Chris Forsyth is a lauded guitarist and composer whose work assimilates art-rock textures with vernacular American influences. Long active in underground circles, he has recently reinvented himself as a band leader with The Solar Motel Band and released a string of acclaimed records of widescreen guitar rock under his own name including 2011's Paranoid Cat(Family Vineyard) and 2012's Kenzo Deluxe(Northern Spy) that he deems Cosmic Americana. His most recent release, Solar Motel(Paradise of Bachelors) has been called one of 2013's best releases by the New Yorker, Uncut, Aquarium Drunkard, Frontier Psychiatrist, Pop Matters, and others, provoking ecstatic comparisons to such classic artists as Television, The Grateful Dead, Popul Vuh, Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Richard Thompson, Robert Quine, John Fahey, and Glenn Branca. Forsyth has toured throughout Europe and the U.S., sharing stages with the likes of Steve Gunn, Sic Alps, Endless Boogie, Grouper, Loren Connors, William Tyler, and Rhys Chatham. Prior to his relocation to Philadelphia in 2009, he was a member of Brooklyn-based gothic junk folk expressionists Peeesseye. He’s also collaborated with a diverse range of artists including singer/songwriter Meg Baird (appearing on her 2011 Drag City release Seasons on Earth), Japanese guitarist/boogie master Tetuzi Akiyama, trumpeter Nate Wooley, and choreographers Miguel Gutierrez, RoseAnne Spradlin, and Meg Foley and is a recipient of a 2011 Pew Fellowship in the Arts.
"Is he so fake that he's real or is he so real that he's fake?"
Born in 1973, now living in Philadelphia, american guitarist Chris Forsyth has been crafting his style through many bands, collaborations, meetings and one surprising teacher...Finding inspiration from Loren Connors to...Keith Richards, he's now mainly busy with his solo work. He just finished an european tour with Steve Gunn and was in Belgium two weeks ago. Here we go!
Hello Chris, so how was this last european tour? This one was with Steve Gunn; last year you did one with Ignatz. They might share some roots in blues/raga, but at the end they are very different players.
Touring with Steve and getting to hear him play every night was a real pleasure. He's completely authentic as an artist and as a person. He and I share a lot of the same roots and a similar trajectory, in that we are both essentially self-taught players who come from a rock background, but have scratched and worked over a period of years to get to a point where I think the work is finding some kind of reality within itself. When I hear Steve sing and play, I hear his influences, but they are filtered through this person Steve Gunn and he makes them his own. Ignatz is also amazing, but in a different way. To me, his music is more like a constructed thing, like when he sings and plays, he's assuming a character and spinning a story, which may or may not have anything to do with the person behind the music (I'm not even sure myself). In each case, they arrive at the same place, but by taking different paths. It's like with Bob Dylan - he leaves his audience to wonder if he's so fake that he's real, or is he so real that he's fake?
The first thing i heard from you was an old video on YouTube. My first impression reminds me Earth; it wasn't heavy or dark, but it was the space - almost silence - between notes. The breath! Then I saw you perform, and I found a strong link with Steve Reich. I specially dig the repetitive, yet no-loop compositions.
I think the main thing is that I try to boil down whatever I am doing to the essential. Like with conversation, I usually find it's best to make the most clear point with as few carefully chosen words as possible. So, it really just depends on the piece - some of my pieces are more dense than others, but they're still not necessarily going to be dense with lots of different notes. I think the YouTube tune you are talking about are "Harmonious Dance"which is on my first solo CD. I like to hear and see the notes hanging in the air, resonating. And that piece was meant to be just totally pretty. I've played a lot of "ugly" music, but around the time of that record, I wanted to get into more explicit beauty and let the overtones of single notes or two or three note chords to really do a lot of the work, intersecting with each other in the space.
I tend to use a lot of repetition in general, but maybe the "non-loop" track you're thinking of is "Soft History," which I often play live and is on my last solo LP "Dreams." That piece is really rhythmic and driving, but the figures within it are pretty simple.
A number of people have mentioned Steve Reich in reference to that piece, but I always think of Keith Richards or Roger McGuinn's rhythm guitar as being more of an inspiration. I've listened to some Steve Reich, but he's in no way a primary influence for me.
