Like most teenage guys, Chris Forsyth started playing guitar so he could play “Stairway to Heaven.” Once he learned to play all the classic rock tunes, he played in a variety of rock bands before moving to Brooklyn and immersing himself in a completely different music scene.
“I got deep into experimental music and improvisation and free jazz and that kind of world,” he says via phone from his Philadelphia home.
He started taking lessons from former Television guitarist Richard Lloyd, a prickly guy known as a fierce guitarist (Lloyd himself has described his guitar playing as the equivalent of “heaven and hell colliding”). Forsyth was a big fan of Television, and getting to study with Lloyd was a life-changing experience.
“I would go to his studio once a week for an hour,” he says. “I had a standing weekly lesson. Television were a huge, huge band for me. When I found out that I could take lessons from him, that blew my mind. Like a lot of post-punk rock musicians, I didn't know how to play the guitar. People who play rock music don't really learn how to play the guitar. Before I started to study with him, the average person would say I knew how to play. I really didn't. Richard taught me the grammar and fundamentals for how music works.”
In the early 2000s, Forsyth formed Peeesseye, a noisy band that didn't quite fit into any one genre. “We skirted the edges of the noise scene and the freak folk thing that was happening,” he says. “We were outside those areas. We were too freaky for the freak folkers and not harsh enough for the noise scene.”
That band broke up after a short run, and Forsyth moved to Philly in 2009.
“I started playing solo, and I started getting back into more lyrical and rock forms, still with an expansive, psychedelic point of view,” he says. “That’s the arc I've been on for the past five years.”
In 2011, he put out Paranoid Cat, an instrumental album of melodic guitar work that suggests only a hint of Forsyth's noisier past (you can still hear a bit of a drone, for example, in the title track).
“That record was half with a band and half more solo,” he says. “At the time, I was playing a lot of solo gigs just for practical reasons. I made two records more or less at the same time. I made Kenzo Deluxe, which is 100-percent solo. There were no overdubs. It was just a guitar in a room. But I also wanted to play with band.”
About that same time, he also recorded Solar Motel, another album that featured a band. That record just came out last year. Since he was working with mostly studio musicians, Forsyth decided to recruit musicians from Philadelphia so that he could duplicate the songs when he played them live.
“The guys who played on the records lived in New York and Kansas City and all over the place,” he says. “I set about finding some people in Philly. I got Paul Sukeena to play second guitar and Steven Urgo who plays drums. The bassist is Peter Kerlin. I played with Peter for years, so that's great. Paul plays in Spacin' and Steven used to play in the War on Drugs. They're both super great musicians. It's a chemistry thing. I wasn't expecting it, but the band snowballed.”
He set up a residency at a Philly club and the guys honed their chops by playing a weekly set.
“I posted some of the live recordings on Soundcloud, and they got picked up by a few blogs,” he says. “It was organic and natural. It's a testament to the band and the weird chemistry and the ability to pivot off of songs and blast off and be able to yo-yo it back and forth. We get out of control but then get back in control enough to rein it in. I'm really excited about the band.”
Named after a “dilapidated old motel in New Jersey” that was located near where Forsyth grew up, Solar Motel is a four-song suite that opens with the undulating “Solar Motel Part 1,” a hypnotic track that starts slow and then escalates into something that sounds a bit twangy, simultaneously suggesting the Grateful Dead and Television. Forsyth and crew deliver an aural assault at the song's end that suggests their ability to truly jam and improvise.
“The four pieces are separate in a way,” Forsyth explains. “They come out of different roots. I like the idea of the big arc and the big sprawl. When we're playing live, I would weave it together. That's the way we did it on the record.”
The music on Solar Motel really gives credence to the term “cosmic Americana.” It's a phrase that Forsyth has used to describe his music.
“I feel like it just has to do with the expansiveness of it,” he says when asked about what makes his music so “cosmic.” “There’s a lot of improvisation. With this band, it's focused improvisation. It can get loose and noodle-y, but it's always lyrical and has some kind of pulse or thrust to it.
“Music is cosmic, right?” he continues. “I think it's the difference between actually playing music and following a muse versus acting out a pantomime. That's what a lot of rock bands do. It's like a simulation but the truly great rock music, whether it's Television or Patti Smith or Neil Young or Sonic Youth, that stuff is unhinged and hurtling through the universe and doing something. It doesn't sit back and look at itself. It's propelling itself into the world. That's the approach we take.”