In the late-1990s, Guster, a Boston-bred, New Yorkbased trio, became one of the most successful indie/college rock bands to gain a strong following and sell thousands of albums without commercial support. Instead, they built their reputation up and down the East Coast through relentless touring and humorous exchanges with audiences, which in turn provided Guster a solid and ever-growing grass-roots fan base. As their popularity spread by word of mouth across the United States, Guster—who sold collectively around 90,000 copies of their first two independent albums, Parachute and Goldfly, with the help of fans alone—eventually landed a major-label record deal with Sire Records, but promised to stay true to their original vision. Selling a lot of records, the indie-rock trio insisted, doesn’t necessarily mean selling out.
One of the most unique aspects of Guster, aside from their penchant for writing short, infectious songs about love, self-doubt, suicide, and the absurdities of the rock-star lifestyle, is their unique sound—a mix of roots rock, folk, and experimental pop—and refusal to abide by industry pigeonholing. Whereas most rock bands typically center around a lead guitar, bass guitar, and drums, Guster defied the usual conventions with two acoustic guitars and a bongo set. “This thing was born out of friendship,” explained Brian Rosenworcel, Guster’s percussionist, to Boston Globe correspondent Joan Anderman. “We all happened to play instruments that didn’t quite add up to a band. But we made it our mission to make it add up to a band.” Even with their first album for Sire, 1999’s Lost and Gone Forever, for which they had access to a top-notch producer and an unrestrained budget, Guster refused unlike so many newly signed groups to fall prey to giddy overproduction. “Actually, instead of focusing on what we needed to complement the Guster sound,” Rosenworcel added, “we focused on making the Güster sound as good as we could.”
Rosenworcel, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, who lived with his two bandmates for four years until he finally moved into his own apartment in the fall of 1999, met Ryan Miller and Adam Gardner, who both play guitar and sing for Guster, in 1992 at Tufts University near Boston. “The band started very informally in our dorm rooms when we were college freshman,” said Miller, a Texas native who graduated with a degree in religion, to John Roos of the Los Angeles Times. “All we had were our guitars and some bongos, and so that’s what we played. We never really set any rules or had this subversive plot to be gimmicky. But when people kept telling us, ‘You can’t make it without a real rhythm section or electric guitar, ’ it only strengthened our resolve to prove them wrong.”
Guster, whose members graduated from Tufts in 1995, honed their skills playing clubs around the Boston area during their college years, drawing in more and more fans with each subsequent performance. They originally went by the name Gus, but later adopted the moniker Guster after learning that several other national touring acts played under the same name. After recruiting producer Mike Denneen, Guster debuted in 1994 with a self-released album entitled Parachute on Aware Records. Because the three friends lacked a record label, their enthusiastic fans, known as the Guster Rep, essentially promoted and distributed Guster’s first record. “We’d get them 10 CDs, they’d sell them, and send us a hundred bucks,” Rosenworcel recalled to Anderman.
Overtime, the trio amassed more than a thousand Rep members nationwide, who they compensated for their efforts with T-shirts and free concert tickets. In total, Parachute, thanks to Guster fans spreading the word, sold a remarkable 35,000 units. Later that year the Boston Globe named Parachute Best Local Debut Album of 1995. By now, Guster had become one of the most popular acts in the area. As a result of the trio’s celebrated live shows, Guster—hailed as one of the biggest indie-rock successes of the 1990s—went on to win the honor for Best Live Act at the Boston Music Awards in 1997.
In March of 1997, Guster released Goldfly on Hybrid Recordings, an album distributed by Aware and sold mostly at shows and through the fans. They maintained a relentless touring schedule, deciding to take their show to cities across the country. More often than not, Guster sold out clubs in every town they visited, thanks in large part to the Rep program. The dedicated,
Members include Adam Gardner, guitar, vocals; Ryan Miller (born in Texas; graduated from college with a degree in religion), guitar, vocals; Brian Rosenworcel (born in Hartford, CT), bongos, vocals. All graduated from Tufts University in 1995.
Formed at Tufts University in Medford, MA, 1992; debuted with Parachute, 1995; signed with Sire Records, 1998; released Lost and Gone Forever, toured with the Dave Matthews Band and performed at Woodstock ’99, 1999.
entirely voluntary Guster Reps continued a roots-level marketing campaign, distributing flyers and spreading the word about the quirky trio from the Northeast.
Soon, Guster earned a reputation nationwide for marrying sometimes dark subject matter, such as relationship woes, alienation, and the worship of false idols with upbeat, melody-rich music. “My challenge is figuring out what I have to say that hasn’t already been said—and said better than I ever could—by someone else,” Miller, Guster’s primary songwriter, revealed to Roos. “I’m a 25-year-old college graduate from a white middle-class family . . . so I’m not about to get preachy about the more complex issues of the day. I’m just trying to express the range of my personal feelings— love, jealousy, anger, guilt—for whatever they’re worth.”
Like Guster’s grass-roots following, major labels took interest in the trio as well, and in 1998, the band signed an agreement between Sire Records Group and Hybrid Recordings. Sire, under the major-label contract, reissued Goldfly soon thereafter, and the album went on to sell a total of 55,000 copies according to Sound-Scan, with the single “Airport Song” peaking at number 35 on Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks chart.
In 1999, Guster made their major-label debut with Lost and Gone Forever. Co-produced with Steve Lillywhite, the influential producer of albums by top acts such as U2, the Dave Matthews Band, and Peter Gabriel (who first noticed Guster in 1998 during two sell-out shows at Irving Plaza in New York), the record earned rave reviews. That same year, Güster sold out venues across the United States, such as the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York, brought their show to Canada, and played at Woodstock ’99. In 2000, the band toured with the Dave Matthews Band, gaining even broader mainstream recognition.
Despite their high-profile backing and increasing exposure, Guster retained their own unique sound, unconventional lineup, and unorthodox approach to songwriting. “I didn’t want our records to be disposable pop,” Miller said to Roos. Their differences from other pop/rock groups are arguably what makes Guster so appealing, “I don’t think we really sound like anybody else, and sometimes, it takes more than one listen to get a handle on what we’re doing,” he added. “It’s probably easier to determine what we’re not, like a conventional rock band. We don’t improvise, so we’re not a jam or hippie band either.”
However, Guster doesn’t consider their style groundbreaking by any means. “We do put a lot of thought into what we do, but it’s not this real sophisticated stuff you’ll hear from the Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev or Beck,” Miller further noted. “More than anything else, with our harmonizing and sense of melody, we just aspire to be a good pop band like Crowded House or Squeeze—one that packs each record with a little smarts and a lot of ear candy.”
Parachute, Aware, 1995.
Goldfly, Hybrid, 1997, reissued, Hybrid/Sire, 1998.
Lost and Gone Forever, Hybrid/Sire, 1999.
Billboard, January 24, 1998; August 14, 1999.
Boston Globe, February 8, 1996; May 23, 1997; September 24, 1999; November 1, 1999.
Los Angeles Times, January 19, 2000.
New York Times, November 30, 1999.
All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (June 6, 2000).
Guster Official Website, http://www.guster.com (June 6, 2000).
Sonicnet.com, http://www.sonicnet.com (June 6, 2000).