Chris Forsyth‘s 2013 album Solar Motel came highly recommended from a friend whose taste in music is damn near impeccable. Looking more deeply into the album, I saw a quote that alluded to both Television and Pharaoh Sanders in describing it. Even more surprisingly, as hyperbolic as it seems, that comparison gets at the precision and the vastness of the music heard there. Soon enough, I delved into his back catalog, including 2012’s Kenzo Deluxe, in which Forsyth’s music veers in a number of directions, and Early Astral, a collaboration with Mountains’ Koen Holtkamp. I caught up with Forsyth via phone to learn more about the making of Solar Motel, discuss the Philadelphia music scene, and find out what’s next.
You were saying that the show that you were going to be playing in New York is with the Solar Motel Band; how did that end up coming together?
The record, Solar Motel, that came out in November on Paradise of Bachelors–I actually recorded that a couple of years ago. It was a group of people that I had musical histories with, but it was really a session band kind of thing. We got together to make this record and spend a couple of days in the studio and kind of bashed it out. It wasn’t a band, in the sense of an ongoing musical concern. We spent a couple of days working on the basic tracks, and then I finished overdubbing and mixing after the fact, by myself. When that record was going to get released by Paradise of Bachelors–that deal got made about a year ago–I was like, “Okay, now I need a band.” I’d been playing solo, mainly, over the last few years. More out of practicality than anything. And the players that played on the record, some of them live in New York, one of them lives in Kansas City; logistically, it seemed like a big hurdle.
By then, I’d been living in Philly long enough that I’d started to meet some people and find some other musicians that I wanted to play with. So I started to play with Paul Sukeena, the guitar player, first, and there was a good chemistry there. He was able to cover the keyboard parts that were on the record as well as adding this whole other thing; he’s a really great guitar player. Turned out that his roommate is Steven [Urgo], the drummer, who used to play in the War on Drugs. The three of us started playing together, and we thought, “This is really happening.” So I told my friend that had played on the Solar Motel record, “I’m that putting together a local band, just so you guys know.” The other two guys said, “Oh, that’s cool–I can’t wait to hear it.” And Peter [Kerlin], who played bass on Solar Motel, who I’d played for years with when I lived in Brooklyn, said, “Fuck no, man! I’ll come down and play! Let’s keep playing.” Which was great, because he and I have a history together, and he’s a great bass player. So that’s how the actual band came together.
We’ve been playing for a little less than a year. We started playing in late winter last year, and things sort of solidified when, in the late spring, I decided to book a residency for the band. Which is, I guess, kind of an unusual thing, at least it is down here. I guess you’re starting to see it happen more often other places. We went to this club that was re-opening and said, “Can we play every Thursday?” Not only did we play every Thursday, but we played two sets every Thursday, with an opening band. It was a low-pressure thing, both chemistry-wise for the band and in the eyes of the people that came to see the shows. It started to define the band as an entity, and it established this kind of chemistry that’s really great, that’s real, that we have. So we’ve been rolling on from there, and I’m really pleased with it.
Has this lineup recorded anything yet, or is there a plan to do so?
We actually have a whole album in the can, yeah. It’s funny, because Solar Motel was recorded so long ago, and the band started playing a year ago. I had a lot of songs in gestation that have come up since then. We started recording an album a month after Solar Motel came out, and finished it in the beginning of January. That’ll probably come out in the fall, in the latter half of this year.
Is that similar in sound to Solar Motel, or closer in sound to something like Kenzo Deluxe?
Well, here’s another thing. There’s this live thing that’s going to come out on Record Store Day, a live recording of the Solar Motel Band playing Solar Motel. You can compare and contrast; the bands are very different. The studio recording of Solar Motel–I played all the guitar on it, so there’s not the second guitarist; Paul has a lot to say that’s really great. And the drummers are very different. Mike Pride, the drummer that played on Solar Motel, is a totally killer drummer, kind of a jazz assassin, you know? He’s an old friend of mine from New York who can play anything. And Steven’s a very different kind of drummer: he’s a little more propulsive, he has a little more of a Krautrock influence. We went at the material from a very different angle, and that’s part of the thing that I’m interested in in general. There are these songs that exist, but they don’t need to be played the same way by everybody. I’m interested in what the different musicians bring to the equation.
We have this Record Store Day release that’s going to be a live version, recorded from the record release show in Philly, of us playing the record. So that’s one thing, kind of an introduction to the band. And the studio stuff, which is all this newer material, is kind of an extension of all the Solar Motel stuff. It’s probably a little bit more concise, a little less sprawling, a little more song-oriented. There’s still a lot of open space in it. It’s just a real band record. Something about the way that we all play together; it’s not as much of one big arc. There are interesting little zones that we explore on these different songs. Everybody contributed super-heavily to the vibe; all of the musicians.
You’ve been in Philadelphia for about five years now?
Do you find that it’s influencing the way that you play music? Do you think that the music that you’re writing is different than it would have been if you had stayed in New York or moved somewhere else?
That’s a good question. Probably. I don’t know if I have enough distance to analyze that properly. I think being in Philly makes things a little less self-conscious. I think New York can be, and I think the music I was playing in New York was also a little more self-conscious, and a little more self-analytical. The big change when I moved to Philly… Peeesseye, the band I had been playing with for most of the aughts in New York, we’d all moved out of New York, and the band had broken up over the course of a couple of years. When I moved to Philly, I started playing solo more. I naturally started playing in a more lyrical way than the stuff that I had been doing in Peeesseye, which was this crazy, three-headed, anarchic… It had its own weird, magical chemistry, but it was a bit more combative, the way the music was made.
