SANTA MONICA, California — While not quite equal in scope to Bob Dylan switching to an electric guitar or Metallica cutting their hair, Guster using standard drums has caused a similar uproar among their dedicated fanbase.
On the just-released Keep It Together, the Boston trio all but abandon Brian Rosenworcel's signature bongos and congas in hopes that, as singer/guitarist Ryan Miller puts it, "our good fans will stay with us."
"I feel pretty confident in our artistic decision-making," Miller said. "The process that we went through in all of this, it was all fueled by sort of serving the music and not having rules about how many hands you can play with or what kind of method you have to make music."
"We went into a drum store to buy like, a drum head and I had like, mangled hands and the guy at the drum store was like, 'Have you seen these?' and held up two sticks," Rosenworcel added, joking. "No, it was more of just something we wanted to do for writing. It was really fun and inspiring to play new instruments. Ryan's playing bass, Adam [Gardner]'s playing piano. We're all just trying new things so I think the album just grooves better this way."
Guster's permissive approach, which also included collaborating with other musicians, including Ben Kweller, made the recording process more strenuous than ever.
It also took more than two years to finish Keep It Together, compared to the couple of months spent recording 1999's Lost and Gone Forever, which included the singles "Fa Fa" and "Barrel of a Gun."
"We still keep in touch with [Lost and Gone Forever producer] Steve Lillywhite and he saw us in the middle of the process and I was kind of [down]," Miller recalled. "He was like, 'Ah, the reinvention process, it's a difficult one. It takes two years usually.' And I was like, 'I've been doing this for eight months.' That sucks."
Guster first turned the album in last year, but after taking a few steps back, realized it needed the more uptempo, melody-driven songs the band usually gravitates toward. So, four more songs were written and recorded, including the title track and the first single and video, "Amsterdam."
"It's about your typical guy who's in an emotional state of heartbreak because his girlfriend has moved on to Amsterdam," explained Rosenwercel, who wrote the song the night before it was recorded. "Amsterdam is a metaphor for escape in the song, but it ends up being like a cage."
"It's typical 21st century American imperialism, really," Gardner added, confusing his bandmates.
With the exception of the classic rock ode "Red Oyster Cult" and a few others, Keep It Together is mainly an album about breaking up and moving on.
"Yeah, well, one of the members of the band was going through a break-up at the time and could only write songs about breaking up with the girl. [He] then ran right back to her," Miller explained, talking about himself. "That's the next record; it's called We Kept It Together."
"Our lyrics tend to be pretty cynical and kind of negative and pessimistic, but ironic," Rosenwercel added. "I think actually there are a few songs on this record that are more optimistic that actually aren't sarcastic. The last song is called 'I Hope Tomorrow Is Like Today.' Granted, Ben Kweller wrote that lyric."
One of the other optimistic songs, "Keep It Together," inspired the album title, but only after Guster decided the band's favorite song, "Come Downstairs and Say Hello," was too long.
"My mom called me, she's like, 'Are you gonna call your album Going to Town to Get the Hello People?' " Miller said, imitating a confused woman. "I'm like, 'No, I guess we're not.' "
Not that Keep It Together doesn't fit the experience.
"There were definitely moments where we were like, 'Oh my God, where's the light at the end of the tunnel?' " Gardner said. "So it was appropriate for the process of the record and how we were feeling at the time, for sure."