Guster | Photo by Nat Girsberger
Transcending Time: Guster’s Ryan Miller talks new Labi Siffre cover, staying inspired, and having serious fun
Even though alt-rock outfit Guster has been around for over 25 years, they show absolutely no sign of slowing down — or falling victim to the same old sound. The group released their eighth studio album Look Alive this past January, a dynamic blend of man-made melodies and electronic creation that further widened the range of Guster’s capabilities. But to keep you on your toes, the band has just released a stripped-down cover of “Crying, Laughing, Loving, Lying,” a powerfully simple tune from 1972 by British singer, musician, and poet, Labi Siffre.
Guster has been touring all year in promotion of Look Alive, and they’ll take the River Stage next Sunday night during the XPoNential Music Festival. Lead singer and guitarist Ryan Miller took a moment out of his day to tell me about how the Labi Siffre cover came to be, how it feels to play his latest album live, and why Guster has stayed relevant for more than two decades.
The Key: How and when did you first discover Labi Siffre?
Ryan Miller: It’s kind of a boring story, but it was the Great Algorithm in the Sky. I mean, you constantly decry how the universe knows where you’re going, and sometimes it knows what you want before you even know that you want it. I think it was a Spotify discover weekly thing where it just popped up and was like, “Oh, if you like obscure, melodic singer-songwriters from the ’60s and ’70s, then you’ll like this.” It had come up on mine and then I think I played it for the band and it had come up on Luke’s too. And then we were just thinking, we’re always trying to think of some covers and stuff to do and it just felt like it was in our wheelhouse, especially played against our new record, which has a lot of electronic stuff and a lot of synthesizers. This just felt very simple.
The story behind it is very cool because he is an African American gay man that was in the closet in the ’70s and then he came out later and became more of a very outspoken gay rights activist. The lyrics have all this emotionality behind them when you know the story going in. I don’t think he was out when he wrote the song. And then you hear the context and it becomes a lot more meaningful.
TK: Yeah definitely. When I listened to it, I thought it was a very simple song musically, but it packed such an emotional punch.
RM: Exactly. That’s the whole thing. When you can make an elegant song like that — “What if I can’t love you now?” — it has so much resonance every time I hear it or sing it. And now to know that there’s such a cool ending to the story, he’s still alive and he’s still writing poems, being very outspoken about politics; it’s nice when there’s kind of a happy ending to something like this.
TK: The song is almost 50 years old now. What about it do you think makes it relevant in 2019?
RM: It’s a very introspective song. A classic song can speak whether it’s 100 years old or 50 years old. I think the goal for us as songwriters is to write that classic song that can transcend time that isn’t like, “Okay, this is super zeitgeist-y and we’re going to speak about a specific thing.” I mean, this is sort of a relationship song I think and mostly just a very internal existential thing about — I mean, he’s talking about crying!
One minute, I think it’s kind of easy to roll your eyes at stuff like this, especially when you’re a songwriter. You’re like, “Okay, sophistication is where I need to go.” But I think as we get older and mature as songwriters, you kind of embrace some of this stuff. Like, there’s the song on our new record where we sing about rainbows and it’s like, I don’t know, it’s kind of cool. It’s evocative. And I think there’s a little bit of that in this. There’s that almost childlike quality to the lyrics.
TK: You mentioned how the cover kind of contrasts your new album Look Alive. How has it been playing your new music live? Have Guster fans received it well?
RM: Oh yeah, it’s been great. I mean I think part of the reason we still have so much gas in our tank as a band is because we’re not relying on a 20-year-old record to propel our band forward, you know? We have eight records and our sets are sprinkled with songs from almost every record. And there’s not really a moment where you play a new song and everybody goes to the bathroom. The new stuff is just as hard if not harder than some stuff that people have been listening to for 20 years. So that’s why it kind of takes us a long time to make records. We really need to make sure that the quality’s there, that an idea that feels good now is going to feel good four months or four years from now.
Figuring out how to play the record live was a real challenge and I think we’re kind of cracking it, but it’s a learning curve. We don’t really think about how to present stuff live when we’re making a record, especially when we kind of assemble a lot of that production stuff in the studio. We haven’t made a record in a long, long time where we’re like, “Okay, we’re going to play these songs out and press record.” That’s not the kind of band that we wanted to be, although that could change.
But yeah, I think this record’s been received very well and a lot of our fans really like it. And especially now, since the record came out in January. It always takes a few months for it to sink in. It’s always kind of hard to tour right when the record comes out, because people are still wrapping their heads around it, especially when it’s a pretty big departure. Now that the record has been in people’s hands and it’s been a while, it really feels like when we play the first few notes of “Don’t Go” or “Look Alive” or even “Overexcited,” people perk up. It’s a great feeling and it’s exactly why we’re still a band. Because if that weren’t the case — if it were like, “Hey, here’s some songs from our new album,” and it was met with a collective groan — I think that would probably mean that we should hang it up.