Since I was young, I always gravitated towards the sound of rock guitar, but, even before I knew how to play the guitar, I'd hear a great 60s or 70s guitar riff on the radio and be pissed when it would only repeat a few times and the singer would come in. I've always wanted to swim in that sound, and hear it over and over. It becomes like a trance for me. In any case, when it comes to silence or density, I'm just looking to edit the pieces down the most necessary notes. I've always liked simple music.
Can you tell me about your band(s)? I know Peeesseye, but don't know the others.
Peeesseye is a group I formed in 2002 in Brooklyn together with Jaime Fennelly (electronics, keyboards) and Fritz Welch (percussion, vocals). It's a total three-headed monster with no leader. In some ways, it's always been a strange combination of players, because our individual styles are really pretty different, but that's also always been the strength of the group - I can't really think of another group that behaves quite like us. I lived in Brooklyn from 1996-2009, and early in that time I was really involved in the improv scene there, which is more or less the scene from which Peeesseye emerged. And I had another group, called Phantom Limb & Bison, with Jaime Fennelly, reed player Chris Heenan, and synth/keyboardist Shawn Edward Hansen. We made two CDs and did a collaboration with Tetuzi Akiyama as well.
I also have a collaboration with Shawn Edward Hansen - him on Farfisa organ, me on guitar - called Dirty Pool. We put out an LP on Ultramarine in 2009 and I'm really fond of that project. But Phantom LImb & Bison's members always lived in different cities, so it's been nearly impossible to keep together in a functional way. It's similar with Peeesseye, though we've toured quite a bit and managed to keep the collaboration productive. We've all left Brooklyn at this point - I'm in Philadelphia, Jaime's in Seattle, and Fritz is in Glasgow. This decentralization is partly why I've started playing solo more and more over the past 3 years or so.
Aside from solo stuff, and the groups, I've always done a bit of ad hoc improvising as well with people like trumpeter Nate Wooley, all the members of the Peeesseye/Phantom Limb & Bison family, and Tetuzi Akiyama.
You play in bands and play solo shows. Do you feel equally comfortable in those very different context? Does it change your attitude towards the instrument?
I've been really concentrating on the solo stuff in recent years. It's taken me a long time to get comfortable doing it, but at this point, it's my favorite way to play.
The first solo gig I did was at a club called Tonic in NYC in 2000, when I was asked by Derek Bailey to do a solo set. His concept for the night was to have a few different people who had never played solo doing solo sets. I was terrified and from my point of view, the show was a musical disaster. My ability to feel free within a group context or at home alone was impossible to translate to playing alone in front of people.
Derek was encouraging, but I think he also liked to see trainwrecks on occasion and it sure felt like one to me. At the same time, I'd always had melodic or compositional ideas brewing in my head, but found it difficult to translate them to a band setting. Peeesseye, for example, has always existed as a totally free chaos zone where we've been able to successfully access the magic of collaboration. We've dabbled with some compositional ideas, but I think the free playing has always been our strength. In the end, I think learning to play solo has really been about learning to trust myself and to play what I really want to hear. Playing solo is sort of a selfish position to be in - I get to be the dictator at all times, and I don't have to compromise with anyone - but it also requires a lot of responsibility and conviction to be able to pull it off properly.
Lately, on the "Dreams" LP and my forthcoming "Paranoid Cat" LP , I've been combining the different approaches by having friends and collaborators (Fennelly, Welch, Hansen, Wooley, drummer Mike Pride, Koen Holtkamp from Mountains, Hans Chew and Marc Orleans from D. Charles Speer, and others) contribute to the recordings to flesh out the pieces as band arrangements. Sometimes I give them specific parts to play, but more often I give them some parameters and ask them to simply do what they do on the given tracks.
How is improvisation important to you?
It's 100% crucial. I think another word for "improvisation" could be "music". Although I do play compositions, they are often rather skeletal - sometimes just a couple of chords, a melody, and maybe a mood - and the performance is really where the magic comes out. It's like breathing life into an object. Everything I play has some element of improvisation within it. Especially playing live, I like to give myself the freedom to interpret what I'm doing every night, allow the vibe or mood or weather or whatever to influence the way the music comes out in a performance.
