Ryan Miller sits at the bar of the Tilt Classic Arcade & Ale House, a vintage-video-game-themed pub tucked into the far end of a strip mall just off Shelburne Road in South Burlington. I find the Guster front man past a cluster of flannel-clad dudes huddled around a pinball machine, down a long, gleaming expanse of wood, past a tower of microbrew taps and vacant bar stools. There Miller sits, huddled over his iPhone. And he's alone, which is kind of weird.
Normally, a 40-ish guy in jeans and a hoodie sitting by himself at a bar perusing his phone wouldn't seem unusual. But this bar is nothing if not sociable: an almost too well-lit, kitschy retro arcade with a soundtrack of chirpy bleeps and bloops from Tron pinball machines and Ms. Pac Man arcade games. The brightly orange-striped hoodie Miller wears on his lean frame seems to say "gregarious," too.
Finally, it's just rare to see Miller, the epitome of a social butterfly and so often the life of the party, not chatting up the bartender or a neighbor on a nearby stool. The guy has a way of attracting friends — especially new ones.
"Oh, hey, man!" Miller says enthusiastically as I approach. He hops off his barstool and proceeds to bear-hug me. "It's so good to see you!"
His words tumble out with an excitement and earnestness that might make an onlooker think Miller and I were old friends who hadn't seen each other in years. In truth, our last meeting had been just a week earlier. And that conversation, over coffee at the Light Club Lamp Shop in Burlington, was the first of any length we'd had beyond occasionally exchanging pleasantries at local rock shows.
Given the short duration of our relationship, and the deeply ingrained skepticism about emotional displays that resides within all lifelong New Englanders such as myself, I should probably be put off by all this, if not entirely weirded out. But I'm not. Even though I've only hung out with Miller for a total of maybe two hours, there's something about the guy that puts even leery strangers at ease.
"Have a seat, man," he says, gesturing to the barstool beside his own. "I was just reading this Grantland story about Kim Kardashian's ass breaking the internet."
Well, OK, then.
Maybe it's his kind, inquisitive eyes, wide orbs that often give him a surprised look — an impression augmented by his shock of unkempt brown hair. Maybe it's his willingness to speak candidly on just about anything, from the curious legacy of his rock band to going stir crazy in the woods of Vermont to Kimmie's bubble butt. Maybe it's his boyish charm and generally goofy demeanor. Whatever the reason, something about Miller makes an unprovoked man hug seem perfectly normal.
As aforementioned, Miller, 42, is best known as the lead singer of Guster. He's also a composer who penned the music for the 2012 movie Safety Not Guaranteed, a sleeper hit directed by Vermont-based filmmaker Colin Trevorrow. Trevorrow, by the way, is currently working on the next installment of the Jurassic Park franchise, Jurassic World.
"I asked Colin if I could do the score for that one, too," Miller says of the likely 2015 blockbuster. "And he was, like, 'Uh, dude. We got John Williams.'"
Miller also scored the 2013 Lake Bell comedy In a World... — take that, John Williams! — and has a number of projects in the works for film and television. His latest is a quirky web series for Vermont Public Television called "Makin' Friends With Ryan Miller," which chronicles his efforts to, well, make friends in his adopted home state.
But first, some backstory.
In 2010, Miller and his family moved from Brooklyn to Vermont. Miller's wife, Angela Arsenault, grew up in Newport and Randolph. When the couple married, she insisted they move to Vermont to raise their kids.
Miller understood the impulse. "I grew up in Texas, where everyone has this pride that, wherever they go, they're always going to go back," he says. "Vermont is the only other place I've seen that's like that, where people just want to come back."
Nonetheless, to say Miller was reluctant to comply with his wife's request is an understatement. "I was, like, 'There's no fucking way I'm gonna move to Vermont,'" he says. The debate over the move lasted a solid 10 years — until the couple had their second child.
"New York is sort of doable with one kid, but when you have the second, you've kinda got to be a millionaire," Miller explains. He and Arsenault began renting a place in Vermont and split their time between New York and the woods. Before long, that situation became untenable, and they settled in Vermont full time.
"I was going to get a Vermont driver's license, and I realized I wasn't going to be a New Yorker anymore," Miller recalls. "That part of my identity was gone. And that's when the massive shift happened."
That's a polite way of saying that he freaked the eff out.
While his wife, who Miller says often felt "swallowed up" by the hustle of the big city, thrived in Vermont's relaxed social climate, Miller struggled. He knew Vermont was the right place for his family, but he wasn't convinced it was the place for him.
"This isn't where I would find myself naturally," he says. "So I had to figure out how to make this work with the things I want to do."
That meant making music and, more importantly, making friends.
