Chris Forsyth :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Chris Forsyth & The Solar Motel Band’s new double album, The Rarity of Experience, is out Friday via the increasingly trustworthy No Quarter Records. No surprise from Forsyth at this point: it’s a fantastic record, and to boot, his most daring yet. We recently caught up with the Philadelphia man to discuss the album, the deviation in tone between the two discs, his many musical influences and what, in fact, ‘the rarity of experience’ means.

Chris Forsyth & The Solar Motel Band :: The First Ten Minutes of Cocksucker Blues

Aquarium Drunkard: Your new record very much feels like one of two halves. The first half being inhabited by crunchier, straightforward rock songs, and the second slipping into a much slower, vibier tone. They’re even marked by different album covers and technically different titles (The Rarity of Experience I and II, respectively). What inspired this shift in direction halfway through, or sort-of double album approach, and what does it mean to you musically?

Chris Forsyth: Well, I didn’t want to make the same record again, and the last couple records [Solar Motel and Intensity Ghost] were pretty distinct from each other. Solar Motel was the album that spawned the band and then that band recorded Intensity Ghost. So, the thought of going into another recording was that I want to keep moving and keep changing and also keep challenging the band. So, I spoke to Mike Quinn, who runs No Quarter, and we talked about shooting for a double record, just trying to do something bigger. And we thought maybe we could do some stuff that’s a little more experimental. And through the course of recording we kept going back and forth, saying, “Maybe we should boil it down” and “No, let’s go big,” but eventually I sat down to listen to all the material and I called up Mike and was like, “Uh-oh, we didn’t make one record, we made two separate albums.” And so I was having a bit of an artistic freak-out but Mike said, “Oh, well, perfect, we’ll just put both out at the same time.” And that made sense to me; it’s like the first two Syd Barrett records. And, ultimately, I do think it hangs together as a piece. There’s definitely not one long whole vibe, it definitely has these distinct parts, but it holds together.

Speaking of the album art, it’s way out there.

Chris Forsyth: With the artwork, that was a way to communicate that, in a graceful way. Robert Beatty, the artist, who is also a really interesting musician and in a band called Hair Police and his own thing called Three-Legged Race, was totally down for that. We have the two different front covers and, in the end, I think of it as the one thing — The Rarity of Experience — but we title it 1 and 2 to draw some distinction. Like, anything. It started off as a certain idea and through the process of making it it evolved into something else. Most of the images were Robert’s. We have the green eye and that’s a nod to Richard Thompson’s “Calvary Cross”. The lights on the back cover are inspired actually by the first ten minutes of the film Cocksucker Blues. The camera sort of dwells on these lights for a little while, and so Robert picked up on that. And, you know, some of them are just pure design and some of them are actually sort of oblique references to the titles or the lyrics.

AD: Did you purposely leave room, especially on the second disc, for improvisation and experimentation?

Chris Forsyth: For sure. The way that stuff was recorded was more bits and pieces. I had these ideas for parts and then we would mix them together. “Old Phase” was very much this idea in my head and we just recorded different sections and then added these pieces and kind of glued it all together. It was not really performed in an arc, single take sort of thing. Some of the songs are single takes but some of that other stuff was more about leaving some space and seeing what we could add to it.

AD: Using the studio as an instrument in a sense?

Chris Forsyth: Yeah. The band I had in the early 2000’s, Peeesseye, did a lot of super experimental stuff but it was more home studio-based. So, this was a larger-scale and some of the songs had dozens and dozens of tracks and there were headaches confusion, like, “What the fuck is this?” And a track like “Cocksucker Blues” was done in one take and then that whole second half of it, that sort of outro jam, I just told everyone to play really restrained and rhythmically and then we’re gonna add all this other stuff on top. And it came out, to me, experimental but still organic and cohesive. And that’s just a tribute to the players.

AD: Who is playing horns on that track? They really bring it home.

Chris Forsyth: Daniel Carter is playing saxophone and trumpet there. Daniel is a really interesting guy. I’ve known him probably since ’99 and he’s played on tons of records with the Vision Festival scene in New York — like free jazz. And he’ll play with anybody, he’s just always up to jam, and he never, never plays the wrong thing. When he recorded his parts on “Cocksucker Blues,” he did two takes each of muted trumpet, open trumpet and tenor sax and any single one of them would have worked.

AD: Your previous albums have been strictly instrumental. What inspired you to get behind the microphone on this one?

Chris Forsyth: Well, the way that I started singing, going back a few years when the band was just starting off, we would do covers, for fun, like Television songs. And…somebody had to sing them. So I just sort of stepped up to that, I was like, “If Lou Reed can sing, why can’t I?” And the songs that I ended up singing on the record, it was really just that the songs called for it. And this is the way anything really gets decided in the arranging. Just trying to figure out what works. And, again, not wanting to re-make my previous records, I raised it as a challenge to myself, not just to sing, but to come up with lyrics.

AD: When we first met you, it was through your alternate score of the first ten minutes of Cocksucker Blues. That recording has found a new home on your new record and within it you perfectly capture the mysterious and sinister vibe of the film, one which captured the band at their most depraved and uncensored. What is it about that lore, that kind of immortalized immorality, in the larger scope of the rock ‘n roll canon that we find so appealing?

