We spoke with Chris Forsyth about his last album and upcoming work with the Solar Motel Band.
We're aware you've just finished a new record. What's it called, when's it due, and which label is it on?
Well, finishing touches are being applied. I’m hoping to have it out this summer on No Quarter.
Does the new record build on concepts from the last album or is it a clean slate of ideas?
The record was tracked in the weeks following Trump's election victory. Trying to come to terms with that, and the fact that I was interested in a streamlined, rhythmically focused sound were important influences on how the record turned out. I like the William Burroughs notion that the American Dream is really a "non-dream" and that to dream is really to transgress that. I want the music and words (the titles, plus, the lyrics to the one song with vocal) to reflect this in the face of nihilism.
What ways do you motivate yourself to write new, challenging material?
I don’t really motivate myself. I just keep playing and ideas come and I try to recognize them, keep track of them. It’s more of a survival mechanism. Sometimes they come in bunches. I bought a new guitar - a cheap “parts" Esquire (made from parts of multiple guitars) because when I picked it up at the store it felt to me like it had songs in it, and, as it turned out, I wrote three songs on it in the first couple of days I had it - two of which ended up on the album. But I’ve always got riffs and ideas lying around, sometimes for many years, just waiting to be used. It’s like a cluttered workshop. Some of the lyrics to one of the new songs are over twenty years old. There are songs or parts of songs on the last record that are of a similar vintage. Sometimes you just have to wait for the right time to use ‘em.
You've just been announced on the Green Man Festival lineup in Wales. Will this be your first festival appearance? What are you most looking forward to about that show?
I’ve played at festivals before, but this one might have more people at it than the one’s I’m more used to. I dunno. I hope the weather is good.
The Rarity of Experience came out last Spring that really experiments with 70s guitar styles in a new and interesting fashion - it's fantastic. How did this record come together? What ways were you influenced during the songwriting? What was the recording process like?
It’s hard to remember what I was thinking specifically during the making of that record, the writing and assembly of which were spread out over a fairly long period. But I do think it was a reaction to the prior record, Intensity Ghost, which remains probably the punchiest, sharpest set of songs I’ve recorded. I wanted to do something more ambitious, more sprawling, both musically and sonically. Going into Rarity, I had a bit more of a budget from the label for studio time and to hire in some other players, and I had a lot of material in the tank. As I said, some of those songs were written or were assembled from scraps of ideas or demos that were five, ten, twenty years old. “Anthem I & II” and “Old Phase” date to ideas that I’ve had kicking around in my head since the 90s. “Harmonious Dance” was written in 2006, I think. “The First Ten Minutes of Cocksucker Blues” and “Boston Street Lullaby” both appeared as solo guitar arrangements on my 2011 LP Kenzo Deluxe, and the Solar Motel Band had been playing them live since I first put the group together in 2013. I was liking the band arrangements of those songs and felt like they were different enough and expanded quite a bit from the solo takes. Plus, there were new songs written with the Solar Motel Band in mind - “High Castle Rock,” the title tracks, etc. I felt like it’d be a good time to try to make a record where I could indulge some studio ideas that I hadn’t had the time or money to try before.
Do you find time to get into a big studio or is the process something you do in a smaller, less expensive manner? Did you try anything new on Rarity recording wise?
