Chris Forsyth by Andrew Aylward

Love, devotion, surrender, and the Phillies.

Home of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company


Chris Forsyth

Chris Forsyth. Photo by Constance Mensh.

Philadelphia guitarist and composer Chris Forsyth gained initial recognition as an experimental artist with noted noise act Peeesseye. His latest effort with his Solar Motel Band, Intensity Ghost, arrives October 28, via No Quarter Records. As a performer under his own name, Forsyth has merged art rock with American blues and folk guitar idioms, all under the tent of free improvisation. The resulting music is energetic and free in its treatment of form and harmony.

Forsyth’s recent, full band, records read as much as paeans to Robert Quine and Television at their most lucid, as they do tributes to Popol Vuh, the Grateful Dead, or Fairport Convention’s “A Sailor’s Life”. At its most compelling, Intensity Ghostmanages to reconcile and even marry the grand, swelling gestures of the most boundary-pushing rock and roll of the ‘60s and ’70s with the melodic composition of instrumentalists such as Sandy Bull or, dare I say it, the spiritual shreddage of John McLaughlin & Carlos Santana’s Love Devotion Surrender, minus the virtuosic cheese.

For Intensity Ghost, Forsyth enlisted drummer Mike Pride, bass guitarist Peter Kerlin, and organ/keyboard/piano man Shawn Hansen as the current incarnation of the Solar Motel Band.

Forsyth, who was awarded a Pew Fellowship in the Arts in 2011, talks here about his earliest musical experiences, taking guitar lessons with Richard Lloyd of Television, and how he captures his band’s intense live dynamic on record.

Forsyth, who was awarded a Pew Fellowship in the Arts in 2011, talks here about his earliest musical experiences, taking guitar lessons with I was like fourteen. his band’s intense live dynamic on record.

Andrew Aylward What baseball team do you follow?

Chris Forsyth I was raised as a Mets fan, so I’m sort of a pariah down here in Philly. But I don’t really follow the pro sports culture so much. Even so, I find it kind of funny that I can’t really root against my old team. If the Phillies are playing someone else, then it’s like, whatever. But if they’re playing the Mets, then can’t do it. Everyone from Philly hates the Mets though.

AA What was your introduction to music generally, and then rock music specifically?

CF Well, both my grandfathers were musicians, kind of failed musicians. They played big band jazz back in like the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s. My father’s father was a professional musician but then he kind of faded out when he got older. So, there was a notion in my family that music was a good thing, a good hobby, but that it wasn’t really a profession. I think mostly because neither of my grandfathers were really successful professional musicians. My parents both kind of grew up broke, and they were like, “Oh yeah, music. Good hobby.”

But it must be in the blood, so I did piano lessons a bit, which didn’t really catch. I played in the school band for years and that didn’t really catch. Like all things, what caught was something that I really wanted to do, for some reason, which was learn how to play the guitar. It seemed like a cool thing, and so I wanted to get one too. I was never a really big metal fan at all, but I do remember a guitar magazine with Randy Rhodes on the cover.

AA Oh, right on.

CF It seemed like something important in my little circle of friends. So, in ’86 or so I guess, I got a guitar, which would have made me thirteen.

AA What were some of the first rock concerts you went to?

CF Let me think. A lot of Jersey hardcore shows that were all ages, so I could go to those. I don’t really remember the names of any of the bands because I wasn’t really into the music. It was music, but the music didn’t really hook me. I just knew I wanted to see music, so I would go to see what was available. I saw R.E.M. in about ’87, I remember really liking that, at Rutgers, right near where I grew up. I used to go to a lot of shows at City Gardens in Trenton. This was slightly later: Fugazi, Rollins Band, post-Dischord Records artists. Actually, actual Dischord artists! I saw the Dead Milkmen like five times when I was fourteen.

I remember as a kid those shows really being a turn-on to me. People are playing music in front of people who are going nuts, and the performers are conduits for some kind of energy.

AA Can you talk about taking guitar lessons with Richard Lloyd?

CF That was the late ’90s. I was in my late twenties and I got to a point where I just felt like I had basically learned how to play the guitar by ear or from friends or from magazines. It probably looked to the naked eye like I knew how to play the guitar. I would occasionally perform in public, and I was in a band here and there. But I didn’t really knew what I was doing, and I knew I didn’t really know what I was doing, and I knew that that was a problem, just because I couldn’t do what I wanted to do. There were things that I wanted to express but I couldn’t really do.

AA Like what? Like a specific technique?

CF Well, bear with me. So I went to see Richard and I’m basically a self-taught post-punk guitarist. I was a massive Television fan from a young age, actually. Before I had Marquee Moon, I had The Blow-Up—that live cassette that ROIR put out—which never came out of my tape deck for years and years when I was a teenager. So, they’d already been a huge influence already. So when I found out I could take lessons from Richard, it was mind blowing. He kind of gave me the fundamentals and he taught me how music works. He turned me from being a guitarist into a musician, and taught me how to do things in terms of music as opposed to me saying, “If I put my hand here, this happens.” It was really a profound learning experience and he’s a great teacher.

