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.
I thought “Stay With Me Jesus” was an interesting one, can you tell me more about that track?
I remember when I wrote that song, that was one of those songs that I kind of wrote in ten minutes from start to finish. Words and music. I remember that specifically being born out of watching coverage of the earthquake in Haiti and watching somebody thanking God for saving, I think it was her child or her house, amidst some of the most destructive powers that have been seen recently. That idea is so… powerful to me, that somebody can be surrounded by wanton destruction and so much death, and say, “thank you for saving this.” I sort of set out to write about that without judgment in the sense that I think that that’s a really ambiguous statement, I think you can view that situation one of two ways. That can either be like “holy crap that’s amazing and life affirming” that you can find meaning in something so horrible, or it could be also be like “you’re crazy, if God really cared about you how could he destroy this many people?” I was just fascinated with that idea and wrote the song with that in mind. The protagonist is someone that’s been surrounded by death their entire life but to the end maintained this faith. And I presented it without commentary for the most part.
You know, it’s funny because when the record came out there was sort of three versions of our religiousity. There was two Christian websites, one that said that I was [against Christianity] and one that said it was very faithful to Christianity. There was also an Atheist website that said "learly, he’s making fun of or pointing out the inconsistencies of certain religious beliefs." like that there’s different interpretations of that song. I left it ambiguous enough to have people read into it whatever they want. I may have my personal beliefs when I wrote it, but it shouldn’t necessarily impact how people read the song. The intentionality of the songwriter in this whole thing almost doesn’t matter in a way. You know, we all have our own associations in all the music that moves us.
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.