I record with engineer/producer/musician Jeff Zeigler at his studio here in Philly. He’s probably the closest collaborator I’ve had in town since moving here in 2009. He’s got a great skill and sensibility with sound and we also speak each others language most of the time, so I trust the directions he suggests sonically. And like anyone worth their salt, he’s always upping his game, trying to do it better than last time. I try to work in the studio in the same manner that I think a lot of my favorite records were made - quickly, with a combination of attention to detail and willingness to wing it and improvise. I like to do as few takes of a song as possible. Money is always a factor. Solar Motel and Intensity Ghost were each done in five days, start to finish, at Zeigler’s. Rarity was 10 days at Jeff’s plus a day overdubbing Ryan Sawyer’s percussion and the great Daniel Carter’s horns in NYC and a day overdubbing keys in Kansas City. So, even though it was the biggest project in terms of time and money, it was still done basically as efficiently as the others, which were half as much material (and much simpler material at that - mostly live in the studio). That said, I usually track real fast and then sit on the recordings for weeks or months, thinking about how the songs fit together, how to make them better, what to overdub, etc. Then I do overdubs and sit on them again for a while, then mix. So, there’s a lot of time where I’m working on them when I’m not on the clock in the studio. There’s usually some stuff that gets cut or changed dramatically in the process. On Rarity, there was a lot of improvising in the studio, getting the hot take, but also more building certain songs up methodically with overdubs and editing things together, really honing the mixes, than previously. It was kind of a pain in the ass, actually. The new one has been coming together much more swiftly and easily.
Solar Motel, your October 2013 release, seemed like a shift in your sound from your previous stuff to a more rock and roll style instrumentation while still maintaining your longform psychedelic arrangements. Rarity is listed under Chris Forsyth & The Solar Motel Band. Besides the name, what's the connection between the two works? Who is the clientele for these projects?
Yes, Solar Motel was the first record I recorded with a rock band lineup. Everything before had been solo or more experimentally non-rock oriented, even though I always feel the r-o-c-k is present in my playing no matter the scenario. But, you put a drummer and a bass player like Peter Kerlin on a track and, it’s gonna rock. The Solar Motel Band was put together to tour that record because, also unlike a lot of what I’d done in the past, there was some existing demand from people who wanted to hear this music in their cities. Solar Motel had been recorded with players I had a history with, but it was basically a pick-up band. We made it like a jazz record - who’s available for the gig? - y’know. Plus, they all lived in different cities than I. So, then when people actually wanted to hear it live, I had to put together a group. The lineup has changed many times with bassist Peter Kerlin and keyboardist Shawn E. Hansen being the the only two to play on all the records. But Shawn lives in Kansas City and has only played one live gig with the SMB (documented on the Solar Live 11.18.13 LP). Through the years, I’ve been lucky to have some real good players pass through the group - Paul Sukeena and Nick Millevoi on 2nd guitar, Mike Pride, Steven Urgo, and Ryan Jewell on drums. A bass player named Matt Stein, a jazz guy, subbed for Peter on a tour last summer. Right now it’s a trio with Peter on bass and Ray Kubian on drums. I still run it as a jazz band - if there are gigs to be had, I find out who’s available and that’s who’s in the band. We never rehearse. Rock is the new jazz.
Rarity contains shorter songs as well as long players. Do you find it more challenging to compact your ideas into shorter recordings after releasing several albums with all 10+ minute songs?
No, I just try to listen to what the songs tell me they need. Sometimes they say “Make me 20 minutes long,” and sometimes they’re like, “Nah, two minutes is good."
Will 2017 bring more Solar Motel Band work or something in a different direction? What's been inspiring you lately to create?
Continuing the same course, which means following the circumstantial aspects of life and music and trying to keep honest or true to my own existential concerns (of which there are a lot right now) and to find a way for them to be a part of the music. I don’t think of music as an escapist thing. I want what I’m doing to convey ideas and meaning, however ineffable it may seem. This all has to do with how one conducts oneself as an artist - what you’re saying, what imagery you’re using. Starting to use lyrics and vocals on the last record the next one is one way of being more literal about this, but I’m not looking to turn into a singer-songwriter. I’m still primarily an instrumentalist, and I think the playing can contain this stuff too. Too much music I hear is comfortable with itself; it doesn’t have that sense of urgency, or of struggle to live, to give a shit. I don’t think that’ s a new phenomenon, it’s always been like (as long as I can remember, anyway). But I live in the world and I want my music too reflect that as well. Maybe it’s obvious, maybe it’ll unfold over time. I tend to think the best stuff unfolds.