TK: Look Alive has been described in a bunch of different ways — textured, youthful, inventive. But it’s also been seen as kind of ambiguous and complex, forcing listeners to think for themselves. Is this the kind of vibe that you strive for when you’re writing or is it something that just happens to result once the record’s finished?
RM: I don’t know that we really think about it in terms of what we want to do for the listener. I think it’s enough of an assignment for the four of us to get on the same page where we all really love something. So I don’t think we necessarily consider the fans in that sense. Although we know that there are certain things that we do really well. Like, melody is a really important part of our band, the lyrics have been a really big constant, and some kind of arrangement has really been a big part of who we are.
I think when we finish the record, there’s a little bit of “oh boy, how’s this gonna go?” but we also have to only serve ourselves. And because we always have and we usually land on our feet, I think we really trust that between the four of us and the producer — in this case, Leo Abrahams — if we really honor the integrity of our songs and each other’s opinions, we’re not going to make something bad. We might make something that’s different than what people were expecting, but ultimately it’s something that we’re really proud of and we hope that people like it.
Generally, I feel like the stuff that we feel is our best work is often what our fans think is our best work too, for the most part. We’ve been really lucky in that sense. It kind of takes the pressure off of “what do they want and let’s figure out how to give it to them.” You’re never going to win that game. I mean you can’t do that in music; you can’t do that in anything in life. You have to serve yourself and trust that you’re going to make something good.
TK: I read that you recorded the album in a vintage keyboard museum in Canada. How did that come to be?
RM: Yeah, there’s a studio in Calgary in Canada, and it was kind of a last minute thing. It’s a beautiful studio with all this incredible old analog gear including a boatload of old synthesizers. So two weeks before we were supposed to go to Texas, our London-based producer couldn’t get his visa, so we had to figure out where to go. We landed in this place that had every analog keyboard ever and all of it works. It’s a very famous place, it’s called National Music Center. And it’s funny — the one thing that’s on every song is this $100 keyboard…this kind of relic of the ’80s that we found and we all kind of fell in love with.
TK: One of my favorite songs on the new record is “Overexcited” and I definitely feel like it stands out from the rest of the album. Was this intentional? What inspired the track?
RM: The record is kind of all over the place. I don’t think I would’ve led with “Overexcited” as a single to be indicative of the rest of the record, but it does have kind of a thing. I was like, “I guess I’m gonna sing this in an English accent,” because I felt empowered to do that. We love that song “Our House” by Madness, and that’s kind of strings and horns and, you know, we love The Cure. It just felt like this playful but also really musical song. It’s not a novelty track, like there’s some musicality into it that we like and a there’s a character that I play in the song that kind of started somewhere and ended somewhere else.
But yeah, it definitely feels like it sticks out on the record, but not necessarily in a bad way. It coexists. “Look Alive” is totally serious and heavy. The last song is a six-minute-long, almost Air Moon Safari kind of thing. I think we’ve always just felt empowered to write weird, cool, pop songs and hope that the melodies and the lyrics anchor them. And the fact that we’re all playing instruments can give it a center. It doesn’t feel like it doesn’t belong on the record, it just stretches the shape of the record a little bit.
TK: Like “Overexcited” and its music video, some of your songs are kind of funny and tongue in cheek. What kind of role does humor play in songwriting and your process as a band?
RM: I mean we never want to make joke songs, and maybe [“Overexcited”] is the closest we’ve come to making a joke song. Again, I think this kind of touches on the aging well thing. Like how many comedies age well? Comedy is so site-specific. I don’t know, I’m a funny guy, I guess. There’s a lot of humor in our lives. We like to have fun and we’re not overtly serious all the time, and I think that comes through in our shows and in our records. We take ourselves seriously, but we’re not a serious band. Or maybe we’re a serious band that doesn’t take themselves seriously. I don’t know how to explain it really and I don’t even know what I mean. Like it’s dead serious; this is our living and we have a huge responsibility. But it’s also like, “Listen, let’s just do whatever works. Let’s just do what feels good.” I think ultimately our music is just reflective of our personality.
TK: XPN is psyched to have Guster as one of our Sunday night headliners for the XPoNential Music Festival in less than two weeks. What can members and Guster fans expect from your Philly visit?
RM: I think I might have a new suit, I don’t know. I just got home yesterday from a week out west and the shows have been going really well. Everybody’s in a good mood and people seem to be having a good time. We really love playing Philly. We’ve always had really great crowds there and we really love the station. They’ve been good supporters of us.
Guster plays XPoNential Music Festival on Sunday, July 28th. Tickets and more information can be found at the festival website.