INTERVIEW- Bigger and better: Guster has no growing pains

For a band that landed a record contract in large part due to their gimmicky instrumentation, members of Guster seem to have precious little reverence for their own history. They carved out a niche for themselves in the 1990s as the hardest-touring acoustic pop outfit featuring a frenzied percussionist who played his snares and cymbals with his hands– often bloodying his congas along the way. 

But after three albums and 10 years of success with college rock audiences, Guster punk'd their fans in 2003 with Keep It Together, which beefed up their usual three-minute happy-scrappy pop stylings with more ambitious instrumentation and production.

And after they recruited Nashville multi-instrumentalist session player Joe Pisapia to help recreate the songs on tour, he was invited to join the band as a full-fledged member. Next came Ganging Up On the Sun, which continues the story arc by featuring a trumpet outro on the seven-minute "Ruby Falls," and the best rock accordion since Nirvana's unplugged album.

The Hook: You've always been a trio. Was the decision to induct Joe a hard one?

Adam Gardner: It wasn't so much a decision, it was just a very natural progression. We asked him to help us roll out Keep It Together a few years ago, and it was clear after making that record, it was a pretty big turnaround in our sound, and we needed more people on stage to help us increase it. We needed Joe's help. It was a very seamless transition. There wasn't even any discussion about it.

The Hook: Changing instrumentation seems to be a big theme, from the addition of a multi-instrumentalist as a band member to Brian switching up the percussion formula or even your 2005 shows with the Boston Pops. Are you pursuing that to keep your fans interested, or to keep yourself interested?

Adam Gardner: For us it's just exploring new songs and having more colors in our palette. It just gives us way more breadth of sound. In reality, Ryan and I have become multi-instrumentalists as well. On this tour, you'll see the three of us alternating between guitars, keyboards, and bass. I even play a trumpet. And Brian is playing both kit and percussion. Basically what happened is when he introduced a hi-hat, you didn't have to have as much acoustic guitar strumming, and it also saves his hands from being beaten to a pulp.

The Hook: Where do you think that falls flat? For example, are there certain songs that just wouldn't work with orchestral accompaniment? Are there limits to what you can do with this?

Adam Gardner: If there are, we haven't reached them yet. This is sort of the early part of the curve.

The Hook: Now that you've abandoned the lineup that made you notorious, what do you think keeps you unique?

Adam Gardner: I think actually if you listen to the arrangements, I would argue that they're less quirky but not less unique. We're experimenting with the parts and production. After Lost And Gone Forever, the goal of that album was to capture what we do live, and once that was accomplished, we could just try to make a great sounding studio album and not be beholden to what we do live. There's still that common thread of harmonies and melodies, though. It still sounds like Guster.

The Hook: Tell me about the ecology theme on this tour.

Adam Gardner: My wife and I started an environmental nonprofit called Reverb. We're running our buses on biodiesel. I think we're going to do that from now on. It's pretty cool, it's domestic, so we don't have to go overseas to get it, and the carbon dioxide emissions are lower. We're setting up the Reverb Eco-Village at shows to let people know about environmental issues and renewable energy. 

We say that the shows are powered by wind– we look at how much energy we use at every show, and then we replenish the grid with that amount of energy each night drawn from wind and solar power. And we're selling $2 tags so that people can offset their drive to the show.

The Hook: Do you feel like the band has become more political over the years?

Adam Gardner: You're talking to the guy who doesn't really write the lyrics. But certainly I noticed that just as you have. I know we're not trying to be preachy with any of this stuff; it's observations from a personal standpoint. We're not waving a flag one way or the other.

The Hook: Do you think that's your responsibility?

Adam Gardner: It's not as much a responsibility as an opportunity. I don't feel like the environment is a partisan issue. I think everyone has children who want to grow up healthy, with clean water and clean air. It's an opportunity for a band to have a relationship with their fans.