“Things Come Around” for rock band Guster after a year of canceled tours
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Pandemic quarantines have left a lot of working musicians with existential and economic problems — losing in-person interaction with their fans and a major source of income: live performances.
That was especially relevant for Adam Gardner, guitarist and founding member of the alternative rock band Guster, who used to tour quite regularly with the group before the pandemic.
“We love touring,” Gardner told “Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio in a recent interview. “It’s why we still do it 28 years later, whatever that number is, somewhere near 30 years. It was hard to stop, both on a financial level and just an emotional level.”
And unlike other musicians who pivoted to livestream concerts, Gardner and his bandmates lived in different locations, making the logistics of meeting up, practicing, recording music and livestreaming shows much more complicated.
Despite canceling its remaining 2020 shows, Guster eventually did one socially distanced concert last summer and captured that experience via a short documentary, “Things Come Around,” which provided some insight on how Gardner and his bandmates grappled with the pandemic as business partners and artists.
Below is an edited transcript of Brancaccio’s conversation with Gardner, which delved into how Gardner has been dealing with the pandemic as a musician and business owner, Guster’s next steps as the country gradually reopens and how COVID-19 affected Gardner’s other job of making concerts more environmentally friendly with his nonprofit, REVERB.
David Brancaccio: People like you in the business of live performance have had a crushing year. You were in the middle of a tour when the lockdowns began last year?
Adam Gardner: Yeah, we were literally halfway through our tour, and, you know, we could slowly see the writing on the wall as we were progressing. And all of a sudden, we’re like, “Hmm, maybe we shouldn’t do meet-and-greets. We’re not feeling safe, maybe this isn’t safe for our fans.” Right as we were deciding ourselves, internally, to probably shut down the tour, then the entire country shut down.
Brancaccio: Well that’s the thing, right? I mean, there’s money at stake, you know, when you have put together a decent sized tour, and it’s not trivial when you have to abandon ship.
Gardner: No, but it was an obvious choice. It was an unfortunate choice. We were also really enjoying ourselves, like we love touring. It’s why we still do it 28 years later, whatever that number is, somewhere near 30 years. It was hard to stop both on a financial level and just an emotional level.
How live music has changed: Drive-ins, livestreams and more
Brancaccio: So then there’s nothing, but then what? You did one socially distanced concert in the summer? Just one?
Gardner: Yeah. So we all retreated. We all live in different states in different parts of the country so we all kind of retreated back home and, you know, as everyone did, I think just tried to flail about and figure out what was happening. I went through a bunch of panic modes, like, “Oh, my God, what’s gonna happen? How are we going to do this?” You know, between REVERB and Guster, my entire professional world, you know, both my full-time jobs are completely dependent on live music existing. So it was an existential question in a lot of ways, for me.
And once the initial panic subsided a bit and we had a little more information, all of us, collectively, as a country and as a world, you know, we were starting to see these little drive-in shows pop up, and of course, a bunch of livestream events from musicians as they’re trying to figure out how to continue to have a relationship with their fans and play music for their audiences. And we had this opportunity that we made a documentary around to play a drive-in show in New Hampshire last summer. And yeah, it was, honestly, since that shutdown, that’s the one show we’ve played.
Brancaccio: Well, you mentioned that, you know, other performers — I have a close buddy who’s a jazz man and he did some livestreaming on screen, even though the core of what he normally does outside of pandemic is touring all over the world. But you and your Guster mates aren’t really all that into doing the streaming stuff?
Gardner: In our 20s, we all lived in the same place, we lived in the same house, that would have been a much easier scenario. It was gonna be a much bigger ordeal to get us all together to do so. And early on in the pandemic there was, I think, forgiveness from audiences in the public in general for very low-quality productions from people’s laptops. We didn’t jump on that right away. And because of that, we’re like, well, then we’re starting to see really great, high-quality productions. And we were really aspiring to do more of that. It’s not to say that won’t happen, I think they’re still — we’re still talking about it, honestly. But we didn’t want to just do us in front of a laptop.
Right before that show that we did in New Hampshire, the drive-in show, we did do a livestream, and it was a multi-camera event, but we still kind of framed it within — it was not ticketed — we framed it within, “Hey, come see what we’re up to as we’re rehearsing for this big drive-in show.” So we didn’t make it a big deal. But we wanted it, for us, we have such a close connection to our fans, we just wanted to stay in touch. It was really nice because there was, you know, the livestreaming is a live event. We were seeing comments, we’re able to react, we’re able to be us again. And you know, that many months into the quarantine, it was so great just to be back with my band and back with my bandmates. And, you know, one of the lines that I had in the documentary that we shot was like, “This is the most normal I’ve felt since the shutdown,” was just being onstage with my band playing to our fans. It felt completely out of time. Even though it was very strange — we were looking out at a sea of cars instead of a sea of hands and heads. So it was different and a challenge, but it was still well worth it.
And I think what was interesting with the documentary that we shot is we intended to like, “OK, let’s make this more than just a fan piece for people who know our band and like our band.” This is really about anybody, it applies to anybody who’s just trying to find their way through this strange, unprecedented time, at least in our lifetime.
Brancaccio: Right, because you don’t just have to be a performer. So many of us who no longer go into the office and actually miss the human contact of our — you know, my colleagues are really smart and they’re really funny. And yeah, you could do a Zoom once in a while, but it’s just not the same, right?