In terms of what I wanted to express, there was a fluidity that I wanted to get into. By then I was listening to a lot of jazz, mostly from the mid-’60s and onward, free jazz, and there’s a flow in that music, there’s a force and a current going along, and I couldn’t do that before I met Richard. I thought I could, but it would be like somebody trying to fly a kite: it would go up for a couple minutes, then it would come crashing down, and I couldn’t figure how to keep it up.

At the time, I was doing a lot of super abstract free improvisation. I could get into the flow there because it didn’t require any sense of melody or harmony, and it was mostly about avoiding that. Richard taught me how to express the flow also in lyrical terms. After a lot of practice and a lot of playing, I realized I could play and I could get into that flow, melodically, and lyrically. Richard got me on that path.

AA How would you describe Lloyd’s style versus Verlaine’s style in Television? Where does your style today fit in between those two styles?

CF Well, it’s funny. I’ve never met Verlaine, but the impression that you get from the press is that Verlaine was the one who was floating in the clouds and Lloyd was the one who kept it kind of grounded. There’s some truth in that musically, but I suspect that it might be because their personalities are actually the inverse of that description Richard is actually a super up-in-the-clouds dude and he needed his music to sort of tether him to the earth. You can feel that he holds himself together with it. And Verlaine strikes me as someone who’s maybe really calculating and organized, but his music’s totally unpredictable, in terms of the guitar playing.

As to where I fit in, I don’t know. The thing with Richard is that he didn’t teach me how to play guitar like he plays, he taught me how music works so that I could express what I was trying to get at myself. I think that’s the most important thing. The thing that a lot of people, especially in contemporary culture, don’t get is that there’s a difference between being an imitator and being expressive. Richard didn’t show me how to play like him, he showed me how music works. He said, “This is what the ratios are. These are the numbers you need to know and here are the systems. I just taught you how to speak English, now go write a book.” You know? He gave me the grammar. Then I was able to go say something with it.

Verlaine’s a huge influence though, but so are a lot of people.

AA That’s a great analogy. You consistently really have great guitar tone and I was wondering if there was anything new equipment-wise you did on Intensity Ghost. I’m a huge Fender amp junkie and I’ve read that you’re into that stuff too. Without giving away any trademarked secrets, of course!

CF No, no! I recorded the album with Jeff Zeigler—a musician, producer, and studio engineer here in Philly. I really like working with him. He’s got a place here, Uniform Recording, where I’ve done a few records. He’s got the best sounding studio Fender Bassman amp I’ve ever played out of. As you know, Fenders are like snowflakes: I have a couple myself but they all sound different. Same year, same model, same whatever: there’s still this little difference. Some have this magic, and some of them don’t. Jeff’s got this Bassman though and I recorded some of the parts through, and actually, Paul did some of his stuff through it too, when we did some overdubs. So that amp is one of the things I go back to Jeff’s studio for. I love Jeff, too though.

I used that amp a lot, but we do uses a lot of others too too. We got a lot of gear. I’ve got an old Deluxe and a small Champ that I pair together, and I use that a lot.

AA I’d love to get a Champ. I had a Black Face Princeton Reverb for a while that was really amazing.

CF The Champ is great because you just put everything on “10.” I’ve used that amp a lot. Some of the most blasting moments on my recordings I’ve done were on Champ. You know, small amp, big sound.

AA Right. (laughter) Your tone is very bright, very much a product of you using a Fender Stratocaster, yeah?

CF Definitely! Very clear. I do play a Strat most of the time. I like distortion but not a lot of distortion I’m always looking for that kind of volatility that Keith Richards has on those recordings from the ‘70s where it’s a little broken up but but it’s still clear enough that you can hear all the strings. For leads I like a clear bell-like tone if I can get it.

On stage I’m playing out of an old Traynor, which is the loudest amp I’ve ever heard, I can’t imagine possibly ever needing a louder amp anywhere. It’s nice, I can get clean and loud and I can get a little bit of overdrive to warm it up, just to gain stages with overdrive and a distortion pedal. That’s it really. I’m kind of a minimalist. I have a certain amount of pedals that I use but I’m always aiming for the shortest signal chain that I can get.

AA Right, it’s not like you’re using them all at once. I know you’re a Grateful Dead fan.

CF I’m totally a post-Jerry fan. I actively was not into the Dead the entire time that Jerry Garcia was alive, based on salty post-punk doctrine.

AA Yeah, punks versus hippies.

CF At some point you had to draw a line in the sand. I think that people these days don’t even think about that. I just didn’t pay attention. I was in high school when they were at their biggest, and most of the people who were into them were on the football team, and not my friends—loud, obnoxious, loser dudes who went to the shows with their girlfriends or whatever. It was not my scene. I was a little more alienated than that. I wasn’t into it until the late ’90s and I could hear the live stuff and I thought, Oh, this is what they were really good at, I get it now, stripped of all the cultural trappings of the Deadheads.

AA Tell me about seeing Neil Young. I read that seeing him play recently really made a big impression on you.

