The Thundergod Goes Acoustic: A Conversation with Guster drummer Brian Rosenworcel
First formed as a trio consisting of founding members Adam Gardner (guitar, vocals), Ryan Miller (guitar, vocals) and Brian Rosenworcel (drummer), the alternative rock band Guster has become a Massachusetts institution, releasing six studio albums and multiple EP’s since starting its career at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. in 1991.
Now as part of an acoustic tour to celebrate the release of the band’s second live album Guster: Live Acoustic, the group stops at the Calvin Theatre in Northampton on Thursday to perform a special concert augmented by the presence of string players April Guthrie (cello), Charlene Huang (violin), and multi-instrumentalist/ fourth Guster member Luke Reynolds.
Prior to group’s visit, the Northeast Underground got the chance to chat with drummer Rosenworcel (nicknamed Thundergod) about the motivation behind the band’s decision to tour acoustically, and also asked him his thoughts on what it was like to play alongside the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and what fans in Northampton might expect from Guster’s concert at the Calvin.
Underground: Hello Brian. Before we dive into the interview, do you mind if I ask where I’m reaching you today?
Rosenworcel: I’m in Birmingham Alabama.
How’s the weather there?
It’s about 50°, partly cloudy. We actually came down and spent a few days in Texas, New Orleans. And every day has been the same temperature as it was in New York City when we left. So, nothing gained there.
What led to idea behind this Guster acoustic tour?
That’s a good question. (laughs) We did [a similar tour] in April last year and it went really well. And we even brought a comedian with us [Jeff Garlin of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” fame], which has been really interesting.
As far as where the idea came from, a little while ago I saw this band Yo La Tengo do a set in Massachusetts at the Mass MoCA Museum. Everyone was sitting down, and they were taking questions from the crowd. People were asking about the Mets’ chances this year. And it was really cool because you got to see another side of them, when they got to indulge themselves. And people would request songs, and they would try to play them and fail. That was really the impetus for this [tour].
It’s kind of similar to what we’re doing. We’re doing a middle section where we take requests, do our best at them, involve the crowd a lot, and we have the strings which is the main thing. The violin and cello allow us to play some songs that we wouldn’t normally play on the rock set. We flesh out the textures and give people a different set list than they’re used to.
So it wasn’t just an excuse to get you out of the house? I understand you just became the father of twin boys last year.
Yeah. (laughs) We definitely all get on the bus and we can’t believe that we’re allowed to sleep in. I got twins that are seven months now, and we don’t tour nearly as much as we used to because of family. But when we do tour we try to take advantage of it (laughs), catch up on sleep.
What did you initially think of the idea to tour acoustically? Was everyone in the band on board right away, or was there some hesitancy to verge away from what you guys normally do?
No, there wasn’t any hesitancy because when you’ve been doing it as long as we have anything that throws a curveball is very welcome. And this is definitely putting out a different style show. I’m not really playing a percussion set. I’m kind of sitting behind a drum kit with a conga and a djembe as well. We just adapted the songs. I guess I’m repeating myself but it’s nice to play mellower material that wouldn’t really work in a standing up rock club.
The other day in Austin [,Texas] we were playing in a church. We played a song called “Empire State,” which is on our album Ganging Up on the Sun. It’s a really mellow tune. It’s beautiful, but we would never really pull it off in a different environment. [At the church] you could hear a pin drop. And people got to appreciate that song - the lyrics and the string textures.
We didn’t hesitate. We’re all sitting down on stools. The audience is all sitting down. It’s kind of just a totally different experience.
Watch Guster perform an acoustic version of “Empire State” live in Tarrytown, N.Y. here:
What was your first impression of playing Guster songs with string players and some slightly altered arrangements?
Well it’s something that we do on our records. We use a lot of strings and horns, especially on the last few albums. It’s just gotten more into the studio production. We did a show in 2004 with the Boston Pops, and that’s like a 75 person orchestra arranging the oboes and bassoons and musical pauses in addition to strings. So we know that our music works with it. We can take a song that we play live and it’s a rock version, and turn it into a really textured version.
It’s really cool. I mean we may only have one violinist and one cellist, but we turn the song “The Beginning of the End” into a kind of hoedown kind of vibe. We’ll get back to touring in our rock format eventually, but this is something that we’ll always have in our back pocket when we want to do something a little more mellow, or a little different.
What can you tell me about the Guster string players you’ve been working with on tour? [April Guthrie (cello), Charlene Huang (violin)]Who are they, and how did you and the group find them?
We first did this show. Actually this is in answer to an earlier question, when I mentioned Yo La Tengo. But more accurately, there was this museum that contacted us, the Met Museum [Metropolitan Museum of Art] in New York City, [and] wanted us to do a show that was a collaboration between us and the artist Jon Sarkin, who did the artwork for Easy Wonderful. They were going to exhibit some of his work, and have a sit-down interview with us and Jon about how we collaborated. They wanted an acoustic set, and we were like we’ll bring in a couple of string players because that would be a really cool show and we would want to do something special.
The two guys that we brought in were really awesome but they were not available to do to [this] tour with us. So Luke [Reynolds] knew about Charlene. Luke is the fourth member of Guster for the last few years, he kind of knows everybody. And they [Charlene and April] worked out great.
We have two females on our bus now, and they put on makeup and do their hair for an hour before the show, which is a totally different vibe. But they’re great musicians, and they’re really amenable to working out new songs. As the tour goes on, we keep finding other songs they want to try. And they’re awesome. They’re always excited to do this. It’s a real good mix
Speaking of other musicians, you and the band played a show alongside the Dallas Symphony Orchestra on January 5th. How would you characterize that experience?
