Guster, on producing Keep it Together (with my dad)

last updated 2023-01-26

Originally posted on Instagram by @Guster, copied for posterity.

“So don’t look back, there ain’t nothing there to see” - this is especially true of the Keep It Together studio journals, which have been removed from the internet, but I remember it all. So let’s go. This is Part 1 of three in my KIT retrospective:

If the making of “Lost & Gone Forever” was like a fairy tale where we landed our dream producer, lived on a houseboat, and generally had a blast recording the 11 songs we’d written in our apartment, “Keep It Together” was a whole other thing.

We’d left the band apartment in Somerville Massachusetts and moved to our own places in New York City. We’d graduated from a van to a tour bus. We had fans, a record label, and expectations. We had egos. And we were all on board with the idea of reinventing the band’s sound.

Throw all the rules away! We’d just made the album that captured our acoustic instrumentation and now it was time to grow. We could sound like the Talking Heads now! And so our practice space on Bergen St in Brooklyn was lined with all these new toys. Bass guitars, amps, keyboards, and the kind of drum set you play with sticks. Not to mention a computer with “Pro Tools” on it - which offered a whole new way to tinker with songs.

But the songs didn’t come easily. No one knew how to play these instruments. The computer had snippets of ideas (the bass chords to “Diane,” the heavy metal intro to “Red Oyster Cult,” the conga pattern that became the intro to “CDASH”), but not much in the way of full songs. And we’d been writing for almost a year.

I remember we sent Ryan on a solo trip to Paris to work on lyrics in September 2001, but 9/11 happened while he was out there and he came back empty-handed.

Two important records came out while we were writing songs in Brooklyn - “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” by Wilco, and The Strokes’ “Is This It?” I remember where I was when I first heard these albums. They helped liberate us. Wilco’s record gave us permission to get weird and experiment. The Strokes debut made it cool to embrace the past. To be a rock band.

But the records that we’d spent the most time listening to were the atmospheric ones - “Moon Safari” by Air, “Deserter’s Songs” by Mercury Rev, “The Soft Bulletin” by the Flaming Lips, and especially “I Can Feel the Heart Beating as One” by Yo La Tengo.

These records were beautiful, orchestral, and atmospheric. They were indie but not in the way that Guster had been indie. There seemed to be a more sophisticated pop movement afoot and we weren’t going to be left behind. Despite having just had the most cathartic experience with Steve Lillywhite in charge, we tapped Yo La Tengo's producer Roger Moutenot to work with us and help us figure out what Guster 2.0 would sound like.

We set up in Woodstock NY at Bearsville Studio. We spent weeks just jamming on ideas and trying to record basic tracks. I remember driving home for Thanksgiving having spent God-knows-how-many-hours-and-dollars “working” — and Ryan saying to me “we literally have nothing to show for ourselves.”

It was tough to accept, but it was the truth. I didn’t know how to play a drum set. It felt like we’d been working on “Say That To My Face” for a month but it still sounded off. We were micromanaging Roger and forcing him to learn digital programs that weren’t his strong suit. For a band that had just sold out Central Park and tossed our signature sound — this experience had been a major humbling.

At one point we sent Steve Lillywhite some demos of our new direction and his response should be read in a thick British accent -- "Every time U2 reinvents themselves it takes them four years, so the way I see it, you've still got a year to go."

He was right.

In December 2001 we moved into the big studio that “The Band” built in Bearsville NY and started getting into a flow. Some of our experimentation started paying off. We got the intro beat on Diane by putting a cloth on a djembe, mic’ing it from underneath, and hitting it with a mallet. Adam’s guitar part on Ramona came across with MIDI bass pulsing through his acoustic strings.

And we had fun inviting every studio guest to play on “Backyard” — with the caveat that they had to record their part in one take without having ever heard the song before. So the cacophonous section before the harmonica solo got built up with guest musician gibberish, and when our friend Josh Rouse took a swing at it he said “whoa key change” when we modulate at the end. You can hear him say it.

I remember Josh complimenting my drum part on “Two at a Time” when we did a listening session with him. And for a minute I stopped beating myself up over my inability to play my new instrument, and reflected that the chorus did in fact, have a pretty creative drum idea going on.

We invited our Brooklyn pal Ben Kweller (photo 1) to come upstate and record the song we’d written together at one of our Thursday night jam sessions on Bergen St. These were regular jams where we opened up the rehearsal space to guests and made music with just a couple rules (no blues, no covers). Maybe there was a no reggae rule too.

Anyway, one night in Brooklyn after everyone had left, Ben was the only one there and we got into an idea at 1am that sprang from a Ryan bass melody. And by 4am “I Hope Tomorrow Is Like Today” was done, lyrics and all. Ben was a 20 year old, really talented songwriter and one of our best friends. He was refreshingly optimistic, like, you’d go to his house and he’d say “I can’t wait to play you this new song of mine!” And then you’d sit and he’d perform for you and you’d high five. So when Ben sang that he hoped tomorrow was like today, it came from the purest place. Staying up late with your friends, running with a cool song idea in the big city - everything felt perfect. Who wouldn’t want that the next day too?

Back in the studio the 2002 months dragged on and we moved to a few other locations.

In Nashville we decided to record a bluegrass-y song Ryan had written with a new friend Joe Pisapia who we’d met through the band Jump Little Children. I didn’t know Joe well, and I wasn’t sure if the lyrics on “Jesus on the Radio” were Christian or not, but it didn’t matter. His musicality and energy were magnetic. Roger mic’d us up to loosely record it live, in front of a roaring fire at Joe’s house (?), and the song was done pretty quickly. Joe would join Guster as a 4th member months later, touring with us for 7 years while writing and recording Ganging Up on the Sun & Easy Wonderful with us.

In April 2002 while doing some final overdubs in NYC, I remember the overhead screen in the control, which had the Pro Tools displayed on it along with session info — had a “comments” section too. And one morning Roger had typed something in the comments section.


My dad, looking hip and pissed
My dad, looking hip and pissed

It’s pretty devastating, to read that and reflect on it now. I was too self-absorbed to feel the depth of it in the moment, but Roger (photo 4) didn’t know how to tell us that this process - six full months in the studio - with lots of experimentation and learning and some successes and some failures … had become a grind and he was ready to be done.

We mixed the songs we had recorded together, which included some of the most creative tracks on the album - Diane, Backyard, Ramona, Jesus on the Radio, Come Downstairs & Say Hello, Red Oyster Cult, Long Way Down, I Hope Tomorrow Is Like Today, and Two at a Time.

We turned the tracks in to Warner Brothers and were promptly rejected. We were told there was no radio single, and they were 100% correct. Who knew we were supposed to deliver a radio single?

And one last thing for the Be Calm Be Brave It’ll Be Okay crowd: I found this in a rare archived studio journal from 2002:

The last one we mixed was "Come Downstairs & Say Hello." The most classical piece of the bunch. We found ourselves battling over "flugalhorn" volumes at the end of the mix. The song rewards those with open minds and attention spans... the first two and a half minutes are the most mellow two and a half minutes in Guster Recorded History. The three minutes that follow are probably the most interesting. I don't know how to describe it. We like this song so much we'll probably attempt it live at some point, though we really shouldn't. Maybe this summer when we bring out The 4th Guster.

Compiled 2023-3-5