Seven years ago, Adam Gardner was milling around freshmen orientation the day before classes began at Tufts University outside Boston when he was casually introduced to Ryan Miller.
Acoustic guitar in hand, Gardner was approached by another student, who had spoken earlier to Miller.
“The guy says, ‘Oh, you play guitar? He plays guitar too. You guys should form a band,’ ” Gardner recounted recently. “I asked Ryan if he could sing and he said he couldn’t. I was like, ‘Alright, see ya.’ I knew I wanted to be in a band with a lot of harmonies, because that was my background in high school. I sang in choirs, I sang in bands, three-part harmonies.
“I knew it wasn’t meant to be if he couldn’t sing. We ended up being friends anyway; I heard him singing along to something later on and I said, ‘You can totally sing. What are you talking about?’ ”
The pair clicked, then hooked up with percussionist Brian Rosenworcel, and soon Guster was born. They have been defying convention ever since.
In an alternative-rock world dominated by Limp Bizkit, Kid Rock and Godsmack, Guster is a welcome breath of pop air, in the tradition of Crowded House, Plimsouls and even the Everly Brothers. They don’t have a bass player; Rosenworcel plays the drums with his bare hands, and the trio’s frontline harmonies are heaven-sent, not a studio creation.
On the heels of its second indie debut album, “Goldfly,” which sold a phenomenal 50,000 copies, Guster makes its big-label premiere Sept. 28 with “Lost and Gone Forever” (Hybrid Recordings/Sire). Behind the first single, “Barrel of a Gun,” the album debuted on Billboard’s Hot 200 at No. 169.
If the low-budget “Goldfly” was a friendly introduction to Guster, “Lost and Gone Forever” is the Boston-based trio’s hero’s welcome.
“We’ve grown up,” Gardner said. “Our songwriting’s gotten better, the lyrics on this record are much better than the last one. We also had more time; this was the first time we weren’t paying for it ourselves. Instead of trying to do the whole thing in two weeks, we had two months. That makes a big difference.
“We were able to experiment, we actually took time in preparation for the record. We took two months off to finish up the writing and thought about it in terms of a studio album. Half the songs we had already been playing live, the other half were songs we wrote knowing that we were going into the studio and weren’t going have to pull them off live until after. That’s a big difference, too, because you think more in terms of textures and layers than you do live.”
Oh, and there was this producer who helped, too: Steve Lillywhite (U2, Peter Gabriel, Dave Matthews Band).
“His approach was more subtle than I imagined it would be,” Gardner said. “He knew how to capture things; he fortunately saw us play live a bunch of times at some of our better shows and he really got the vibe and understood what to do.
“When we were in the phase of writing, before going into the studio, we were thinking, ‘Oh, we’ll get some friend to play bass and a friend to play the drum kit and start rehearsing with them.’ We told him that, and he’s like, ‘No, why would you put a drum kit on a Guster record? After all, you don’t have a drum kit in your band. What Brian’s playing is plenty, and Adam’s practically playing basslines already on guitar.’ I’m like, ‘Okay, I’ve never really played bass before,’ but I ended up playing bass on the record. We found more invisible ways to play bass; I played the pedals of the Hammond B-3 organ.”
Compared to the stressful “Goldfly,” the entire production process for “Lost and Gone Forever” was a walk in the park, Gardner said.
“Steve knew how frustrated we were with the last record, that we didn’t have time to experiment and didn’t have time to make the kind of record we wanted to make,” he said. “The experience was night and day. ‘Lost and Gone Forever’ was so pleasant, so fun. We’re actually planning reunions; Steve is going to play bass with us at the Hammerstein (Ballroom) in New York on Thanksgiving. He hasn’t played in public in like 20 years. He’s all nervous; he says, ‘I’m going to start rehearsing right away.’ ”
Though they may feel out of place in modern-rock circles, Guster is buoyed by the success of quirky brethren Barenaked Ladies and Cake. If they can make it, hopefully we can too, Gardner said.
“We’re releasing (‘Barrel of a Gun’) to alternative radio, and alternative radio right now is very heavy,” he said. “We’re not Korn, we’re not Nine Inch Nails or Kid Rock or Limp Bizkit. This is definitely a pop record; I’d love to say that hopefully we’ll be the balance to all of that. We’re offering it, but whether it’s going to get a chance, who’s really to know.
“I’m just so glad we made the record we always wanted to. I’m satisfied with that, so I’m not going to torture myself with rejection. Something we learned from ‘Goldfly’ is be aware of the numbers, but don’t be obsessed with it at all. You’ll live and die by those. The bottom line is we’re really, really happy with this record.”
BWF (before we forget): Catch up with Guster on the Web @ www.guster.com.