Do you practice on a regular basis? I mean, if you pick up your guitar at home, what kind of stuff do you play?
Yes. Although I consider myself to be primarily self-taught, I did study with Richard Lloyd (of Television) for a few years and he gave me some invaluable exercises that I still use to warm up or just keep in shape on the instrument. Some people go jogging, I play these little patterns to keep my fingers and hands in working order. I also like to decipher old songs and riffs by artists that I like just to have them in the back of my mind. Those riffs and pattern tend to come out in strange ways in my music. Although I'm kind of a punk (or at least a contrarian) at heart, I think it's good to have a conventional grounding on the instrument that you can then ignore or transgress if you choose.
Would you tell me a bit more about Richard teaching?
When I learned that it was possible to take lessons from him, it blew my mind, because I'd been listening to and admiring his playing since my teen years, especially (but not only) his work with Television. It's funny that within the general story of Television, he's considered the straight man foil to Tom Verlaine's spaced out seeker. Because Richard is as much of a mystical searcher as you're likely to find on this Earth, and certainly in the realm of guitar players. His knowledge of philosophy, like his knowledge of his instrument, is deep and esoteric and profound.
He claims to have learned to play guitar from a guy named Velvert Turner, who is supposedly the only person that ever received regular lessons from Jimi Hendrix. Sometimes I'm not even sure if he was telling the truth, but it didnt matter, because the point he was trying to make was always true.
Richard also happens to be a very good teacher. Some days we would discuss the most fundamental aspects of music theory, other days he would break down these cubist patterns of scales all over the guitar neck, and other days he would just read poetry. The knowledge he gave to me didnt change the way I played guitar, but it did allow me to access and realize things that up until then I had been wandering around in the dark seeking.
His teaching really shined a light on my practice, helped me get myself to another level, and for that I am forever grateful.
Gear/effects/guitars/... What has changed through years? Any secret weapon?
I try to keep it simple. I have a couple of cheap acoustic guitars and a few electric guitars that I use - an early 90s Fender Strat, a 70s Les Paul Deluxe, and a Rickenbacker 660 12-string. If I'm playing a local show or traveling somewhere by car, sometimes I'll bring all three to use on different pieces in my set.
But when I tour in Europe, I usually bring the Strat because it's the most versatile and it's also the lightest to carry! As for effects, I do have a few distortion/overdrive pedals that I like - a 90s Sovtek Big Muff, a MidFi Electronics Octave/Fuzz pedal which is pure insanity, a Fulltone OctaFuzz that I like a lot, and Systech Overdrive from the 70s. But on this last tour with Steve Gunn, I brought only a Boss DD6 delay pedal, which I use for simple looping, and my 80s ProCo Rat distortion pedal, which I've used for about 20 years.
I used to use more pedals, but more and more, I try to use the volume control on the guitar and the dynamics of playing to get the tone, volume, or feedback that I'm looking for. Check out Roy Buchanan for an example of someone with ferocious tone and dynamics - he never used effects at all, other than amp reverb. If I have one secret weapon, it's my 72 Fender Deluxe Reverb amp. I've also had that almost 20 years and I absolutely love it. I have a couple of other 70s Fender amps - a Champ and a Bassman - but the Deluxe is my sound.
Last one: give me your top ten favorite albums...
This list is likey to change on a regular basis, but here's today's version, off the top of my head and in no particular order:
Rolling Stones - Exile on Main Street (Rolling Stones Records,1972)
Derek Bailey - Aida (Incus, 1980)
Crystalized Movements - Revelations from Pandemonium (Twisted Village, 1993)
Television - The Blow Up (ROIR, 1982)
Loren Mazzacane Conors & Alan Licht - Live in NYC (New World of Sound, 1994)
The Dead C - Harsh 70s Reality (Siltbreeze, 1992)
Jack Rose - Kensington Blues (VHF, 2005)
Jerry Garcia Band - Winterland 12/20/75 (bootleg)
Ornette Coleman - Of Human Feelings (Antilles, 1982)
AC/DC - Powerage (Atlantic, 1978)
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