Feature | Chris Forsyth & the Solar Motel Band
Today your new favorite band drops one of the best records of 2014…but you probably didn’t know that yet. Intensity Ghost, the studio debut from Philly’s Chris Forsyth & the Solar Motel Band, is in some ways a fresh start for guitar anti-hero Chris Forsyth, yet this is far from the beginning.
The label, No Quarter, describes the record as “a career-defining statement of purpose and a near virtual history tour of late 20th century electric guitar, touching on widescreen psychedelia, art rock, the late-70’s New York scene, and the melting pot of early 90’s underground bands, but writing a whole new chapter, unforeseen by most in 2014” and this writer finds that testimonial to be not hyperbolic in the least.
Intensity Ghost is a firm, decisive declaration of the true potential of guitar-based rock music. The live band is a sonic force that could be idly summed up as equal parts Television and lean/one drummer mid-70s Dead…which only begins to do it justice. They play tunes pulling from nearly eras of Forsyth’s catalogue, and have been known to occasionally bust out one of two covers – Television’s “Little Johnny Jewel” and Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer.”
The line between melody and chaos is where the Solar Motel Band lives, exploring how far out then can push this thing while still pursuing “body music.” Live, the band covers an immense amount of aural ground from delicate and pretty through a tumultuous thickness and ferocity rarely found outside of Crazy Horse.
Without further adieu, here’s the tale of Chris Forsyth and how he arrived at this pivotal point in his career.
Music seemed to slowly seep into the life of the young Forsyth, the grandson of “failed musicians” on either side of his family. By 13 Chris had dabbled briefly in experiments with piano and saxophone, but after a friend got a guitar he convinced his parents he needed one too. The Forsyths said that if they were going to buy their son a guitar, he’d have to take a lesson – the one lesson Chris would take growing up.
There was supposed to be a second lesson to which Forsyth played hooky proclaiming “the people whose music I like never took lessons, so neither will I” to his folks. A strong affirmation from a young punk, but Forsyth did indeed go on to teach himself how to play, absorbing Neil Young, The Who, Cream, Sex Pistols & Led Zeppelin by ear and picking some licks up off of friends. Chris had no interest in what was popular on MTV at the time, “I felt really alienated by most of that stuff – Mister Mister, Simple Minds, etc. I felt really turned off by it.”
It was also around this time that Chris’s older sister started passing some choice hand-me-downs his way. “She gave me a Sonic Youth tape and a Husker Dü tape and that stuff started to sink in a lot deeper.” This only strengthened his “anti-authoritarian” approach to teaching himself guitar. “There’s this thing that I feel, even now, it’s almost like déjà vu. I have these really strong, full-body memories of being 13 and sitting in my room and bending the note on a guitar for the first time, and I started to learn how that felt. I mean I still feel that if I do it, so I felt really physically tuned in with the instrument at a young age and an in-experienced point with it,” Forsyth says about that time.
“It wasn’t until I took lessons with [Television’s] Richard Lloyd, 12 years later or something like that, that I actually learned how music works. Up until then it was all feel, which I think is important.” Chris got into Television in high school via the live cassette The Blow Up, “That version of ‘Little Johnny Jewel’ is probably the single piece of music I’ve listened to more in my life than anything,” he reminiscences. “It’s not like a sexy live recording, it’s really kind of warts and all…it’s really sloppy…but there’s something in there that I really loved. Then I did the homework and learned about all the other records.” The influential band remains a key reference point to this day.
After playing in assorted rock bands through college “to little traction,” Chris moved to New York upon graduation and began trying to figure out what to do with himself. This proved to be a hugely formative time in Forsyth’s musical development. He suddenly “took a hard left turn” and started getting into improvisational and abstract music. “I wasn’t playing anything you would really call ‘rock music,’ it was sort of like improvised stuff but on a rocky kinda edge…inspired by some of that that early Royal Trux stuff. I was also going to a lot of free-jazz shows at the time.”
In 1998 Forsyth put out his first solo recording – a 7”, limited to 200 copies, of noise and electronics with guitar – and sent some to the press. One of the few outlets to review it was famed UK publication The Wire, which specializes in “non-mainstream musics.” David Keenan called it “the best solo guitar record since Donald Miller’s A Little Treatise on Morals” – undoubtedly high praise from the respected critic.
