Ryan Miller is lead singer, guitarist and multi-instrumentalist for the band Guster. He is a film composer, having worked on Tig, In a World…, The Kings of Summer, Safety Not Guaranteed, and several other films. He also hosts the popular digital series “Makin’ Friends with Ryan Miller.”
Ryan lives in Vermont with his two kids and wife Angela, who is Profile Editor for Parent.co.
Ryan, how long have you been making music?
You mean professionally?
I got a guitar from my 12th birthday. I’m 42. So I guess I’ve been playing instruments for 30 years.
Tell a little about making music at Tufts, because that’s when it really started happening for you.
It was just myself, Adam – Adam sings, plays guitar – and Brian who brought bongos. He didn’t have drums because we were in dorm rooms.
That’s what we started doing. We wrote songs for a Battle of the Bands our first year, Freshman year. We didn’t get in.
It just started as a stupid thing in college.We were writing songs so we could play together. We didn’t know a bass player or even know any drummers, so unconventional instrumentation came out of it. We were all going to school, and then we made a record. We were playing, and we were busking in Harvard Square. We were young, cute, and so we would make money. And then we were starting to play off campus a little bit. We played a Harvard party. That just sort of slowly unfolded.
Junior year we made a record with a real record producer in Boston who made cool Boston records at that time. And we got a manager but he was like, “yeah, nobody wants to sign you. Keep making records.”
That was our first sort of light bulb – that guy who said “I can’t get you signed” or whatever. So then we just started sending records to fans. We’d call them “reps” and they became sort of a street team.
We were playing other colleges, tiny little New England schools. They overpay, so over the course of four years; we were able to accumulate enough money to get an apartment after graduation. So we were like, “fuck it, maybe we’ll just like do this and see what happens.”
It’s different now probably, but the gap between being able to quit your day job and make a living at least for a musician, is huge. You can’t quit your day job until you make enough money. You can’t make enough money until you quit your day job.
But we were at college, so we were just able to bootstrap our training wheels to get the band up and running so by the time we graduated we were like, “we’re a band.” We never had jobs. No one worked a bullshit job. Our days, every day, were like, “let’s go write.” We were writing music. We were playing shows. So that’s just what happened.
The first day we got out of college, we went to Chicago.
I didn’t know about that – that you went straight to Chicago, playing with the band.
We had five shows in Chicago the weekend that we graduated. “All right, I guess we’re going to be musicians,” which is really kind of crazy. My degree is in religious studies, Brian’s degree is in psychology, and Adam’s degree is in American Studies…
We were selling our records out of our guitar cases, sleeping on floors, playing parties, but it was also growing. So we would play 50 people, and we’d go back and there would be 150 people. You could see what was happening in New York and in Boston.
Millions of other things happened between now and then. But that was really how it all started. And no help from any management, just us doing it totally bootstrap.
Do you think you could do that today? Do you think that’s still viable?
It’s almost more viable in a way. Back then there was no Kickstarter. There was no internet.
No cell phone.
We maybe had an email address when we graduated from college; this was ’95. We were mailing CDs in Fruit Loop boxes. Maybe we had a cell phone at that time?
I mean now, there’s billions of ways to make this happen. You can have house concerts, all that shit exists.
But you don’t feel like, in some ways, if it’s almost too easy it some of the creative friction is lost?
There’s just way more noise out there. Everybody can make a record. It cost us $10,000 to make that first record. I remember when he gave us the budget on a piece of paper and slid it across the table. Our faces were just like, “what?!”
But now you can make a record for $200. Everybody can make a record. I was thinking about it today.
Does any of that relate to your latest album Evermotion?
We worked really hard on that for four months. We went on tour and made something I’m proud of. That by itself should be celebrated. We made a good record and people like it and the tour went on, it was awesome. But in some ways just being able to make another one is success, because the goals have changed so much.
