That’s No Moon. It’s a… Satellite: Guster’s Ryan Miller
As any Star Wars fan can surmise, and any parent can avow, there are moments when new babies make you look at the world a little differently. As a long-time fan of the band Guster – stemming from my encountering the then-trio playing alongside the buskers in Harvard Square – the song “Satellite” was included on my personal list of “songs I like that could possibly keep an infant quiet.” The tune was so successful in this regard that I ended up listening to Ryan Miller’s dulcet tones on repeat, often in the middle of the night, for much of 2016 and early 2017. On one of those evenings (probably around 3:00 AM, after the 20th viewing on YouTube), I enthusiastically decided that “Satellite” could be Director Krennic’s theme song. In my stupor, and with that misguided premise in mind I hastily penned and sent an e-mail to Guster’s management wondering if anyone in the band is a Star Wars fan, and would they agree to sit for an interview. So, that is how I ended up talking about Star Wars, Skywalker Ranch, and Colin Trevorrow with the lead singer of an alternative rock band. The Force works in mysterious ways. Watch “Satellite” and Enjoy the Q&A…
John Bishop: So, you’ve seen Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Did you ever think that “Satellite” could be Director Krennic’s theme song?
Ryan Miller: [Laughter] I can’t say that was part of the inspiration for its creation, but I can appreciate that it’s combining two of your passions – it’s starting to connect the Venn diagram for you. [More laughter]
JB: [Sounding concerned] But you’re a big fan of Star Wars, right, particularly the Original Trilogy. We’re of a similar age, and the saga has touched so much of my life. Did you have a similar experience?
RM: Oh, yeah. I mean, I was obviously immersed in the culture of the films from the get-go: I saw the first film in the theater and was a voracious collector of all the stuff, all the toys, and I have kids now, who are eight and six, and I busted them out so they can play… I’m coming at it from a whole other angle, too, because the other thing I was super into as a kid was LEGOs, and now there’s the whole Star Wars LEGO thing, and my kids are obsessed with that too, so, like, you know, it’s kind of a big deal in our house, and I have sort of a weird personal connection, too, because I do a lot of film scoring: I scored a film called Safety Not Guaranteed with my buddy Colin Trevorrow, who’s writing/directing Episode IX, so I’m kind of in that part of that – watching his life sort of change… but I’ve been to Skywalker Ranch a few times at this point. So, yeah, there’s a lot of that energy in my life [laughs] to say the least.
JB: [Infinitely relieved] How did Star Wars spark your own imagination growing up?
RM: I’ve talked about this a lot with Colin, and also my kids… [Star Wars] is sort of like Shakespeare for kids – in a lot of ways… these archetypes of the kid that loses his parents and looks to the sky to fulfill his destiny; these are stories that we’ve been telling since the beginning of time. I think [George] Lucas would cop to that, too: he didn’t invent this stuff; he just sort of crystallized in a certain way. So, yeah, having been immersed in the culture of that for so long, I mean, on some base level, it’s bad guys and good guys, but then, [there’s] the science of that is in there. Like, I just watched this National Geographic series called Mars with my eight-year-old daughter, and the fact that she was able to sit down and we could talk about planets and… trace her interest in that to the fact that she’s had this Star Wars stuff in her life since the beginning. So, I mean, I don’t know that I’d really trace [it personally] to that specifically, but I have a total interest in science and space, and that’s a big part of our household. I’d have to assume that having that be so much a part of my life as a kid, that they were inextricably linked, you know?
JB: I recently interviewed an academic about Star Wars and religion, so I’ve been thinking about that recently. You studied religion in college: Have you ever thought of The Force in those terms? Have you ever used Star Wars as a method of explaining religion to your kids?
RM: As someone that’s relatively agnostic/atheist, but also someone that thinks about this stuff a lot, I think of it as another mythology – the same way that I think of Jesus as mythology and a history, or Buddha. There’s a through-line between all this stuff… I haven’t gone into specifics and talked about God in terms of the Force to my kids, but the fact that there are these very definite through-lines, in major religions and also in [Star Wars mythology], I don’t think that’s an accident; I think that obviously has a lot to do with why this story has value and why it’s not kind of a throw-away sci-fi thing that just kind of happened… I think it’s the spirituality that actually grounds it in something rather than just making it about good guys and bad guys and fuzzy bears that live in the trees.
JB: Looking back, I find that I gained an early understanding about politics and democracy and history through the saga, through real ideas that framed my early education. Did the “Original Trilogy” mean anything similar to you?
RM: You know, The Lord of the Rings was really big for me, too, [in terms of] talking about good and evil, too. So, how could it not? And not growing up particularly religious, how could it not? These are the mythologies I was steeped in; I was steeped in the Star Wars universe, I was steeped in The Lord of the Rings… Again, I don’t think this is something I’d ever say: “Okay, Star Wars made me understand what the alt-right is.” But I can’t imagine that my moral compass and my understanding doesn’t come from that, because those were my main influences as a kid, just kind of being a sci-fi geek, growing up. And, going back and watching those movies with my kids now and being like, “Oh, wow, okay, this is stuff that really holds up.” And because I have a friend who’s helping sculpt the end of this thing, too, it’s sort of interesting. I’m like, “Well, what does it all mean and what is it all for?” So, yeah, and there’s a lot of power in that. Just being sort of empathetic with the assignment that’s on [Colin’s] desk, to really figure out what that means, it’s a pretty gigantic thing to try and comprehend.
JB: Speaking of a pretty gigantic moment, tell us about working with Trevorrow at Skywalker Ranch.