That was awesome. It was a real highlight for me. We had done it 2004 with the Boston Pops, but that was only eight songs. And we did it in Denver last year, and we had 22 songs arranged for that. So this is the same set list. Now that you have 22 arrangements for a full orchestra, people come knocking, which is awesome. I would do this any chance we have.
It was really challenging actually [too] because the only rehearsal we got was two days before the show. We got like two hours to play every song once while they were sight reading, and just going over, “Here’s where the count-in is, here’s where…” And it doesn’t create confidence because no one really knows what’s going on, and you just have to trust that the composer has it altogether between the band and orchestra and play the show. So you have to trust him. And he did. Magically we showed up and everything went off without a hitch.
Now there’s a couple of points at every orchestra show where the band is a little bit off, maybe a measures so, and we have to correct each other. It’s not something the audience would definitely notice, but in Denver we actually had a pretty big train wreck on the song “Backyard” (laughs). But the Dallas show pretty much went off without a hitch. I think for the audience and everyone who’s a fan of the band, it’s another weird set list kind of show. It’s not just the hits and the rock songs that you might pull off in a club. It went really deep, and we pulled songs that were older or obscure. Definitely a cool experience I think from the feedback that I got from people.
Watch Guster perform “Come Downstairs and Say Hello” with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra here:
How would you describe the audience reaction to other shows on the tour so far? Have people been really getting into it, or have crowds been more sedate given the type of material the band has been playing?
It’s kind of both. I mean, I definitely enjoy that we can play songs and people are dead silent during them, but people are loud during the request section, yelling out songs. They’re definitely responsive. While people are sitting down, it’s not like anyone really wishes they would be up and dancing. It’s just the vibe that’s there.
It works really well. We definitely try to entertain as many requests as we can, and we try to add something unique every night. People are psyched to see us in a different format.
I understand the band has been working hard to get crowds involved through the use of a “free-for-all” section of the show, question and answer segments, and by encouraging people to bring certain items to the concerts. What can you tell me about all these moments?
One way that Ryan [Miller] gets requests from people rather than having the free-for-all where people just shout songs and you can’t hear what anyone is saying, he asks people to tweet him at the Guster address [@guster], and then he’ll check his phone and he’ll get tons of them. It’s really clever, and it works. That way he can weed out the songs that we don’t want to play.
What was the other question? Something about the question-and-answer? Yeah. Some people ask all sorts of questions. But mostly they ask if we would play such-and-such song.
So there hasn’t been any real offbeat questions, like what you think of the Mets this year?
No. There have been some. Like, “Who is the roughest lover in Guster?” That kind of thing. I remember that.
[Regarding the bringing of items to shows…] To adorn the stage a bit, Ryan’s been saying bring a lamp, bring a plant. And people who bring those things get to make requests. It’s kind of a free-for-all.
What can the audience in Northampton expect from your show there on January 17th?
It’s seated at the Calvin right? We played the Calvin before but it was standing up. You get a nice seat for your butt. I think that’s the end that a tour, so we should be rounded into form.
Northampton was where my high school band played its first show at the Iron Horse. [And] we went to Tufts, so we know it pretty well. Guster played the Iron Horse many times when we first started out. We have a lot of love for Northampton.
Watch Guster perform with Ben Kweller in 2007 at the Pines Theater in Look Park in Northampton, Mass. here:
What about Guster in recorded form? The Guster: Live Acoustic album just came out January 8th. What can you tell me about the record? Is the material a compilation of songs from different tour stops, or did you just record a single show?
I wish we could pull off a single show, but we just did a best-of from a handful of concerts that we recorded. That’s why it’s called Live Acoustic and not “Live at Such-and-such Theater.” When we did our last album, the DVD Guster On Ice, that was taken over two nights in Portland, Maine at the State Theatre. But [this time] we picked the best versions and the best set list.
It’s really cool. I think people want to hear the acoustic versions of these songs, and we hadn’t released an album live in a while. This also comes out on our own label Ocho Mule, which is exciting for us. This is the first time we put something out ourselves since Parachute our first album.
Did any of your favorite moments make it on to the release?
Adam [Gardner] was really the one who was doing the archiving and figuring out what the best moments were, and then we got some input as to what songs we really wanted to have on there. We didn’t use any of the banter because it’s a live album and it would’ve been awkward. My favorite moment of that [material] was in Boston, when Jeff Garlin, who is the comedian who’s been touring with us, was doing the free-for-all section, and he put Luke’s birthday cake in the face of a guy who left a thing on stage with us. The guy had a really cocky swagger and no one was really into it. He just caked his face in the first chorus of “Mona Lisa,” which was really cool.
That wouldn’t work on a live album either, unless it was a DVD or something. But the song choices are spread out over various albums, kind of a best-of set for that tour.
What are some future projects/ recordings Guster has planned?
We’ve begun writing songs for a new studio record. The studio records for us usually take a lot longer than they should, but once we start getting excited about material, which is where we’re at now, then you start getting excited about an album. There will eventually be another studio record in the context of our kind of insane domestic lives. It’ll probably take a year or two is my guess.
Is there any question or topic I should have asked about but didn’t? If so, what would you like to talk about or maybe elaborate on?
I think you pretty much got it. People know what to expect. If they join up on the Twitter they can figure out if they’re supposed to bring a hat or a lamp or a rug or whatever to the show (laughs). That’s not every night though.
Might make it easy to see who’s going to the show just by what they’re carrying in their arms.
Exactly. Everyone’s holding like a rosemary plant (laughs).