Even like huge bands, like Faith No More, or My Morning Jacket, make a record, but the following week, but there’re a million new things. The albums come and go. It’s harder to cut through the noise with that constant influx.
You can’t take anything for granted. It’s about taking value in your work and maybe figuring out how to monetize it in a way that you’re not just suffering to whatever level you need money.
That reminds me of how we’re moving into a freelance economy based around short term work. Even for jobs that used to be exclusively done by career professionals. In a way, successful creatives like yourself at the forefront of figuring out how to make a living in the “freelance economy,” for lack of a better term. All our kids will live in that economy.
But that’s just not how I thought my life was going to work, and it hasn’t for the most part in some ways.
It’s sort of scary, but it’s sort of cool. Yeah, those big jobs people used to take just to have health insurance…. I don’t even know many people that have those jobs.
Not anymore, no. More and more, people are going to have to hustle to make their thing happen.
I don’t know what’s better. Would you want to go out there in the freelance world, where you’re not proven so you’re only going to make $200, and that’s your job for two weeks? You know what I mean? It’s scary, but you have to. That’s the thing.
You’ve got to bet on yourself. That’s what I go back to and I think that’s sort of the legacy of the band and the thing that I really take away from all this. We were just like, “well, fuck, we’re going to do it. We’re going to make this happen”…and so we kind of did. To my kids I’m going to be saying “do it,” do whatever you want to do, go do it until it doesn’t make sense anymore.
I’m not going to be an advocate for the safe thing, but I don’t even know if those safe harbors exist anymore.
Barely. For some people they do – for now.
It’s all ‘grass is greener’ stuff. With composing, I feel very much on the upswing and there’s still so much more to explore. But it takes incredible effort and skill and you’ve got to be in the right place, and you’ve got to nail it, and then you’ve got to follow up.
And there’s a billion more dudes underneath you, and if you fucking fail, if you falter for one second, you’ll get eaten and somebody else will take your spot. There’s no tenured professor version of what I do where you put your feet up and you’re like, “yeah, I got it.”
So you have to really love what you do. When you get the jobs, then it’s just like, “oh, I really love this and I’m good at it and I’m hungry…” but I’ve been hungry and ambitious for my entire professional life. So I get to play music.
I’ve always felt that parents who follow their dreams – or rather, work really, really hard to manifest their dreams – are the best role models as parents. Up to a point I guess.
Well, yeah, I think there’s the practical part of it, which is you actually have to be there for your kids. Now that my daughter’s 7, when she says “daddy, I don’t want you to leave,” I explain “daddy’s home a lot more than most dads.”
In aggregate I’m home in a similar way that maybe like a 9-5 dad from 1975 would be.
But I love that they come downstairs and see me working in my studio and they see me on the TV show or they hear a song on the radio. And I love the fact that they see Angela (Ryan’s wife) with her headphones on, writing and working too.
Exactly. That part of it feels good in that they actually see us kind of doing real work. That parenting kind of feels really great. And it’s like, when I say, “yeah, you should be free and follow your heart,” it’s like, I did, Colin did, Angela did.
That’s such a cool way of being a parent. These are people who are providing for their families by being creative. That’s so much fucking cooler than just some dude that moves a couple of numbers around on a spreadsheet and now he’s got a boat or whatever.
And also, by the way, unfortunately his job is actually at risk too. Anybody who moves numbers around on a spreadsheet will be replaced by software in a decade.
Oh yeah, for sure. That’s not to demean anybody’s who in a non-creative job or whatever, it just happens to be that Angela and I are sort of creative people. I’ve made my living entirely from being creative, so I think it’s cool, and if my kids wanted to go be bank…not bankers…but you know, if they wanted to do something that wasn’t quote “creative” I have no problem with that whatsoever.
It’s just such a weird conversation to have with your kids though, because for most people it’s like, “don’t be a musician. Get a safe practical job. Because as your parent I love you and I worry about you being about to support yourself.”
