Before their show at the State Theatre on Thursday evening, Gimme Noise caught up with lead singer Ryan Miller to chat about Chris Martin, working in an office, and how one bad record could ruin their career.
Gimme Noise: Where am I reaching you today?
Ryan Miller: I am in Portland, Oregon. We've been going since January doing loops around the States, then we just got back from a three week trip in Europe.
How different are European crowds versus US crowds?
We've never toured Europe before. We've been a band for twenty-something years, but this is the first time we've been over there. It was probably the single greatest experience of our career to go over there and play to 150 people a night. We were literally playing on the smallest stages that we've ever played on -- and that includes when we first started.
It was so fun except it was so far out of our normal routine of the band. Being in a touring band for so long, it was great to have an element of surprise and excitement at this point in our career.
Did the fans know your stuff?
I thought the majority would be expats, but I took a poll each night and the bulk of the audience was indigenous to the country. People would come up to us and say, "I heard you on the Randy Newman album," or "I found you 15 years ago, because your album was mislabeled as Coldplay's Parachutes." It was a backlog of people that had been waiting for us to tour Europe for over 15 years. It wasn't a ton, but it felt really great; it felt like we were in this new spot, and we could start from scratch. We didn't feel like we had to play a bunch of old stuff. It was fantastic.
Has Chris Martin ever emailed you and told you that you owe him money?
[laughs] I think he's got other things to deal with than an American touring band. I met him in an elevator once, but no, I don't think we'll run into that.
I first heard your band when "Careful" was making its rotation on the radio years ago. Your sound has changed a lot over the years.
I would hope so.
Why do you say "hope so"?
It's been a willful thing to not get stymied and stuck in the same sound. That's part of the reason we've been a band for so long. If we kept making the same record over and over, it would be pointless. Part of it is in the curiosity and interest in growing as songwriters and exploring new things. We're all committed to getting better at our instruments and making better records. We've never made that record where we said, "We just made a perfect record. Let's do that again." It was always, "Well, we know what's good about that record. Let's see if we can do it differently for the sake of changing."
Are you still searching for that record?
The same sort of mechanisms are in place. We're really proud of this record. I feel it has staying power. There's things about it where I'll say, "Oh, I'd like to do that the next time." As long as we're a band, we're going to try and push what we've done, to be unafraid, and try new textures.
It's just like when Brian [Rosenworcel] completely put down his percussion kit after so many years. The fact that we're using synthesizers for the first time and adding new band members -- we don't know what it'll be, but we're gonna do it, and we know it will be slightly different every iteration.
I think that's part of the human condition -- always trying to figure out what you want to be next.
I hope so. Some people get complacent as adults. It's, "Oh, I'm gonna be a consultant and work in an office and go bowling on the weekends." I think the difference for me is the people I like to surround myself with. The artists I respect are the people that aren't like that and aren't ever complacent. They're constantly challenging themselves to move out of their comfort zone.
I think it's pretty true that it's the human condition, but I also think it's more true with people in their 20s than 30s. The older you get, the less likely you are to do that. I don't know. Who am I to say?[page]
What if you had never met your bandmates? Would you be working in an office? Going bowling on the weekends?
It's taken years for me to even understand what I like in people and myself. The weirder I can get, the happier I am. The more I can move the margin, the more fulfilled everything feels. I do other things outside of the band; I make films, and I host a show on PBS. All of these things overlap between all of that. For me, it's about being really sincere, working in my eccentricities, and playing to my strengths.
I don't think I was really cut out for office work -- it's not to diss people who work in offices. You have to be practical. Sometimes you just have to be a grownup. I have a responsibility to my kids and my wife and other people. I get it.
How do your kids handle it when you go on tour?
My daughter is almost seven, and I've been doing this since before she was born. It's been part of a routine. I told my daughter, "When I'm home, I'm really home. I'm not going anywhere." I do all of the dad things; I take my kids to school and pick them up. It's a balance. My bandmates and I all had kids within four months of each other seven years ago. We were grownups before we were really healthy families.
How have people been receiving this new album on tour?
When we first started making music, we didn't have a clue what we were doing.With this album, we wanted to make a record that would hold up. Some of the songs have shoegazy textures in there. There was a lot of ethereal vocals and synths, but we have also always considered ourselves a pop band that writes pop songs, so it felt really natural to include Richard Swift, who did the Damien Jurado and Foxygen albums, to work with us on this.
Do you think about how it will translate to the live show when you're writing?
It's always after, because it's such a different animal. Even on our first record, it was just the acoustic [guitar], bongos, and a violin on it. It was like, "Let's make a record," and when it was time to play it live, we had to figure out a way to do it. By and large, we have, although some of these songs took a little bit more work in how we presented them. A song like "Simple Machine" we thought about putting it to a click track. We had to figure it out, so it didn't feel like we were playing to a computer. It's a lot of, "Oh, fuck! How do we do this?"
Do you prefer the studio or the stage?
I really love touring, but I also know how important records are to the process. I enjoy being in the studio even if it's not always fun. It's a lot of work, and there's a lot of pressure, because you're spending money. We make records so infrequently that it's not like, "Oh, we'll just make another one." We make a new one every four years, and a bad record would probably sink our career at any point. There's a lot of pressure to write great, fucking songs. To capture them in a way and make them novel and sincere and exploratory, so it's all being part of a band.
How do you know what is a good album? What if you like it and no one else does?
You just do things to your standards. The reason we're still a band is because people still care. If we came to Seattle and there was only 25 people then it's, "Oh, shit. We're not doing good work." But we sold out our show in Seattle last night.
When you put out new stuff, there's always that moment of, "Fuck, did we just blow it?" Every record we make, we lose some fans -- ones that wished we sounded like we did back in 1994 -- and then we gain a lot of new ones that say, "I didn't like this band before, but this new stuff is really cool." That's been the trajectory.
Guster will perform at the State Theatre on Thursday, April 9, 2015 with Kishi Bashi.
AA, $34, 7:30 pm
Purchase tickets here.