It’s not your imagination. The catchy Guster song that you’ve been hearing on the radio, “Overexcited,” does sound remarkably like the 1982 Madness hit “Our House.” And Guster front man Ryan Miller really is singing in a British accent as he narrates a neighborhood walk:
Later tonight, some soup, then I’ll probably send a text
“Hey Dawn, it’s Jim. Would you like to have some sex?
And if that’s too weird
Maybe just a hot chocolate”
I get so overexcited
Can’t do a damn thing about it
My god, we’re shoulder to shoulder
Nice guy looking for a future lover
“We were 100 percent trying to sound like ‘Our House,’ because it’s just a weird pop song, and why can’t we write a pop song like that?” Miller said.
The Dallas native lives in Vermont and has no trace of a British accent. It was just something he wanted to try, and after 28 years of playing in the same band, he gave himself the artistic license to have fun without trying to predict whether or not people would appreciate the homage. Other, less direct influences can be heard on Guster’s new album, Look Alive (Nettwerk/Ocho Mule), such as New Order, Depeche Mode, and The Beatles. In typical Guster fashion, Look Alive features many songs that seamlessly fuse sunny pop instrumentation with somewhat more dour lyrics. “Overexcited” sounds lighthearted — but, at its core, it’s about being dissatisfied with one’s lot.
In conversation with Pasatiempo, Miller sang the chorus to “Girlfriend in a Coma,” the 1987 Smiths song, and cited Morrissey as a huge influence. “‘Girlfriend in a coma, I know, I know.’ He’s singing these depressing lyrics and it’s the jauntiest melody you’ve ever heard in your life. I’ve just always loved the juxtaposition.” The seriousness of the words anchors the melodies so that they don’t float away, he said.
Guster plays in Santa Fe at Meow Wolf on Tuesday, July 9.
The band’s songs tend to have a timeless quality, as if any one track could have been written at any point during their career. This is a testament to certain enduring sensibilities within alternative and indie rock, but Miller said the consistency of the songwriting can be a double-edged sword.
“By having a sound that isn’t super zeitgeisty, you kind of take yourself out of the thing where it’s really hip music that Pitchfork [Music Festival] and Coachella [Valley Music and Arts Festival] are going to endorse,” he said. “But it also helps in that I’m 46 years old and going on tour.”
Miller founded Guster in 1991 with Adam Gardner and Brian Rosenworcel, who met as freshmen at Tufts University in Massachusetts. Throughout their nearly three decades and eight studio albums together, the band’s sound has remained recognizable, even as they have evolved as musicians and other members have come and gone. ( Joe Pisapia played with Guster from 2003 to 2010; Luke Reynolds joined in 2010.) They began largely as an acoustic group, playing guitars and hand percussion, but grew their sonic approach to include bass, keyboards, and a standard drum kit. Their breakthrough album came in 1999, with Lost and Gone Forever, and Miller said their best-known song is probably “Satellite,” from 2006’s Ganging Up on the Sun.
Guster’s longevity puts it in a class with other bands that emerged around the same time and are still going strong, such as the alt-country band Old 97’s and alt-pop favorite Weezer. Miller has known the lead singer of the Old 97’s, Rhett Miller (no relation), for years, and said the comparison is apt in that both bands release albums and tour regularly but never became household names. He contrasted that with Weezer, a band whose songs get far more radio play than Guster’s have. (Think “Undone – The Sweater Song” from 1995, or “Island in the Sun” from 2001, among other Weezer songs.) Talking about it, Miller was realistic about their differing levels of commercial success; he didn’t sound envious or as though he felt he’d missed out on anything. He continues to play with Guster because it’s fun, whether or not the band attracts new young listeners.
At this point, Guster’s fan base includes entire families — parents and their kids. “I can empathize with that as a father,” Miller said. “We listen to a lot of music, and I can see what’s gonna get wedged into their brains.”
In addition to playing with the band, Miller and Gardner both have other projects. Gardner established the nonprofit organization Reverb, which works with bands and their audiences to make tours more environmentally friendly. (One dollar of every ticket sold for the band’s Look Alive tour supports Reverb.) Miller scores music for film and television, including the movies Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) and The Fundamentals of Caring (2016), and the 2015 documentary Tig, about comedian Tig Notaro’s battle with breast cancer.
The narrative, emotionally evocative nature of Miller’s songwriting for Guster lends itself readily to writing music for movies, as both involve storytelling, a term that he says has dominated his thinking for the last few years. “Our entire understanding of the universe is constructed through the prism of storytelling — who we marry, and the car we drive, and the restaurants we eat at, and what our house looks like. It’s all these stories we tell each other.
“If I think of storytelling in terms of the band, it’s more in a macro sense and not like ‘Here’s a little ditty about Jack and Diane,’ ” he said, referencing John Mellencamp’s 1982 hit. “We don’t have a lot of songs with characters who do a thing, but there’s ‘One Man Wrecking Machine.’ That’s definitely a story.”
The medium-tempo memory trip from Ganging Up on the Sun is about being in high school, hanging out with friends, smoking pot, and longing for girls, a tune Miller sings with the same tone of hopeful, mournful hindsight that infuses many of Guster’s best efforts:
Back in my parents’ house
Back to the shouting out loud
One day you’ll be a man
One day you’ll understand
I want to pull it apart and put it back together
I want to relive all my adolescent dreams
Inspired by true events on movie screens
I am a one man wrecking machine
“I’ve had my entire life to contextualize what it means to be a band for coming on three decades,” Miller said. “People coming to your show who have been living with your music for so many years is really special, an honor. ... I know this sounds kind of hippy-dippy, but it feels good to go into a show and be able to perpetuate that kind of energy exchange with our fans.” ◀
▼ Guster, with special guest Kolars
▼ 8 p.m. Tuesday, July 9; doors open at 7 p.m.; 21+
▼ Meow Wolf, 1352 Rufina Circle
▼ $32.50 to $38.50; 505-395-6369,santafe.meowwolf.com/event/guster