There was an album that came out a few years ago on Sony by a sisters duo (The Pierces) calledThe Piercesthat featured the kind of smart pop that would appeal to anyone who loved the first Mitchell Froom-produced Crowded House albums. The album was produced by Roger Moutenot and Joe Pisapia.
Pisapia had already earned a rep in Nashville as quite a pop/rock guy as leader of Joe, Marc's Brother. As a guitarist, Pisapia is one of the most distinctive players I've ever heard, and as a songwriter, he delivers powerful Anglo-pop rockers that would do Big Star or the early Who proud.
So when I heard Pisapia had hitched up with Guster, a popular college rock band, I had to think that this band must be awfully special to attract him to the lineup. Guster was formed in 1992 by three students at Tufts University in Boston: Ryan Miller (guitar, vocals), Adam Gardner (guitar, vocals) and Brian Rosenworcel (percussion). In 1994, they recorded their first album, Parachute, with producer/engineer Mike Denneen. Since then, Guster has put out three more albums: Goldfly, Lost and Gone Forever and Keep It Together, which generated two college radio hits: “Careful” and “Amsterdam.” Along the way, Guster became a hugely successful live act, knocking out around 200 shows a year. Their 2004 CD/DVD set, Guster on Ice: Live From Portland, Maine, is a great document of the band's show.
As it turns out, Guster discovered Pisapia by way of the music from Joe, Marc's Brother and fell in love with their sound. When that band took a hiatus, Guster invited Pisapia to be a part of their road band. “The last record we made was musically arranged for way more than just three people, and up to that point, we were a trio,” says Gardner.
When I got word that Guster had come to Nashville to record their new album with Pisapia producing at the Sound Emporium, I headed over to check out the proceedings. Before they had even arrived in Nashville, the band had spent an extensive amount of time in pre-production.
“The reason that I really wanted to do a long pre-production was to get all the thinking done at that point — take the whole thing apart and really look at it,” says Pisapia. “Once we put it together and it felt like it was working, we could rely on the feeling of it and let go of all the thinking.
Jason Lehning, who is also an associate producer on this project, engineered and mixed. The band was already a fan of Lehning's work with Nashville pop/rock band The Bees.
The first day I hung out with Guster and crew, they were only a few songs into tracking. Lehning was quick to point out that the Sound Emporium was his favorite full-service studio in Nashville, noting that he really liked the staff and the options each studio offered.
One of the characteristics that sets Guster apart from many bands is the way they constantly switch instruments from song to song onstage. “Even though this is a four-piece band, it's really interesting how everybody switches around and how important it is to be transparent and ready to help them move quickly,” says Lehning. “To enable this, we have things set up with instrument stations as opposed to people stations. There is a keyboard world and a bass world and two electric guitar worlds and an acoustic world and the drums. Everyone also sings, so there are vocal mics at every station. You can talkback on it or do a scratch vocal.”
For tracking, the band cut to Quantegy GP9 and then transferred straight to Pro Tools. “We've got a cool system down where we are pretty time-efficient,” Lehning notes. “Any time the band wants to come in and listen to a take, I'll do a transfer off of the repro head to Pro Tools during the playback. The interesting thing is, when we do fixes, I just leave the Otari on input and punch in the Pro Tools.
“Truthfully, I would be just as happy with the sound if we were going straight to HD. The biggest difference I noticed is not in character as much as some of the transients are softer with analog. I've always thought analog sounded better, but is it better enough to be worth the extra hassle? Talking about the differences between analog tape and digital mediums sometimes seems like a colossal waste of time. Good songs are worth talking about.”
One thing that struck me about Guster is the band's commitment to not agreeing on a song or arrangement idea unless everyone has signed off on it. I wondered out loud to Pisapia if this kind of democratic process really worked.
“At first, I wasn't sure, because there really isn't one leader in this band,” he replies. “In most bands, there is usually one guy who is the dominating creative force and everyone else responds to that. At first, I thought, ‘I'm not used to this process.’ It is very democratic and no one has ideas that are etched in gold or more precious than anyone else's. But the more we worked on things, the more the melodies and ideas became clearly defined. It takes longer and it sometimes takes away from the spirit of spontaneity; you still have spontaneity, but it is open to veto.” [Laughs]
Among the songs recorded for the still-untitled album are “You're My Satellite,” “Dear Valentine,” “I'm Through” and “Emily Ivory,” which is possibly the album's single. “‘Emily Ivory’ has an interesting mix of instruments,” says Pisapia. “It is sort of a funky song with piano and banjo as main instruments, and it has a ragtime feel. As long as the label hears a single, they pretty much let us do whatever we want on the rest of the record,” he says with a laugh.
In that spirit of creative license, “Ruby Falls” is a seven-minute epic rock song that Pisapia describes as “Pink Floyd meets The White Album. It has a full end section, where the song changes and the ending is like a whole different song. It's pretty sick.” At just over a minute, “Sorority Tears” is a strange synthesis between ornate Klezmer music and garage rock drums.
The overdubs were done at Pisapia's Ivy League Studio and mixing was at Lehning's facility, The Compound, in Belle Meade, Tenn. [For more information on The Compound, see the December 2003 “Nashville Skyline.”]
In conclusion, Pisapia offered these thoughts: “There are two things that prevent bands from enduring: People don't find their musical soul brothers and they don't stick together because it is one of the hardest relationships to maintain. These guys have been together for 10 years and, unlike many bands who chase previous hits or are trying to keep a career going by just doing another record, Guster continues to delve deeper into its musical spirit with each album. The agenda with Guster is just to make a record that each member would really enjoy listening to and be proud of at the end of the day.
“On this record, everyone really stepped up to the plate,” he concludes. “The album feels great. I think we really worked hard every step of the way and we are really confident that we nailed it without any stones left unturned.”
Guster's new album is tentatively set for release in September on Reprise Records.
Rick Clark would like to thank Belmont's Scott Campbell and MTSU's Taner Shores for their help in putting together this piece.