By Web Behrens
It may be a truism that leaving home for college is a life-changing experience, but how many people can say they met both lifelong friends and career-defining collaborators on the first day?
That’s how Adam Gardner tells the story. It’s true enough; a nice, easy shorthand version. When pressed, however, he reveals that he actually met bandmates and buddies Ryan Miller and Brian Rosenworcel shortly before that, at a wilderness orientation for freshman at Tufts University (just outside of Boston) in 1991. The trio soon learned they shared a passion, and that’s the origin of the band known as Guster—a group still going strong a quarter-century later.
Today a foursome, Guster plays Ravinia July 7. It’s not part of an official, full-blown tour; their latest release, the well-reviewed Evermotion, came out 18 months ago. Rather, the appearance is one of just a dozen summer shows in the Northeast and Midwest, a pace reflecting life being ever in motion. Gardner and his bandmates all have families now. “We appreciate touring more than ever,” he says. “Who else gets to rewind the clock and do what they did before they had kids? And get to sleep all night? It’s amazing! But don’t tell my wife I said that.”
Who’d have guessed such a big, long-lasting dream was fulfilling itself as soon as college began? “Literally the first day [away because of] school, I met Ryan and Brian,” recalls Gardner, who’d formed his first band as an 8th-grader in New Jersey. Going away to Tufts meant finding new music-making companions. “Harmonies were always an important part to me, so I knew that was something I wanted. Right away, I asked Ryan, ‘Can you sing?’ And he said no.” Gardner pauses to laugh. “Now he’s our lead singer! Turns out he can sing. He just didn’t know it at the time.” Within a few weeks, they were busy—Gardner and Miller on their acoustic guitars, Rosenworcel with his bongo—writing their own songs often marked by intricate duo vocals, a Guster signature.
“We all come to the table from slightly different directions,” Garnder notes. “I definitely came from a classic-rock background—that first band in 8th grade, we were playing songs by The Beatles and The Stones and The Who. Crosby, Stills & Nash was a big [influence], as was Neil Young—that’s where the harmonies come from. … Ryan came from more of a Britpop background: Stone Roses, The Smiths, The Cure. I discovered those bands a little bit later.”
Those weren’t the only influences. Gardner never studied music formally in school, but he did play piano during childhood. “My parents more than encouraged me. ‘Forced’ is a strong word, but they more than encouraged piano lessons,” he quips. Then he adds a realization about how roles reverse themselves over time: “I’m doing the same thing right now with my daughter, who’s 8.”
Once he satisfied his parents with some piano, Gardner moved onto “louder and louder instruments,” including a trumpet and a drum kit before settling on electric guitar. But there was also the singing, which added some arrows to his musical quiver that would enable him to expand his dimensions: “I also sang in the boys’ choir in high school, and I sang masses, so I learned a lot about counterpoint.”
Anyone who’s heard Guster’s upbeat songs can already hear how that choral experience might have filtered into the band’s indie rock. As they evolved, they’ve been variously described as purveyors of folk-pop (thanks to their love of acoustic instruments and percussion, especially bongo) and as a quirky jam band (due in no small part to their early dedication to touring, a tape-trading network for fans, and a joyful stage presence). One through line is Guster’s embrace of a good harmony, Gardner’s baritone melding with Miller’s tenor. But that’s not their only aural delight. The pair has a strong penchant for the aforementioned counterpoint, blending two different lyrics and melodies together, providing a more complex vocal than what you hear in the tighter harmonies of CSN or the Indigo Girls. “With our harmonies, we try to make them more interesting,” Gardner says. “Sometimes, each part is melody. Whether you sing Ryan’s part or my part, they both stand on their own, but they mean more together. More traditional harmonies, they go up a third or a fifth and just follow the melody around, running parallel, whereas ours tend to cross voices quite a bit. I’ll start below and end up above—we move around each other a lot, so what we end up with is more interesting.”