Instead of pursuing the solo-guitar path, Chris jumped head first into the burgeoning improvisational/free-/noise scene of late 90s New York. A lot of his playing and listening centered around Tonic -a much-loved local venue that closed in 2007 and played a seminal role in shaping his playing. “It was one of those places where there was really no borders,” Forsyth recollects. “It was a really killer melting pot of things. It was a place you could pretty much go any night and there would be good music to see.”
Curiously, he also decided that then was the time to take a few lessons even though most of the music he was making at the time was feedback/noise-based. At a rehearsal studio one day in the East Village, Chris spotted a flyer that said ‘Richard Lloyd gives guitar lessons.’ He called the number and next thing he knew he was studying with the master himself. For the next year and a half, Forsyth took the train in from Brooklyn every Wednesday to study with Richard Lloyd in the morning before going to work at a café.
After picking up bits and pieces from different places over the years, Chris attributes his ability to see the big picture to studying with Lloyd. “The thing about playing this abstract music,” he says, “is I could get into a flow with it. That’s what I was really after because it didn’t require a lot of melodic or harmonic sense; you could sort of just collage sounds together. Richard gave me the grammar to be able to translate that flow to a more lyrical language.
“I felt like music was this picture – I understood a little bit over in this corner, and a little bit over here and a little bit over there, but I didn’t know how it connected. He sort of helped dissolve the film that was over the rest of the picture. When I grew up it was like ‘fuck it, all I need is 3 chords and I can go for it’ and that’s great, but I didn’t really feel like I could figure out what I was trying to say until I learned a little bit more than that…which is what I got from Richard.”
During this time Chris played a lot of ad-hoc gigs and one-offs, and ended up on gigs with a lot of the same folks who would end up playing critical roles in his career, but he wasn’t writing music – “it was all about improvising, about not repeating yourself.” While immersed in the NYC improv scene, Forsyth discovered The Grateful Dead – a point of musical reference for him since. “I was coming from this whole punk/post-punk background,” Forsyth says, “you didn’t really cross over. It seems ridiculous in retrospect, but that’s how it was.” A friend played him Dick’s Picks Vol. 3 and suddenly a new world was laid out in front of him.
“Looking back it’s all so ridiculous, but there were these camps and it somehow seemed like you had to make a choice – you either liked the Meat Puppets or you liked the Grateful Dead…when in fact the Meat Puppets are total Dead Heads!” May 1977 Dead is a pretty ideal place for an improv guitarist to start with that band, and Chris quickly took to the authenticity of it, noticing similarities to his own playing.
“It had same flow and everything. It was that same long-form approach to music and that same curiosity about music that you would hear from the kinds of musicians who played at Tonic. Real musicians playing music, not sort of imitating the experience of playing music.”
It was through this free-everything scene that Chris met Jamie Fennelly and Fritz Welch, with whom he would form peeesseye around 2002. In their own words, peeesseye was a band that used “elements of warped rock architecture, freejazz horror, intergalactic glossolalia and stripped down abstract expressionism. Their concerts and recordings travel through fields of fine decay and up against walls of bonechilling catharsis.”
The band – Chris on guitar, Jamie on harmonium/electronics/tape loops/noises and Fritz on percussion/noises – went through a number of microeras, but always focused on improvising and following the muse, regardless of their specific instrumentation at the time. “That band was at its best when we were just completely wigging out and going nuts,” Forsyth notes.
They even had a period where they dropped the traditional notion of songs altogether. “We eventually started to develop a thing where we would have structures that we would play, which weren’t so much songs but flagposts that we would set up. We’ll have this mood for a while and then we’ll kinda go over here.” Sometimes he and Fennelly would coordinate harmonically, but often it was a free-for-all with all three members trying to be as open as possible.
As peeesseye slowly started to dissolve due to everyone moving away from New York, Chris started picking up the solo-guitar thing again. “It’s funny,” he says, “once I started re-focusing on the solo thing like 5 or 6 years ago I realized there was kind of a continuity between that first 7” and where I picked up again.”
By the time Forsyth moved to Philadelphia in 2009, he had released his first proper solo record, Dreams, and was starting to gig on his own. Fennelly and Welch both appear on Dreams along with trumpeter Nate Wooley and keyboard player/sonic sculpter Shawn Hansen – both buddies from the NYC improv scene. Hansen has gone on to play a crucial in most everything Forsyth has released since, including Intensity Ghost.