I never ask my daughter what she wants to do. I mean this is so far down the line for me, but I’m just not one of those people that are like, “what are they going to do?”
I’m so glad I’m not in this culture where it’s all about what school they get into. I don’t know if I care. I went to a good school and I’m glad that I did, but it’s like maybe they go to school, maybe they don’t. When I was thinking about what kind of kids I want them to turn into…I just want them to be kind. I want them to be happy.
I’m so curious to see what kind of people they’re going to become and not what their job is going to be.
Even though, for me, my job is so tied into who I am. And for a lot of my friends it is because they’re really following their passion for who they are as people. I hope that that’s kind of the big picture thing, not, “what are you going to do when you grow up?” It’s like, just be rad. Be free, and yeah, you want to dance, then dance. That’s the gas I’m trying to throw on the fire.
It’s trying to make them just be really free and open expressers of who they are, and less about practicalities of how it’s all going to filter out. Because if you’re just smart and rad, then you can always find a job.
You know, I couldn’t agree more. Absolutely. Do you want another cup of coffee or anything?
No, I’m going to go get food after this. Do you want another one? You get free refills. You can just snap your fingers.
Have you seen that waitress? She would not like that. By the way, how are you guys navigating having more of your work based across the country, in L.A.?
What happens is that I will go off on these sort of satellite missions. I had this kind of real talk with Angela the other day about how touring would kind of slow down, and there’s going to be this gap happening between less touring and focusing on the composer thing,
I’m feeling this as a provider for my family. The only answer is for me is to go and spend time there. And it’s just like, okay then that’s what I have to do. And so if I have to spend this time away from my kids and I have to go there for 2 weeks and come back for a week, or if I got a job that was a TV job and I have to be there for 2 or 3 months, and then they had to come and visit and I have to come home on weekends.
The reality is I’ve been living on a bus for my entire professional life anyway.
Would you move there?
My parents just bought a house here. If there was any thought of us leaving…as soon as I told my parents to move here, that was it. And Angela, there’s no way she would leave here.
I’ve been here (Vermont) long enough that this is now part of me. I definitely wouldn’t be happy living in New York again if I could snap my fingers. No way I would go back to New York and live there entirely. In L.A., I think it’s probably more doable, but it’s just practically, it’s just like schools and money and traffic and my wife hates it and so that’s not really an answer. There’s no real answer.
Well, yeah, that’s the thing. I feel like a lot of parents don’t take risks in their life because they’re worried about how it’ll impact their kid, which is completely understandable. But on the other hand, if you’re already wired to say, “I’m going to find a way to make this thing work, and I’m going keep working at it until it actually works,” you can probably find a way to make it work with the kids, too.
Well, that’s the thing. I mean, that’s the example of what kind of example are you setting for your kids too? I mean, I get it, you’re like I don’t want to drag them around, but you want them to have inspiring parents who follow their dreams as their best selves. I understand you have to make choices in all these parts of your life. But what if you become half the person that you could have been?
So that’s the balance we’re trying to figure out. With my wife and I we try and mitigate it in these different ways. It’s like, “I’ve got to go do this. It’s going to be harder for you. So I’m going to try to get you the help you need. Your mom can come and we’ll hire help where we need to. ”
We always try to have the big picture in mind of this whole thing. The good thing is that all of this feels very really virtuous in terms of what we’re pursuing. Doing something we love that’s creative.
And makes other people happy.
Makes other people happy. Working with really good people. Hopefully working on cool, good projects and challenging myself and all this stuff. I haven’t taken that cynical job of doing Barney music or something where’s it’s just a job or whatever. That would be harder.
I think all this stuff feels really virtuous in terms of it serving a greater thing, so it’s worked out so far. It’s a very unconventional, as our therapist says, it’s a very unconventional life that we’ve carved out for ourselves, but I think you’re right. I think everybody’s life is kind of becoming more unconventional.