird, and people are always really generous. It’s happened in front of the kids and stuff. So when someone started to say “Are you…?” I generally am waiting for them to ask if I’m in Guster, but she was literally like “Are you the guy from Home Alone One?” [She was] so excited, like that was the best thing that could happen. And that’s the end of the story, really. And this is the first time that’s happened, actually. Daniel Stern is his name. And I do kinda look like Daniel Stern. He’s not an attractive guy, either, which is the unfortunate part! I was like “Well, am I better looking than that? Oh yeah, totally. No I’m not…” It’s fine, whatever. I look hot, I don’t care.
[Chuckles] I think we looked into it, and it was really expensive. I think it was prohibitively expensive and it’s ‘cause, I don’t know, we don’t want to get a million percent involved in the nostalgia thing for a record that none of us particularly like, you know what I mean? It’s like “Oh, this record?” But my kids have one, they like it.