Following Dreams, Chris toured solo for a few years before he started thinking about how to amalgamate his avant/noise playing with the melodic rock-based sounds of his youth. What emerged was Paranoid Cat in 2011, a wide-reaching record whose title three-part suite is the first to feature Forsyth in a more traditional rock band setting. He wanted to get back to what he calls “body music” – groove-based tunes, but ones that can still reach for the unknown.
“I went on this investigative voyage and I came out the other side of it realizing that you can play any kind of music with a lot of integrity and it can be profound. The form of the music is not the point at all. The notes that you’re playing are almost the least-interesting aspect of it,” Forsyth says. “It was really just a matter of becoming comfortable with all of these places where I had staked out some territory. Just as a club like Tonic didn’t have to put up walls between different people that would play music there, I realized I didn’t have to either. I became free from preconceptions or strict definitions/limitations of what it is that I did. And, interestingly enough, that’s when people started to pay attention.”
Paranoid Cat was when Forsyth says he started to lose some of the chip on his shoulder, referring to some of his earlier endeavors as “confrontational” while still standing by every ounce of his musical output. After starting to make music like that found on Dreams and Paranoid Cat “people would start coming for the music instead of me having to stand up there and demand attention or something, the music commanded enough attention.”
Peter Kerlin, a bassist Chris knew from the improv world who would later (along with the aforementioned Hansen) form the core of Forsyth’s Solar Motel studio band, recorded the album in Brooklyn. The two had shared bills and had some mutual friends, then one day Kerlin invited him to see his band play.
“That was the first time he saw me play bass,” Kerlin remembers. “Afterwards he said I played like Phil Lesh -which was a first for me -and invited me to come play on some material he’d been developing outside peeesseye. I was stoked to play with him,” says Peter. “He’s my closest musical collaborator,” Forsyth now says of Kerlin. “Well, him and Shawn Hansen. He, Shawn and I have played together a lot.”
“What struck me first hearing Chris play was his tone,” Peter says, “which is incredibly present and immediate – it’s like an object. The pacing of his music also really set him apart. He understands the importance of leaving space for the music to breath and sink into the listener. I love playing with Chris, his music really resonates with me.”
The short-lived Paranoid Cat Band – Forsyth, Kerlin on bass, Hansen on keys and Mike Pride on drums – played a few gigs, but touring was effectively halted once Forsyth’s wife gave birth to their son. While embracing the joys of fatherhood, Chris set about looking for ways to expand upon both aspects of his playing – the acoustic/noise-based approach found on Dreams and the traditional rock band concepts he was beginning to explore on Paranoid Cat – so he took to the studio to make two records concurrently. One, Kenzo Deluxe, is meditative and as close to a pure solo record as he’s released – just Chris and an electric guitar with some effects. The other, Solar Motel, was an entrancing, expansive four-part suite escalating on the ideas brought forth with the Paranoid Cat suite.
“I wanted to pursue the rock band thing even though I didn’t have a band,” Forsyth says, so he brought Kerlin, Pride and Hansen into Jeff Zeigler’s Philly studio to lay down tracks. Zeigler is an excellent producer and sculptor of noises, as evidenced by his work with The War on Drugs, Kurt Vile, Steve Gunn & others, so this was going to be as sonically ambitious a record as it was going to be musically. The basic tracks were cut in just a few days. “Chris and Jeff worked for many a session after that to really make that record what it is, but recording the basic tracks was a brisk, seat-of-the-pants affair,” recalls Kerlin.
With Solar Motel, Chris sought to resolve his two sonic worlds – noise with melody, beauty with chaos. “I’m inviting melody back into the picture in a really up-front way,” he says. “But then to me it’s always just about finding that line of melody and chaos…balancing them out and not having to choose sides. The same way you don’t have to choose sides between the Dead and the Meat Puppets, you don’t have to choose sides whether you want to have some melody and have some kind of total chaos.”
Though recorded in late 2011, Solar Motel didn’t get released until October of 2013 due to label delays. For the first time, Chris found himself at a loss for how to play his new material live. Since no one that played on the record lived in Philly, it was clear – he had to put a local band together in order to rehearse and play regularly.