Miller is the embodiment of an extrovert and describes himself as "aggressively social." He feeds off interaction, drawing energy from interesting people. For him, moving to rural Chittenden County from the bustle of Brooklyn was the equivalent of a Polar Plunge — a complete shock to the system.
"Some people can just go in the woods and do their thing," he says. "But for me, it's so much about rubbing up against other people. I get really inspired by talking to creative people about what they do and how they do it."
It wasn't immediately clear to Miller where to find people like that in Vermont, he says. He found himself troubled by a singular question: "Where are all the weirdos?"
At first glance, Miller's fish-out-of-water story is almost nauseatingly clichéd: Urbanite moves to the country, experiences culture shock and — spoiler alert! — eventually falls in love with quaint li'l Vermont and all its quirks. That narrative bears a strong resemblance to the kind of trite, condescending story pitch the editorial gatekeepers at this paper routinely decline — a process usually accompanied by behind-the-scenes eye-rolling.
But Miller's story is a little different. For one thing, he's been documenting his journey to find and befriend interesting people in the Green Mountains with his reality-based web series for VPT. Now in its second season, "Makin' Friends" debuts new episodes on Wednesdays and can be seen on YouTube, vermontpbs.org and makinfriends.tv.
In each episode, Miller meets with a different "high-functioning weirdo" living in Vermont and attempts to become his or her friend. If the conceit of the show sounds a bit precious, that's because it is. But it's also strangely compelling, combining the adventuresome spirit of Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations" and the voyeuristic appeal of a dating show — with occasional moments that recall the unnerving awkwardness of comedian Zach Galifianakis' mock interview series "Between Two Ferns." Miller's boyish charm and curiosity carry the show, helping it transcend its cute premise. He writes and records a new theme song for every episode, each tailored to his new friend. Also, there are sometimes trampolines.
In the show's first episode, Miller and his two-person film crew travel to South Royalton to meet inventor, builder and "sociable recluse" Jaimie Mantzel. They check out the adult-size jungle gym Mantzel built in his round house nestled deep in the woods. Miller bounces on the trampoline Mantzel installed on the third story of the house and fails spectacularly at a backward somersault. He gets the lowdown on Mantzel's free-spirit life philosophy, his obsession with medieval chain mail and the viral sensation that is Mantzel's Giant Robot Project — a YouTube series in which the inventor builds enormous, spider-like robots. They're seriously cool, if a little creepy.
Miller's conversation with Mantzel is wide-ranging and natural. You get the sense that he is genuinely absorbed, and Mantzel takes a shine to his guest. Then, near the end of the six-and-a-half-minute episode — each one condenses about four hours of filming and hanging out — Miller pops the question.
"So did we make friends?" he asks with a coy smile.
"I don't know. Are we friends?" responds Mantzel, shrugging. "I guess if you come back and we hang out some more."
Mantzel and his family moved to Panama a few days after the shoot, so he and Miller didn't form a lasting friendship. However, Miller has become buds with several of his show's subjects.
"I've kind of made it my mission to introduce Ryan to as many weird people as I can," says John Cohn recently by phone. Cohn, an IBM Fellow and self-described "mad scientist," was featured in the "explosive" third episode of "Makin' Friends"' first season. The scientist, who is active in the local maker movement, suggests that Vermont could have a higher concentration of creative oddballs than anywhere else in the country.
"There are so many people doing cool things up in the hills," Cohn says. Cool things such as blowing stuff up, for example.
In a signature moment of Cohn's episode — and likely of the entire series — he explodes a bottle in his snowy yard using liquid nitrogen, as Miller looks on from a safe distance. Surveying the damage, Cohn laughs maniacally, just as one might expect a mad scientist to do. He and Miller now get together regularly, off camera.
"I want him to like his life here," Cohn explains. He frequently invites Miller to maker fairs and other "weirdo gatherings," he adds, and Miller usually shows up. Cohn says he now views Miller as "sort of like a little brother."
"John is just a really cool guy," says Miller. "I'm glad we've become friends." In addition to Cohn, Miller has stayed in touch with other "Makin' Friends" subjects, including Circus Smirkus founder Rob Mermin; and Paul Budnitz, founder of Budnitz Bicycles, Kidrobot and, most recently, the social networking website Ello.
"Ryan has the sense of wonder of a child with the intelligence of an adult," says Hilary Hess, the producer, director and cameraperson of "Makin' Friends." Though we never see her on screen, Miller often breaks the fourth wall (generally a TV taboo) and interacts with Hess during filming, which lends the show an authentically casual appeal.
"He has the ability to be warm and playful, but he's also inquisitive," Hess says. "So he gets into these situations where he genuinely wants to know about these people. He's an extreme extrovert, and he's inspired by other people. He thrives off of creativity. It's what he lives for."