So, I found myself playing alone, and playing more lyrically, in a way, going back to roots or something. The people I fell in with in Philly encouraged that sort of attitude in my head; maybe not overtly. It seemed like a good thing to do. But maybe, if I’d stayed in New York, it would have stayed the same way as well. It’s hard to say, but I do find that things are a little less pressurized and a little less self-conscious here. It allows, maybe, for that kind of thing to happen a little more. There’s not as much pressure.
Paradise of Bachelors is a label that has one foot in a fairly traditional place and one foot in a more experimental place, and you’ve also done stuff on Northern Sky, which covers a similar range, from experimental to traditional… Where do you see your music these days?
I think that’s the thing. Maybe it’s a part of getting older: people are interested in holding both of those approaches, and they don’t have to cancel each other out. For myself, for sure, I’m really interested in a lot of different things. I think that’s what makes the music interesting. The stuff that I play, I feel like my head or my fingers are an archive of what I’ve heard. That might mean The Byrds as well as Cecil Taylor, and they’re both equally interesting to me. Maybe, nowadays, I’m not trying to create a fusion; the moments when those different influences manifest are happening in a more natural way, a way that’s more…what’s the word?
You could say that. I think that it just has to do with maturity of music. Everybody does this: you start by imitating something, and eventually you internalize and make some choices, and you’ve got all this stuff at your disposal that you can employ. Sometimes it might sound more like the Rolling Stones, and sometimes it might sound more like Derek Bailey or something; The Dead C. That kind of textural abstraction music is really interesting to me, but composition and melody are also really interesting to me. Finding a way to fuse those things and let them both express themselves in a way that is complex and personal is a goal.
Stepping back and thinking about what a lot of music is now–a lot of stuff that gets popular is this sort of garbage that’s obviously imitative of something. Obviously, from a marketing standpoint, that’s easier to get across to people. Maybe it can be a little harder to put across the stuff that has a little complexity to it. I feel like what I’m trying to do is do rock music, but in a really interesting way, a way that has depth, and it’s not just about trying to sound like one band or one era. It’s about wanting to sound like a whole bunch of bands; it’s not about retro. It’s about being more contemporary, which means trying to fuse these different ideas together into a more cohesive thing.
What have been the last few recent records that you’ve listened to that have impressed you?
Current artists, you mean?
Good question. I think I thought about this, and I gave somebody a top ten list at the end of the year. Let’s see if I can remember any of that. To be perfectly honest with you, I don’t listen to much new music. It may be partially because I can’t be bothered. It’s not an anti-new thing; I spend most of my time thinking about music in the abstract, not about new artists. I feel like I heard enough stuff by the time I was twenty-thee…I didn’t need to hear anything past that. But I didn’t know that at the time. Looking back on it, I think, “I had everything I needed when I was twenty-three, but it took me until I was thirty-five to figure out how to use it.”
Recent stuff that’s been impressive? The Steve Gunn record on Paradise of Bachelors, I think is pretty great. Cian Nugent, on No Quarter, I really liked that. There’s a band in Philly called Watery Love, who everybody should listen to. Meg Baird is pretty great. I played on her last record a little bit. I mean, Espers, I feel like, did get trapped slightly in a retro vibe, but I don’t think that was her doing. I think her own music really transcends that. It’s very present, but really rich in influences.
I was listening to Early Astral earlier this week. When you’re working on a record like that, that’s a one-on-one collaboration with another artist, is your process different for that?
Yeah, sure. That record came together over the course of about a year. Koen and I were friends from New York. Then I moved down here, and he lived Philly for a calendar year, from January to January. He lived a block and a half from me, so we’d get together and just play. We’d talked about playing forever when we lived in New York, but it had never happened.
Do you mean, is it different from making my own music, or working with the Solar Motel Band?
Relative to something that would just be credited to you, or you with a band.
It’s different. That record came together entirely through jamming and glueing ideas together. The authorship was super-equal. It was a lot of dumping stuff out on the table and seeing what worked. The funny thing about the way the way that record came out is, there’s a lot of improvisation in it, but when we recorded it, the recorded version is just a live take. There’s no overdubs. It’s just a single forty-three-minute performance. We did maybe five or six or seven takes of it that day, and they were all within thirty seconds of each other, in terms of lengths. There was a real cohesion. Koen’s also a really compositionally-minded person, even when we’re improvising. So, there’s that.
The solo stuff I do, a lot of the time, is really off-the-cuff. Because I don’t have anyone to contend with, I’ll usually have a couple of phrases, and I’ll go from there. With the band, I make demos and suggest parts to them and stuff. But it is also very collaborative, in the sense of the band’s animating the music. I can’t really overstate that. They’re my songs, but they’d sound a lot different if other people were laying them. I’m always interested in that dynamic, no matter who I’m playing with, of interaction and actual creativity happening. As opposed to rehearsing and playing parts back at an audience or something. That’s not interesting to me at all. I want something to happen, you know? That’s how I gear it, whether I’m playing solo or playing with other people.
Are there any other collaborative projects in the works?
Peeesseye has a record coming out this year, that was recorded the last time we played together, in 2010. I’m pretty excited about it; I think it’s kind of the best, most pure thing we ever recorded. Our studio records were always very manicured, even though our live sets could be crazy and unhinged. And there’s moments of that on those records, but we tended to get super-analytical and think about it an awful lot. These recordings are literally just rehearsal tapes that we edited; we picked the parts out of it that sounded great. It’s really raw and really cool.
I’ve mainly been focused on the band stuff and the solo stuff these days. Koen and I keep talking about making another record, but…who knows. That might take five more years.
Chris Forsyth and the Solar Motel Band play Union Pool on March 2nd.
Photo: Constance Mensh