Guster has one odd stat that stands out for such a long-established group: Evermotion, released in January 2015, is only their seventh original album. (Their discography also includes two live recordings—one acoustic performance, one backed by an orchestra—and an EP.) Clearly they’re not aiming to be speed demons in the recording studio—the two releases prior to Evermotion each took more than a year. (The recent album broke that cycle. When they told producer Richard Swift, known for playing keyboards with The Shins and bass with the Black Keys, about their typical pace, Gardner recalls, “He said, ‘Oh, I’ve never made a record that took longer than two weeks.’ We compromised and did it in three weeks.” Gone were multiple takes and fretting over vocal imperfections; instead, they got raw performances with more layers of instrumentation, including sax, trombone, steel drum, and even a glockenspiel.) Their relatively low recorded output is the result of many factors, including their drive to tour in earlier years and, in more recent times, fatherhood.
Music and children aren’t Gardner’s only legacy, however. More than a decade ago, he co-founded Reverb, a nonprofit dedicated to helping bands “green” their tours through various methods, including using biodiesel in buses and setting up composting and recycling systems. The organization also engages audiences at concert venues to help raise awareness and spur action to protect the environment.
Just as Gardner can trace Guster back to his college days, he could say the same thing about Reverb. He comes to eco-minded pursuits through his passion for the outdoors, but he also married his college sweetheart, Reverb co-founder Lauren Sullivan, who went on to earn a master’s degree in environmental education. The nonprofit is just as much her baby as it is his. “You live one way at home when you live with an environmentalist,” Gardner notes, “but when you’re on the road, everything was completely opposite. Everything was disposable. There’s trash on the ground and we’re in these fuel-guzzling buses. It was always a rough transition. I think I complained to Lauren one too many times when I came home. I said, ‘Gosh, it’s such a mess out there! It’s too bad we can’t do anything about it.’ And she said, ‘Wait a minute! Why does touring have to be that way?’ So really, Reverb was Lauren’s brainchild.”
Gardner knew a lot of other bands felt the same way, so he started calling them—Dave Matthews Band, Barenaked Ladies, Jack Johnson—to get them on board. “Then we realized that Bonnie Raitt had done something almost exactly like what we were talking about a year prior. It was called the Green Highway. We called her manager and said, ‘We saw what Bonnie did on this tour, and we’d like to do this for all tours.’ They said, ‘Great. And while you’re pursuing your own nonprofit status, you can come in under our foundation.’ We enjoyed the mentorship so much under Bonnie’s Aria foundation, we didn’t become our own nonprofit until a few years later.”
Fans who came to Ravinia for Guster’s show in 2011 saw one example of how the organization works, although Reverb customizes its programs for each tour. “Last time Guster and Reverb were at Ravinia together, Reverb had a large ‘eco-village’ for fans to visit, with a handful of tents for local and national environmental nonprofit groups,” Gardner explains. “We even had a solar-powered pop-up stage where Guster did a surprise acoustic performance before the show began. It’s all about enhancing the concert experience for fans while supporting important environmental campaigns in a fun way.”
Because Guster’s 2016 Ravinia show is a one-off, not part of any big official tour, you won’t see the Reverb Eco-Village. “However, we’ll continue to limit our environmental footprint backstage,” Gardner confirms.
Which brings us back to Evermotion. However you want to define Guster’s sound—and there’s clearly no single correct description—everyone can agree that the band has landed on a winning formula for longevity. That’s why Evermotion makes such an apt name for their latest record: These guys never stop evolving.
That ability to flow goes all the way back to their early years, when the group was originally called Gus in the ’90s. “We were such a DIY band, we’d already established ourselves independently,” Gardner says. “Meanwhile, there were a few other artists going by that name that had already signed with major labels. It was clear that we needed to change our name to avoid confusion, but we had already sold 50,000 copies of cassettes and CDs in the backs of our cars. We didn’t want to go too far from the actual name, so we added -ter.”
The irony of course is, Where are all those other Gus bands, 25 years later? Gardner chuckles, “Yeah, as far as I know, it’s true: We’re the last Gus standing.”
A native of the Windy City, Web Behrens covers arts, culture, and travel for the Chicago Tribune and Crain’s Chicago Business. He’s also worked as an editor and contributor for Time Out Chicago and the Chicago Reader.
Purchase tickets for the July 7 performance by Neil Finn & Guster at Ravinia.org