To celebrate the second season of the show, Miller recently played a party at Signal Kitchen in Burlington. Backing him up was local art-rock band Swale. (Full disclosure: My brother, Tyler Bolles, is a member of that band and also played bass on the soundtrack of Safety Not Guaranteed.)
At that show, Miller and Swale played a set of friendship-themed cover songs, such as the Rolling Stones' "Waiting on a Friend" and "Friends in Low Places" by Garth Brooks.
"He's someone who lives his life responding to the muse," says Swale's Amanda Gustafson about Miller. "Pursuing the creative force field often seems frivolous. You have to be open and always ready for when the inspiration arrives.
"He's a very silly man," Gustafson continues. "But he has a mature sensibility about how to lead a creative life."
That sensibility informs each of the creative aspects of Miller's life, whether he's befriending weirdos for a web series, scoring quirky indie films or making records with his band. (You knew we were gonna get to Guster eventually, right?)
In January 2015, Guster will release their first album in four years, Evermotion. And it's probably going to piss off some longtime fans. Recorded with producer Richard Swift, keyboardist for the Shins and bassist for the Black Keys, the album is Guster's most experimental to date. Though it's rooted in the same hooky pop melodies and thoughtful lyricism that have defined the band, it's a sonic departure, more closely resembling the psychedelic work of, say, the Flaming Lips than anything in Guster's preceding canon.
Miller says that shift coincided with his own transition to life in Vermont. He'd reached a point where he just didn't know what to do about Guster, which had gone into hibernation as its members started families and worked on other projects.
"This happens with every Guster record," Miller says. "I was just sort of feeling like, Has this run its course? Do we have anything left to say creatively? Are we gonna be this nostalgia band that everybody saw in college but doesn't care about?"
When discussions about a new record began, Miller was immersed in his film work, which he found far more stimulating than resuscitating Guster.
"The film stuff really felt like it had no ceiling," he says. By contrast, Guster now seemed to him to exist in a box. Twenty-three years after two teenage guitarists and a bongo player formed the band in a Tufts University basement, it has been successful by almost any measure. Yet, Miller suggests, in the broader culture it's just not all that "cool" to be into Guster anymore.
"We're never going to play Coachella; Pitchfork is never going to give you a good review," he says. "Everybody has already made up their mind about your band. And I do it, too. We all need filters, because there's so much coming at us. Like, 'Oh, it's Sloan. I know what Sloan does.' Or 'Oh, Wilco. I'm not really into Wilco.' But those bands are dynamic."
So, it would seem, is Guster. Though that took a while for Miller to realize.
In the midst of half-heartedly writing songs for a new record during sessions in New York, Miller had an epiphany.
"I was half in and half out," he says. "But then I sort of looked up and realized these were cool, weird songs. And I realized I needed to not concern myself with anything I can't control. Just go out and make a great record."
Though Miller doesn't say so explicitly, it's reasonable to infer that his personal journey in Vermont helped inform his new perspective, and thus Guster's surprising new album. Miller admits it took him a while to understand Burlington's music scene, because it's not as openly competitive or aggressive as those of New York or LA. But after becoming a regular at local haunts — especially Radio Bean, where he's now something of a fixture — he realized that the local scene is less about "making it" than simply making good music.
"It's so singular, because people are so good at what they do and they don't necessarily have their eye on something else," he says. "They're just here to play music, and that's awesome and inspiring."
That's exactly what Guster did when they went into the studio: They just played. They cut the record in a little more than three weeks, by far the fastest they've ever recorded.
"We threw everything we had learned about making records out the window," Miller says. "It was rad. And we ended up with this really scrappy, stoner-rock record."
Miller knows the new album will alienate some Guster fans. Indeed, a recently released advance single, "Endlessly," generated predictable online snark from certain fans who disapprove of the song's synthy trappings. Miller responded via Guster's Twitter account.
"If the only indictment of our new songs is that they don't sound like our old songs, then I know we've done what we set out to do," he wrote.
"We're still a pop band," he says now. "But we're more empowered to let our freak flag fly."
That sentiment echoes the concept overarching "Makin' Friends" and, really, each of Miller's artistic pursuits.
"The through-line is about that artist's journey, doing what you want to do and not caring what people think," Miller says. "The more off-axis, the better."
He finishes his beer and checks the time. He's late to meet his family.
"Oh, man. I gotta go," Miller says, signaling for the bartender. "Parental-unit duties, you know."
He pays his tab and hops off his stool. I stand, don my jacket and turn with my hand outstretched for a parting handshake. Miller ignores my hand and goes in for — what else? — a hug.
I think we just made friends.