The band Guster has always been just a little different. In the late '90s they took the pop/rock world by storm by losing the traditional drum set in favor of hand drums and using two very distinct vocalists. As the band’s career has progressed they have maintained those unique traits while learning to cultivate others. One of those traits has been a distinct interest in religious lyrical themes.
The group has always acknowledged their Jewish heritage in humorous ways, such as having the Philadelphia Eagles mascot light a giant paper mache menorah during a concert in Philadelphia. Recently though, vocalist Ryan Miller has been pursuing the subject more frequently in his writing. His perspective is open minded and reflective, yet not rooted in any specific belief. It makes for refreshing listening and even better discussion. I caught up with Ryan as he prepared for a recent show in Myrtle Beach, SC, and we discussed his interest in religion, lyric writing, and Judaism. The songs we discussed can be heard on their most recent releases – 'Easy Wonderful' and the 'On the Ocean' EP.
Photo courtesy of Floto+Warner Studio
Guster has always had an interest in religion. Where does that come from?
I think I’ve always had a really strong interest in religion. I grew up in Dallas, Texas in the suburbs; I was one of the three Jews at my three thousand person high school and I went to Jewish camp for a month every summer. We were very reformed and not a very religious family. But, I was always really interested in spirituality and the philosophical and the big questions that we all have. I remember being in high school and talking about “what are we doing here?” and “why are we here?” and that kind of stuff.
So when I went away to college I remember being interested. I thought I was going to be a doctor and I took a philosophy of religion class. I had a really great professor, Dr. Howard Hunter. I really loved his class and loved his approach. I thought I was going to be pre-med and had this idea that I would be a religion major and also apply to medical school. Then I slept through my Chem 1 midterm and decided I didn’t want to go to med school anymore, and ended up having a religion degree. I sort of famously said to myself that I would want to be a Rabbi if I believed in God (laughs). So I took Hebrew classes and I took a lot of different religion courses in school. It started in high school and continued through college, and now I still read books around it and write songs about it and talk to people about it. So, it’s just been an interest of mine from the very beginning.
What kind of books do you read?
I guess it’s the “naysayers” like Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Dan Dennett that have been a really interesting part of what I’ve been reading about more recently. Although, it’s all interesting to me. I mean, I don’t read C.S. Lewis and Mere Christianity all the time, but I know that we have a lot of fans who read [Christianity] into our lyrics. We’ve been getting the Christian band thing for a long time, even before this record which has quite a bit of Jesus references. It’s really interesting to me because it’s not something that I planned. In fact, I remember when we had put our record together I was like “Gosh, there’s a lot of God songs on this record, I’m gonna have to figure out how to address this” because you know, for me, using religious references is [common].
We made a record with Steve Lillywhite who did a bunch of U2 records, and he said that Bono whenever he would run out of stuff would just go to the Bible because it’s so richly evocative and it’s some of the best stories ever told. I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense, meaning that they are fiction. I just mean that however you choose to interpret it they’re amazing stories, and so that stuck with me. I mean, you say the word Jesus in a song and automatically you kind of get certain associations and maybe I like playing with those associations a little bit too. If you hear Jesus being sung then 9 times out of 10 it’s in this one way and maybe I’m trying to bring up the point that it’s not. You can talk about Jesus and God or Heaven and have it not be what is typically associated with those words.