These Un-cynical Days

More with Guster’s Ryan Miller that didn’t fit into the feature story on page 32 — which you should read before you read this. We’ll wait for you …  You’re back? Good. I should point out I have some familiarity with Miller and Guster. I interviewed him in December 1999 in the band’s tour bus before a concert at the long lost Ranch Bowl. Miller was a whirling dervish, jumping around the bus looking for a lost Wheat CD (you remember Wheat, right?) having just done an in-station performance at KCTY The City; the latter was an Omaha FM radio station that, in its day, was sort of grounbreaking in that it had no real format, no playlist. The DJs played whatever they wished, and Miller couldn’t believe it. The KCTY experiment didn’t last long. A broadcast radio station that isn’t nationally programmed seems impossible now. Which brings us to the present and Miller’s take on current radio. He and the band spent the past two weeks touring radio stations educating radio programmers about their single, he said. It didn’t seem much different than ’99, when Miller told me one of Guster’s main goals was to break through to mainstream radio. “We like our record label and we’re waiting for our shot,” Miller said proudly, almost defiantly, way back then. “We feel we’re a commercial band, that we’re real and we’ve been doing this for a long time. I say congratulations to the Goo Goo Dolls, Sugar Ray and Matchbox 20. They’ve broken through.” Eleven years later, Guster hasn’t broken through, though that goal remains in their sights, sort of. “It’s not THE goal,” Miller told me last Saturday. “It’s a goal. We had an opportunity when (our contract with) Warner Bros. was up after Ganging Up on the Sun (released in 2006). It was a moment when we said, ‘What should we do? Should we release the next one in-house on our own record label?’ We decided to give the major label thing one more shot.” In some ways, Guster was bucking the trend when they signed with Universal instead of going indie. Miller said the band watched how Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails did their successful pay-what-you-want self releases, and realized it wouldn’t work for them. That model “only works for bands that are already hugely established,” Miller says. “For us, it’s really helpful to have the machinery behind us, especially people who understand what we’re doing. Without it, we wouldn’t have been able to make the video for ‘Do You Love Me?’” That video, a stop-action piece that shows the band performing in long underwear while white-hooded drones decorate the stage and the band with paint, was picked as iTunes “video of the week.” It was an honor drummer Brian Rosenworcel called in a Gloucester Times article “The biggest news that ever happened in our band’s history.” Wow. Miller says the video and its exposure is something they wouldn’t have had without the label backing. Still, he knows a lot of bands that are “breaking through” on indie labels. “I’m not cynical about it anymore,” Miller says. “It’s an amazing time to be a musician. There are so many great records coming out, I download four or five every week and some are so un-commercial. What’s happening with the whole democratization of music is so inspiring, though it’s harder than hell to break into the monoculture.” Which made me scratch my head and wonder how any band does it. Last week’s sold out Local Natives show at The Waiting Room is a prime example. Hundreds of fans were grouped around the stage singing along to songs that have never been heard on Omaha airwaves outside of small, two-hour boutique radio shows like 89.7 The River’s stylish New Day Rising show (Sundays at 9 p.m.). If that’s the only outlet, is radio still important? “I keep asking myself that same question,” Miller says. “It’s still hanging in there. I live in Brooklyn and never listen to the radio. I listen to (Seattle public radio station) KEXP on my iPhone, which plays a lot of music that I like. We still see popular bands on the radio, so we’re still willing to give it a couple weeks of our lives.” Miller says publications like Pitchfork are acting as tent poles for new bands. “It kind of started with Broken Social Scene,” he said. “That band came out of nowhere and got a 9.2 rating (for 2002’s You Forgot It In People). A great review in Pitchfork can get you to sell-out 400-person venues in 15 cities, and that gets you your shot. If you’re shitty, it all goes away.” Miller says that’s what helped break Local Natives. “All these bands — indie or blog bands — it helps them crawl up and crawl out of this Internet-only thing and become part of the culture. Today it’s Local Natives. It was Fleet Foxes before that and Vampire Weekend before that. And now Arcade Fire has the No. 1 record in the country. That band didn’t get radio play. That’s why I’m so un-cynical about the whole thing. All of those bands are great f***ing bands and they don’t sound like anything else. It’s all happening based on merit more than anything.”  

posted at 11:54 am
on Wednesday, October 06th, 2010

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