RM: Yeah, I mean – I didn’t trying going in the archives and stuff, but I had my, like, nerdy moment. I’ve been there a few times… and it was like, “Oh, wait, George Lucas just created this thing; he created a universe here.” If you’re standing in the main house, you can’t see anything else [and I was immediately] appreciative of his imagination. Part of me, too [wants to achieve an] understanding. At this point in my life, I’m really interested in what I call “high-functioning weirdos,” and I have a show on [New Hampshire] PBS called Making Friends, where I kind of run around and try to develop a bigger version of this [understanding], and George Lucas seems like one of the biggest high-functioning weirdos there ever was. This thing came out of his brain, and…you can trace his sources from Japanese lore and all the films he watched, but he made this thing. So being at Skywalker was sort of like crawling inside his brain, that it was physically manifest…and I haven’t been where I get to, like, hold Indiana Jones’ hat or see an original C3PO or something like that, but I’m sure that would tickle me and my nostalgia in my youth in all kinds of good ways, but I think my bigger takeaway was just Lucas’ scope and imagination for even creating something that wasn’t Star Wars, but was also made manifest and made real, and I really appreciated that about him. And obviously with a shit-ton of money and an incredible [collection] of craftsmen that are able to do his will, but that’s my fascination, I think. That’s why I really enjoy movies and why I respect the hell out of directors who are able to have something come out of their brain and use their “go-go Gadget arms” and get 2,000 people to point their antennas all the same direction. So, yeah, that part was the most impactful to me.
JB: Can you speak to Colin’s current Star Wars work?
RM: I mean – he’s a very private person. But, yeah, [speaking] to his journey…You know, he did Jurassic World [too], which is obviously not small change either, but probably less of cultural import than the Star Wars universe because of – because of your attraction to it, because of what we’re talking about. Like, Star Wars is a religion for a lot of people, and Jurassic World wasn’t. But yeah, I mean, I think he feels it very heavily, and I think that’s part of why he has the gig – he and Derek [Connolly], who’s also writing it with Colin… yeah, I mean, it’s an incredible thing to witness. You know, we’ve had a few bands open up for us that have gone on to international super-stardom [laughs], and watching people sort of progress from their, like, maiden forms into these juggernauts – like John Mayer or the band Fun or Maroon 5 or – you know, it’s been a really interesting thing to watch, sort of on the field, but mostly on the sidelines, to see people grow into these roles, and how it changes them and what the pressure does to them and trying to put myself in their shoes and wondering, like, ‘would I be able to do this?’ and understanding how massively, how hard it is at certain points…So, yeah, as someone who’s really interested in those personal dynamics and how things work and how creativity can manifest into real life, it’s absolutely fascinating, no question.
At this point in the interview, Ryan and I took a break from Star Wars to talk about Guster’s longevity over two decades and the band’s ability to maintain its identity through its earliest inception at Tufts University (near Boston) until now; with four members living in different states, with lives and families of their own they still make music and tour. Much of that piece of the conversation belongs in a different story (and on a different site), but there was one point where the idea of “cool” and authenticity and community and fandom were compared and contrasted with devotion to Star Wars.
RM: Think about it, like, in terms of the Star Wars thing [in terms of devotion to a band, or a type of music]. I mean, it’s people who find something they enjoy, and then they just kind of enjoy it unabashedly. Like, I don’t know that it’s cool to have a Star Wars podcast – maybe it is now – but it doesn’t matter. That’s kind of the joy of the whole thing; that you find your tribe and you support each other…What kind of life is that to look around and make sure that other people are approving of whatever it is that’s speaking to you? I think on some level…there is sort of an overlap between this Star Wars thing and maybe being in a band and what we’re talking about, because it’s like, “Yeah, I don’t know that we were ever cool,” you know? And I don’t know that we’ll ever be cool. And if we are cool, it was just because that’s where things kind of moved into our space and what we’re doing. I would hope that authenticity is cool, and I don’t know if our aesthetic is ever going to line up with that, or if Star Wars will ever kind of line up with being cool; although I think in a lot of ways it has, you know? And I think those communities and those tribes have a lot in common – that you speak your truth, you put your head down, you do good work and you stay true to your own vision, and hopefully everything works out.
JB: Let’s get a little lighter with a couple rapid-fire questions: Favorite character?
RM: Oh, shit, I didn’t think about any of this stuff! Um, I am going to go with OG – I can’t do any of the new movie stuff. Admiral Ackbar? “It’s a trap!” [laughs].
JB: Favorite movie?
RM: Empire. It’s the one that, to me, holds up the most. Although, I will say, I really enjoyed Rogue One, too. I really liked it. And I didn’t love VII…For me, it was the feeling that I thought I was going to get out of VII, I got out of Rogue One, where I was like, ‘Oh, we’re back!’ And it was scratching the nostalgia thing a little bit – a lot – but it was also kind of giving me something new, for whatever reason. I’ve only seen it once, but I’m really excited to see it again. I thought they did a great job, and I’m really stoked to see [Rian Johnson’s] take on VIII, too; I think it’s going to be awesome. I’m a really big fan of him as a filmmaker.
JB: Anything else tickling your Star Wars fancy these days?
RM: Okay, one other thing that it’s like, one of my favorite things, one of the biggest things that’s in our house right now that’s related to Star Wars is the “Bad Lip Reading” Star Wars stuff. Oh my God, dude, walk, do not run. Just [Google] ‘Bad Lip Reading Star Wars…Seagulls‘ is just – like, honestly, it’s one of my favorite pop culture moments of the last 10 years, and we’re obsessed with it in my house. My band’s obsessed with it. We, like, walk out to it, and it’s a Star Wars song that has to be part of your thing. I’m so stoked you don’t know anything about it. Do all the Bad Lip Reading Star Wars , but the pièce de résistance is the ‘Seagulls’ song, I promise.
Guster is touring this summer. Learn more about Ryan and the band at www.guster.com.