Not wanting to ruffle any feathers, Chris called the guys from the record to get their blessing on looking for a band to play this material out. Pride and Hansen gave their blessings, but Kerlin held out telling him “no, you can’t fire me!” After some discussion, neither wanted to stop playing together and it was decided he would commute from Brooklyn to play bass. “It’s not that far,” Forsyth says. “We’ve played together for long enough that he could come to like every third rehearsal and it wouldn’t be that big of a deal.”
Shortly before this Forsyth had met guitarist Paul Sukeena from the kickass Philly psych/garage band Spacin’, who happened to live 3 blocks away at the time. The two quickly began playing together. “He actually did some gigs with me around the time of Kenzo Deluxe where I would play solo for a while and then he would come and join me and we would play some duo stuff,” Chris recalls.
When considering how to bring the Solar Motel material to life, Paul was a logical choice. “The other voice on Solar Motel is a keyboard, it’s Shawn playing organ and synth, but I didn’t know any keyboard players that I thought could do that. I realized that Paul could kind of cover those parts on guitar but also bring this whole other thing …and I’ve always loved the twin-guitar thing, it’s always been my kind of goal.” In Sukeena, Forsyth has found not only someone to cover the keyboard parts, but a guitar foil capable of anything thrown at him from the riffiest of riffs to the deepest of space.
Sukeena’s roommate at the time was Steven Urgo, a propulsive drummer who had previously done a stint in The War on Drugs. “We all four played and the chemistry was really good…and that was that,” Chris recalls. In a series of freak cosmic events, the right people came together at the right time and “that was that”…Chris Forsyth had his band, the Solar Motel Band.
Forsyth swiftly realized the potential of his new rock band, and booked a residency at the recently re-opened Ortleib’s in Philly, which “solidified it.” “I didn’t know how to tour with a band, it seemed just like it’d be financial suicide. I knew playing live was the thing that we needed to do though. In Philly, this was not a thing to do at the time – playing residencies. I had to convince the room and a couple of the people in the band that it was a good idea.”
Though they had only come together in the spring of 2013, the newly-minted Solar Motel band played two sets every Thursday in June at Ortleib’s after only one gig prior. They were learning tunes and gelling on the fly, getting better every week. “That residency I think is the thing that really crystallized things for us as a group between each other. I think everybody realized like ‘whoa, shit…we really can just go up and play.’ It felt legitimate,” Forsyth remembers.
The band hit the road in September of last year for a brief southern run, including a stop at the Hopscotch Fest in Raleigh, where they played Solar Motel top to bottom (preserved for posterity by the public servants over at nyctaper.com). By October Solar Motel had finally come out, and by mid-November the band was back in in the studio with Zeigler laying down tracks for what would become Intensity Ghost.
To celebrate the release of Solar Motel, Hansen flew to Philly from Kansas City and the one-night-only quintet incarnation of the Solar Motel Band played The Rotunda. The show was recorded and later released as Solar Live: 11-15-13, a Record Store Day 2014 exclusive and the first release from the Solar Motel Band. Capitalizing on Hansen’s being in town, the band hit the studio with a vengeance and cut the basic Intensity Ghost tracks.
The record walks that noise/melody line Forsyth is going for with immaculate clarity, due largely to finalizing the material together as a group in the studio. “We had rehearsed some of those songs, some of them I had started to introduce to the band, but none of that stuff was fully-formed. My idea was to do it the way Dylan recorded in the ’60s…and still records now I think…which is to just kind of go in and start playing songs that the band doesn’t know. I’m interested in using the studio as a tool to make good-sounding records and I’m interested in production, but the main thing I’m interested in when it comes down to it is performance. I want to start every recording with some kind of magical performance.
“Obviously I write these songs, but the songs have huge holes in them where there’s like nothing and that’s what the band fills in, what we fill in together. The version of ‘The Ballad of Freer Hallow’ that’s on Intensity Ghost was the first time we nailed that song. At the end of that take we all were like ‘whoa, that was it! We figured that out!’ Up until then it was ‘ah this seems like it’ll be a good idea,’ but it was a little tentative and we couldn’t really figure it out. ‘Paris Song’ was the second and last time that we played it…because nobody really knew the song. We rehearsed it a couple times and did a take of it which was a little rocky, but then we did that take and it was like ‘ok, done.’”
