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Look Alive is our 8th album. The bulk of it was recorded in a vintage keyboard museum in Calgary AB, during a January stretch when the temperature reached 30 degrees below zero. We ended up in Canada because our British producer, Leo Abrahams, couldn’t turn around an American work visa fast enough, and we feel lucky to have discovered Studio Bell at the last minute. Despite having access to room after room of well-maintained analog keys, Leo gravitated to a cheap Ensoniq Mirage synth from the 1980’s that made Janet Jackson Rhythm Nation-era sounds from floppy disks. Leo spent countless hours poring over these floppy disks while the band gawked at the mellotrons, harpsichords, and other vintage equipment housed at Studio Bell. It was the beginnings of a stylistic clash that would ultimately play out beautifully. Our band had always gravitated to “warm” sounds. Leo would introduce us to “cold” sounds and the way they challenge us as listeners. He was the perfect complementary piece for Guster.
After working with the late Richard Swift four years ago and discovering a more raw and vintage sound on Evermotion, we fully embraced studio production with Leo this time around. The sheer amount of production on Look Alive grew into its own statement. There is a lot to unpack.
One day in Calgary we arrived at the studio to discover that Leo had put in a few extra hours on our song “Summertime.” He’d built an entire new intro using the Ensoniq Mirage overnight and played it for us. The band reaction wasn’t too kind. Our beautiful song now had a jarring, harsh, disruptive introduction, instead of the soft mellotron flutes we’d known. After some days of light bickering about it, Leo finally shed his proper British diplomatic side and belted out that “the world doesn’t need another fucking Beatles pastiche!” This would eventually become a rallying cry for the album as we strove to make something new and powerful together.
Title track “Look Alive” is an ominous, processed sonic collage with haunting words about waking up and becoming active in the midst of hollow words and fake heroes. “Hard Times,” written in the studio, came out more like the dark pop of Peter Gabriel / Depeche Mode / Tears for Fears than what people might think of Guster. “Overexcited” felt like classic Brit-pop and so Ryan sang it with a British accent over an Ensoniq marimba. Some of Guster’s critics will say “but you can’t do that” — and that’s something we’ve heard our entire career. We don’t subscribe to the same musical ideology they do and never have.
Writing songs for the second straight record with multi-instrumentalist Luke Reynolds (who joined the band in 2010) has been a key to our evolution. Working with artists like Leo Abrahams, John Congleton, and Collin DuPuis proved to be inspiring and adds to a “brain trust” that bolsters the songs. With Look Alive the plan is simple. Grow our musical community. Write better and better songs. Keep our minds open. Never repeat ourselves and create a legacy of music that is undeniable.
– Brian Rosenworcel, drummer of Guster
“Josh Ritter? Hell, he was born dead center of the whole country, who else is gonna tell us what it’s really like.” That’s Jason Isbell, who knows a little something about songwriting, on why Josh Ritter’s songs are so important right now.
What must it feel like, to do what Josh Ritter can? To be able to see the world clear as it is, to be able to hold in your mind the various ways it might roll, spin or cant, to draw these versions for us in a few, perfectly chosen words, set to melodies as instantly memorable as they are fresh?
I imagine it must feel like a calling and a burden, and must bring about in Ritter a sense of gratitude and obligation—To hear those voices, those couplets, those musical lines and to know that there are so many of us waiting for him bring them to us, like a basket of just ripened tangerines on an arid summer day, exactly what we need at the exact moment we most need it.
There is a hint for us in the title of Josh’s new album, Fever Breaks. And listening to it, I can sense the fever that took hold of Josh as he was writing, the insistent, all encompassing waves of emotion and heat, the chills and shakes that blew through him and finally broke just before it would have killed him.
This urgency shows itself in the songs he wrote, in the playing and singing that elevates the recordings into incantations of hope in desperate times, into that one ray of light sneaking its way through the one needle sized hole in the ground above the collapsed mine shaft we are all stuck in: the United States of America in 2019.
“In between nothing but the thin air and the unknown,” Ritter sings in On The Water, describing not only the fragile state of a relationship, but also the state of the US as he apprehends it at this particular moment in history. But one of Josh’s many gifts is that, even as he documents the meanness, the songs themselves lift us out of it, into a place of reverie.
As I listen, I find myself singing along, laughing, entered into a shared place of joy. This is secular church music, because it unifies us, bonds us, brings us together in a search for love, peace, understanding and an escape from the earthly cruelty all around us.
When I asked Isbell, who produced Fever Breaks, what it was about Josh Ritter’s music that made him want to collaborate with Josh, he spoke of Ritter’s perfectionism, of Ritter’s willingness to do the work required to turn an instant of inspiration into a great song. And then he got quiet for a long moment. “Look,” he said. “This American experiment is getting to the point where we need to call for help. We’re not under water yet, but we are stuck on the rocks. Josh’s music is a perfect document of these times.”
—Brian Koppelman, co-creator, showrunner Billions, co-writer, Rounders