Gardner: Exactly. And just like any other business, like the four of us are business partners, along with our manager, it’s five of us making decisions. Not all of us — you know, I think everyone can relate to, not everyone had the same comfort level of doing concerts or getting together or trying to record music, which we also successfully have done. We have an album’s worth of material that we’re excited to release soon. But it was, you know, it was a challenge. I think a lot of the documentary caught that because it was kind of the early — again, this is last summer, last July — the kind of early stages of us crawling out of our individual holes of quarantine to figure out, and dip a toe in, and figure out, how can we do this? How can we sustain this? This is going to be a long run before we’re able to get back on the road. This is a band that’s used to touring at least 100 shows a year.
Brancaccio: Where can people see the documentary?
Gardner: You can go to Guster.com and you can check out our socials as well.
What’s ahead for 2021?
Brancaccio: So, what do you think now? I mean, here we are, 2021, people are getting vaccinated. Are you going to put your toe back in and do some more live gigs?
Gardner: You know, it’s interesting, I think it’s going to open up quite a bit. You know, if you’re listening, and you’re a music fan, and you’re wondering when you get to see a show again, I think there will be opportunities this summer. I think the challenge has been, for consecutive touring, is you need lead time on this. And it really hasn’t — the picture isn’t, even today, isn’t totally clear as to what can happen and what restrictions there will be, especially across the country from state to state. So that’s the challenge. But, you know, we have seen announcements from Dave Matthews Band, the end of July, they’re going out and doing what looks like a very usual tour for them. And my nonprofit REVERB has been working with them for 17 years now and greening their tours. And so we’re excited to see like, “OK, on the REVERB side, we can get back to work on tours, because that’s such a big part of what our nonprofit does.”
Brancaccio: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that. We’ve talked on this program before. REVERB partners with musicians and festivals and venues to make gigs as green as you can do it and use as much sustainable resources as possible. Are you going to be pivoting that operation at all, given what we’ve all been through?
Gardner: Yeah, I mean, we already had to because everyone’s tours came to a screeching halt, right? Last March, we were in the middle of six global tours at the time. We were in the U.K. with The 1975, we were on tour with Billie Eilish for her world tour, The Lumineers tour. A number of artists that I can’t think of right now. But it was — and including Guster, of course. So, yeah, we had to pivot. We did a bunch of livestreams. I started a sustainable cooking show called “REVERB’s Quarantine Kitchen” that we still do, which was really fun. We were able to have some really interesting conversations with musicians from their kitchens, cooking food. And we talked about sustainability and eating and sustainable farming and food systems and regenerative farming, and of course what’s going on in the pandemic and music. And so that was really fun, that still exists. So you can go to REVERB.org and see our Quarantine Kitchen episodes there.
And then we’re about to launch — I can’t tell you so much about it because it’s still yet to be launched. But because of this pause in live music, the industry itself has taken a good look at itself and is realizing “OK, what can we do better?” On several fronts, and the environment is a big one. As part of as a natural extension of our work on tours, we’re launching the Music Climate Revolution, focusing very much on the climate emergency and crisis. We have already a wonderful number of artists and industry leaders and industry companies, as well as nonprofit partners, to really tackle the climate crisis. This campaign is a combination of, how do we do business better and build back better and the opportunity on the other side of COVID that we have while we have this pause to rethink everything we’re doing and everything’s up for grabs? And also, how do we harness the cultural and collective reach of music to bring together millions and billions of music fans around the world to take measurable action?
Brancaccio: Let’s just rest a few more seconds on this. If you’re running a tour, multi-city, first of all, you’re burning carbon dioxide to drive the bus with the band or fly from one place to another. But it’s a whole lot else.
Gardner: It is. And this is something that, obviously, yes, we’ve been working on mitigating for a long time. And, you know, the obvious things when you’re at a concert — all you have to do at the end of the show is look down at your feet and realize that you’re tripping over a lot of plastic. And, you know, I think that’s, it’s just one example of how a lot of the live music and concert industry is a bit disposable. And more than a bit, unfortunately.
So, for example, right before the pandemic shutdown, we were able to get through The Lumineers, U.S. leg one of their tour, so the 23 days. We made that tour climate positive, meaning that we looked at the entire carbon footprint of the tour, from all of the fans traveling to and from the show, which is a big piece of that puzzle, as well as the touring impacts of the tour buses, the trucking, the flight, the hotel rooms, the venue energy usage, etc. And looked at that, calculated that footprint, and neutralized 150% of it, making it climate positive. Because carbon neutral, that feels like an old term now. We don’t have time to be neutral on this issue, we have to be proactively fighting it. So it was really exciting to see The Lumineers were one of the first climate-positive, the world’s first climate-positive tour.
And not just looking at it from carbon emissions and neutralizing those emissions by supporting carbon-fighting projects, but also getting fans to take action at the “Eco-Village” that was set up at every concert so they could plug into local and national and global environmental causes and campaigns and take action with those groups. And also, again, addressing that single-use plastic water bottle issue: We eliminated 10,000 single-use water bottles just on that 20-plus-date leg of the tour alone, through our Rockin’ Refill program where we offered reusable water bottles and free water-refill stations at the show so they didn’t have to buy single-use water bottles.
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