“Paris Song” has an interesting genesis, having been written on a solo tour of Europe the day after Lou Reed passed. Forsyth was at a gig in Geneva with fellow guitarist Steve Gunn, who told him of Reed’s passing. “I’m not like really an idolizer of people, but Lou’s music is ultra ultra ultra ultra ultra important to me, so I was really kind of stunned when he told me that.
“We played the gig in Geneva that night and then I took the train to Paris. The whole time I was just sort of reflecting on how everything that I do kind of comes out of Lou Reed. The whole attitude and his combination of songwriting and guitar playing is untouchable as far as I’m concerned, merging the avant garde and the pop. He’s my Robert Johnson.
“I was staying with a couple people who I’d never met before that night in Paris, but they were super nice and making me dinner. I wrote that song sitting in their living room and played it the next night at the gig in Paris.” When he returned home, he thought the would-be album closer was a perfect tune for his band to tackle.
The songs on Intensity Ghost pull from all phases of Forsyth’s career, with only the aforementioned “The Ballad of Freer Hallow” and “Yellow Square” written with this band specifically in mind. “I’m always just kind of coming up with things, I’ve got all these riffs and stuff banging around in my head. The first two tunes on the record were first songs I wrote that were like ‘ok, this is going to be a two guitar thing. Here’s a vision for that and a way this band can play them.’” The record is incredibly cohesive though, which Forsyth calls “a tribute to the band.”
The title track dates back to Forsyth’s early ’90s four-track days. He even tried to introduce it to peeesseye, but says it didn’t really work for that band. “I always liked it so I kept it in the back of my mind. Then I was like ‘oh, ok, this is a band that can actually play this song!’ so we worked up a version of it.” The first single, “I Ain’t Waiting”, dates back to a 2009 Forsyth/Hansen duo recording put out under the name Dirty Pool, and is another old tune Chris thought would be perfect for his current band. The timing was right and a unified batch of songs was beginning to emerge.
“In my experience it is a rare thing for a band to record at the right time, with the right engineer,” Kerlin adds. “We’d had enough time playing with each other that there’s fluidity, yet not too much time with the material that it had calcified. It takes wisdom to recognize that moment. This one was recorded at precisely the right moment, in that sweet spot. Everyone’s playing is fresh and top notch, and Jeff’s production work here is just beyond. I’m very proud of it.”
A perfect storm resulted in the gestation of the Solar Motel Band and subsequent debut studio recording. It was then time to hit the road, which the band did for the first time in February of this year. “The point is to play live. If you’re doing something interesting and it’s worthwhile, then it’ll collate. That’s what I want to be doing! You know? I don’t want to be sitting around plotting the next gig, I want to be playing the next gig.”
The band has since completed two runs to the Midwest and back, with a third on deck next month, which makes two releases and three tours for the ~18 month old band – ambitious by any standard. So here we are, in the fall of 2014 with arguably the record of Forsyth’s career hitting the public and a busy two weeks booked to support it.
This feels like a turning point, and well it should. Years of toiling away and following the muse have dropped Forsyth and his Solar Motel Band at the cusp of breaking through, not to the mainstream, but the music nerd population at large. Regardless of what you’re, there is something in Intensity Ghost for you to dig on. This kind of pure artistic statement is a rare thing, enjoy it.
Chris Forsyth & the Solar Motel Band are the cosmic heroes you didn’t know you needed, and their Intensity Ghost comes out today on No Quarter.
Listen to this record. Go see this band.
Chris Forsyth & the Solar Motel Band Tour Dates
11/2 BROOKLYN “INTENSITY GHOST” RECORD RELEASE SHOW #1 @ Baby’s All Right w/ Zachary Cale Band + VBA
11/5 PHILADELPHIA “INTENSITY GHOST” RECORD RELEASE SHOW #2 @ Boot & Saddle w/ Marshall Allen (Sun Ra Arkestra) + The Orange Drop
11/12 BUFFALO @ Mohawk Place
11/13 DETROIT @ PJs Lager House w/ Isles of ESP + Hydropark
11/14 CINCINNATI @ The Comet w/ Public Housing
11/15 LAFAYETTE, IN @ The Spot
11/16 BENTON HARBOR, MI @ The Livery
11/17 MINNEAPOLIS @ 7th St Entry
11/18 CHICAGO @ The Empty Bottle
11/20 LOUISVILLE @ The New Vintage
11/21 COLUMBUS @ Wexner Center for the Arts
11/22 WASHINGTON, DC @ The Communiverse