Chris Forsyth: Well, I love that film and I’m a huge Stones fan but I’m also huge Robert Frank fan, the filmmaker. And I’ve watched that film for years and would often just hang out and play along to it, sometimes with the sound off. I actually performed it a couple times where I played to the whole film. I did it in Baltimore, New York and Philly. And I think, you know, the Stones are just characters in that film. And, if anything, it’s not a very flattering portrait of them — as anything, as people, as artists. It’s a kind of warts-and-all situation. To me it’s a film that captures the ultimate decay of any kind of idealism of the 60s. It’s just like this nail in the coffin. And it’s the Stones becoming these isolated, rich, decadent weirdos. And the music — it’s a sleazy groove.

AD: You revisit a couple of titles from past records on this new release. “Harmonius Dance” from your 2008 Live Journal At The Mice Machine VIP Dance Floor lp, as well as “The First Ten Minutes of Cocksucker Blues” and “Boston Street Lullabye” from Kenzo Deluxe. What inspired you to revisit these songs and how did you treat them differently this time around?

Chris Forsyth: I’m interested in the compositional mindset but, at the same time, especially when it comes to playing with other musicians, it’s always up for grabs. I’m like a singer, not the song, kind of guy when it comes to performing. While I spend time working on the songs, when it comes down to playing, it’s a little more anything goes. So we were recording those songs for the new album and the band was going places that the earlier recordings didn’t go. As a listener, I’m not listening to a Bob Dylan or John Coltrane tune and thinking, oh, that’s the song; it can never be repeated. Artists like Dylan and jazz artists are the people that I’m more interested in, the people who are constantly trying to reinvent what the material is. I don’t think there’s a dichotomy there — between having a strong compositional sense and the willingness to fuck with it. That tension is what keeps me playing music. I saw Dylan a few years ago at this minor league baseball stadium at the Jersey Shore, kind of in the middle of nowhere. And it was pissing rain at the show and he starts playing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and the band clearly was like “What the fuck is this?” They’re kind of looking at each other and Dylan just kept going up and up and up on the chorus and performatively it was like, yeah, this guy’s actually doing something in the moment, and having fun too.

AD: You’ve been making records since at least 2001, but it’s fair to say you gained a wider audience with your 2013 release, Solar Motel. What do you think it is about that record that launched you onto a new trajectory? Additionally, you’ve since dubbed your band the “Solar Motel Band.” Is there something about that record that you find identifies you and your music more so than others before it?

Chris Forsyth: A lot of the stuff I did up until then was much more borderline antagonistic to the audience. Peeesseye was kind of like a surreal, noise folk, performance art band. We toured a lot but it wasn’t the kind of thing that was gonna reach mass acceptance, and we knew that. But when that band broke up I just started playing solo and I started playing more lyrically. I wanted to do something that incorporated the lyricism and classic sensibility of stuff that I loved but also could incorporate real experimentation and improvisation between the musicians. And it just clicked. I mean, why do people like it? I don’t know. But when people seemed to pick up on that record, that’s when I had to actually put together a band. And the band has changed some since then but Shawn Hansen, who is a Kansas City-based keyboard player, has played on every recording I’ve ever done under my own name. He’s a totally crucial member of the band, especially on this record.

AD: Your cover of Richard Thompson’s “The Calvary Cross” on this record pays tribute to Thompson’s legendary live renditions of that number.

Chris Forsyth: Best living guitarist.

AD: What other guitar players, and beyond, have inspired you?

Chris Forsyth: My roots are in almost obligatory dimension: Keith Richards, Neil Young, Television, obviously. I studied with Richard Lloyd, he taught me how to play the guitar. But I’ve also spent a lot of time in my life listening to a lot of non-rock music that really affected me. People like Keiji Haino (still one of my favorite people to see play guitar), Derek Bailey, Loren Conners, Rick Bishop, Wayne Rogers, Daniel FicheIscher from Popol Vuh. I met Jack Rose when I moved to Philly, maybe six months before he died, but we became fast friends and just the integrity that he brought to his playing was super inspiring to me. Just the belief in what he was doing and the confidence in what he was doing really meant something to me and still means something to me.

AD: How was studying with Richard Lloyd?

Chris Forsyth: He’s a great guitar player, he’s a great teacher. He’s a massively intelligent human. Also kind of a maniac. But as a teacher, he changed my life. He taught me how music works and how music exists on a guitar neck. I owe him everything for that. I had been playing guitar for ten years before I took lessons from him, but those were the first guitar lessons I’d ever had. He taught me how things work and what things mean. The best thing about studying with Richard is that he didn’t teach me how to imitate people, he taught me how to be myself. He gave me the grammar to be able to say things. Like, this is how the music works, and you can figure out what to do with it.

AD: Your recent collaboration with Koen Holtkamp, The Island, finds you in a much more ambient space than on your solo records, specifically on the beautiful track “Cosmic Richard.” We’re big fans of that record here. Can we expect some further exploration into that realm from you in the future?

Chris Forsyth: Yeah, I can definitely see doing more stuff like that. Who knows what the future holds?

AD: What does the rarity of experience mean?

Chris Forsyth: It’s like the reason Tonight’s the Night is the best Neil Young album and White Light/White Heat is the best Velvet Underground album. They’re the most direct, the most unobstructed. Those records are like faucets that are turned on and then turned off. That’s what the Rarity of Experience is about. Seeing somebody live to me is the ultimate thing. It’s not repeatable. In the world that we live in now, everything is so mediated and going through so many different lenses, that actually having a direct experience with something, the rarity of that seems really profound to me. And I think that’s something that’s reflected in both of those records. Trying to get that lighting in a bottle of a really unguarded and charged performance. That’s the thing you want to start with. words / c depasquale

Related: The Lagniappe Sessions: Chris Forsyth & The Solar Motel Band

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