In Music

Guster lead singer Ryan Miller (right) said the band always has "great shows" in Milwaukee. (PHOTO: via YouTube)

Guster: a Milwaukee sort of band

Guster plays The Pabst Theater on Saturday night.

The alternative rock band, which released the new album "Evermotion" in January, has toured Milwaukee many times before, often at Summerfest and the Rave. I've seen them here on several occasions and talked to guitarist and lead singer Ryan Miller about what he likes to do in the city, where the band is after nearly a quarter-century together and what's next.

He even humored me by agreeing that Guster was kind of like Milwaukee in a way. If you go, remember to stand up.

OnMilwaukee: You guys have played here a lot. What do you like about coming to Milwaukee?

Ryan Miller: This is going to sound, like, ass kissy or something, but we just have great shows in Milwaukee. It started happening maybe 10 years ago, when we would play The Rave – they would just kind of feel like hometown shows. We would always say that we should film a live show there, because for whatever reason – and I don't think we got a lot of airplay there or anything like that; maybe it was the Summerfest stuff we would do that would just kind of help build in a way we weren't able to build – they're always great shows.

The energy level is usually in the top shows of the whole tour, for whatever reason. We like the city and stuff, but the shows are just great. Much more similar to a Boston or New York show than some other places in the Midwest.

OnMilwaukee: We have a notorious inferiority complex here, so anytime we can compare ourselves to the big cities, we'll take it. I remember seeing you guys at Summerfest in the mid-2000s and there were always huge crowds. My friends and I would go, thinking we were the only ones who'd heard you, and then be like, whoa, a lot of other people know Guster, too.

Miller: Welcome to my life, although it's not always a lot of people.

OnMilwaukee: In Milwaukee specifically, have you spent much time actually checking out the city?

Miller: Oh yeah. That's sort of part of the reason I think we still do it and are still in the band. I enjoy touring a lot, and especially when we're not at the beginning of a record cycle, you know, we have time to go explore. We like to ride around on our bikes and we're super into exploring, eating food and also just going to weird parts of the city. So yeah, for sure, I've seen a lot of Milwaukee and spent a lot of time on my bike there, just getting to know it.

OnMilwaukee: Are there particular places or experiences that stick out here?

Miller: Yeah, I've done a lot. I think it sort of started with Summerfest, when the art museum opened, I was like what's that? And then that sort of woke me up to the – is it the Third Ward, kind of south and west of the festival grounds? I'd never seen that and then went to a bunch of cool places there. And what's that part of town that's to the north of the festival grounds? There's a really cool hipster grocery store with video games in it, and across the street is a really great bar, and a great diner; I've ridden my bike around there a bunch. And obviously the German food and beer. What's the name of that place, Mader's?

Milwaukee, to me, there's a real blue-collar sort of component to it that just feels really American but also slightly off. There's the German influence, and there's also a big school so it's kind of got a college-town feel – I don't know, it's just like this sleeper city. And I understand what you say about there being an inferiority complex because it doesn't really get thought of like a great American city, but it's for sure one of my favorite places to play and one of our favorite places to visit. There's no lack of culture or sophistication, although there does tend to be this, like, humility about it, which I really appreciate. I moved to Vermont five years ago and I can sense, even though Milwaukee is a much, much bigger city than Burlington, I can sense some of that real world-ness that's in place there that I really respond to.

OnMilwaukee: The city is always kind of trying to figure itself out and find an identity. And this is going to be me making a thematic stretch, but do you have a similar sort of feeling, with making different kinds of music and crossing genre boundaries, with Guster?

Miller: Well, I don't know. But as long as were going to go down this path, yeah, I guess there's some sort of inferiority complex with our band, as well, in a sense that … well, not really. But just that, you know, there's a real sincerity and earnestness in our music that we have been exploring a lot of stuff sort of unapologetically the last 20-plus years of being a band. You know, no two records sound alike, we've had a lot of different textures, a lot of things have come and gone in our band and we're definitely trying to figure out a way to make it work and make it better.

And in the meantime, our fan base is also, as you said, sort of like – there are kids now that grew up listening to our music and their parents saw us in Harvard Square 20 years ago, But it's kind of all over the map in terms of what our fan base is at this point. So it's an interesting time to be in the band because we're in no danger of ever being considered hip or cool, but there's also something kind of nice about not being in that track of just being a pop band that just makes records every couple years and puts on a good show.

You know, there's a lot of navel-gazing that goes on this far into your band to make sure what you're doing feels like it's not trading purely on nostalgia and that you're actually doing something vital and real. I was telling the guys on a day off in Nashville – and Joe Pisapia, who's been in our band forever, we were just having this conversation like an hour ago. I was telling him, yeah, at the shows people are just so happy, you know, and I meet a lot of people around the shows and they're like please just keep making music. And the shows feel really great and we're having fun so, I don't know, maybe in that sense of Milwaukee, it's like, yeah, we're just doing our thing and people are living good lives here and we provide a great way of life for people.

So, maybe in the sense that Guster is like Milwaukee (laughs), it is this very blue-collar enterprise of us getting in our bus and touring around and we're not on the cover of magazines and we're not in cool blogs and we're not playing Coachella, but we meanwhile have just kind of been having this really nice career over the last 24 years. So I don't know, I guess there is that humility that I was talking about in Milwaukee that's probably present in our attitudes, too, in that we're still very humble and honored that we get to keep making music and we take it very seriously.

