Getting Religious with Guster
Ambitious pop/rock trio Guster has been called everything from Christian, to Jewish, to blasphemous. We talk with lead singer Ryan Miller to find out the truth.
BY: Stephen Russ
You seem drawn to the concept of heaven in your writing, especially on the song “Big White Bed” from the new EP. Why the fascination?
Yeah, you know, it was sort of the same session which was interesting. I was like “alright, I gotta stop writing songs about God, I can’t talk about this anymore.” Then we put out an EP and there’s another one on there, and I was like “I forgot about that one!” I think it’s a similar thing, you know, we wrote a song called “All the Way Up to Heaven” which was sort of playing with the same idea of everybody’s going to die, but it’ll be fine once you’re in heaven. I don’t even know what the intentionality behind that was but it is sort of similar to some other songs in the way of just, this idea of faith and how maybe it could be something that’s really freeing or it could also be something that’s really limiting in some ways. And that song is really ambiguous, I think I always try and put something wry or dark, there’s always some kind of wry or dark humor in the lyrics that I write and I don’t think those songs are any different. You know there’s definitely a twist in there, I hope, on some level, but once again it’s not for me to decide.
So despite the constant references to Judaism and the lyrics, do fans sometimes still think you’re a Christian band?
Oh yeah! I mean, we’re on tour with the band Jack’s Mannequin and even they were saying “yeah we kind of had to look it up” because on first blush there’s some songs about heaven, there’s some songs about God, and so without really delving way into the lyrics and getting a sense of the history of the band and realizing that we all had Bar Mitzvahs it’s sort of like “what is this all about?” Just what I said before, you know, you hear the word “Jesus” or “Heaven” in a song and 9 times out of 10 it means a certain thing. I think this may be that 1 time out of 10 where it doesn’t mean what you think it means, but then again, it could. I’ve read that people have sung “Stay With Me Jesus” in church and stuff and I think that’s awesome. I mean, that a song can be re-appropriated in a way that it wasn’t necessarily intended because it’s not up to me to decide what it is. I have my own personal views about a lot of this stuff but it’s not for me to tell people they’re wrong for interpreting it a certain way.
I think some of it comes from the upbeat nature of the music as well.
With those songs did the music come first or the lyrics?
I’d say 95% of the time music comes first. Lyrics are really hard for me, melody has always been a much easier thing for me to wrap my head around. Writing words you want to sing again and again, and have meaning and sing well, I think it’s not just hard for me, I think it’s hard for a lot of people. I don’t think there’s that many artists that are great lyricists when you really get down to it. If you ever listen to classic rock radio, you’ll know every song, I challenge you to think about what those words mean. I mean, they don’t mean anything! Or they mean something stupid so, I’ve always been intimidated by that but some people do it really well. There’s some great lyric writers out there but not that many.
The other day I was trying to figure out what “Stairway to Heaven” is about.
Yeah, I mean that’s a quintessential example, I mean Robert Plant, what is he singing about in all of Led Zeppelin? Wizards? But I mean, you know every word and to internalize that, it’s crazy.
You guys are known for reference your Jewishness in really funny ways. Where does that come from?
I think it’s a pretty typical Jewish thing to do (laughs), to be self-depricating and to sort of call yourself out on certain things. You know we did all come from these reformed Jewish families and we did all have Bar Mitzvahs and we went to a school that had a large Jewish population, and you know, live in New York City where there’s a lot of Jews (laughs). I’m still culturally Jewish in a lot of ways. I don’t go to temple anymore but there’s just certain parts of our personality [that are Jewish]. And even my kids, even though my wife isn’t Jewish they’ll probably have these stereotypically Jewish traits.
And that part of it is good, I think that even though my kids come from a Catholic mother and Jewish dad, we’ve talked a lot about it and I’d love for my kids to go to temple and I’d like for them to go to church. I think that’s a part of their history to say “well this is a part of your father’s history, for thousands of years they practiced these rituals and they said these words.” I don’t think that I would necessarily raise them in terms of “this is what you need to believe or you’re going to go to hell” but in terms of what it means on a tradition level. It’s pretty important.