CF Well, I’ve seen him many times. The first time I saw him was on the Ragged Glory tour. I’ve always loved him and am a huge fan, but when he came around with Crazy Horse again, almost two years ago now in December 2012, I knew I wasn’t going to get much more chances to see him with Crazy Horse.

I was just astonished at the show. It was just an unbelievable sonic experience. I mean some of those songs were half an hour long and the sonic dimension of it was just incredible. The sound was great, the songs were great. There was that flow that I was talking about before, that I’ve heard from William Parker. He becomes a conduit, it’s not him doing something, it’s something happening to him and then happening to us and to me. That’s what great music should be. It’s an experience and it’s something that is really hard to put into words—maybe you can tell from my stammering about it. There were parts of the concerts that sounded like Wolf Eyes and I’m not exaggerating. The whole experience of it is surreal, in front of 20,000 people, mostly middle-aged white people just jumping up and down to these shredding noise jams, these atonal sonic events. They’re couched in these great songs, but there would be these long sections of just utter energy being hurled around the room.

AA It is hard to put into words, that intangible aspect of live performance. Part of it is probably the uncertainty, the fact that it’s not a static thing. I also have this theory that volume has a lot to do with it. If you take something that you like, that most people agree is good, and you make it loud, it’s even better.

CF Sure, that’s what I mean by a sonic event. Sound has power. It’s a neat thing. When I saw these aimless punk bands as a kid—it wasn’t that their music was moving me, it was just this sort of energy transfer. That Neil Young show was the biggest energy transfer I’ve ever seen. It’s almost ridiculous that it was Neil Young, who’s already praised so highly, but it was unbelievable.

A friend of mine was saying something to me recently about performance and a certain kind of risk in performance. If there is no risk of failure, it doesn’t have the same potential for transcendence or spiritual profundity or transformation, because then it just becomes a show. You can enjoy things like Kanye West on the level of spectacle and on a conceptual level, but on a performance level, there is no chance for it to fail. But there is also no chance for it to completely and utterly blow your mind. There has to be a risk factor involved in performance. I think that’s the binding force of almost all my favorite musicians.

AA I think that also holds true with making a record versus playing a show—if you have a bad take you just delete it.

CF True.

AA Did you enjoy making this last record? Do you enjoy making records in general? People talk about playing live and recording being two entirely different things.

CF I love being in the studio. They are two different things, but I think there are ways to fuse them. The approach I always take in the studio is often to not be prepared in some way. We don’t do many takes, we often don’t know the songs very well. Most of the songs on Intensity Ghost were really new to the band when we were recording them. The first song, “The Ballad of Freer Hollow,” was the first take. Before that, we were just playing the chords trying to figure it out, but we got into the flow on that song. There are a couple of other songs that ended up on the record that we barely knew when we recorded. I try to maintain that sort of spontaneity and that willingness to not have too many expectations. I’ll maybe have a plan, but the way I work is that we’ll maybe have a couple days of tracking which is really spontaneous and then I sit on the recordings for a couple weeks or a couple months and say, We can use this, that might lend to overdub possibilities, or arrangement possibilities. Things to focus in on. I definitely use the studio as a tool, but playing live is sort of in the service of recording in the studio.

AA That’s really interesting. I guess that also means you are playing with musicians whom you really let loose. You know whatever they do, it’s probably going to be really cool.

CF I trust the people I’m playing with. The trust also comes from this background I have in free improv. I’m not a jazz player at all, but I come from that approach to making music of saying, Okay, these are the players available today and these are the songs we’re going to do. And, the parts of the songs are half of what we are going to do, and we are going to fill in the blanks around them.

AA That’s awesome. It reminds me of how ’60s Bob Dylan sessions worked.

CF I think that’s probably how contemporary Dylan sessions work, too. Here’s a story: The entire month of August I was at this artist residency in Alberta, Canada, and one of the people who came to visit it was Daniel Lanois, who produced “Time Out of Mind,” that Dylan record from the mid-’90s which is probably one of my all-time favorite Dylan records. He also produced Peter Gabriel. He was a super chill, down-to-earth guy. I asked him what he could tell me about making that record with Dylan. He told me that all the basic tracks and vocals were recorded live, so the sound of the record was instruments bleeding into vocal mics. So they did these sessions and went home, and then a few weeks later Dylan called them up and said, You know I’m going to change a couple of the words. But he’d sung with the band, so they needed to find a sonic solution to change a word here or a word there. So he came back into the studio and they set up a speaker where each musician had sat, then had Dylan sit in the middle of the room and sing one or two words at a time so they could punch them in.

AA That is insane.

CF Right. Then he said a few weeks later Dylan called up and said he wanted to change one of the chords. (laughter) He had to go back in and find a way to punch in a chord change. I haven’t had a chance to go back and re-listen to that album with that process in mind, but I think it really is a spontaneous process in terms of the tracking and then who knows what happens.

For more on Chris Forsyth and the Solar Motel Band, including upcoming shows, visit Forsyth’s websiteIntensity Ghost is out October 28 from No Quarter Records Records.

Andrew Aylward is a musician and journalist living in Washington, DC.

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