OnMilwaukee: Thank you very much for humoring me with the metaphor.

Miller: Yeah, that was nice. I liked it.

OnMilwaukee: I will refrain from shoehorning Milwaukee into any more questions. You strive to make different kinds of music and you mentioned that you still derive a lot of enjoyment from touring and playing different cities making music for your fans, even if it's a grind. Where are you guys in terms of ambitions or goals, and what is the next part of the journey for the band?

Miller: We're starting to have those conversations now. We put out a record in January and toured really heavy on that at the beginning of the year, then had a medium summer and are just kind of entering our fall and winter tours. So just talking to our manager the other day, we had a meeting, and he has a guy on his team who is super into technology and the future of music and kind of how this new era of the Wild West of distribution and publicity and how everything is working. And sort of our takeaway from that is you don't have to make records anymore. Basically, we've been making a record every three or four years, which is a long time for people to wait for new music.

So maybe the next iteration of the band would be, rather than three years between records, there might be a couple of EPs or we could do a song that's out of the context of a record altogether. I think touring will obviously always be a big part of what we do, although we have all got kids, which is limiting us and we all have these outside activities too, which play very nice with Guster. I do film scoring and Adam has an environmental nonprofit and Luke does a ton of session work producing and writing on his own. All of these things kind of keep us on our toes and keep us creative and then we can pour a lot of that back into Guster.

So I don't know, as long as people keep showing up and it still feels real and, you know, somewhat speaks to the contemporary minds that we have, then we want to keep doing it. I think our last record was a huge step forward for us artistically, and we were really proud of it and took a lot of risks and they paid off for us in a lot of ways. Even though commercially it didn't make a huge difference for us; I don't think we're even expecting that at this point. So, I don't know, it could end tomorrow. Next year will be 25 years since we first stepped on stage together, which is a huge thing to think about and is something for a while I was sort of embarrassed by – that we've just been in a band for so long. But now I'm sort of proud of it, because it's a really hard thing to do to keep up an active band for 25 years. And people show up and are singing the new songs just as loudly as the old ones, so that stuff goes a long way.

You know, the older you get – I'm turning 43 this month – you sort of start to figure out what's important and not waste your time with stuff that feels toxic or doesn't feel like it's pushing the quote-unquote agenda forward, however you want to define it. So I think we're all in it because it's for the right reasons, if that makes any sense, and as long as we can keep discovering those reasons, we're going to keep doing it.

OnMilwaukee: It must be so invigorating for you that fans appreciate the new music instead of every time you go on stage hearing them chant for "Amsterdam." You guys have a sort of social-political presence or mindset; did you watch the Republican debate that we had here?

Miller: I did not watch that one. I watched the bad lip-reading version of it. The whole thing kind of depresses me.

OnMilwaukee: If you watched the bad lip-reading version, you probably got as much out of it as anyone else.

Miller: (Laughs) I got what I needed, yeah.

OnMilwaukee: This tour started in January and you said you're ramping up again now. What's the highlight of a tour like this? What keeps the drudgery away?

Miller: I mean, I'm actually enjoying playing music with the band a little bit more in the last week for whatever reason – maybe being at home and wondering if it's going to go OK. We're also playing a lot of cities we don't usually play; we're not playing Chicago, L.A., Denver; we're playing Grand Rapids and Milwaukee and Athens, not Atlanta. So, you know, that for us is really great, because I love Chicago but I also like discovering new places, like Richmond, Virginia, which is a great city and I had no idea. We took a day off there and it was amazing. I saw the world premiere of this amazing film because the filmmaker happens to live there, met a dude who owns this badass studio outside of town, I bought a cool pair of pants, went to the cemetery. So it's not lip service to say we actually go out and really experience these towns.

So that keeps the drudgery away. Even a place like Grand Rapids – I haven't been there before but I'm sure there's some cool stuff to do there for a day, and I think we all take that attitude. And the shows are good and everyone is getting along and it's just good vibes. We've got a good thing with a good crew and we figured out a way with this lifestyle – being away from our families is really hard, but it's also kind of great because we get to take this whole thing on the road. As I mentioned, 24 years – there's a real unspoken kind of brotherhood that runs through the center of this whole thing.

OnMilwaukee: Anything you have to do in Milwaukee while you're here?

Miller: I'm really hoping that the weather is good because it's one of my favorite places to bike around. I just love kind of connecting the dots through the neighborhoods. That's kind of my mood. I like being on one side of town and saying, all right, what is 4 miles away? And take the most circuitous route there and then I can really get a sense of the city.

OnMilwaukee: You said you've been enjoying playing music more the past week, so it sounds like it's good timing for fans here to see Guster. You're in the mood to play the Pabst Theater, even if it's a little bit different environment than something like the Rave or Summerfest?

Miller: We've played those kinds of theaters before; usually we just have to let people know that they can stand up. Because we're not quite at the age where we want to play to people sitting down. I'm sure we'll get there soon enough, but we're not there yet. I don't think we've ever had a show where people sat. I doubt it will start in Milwaukee, but maybe it could.


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