The Home Key #9:

An Interview with Chris Forsyth


Rick Moody

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If rock and roll has, in fact, become an invalidated form, a “niche product,” encrusted with its political difficulties, and, perhaps, exhausted as a way of thinking about popular music, one of the chief problems, perhaps, is that it has failed to find new ways to use the guitar. Since the high period of guitar innovation—the period in which we had Sonic Youth and their tunings, James “Blood” Ulmer and his unison strings, and the pieces for a hundred guitars of Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca—there just hasn’t been as much innovation in the guitar as in the years prior (rare exceptions: left-field employment of guitar synthesizers in, e.g., the work of Robert Fripp, or: the beautiful jazz-flavored modulations of Marc Ribot, or: almost everything played by Nels Cline). So it’s striking and, well, thrilling, when a contemporary player appears, rises up from out of the surface noise, and seems to have his ears fixed mightily on the history of the guitar, and with it the potential for rock and roll to speak anew to an audience. Chris Forsyth is one such contemporary player. His point of origin is (arguably) New York punk of the Dolls, Television, Patti Smith group variety, but he also mixes in a kind of jam-oriented approach that would have been somewhat verboten in the orthodox punk days. Or: his point of origin is the indie of the turning of the millennium, with a bit of Pavement, and a bit of R.E.M., maybe some Thinking Fellers thrown in. It’s as if from a perch at the Knitting Factory, of old, Forsyth managed to mix in both the rock and jazz sides of the downtown New York music community. Lately, Forsyth has been releasing performances of free-form, mostly improvised music, alternating these with collections of more concise, song-oriented material. As a player, he dazzles significantly, with a bottomless repertoire of riffs but also beautiful melodic and tonal capabilities. He’s very rarely show-offy, or show-offy only in the context of an ensemble, and only with appropriate preparation, or only show-offy in the sense that George Harrison was: to the greater glory of a composition, and by showcasing an unsupected melodic event, or a small glittering morsel of non-rock material, a soul lick, a jazz scale, tucked in, before heading back to sounds that are also both familiar and uncanny. There’s a significant impact to the compositions but in subtle and lyrical way. If he were a poet he would favor the epic, the elegaic, but he would efface the narrator, no relentless first-person confessionality. Always room for the other players, always room for the audience to wander around in the compositions. This is music that asks what the electric guitar is good for, and answers that the electric guitar can be both raw and tender and allusive and mysterious. And new.
  Forsyth’s new album Evolution Here We Come is recognizably by the author, but it also works in some attention to groove and some timbral ideas that push at the edge of rock and roll and find it sharing attention with electronic music. The pieces are frequently longer, more open-ended, and with more instrumental flavors than you expect from a rock album, but with the same attention to melody, ensemble, improvisation, and crescendo that has characterized, especially, the recent Forsyth live releases. Forsyth and I spoke on Zoom in April, not long after international events had taken their recent alarming turn. He’s a thoughtful, funny, wry, serious person, full of ideas and creative twists and turns. And you can hear music from every era of his unfolding career at his Bandcamp page, which is here: .

RM: I’m really interested in the title of the new album, Evolution Here We Come. I was thinking of albums past where the title seems to harbor specific aesthetic commentary about the work. Like, there’s the Van Morrison record called A Period of Transition. Does this have a similar intent?

CF: As somebody who mostly produces instrumental music, for me there are limited ways to deliver a clear message—or clear-ish message—using language. So I put a lot of thought into titles. This one seems like it’s in keeping with my other titles. I’m always trying to think of something new to say, but then I’m realizing, huh, I think I’ve been saying the same thing for a long time. I suppose good titles have a lot of different meanings that might be read into them, and, sure, I do think the record represents an evolution musically. Maybe the biggest change I’ve made in a long time, in terms of the recording quality, the production, different collaborators, and so forth. But also there’s “Here We Come,” like Here Come the Warm Jets, or something. I like titles that call something to mind a little bit without directly putting it on your plate. It’s also true that I’m sitting around here living my life, looking at the world and trying to make some sense of the mediated experience of it. There are a lot of potentially grim realities that we’re facing, and I always struggle with, well, are things getting worse, are things getting better, or are things the same? I’m kind of agnostic about the future in terms of what’s really going to happen, other than I think it won’t necessarily be what we expect. The one thing I think you can count on is evolution.
  I was thinking about that and I was realizing well, yeah, my last record was called All Time Present, that’s kind of the same, maybe less specifically about current events. And then the record I made a number of years ago was called The Rarity of Experience, which was just about how there’s no substitute for this moment that we’re in now. Everything else is looking backward or forward. So I think the new record is in keeping with themes that I’ve tried to think about and suggest in titles in the past.

RM: Pretty incredible that you probably thought of this title before the invasion of Ukraine, for example, but somehow you’re putting your finger on that and all the hardship and calamity of the present.

CF: The way the title came to me, and this is something that has happened in the past, too, is that I misheard something. I was driving in the car, and the classic rock radio station was on, and that Foghat song “Fool for the City” came on. I’ve heard that song hundreds of times in my life. And I’m just driving along, listening to it, and I misheard the line, “Air pollution, here we come” as “Evolution, here we come.” And I was like, wow, was Foghat really kind of onto something? And I got home and looked up the lyrics, and I was like uh, no. No, no, no. But I can use that.

RM: Let’s talk about the musical evolution specific to this project and how you conceive of that. How are you evolving here?

CF: Almost all the records that I’d made from like 2011 or ‘12 until 2019 I made with essentially the same group of collaborators in the same one or two studios. And those were really fruitful collaborations. But, after the last record, All Time Present, I felt like I’d emptied the basket out. All these things that I’d been sort of brewing and marinating and exploring over the years, I just felt like were in danger of getting a little bit stale or predictable. I needed to stir it up. And I didn’t know exactly what that meant.
  I had been thinking about longer form, more improvisatory stuff that I was playing live. And then when the pandemic happened, I was in the position where I fortunately happened to have a bunch of multi-track, well-recorded live sets. I started going through them, and in the absence of anything else to do I started to release them on vinyl before the great vinyl crunch that I guess we’re all living in now. It’s funny because I went to Mike at No Quarter, my label, who’s fantastic. I love working with him and his label. But I said, hey, what do you think about putting out this live record?And he was like, I don’t know, nobody really buys live records, I think maybe it’s not good to focus on that. And I said, I’ll do it myself then. And this was just in the months preceding the pandemic.
  So I put this in motion, and then the pandemic happened, and the album came out on the first Bandcamp Friday event. And suddenly I sold them all. And so I did another one, which was this recording with Dave Harrington and Ryan Jewell and Spencer Zahn called First Flight, and that was also a record that was made in, like, September '19. It was a first meeting—Ryan and I knew each other, Spencer and I knew each other. A promoter suggested that we play because I was doing this residency at a venue in New York called Nublu, trying to make every week different, so I was like, yeah, sounds like a good one. It was by far the biggest wildcard of the series of shows that I was doing, and it was just one of those moments where it clicked. In the past I did a lot of purely improvisational music, like in the aughts, in a more abstract kind of way. But this was like, there are grooves, there are forms that emerge and dissipate, and it was really easy to do. After the show we were looking at each other, like, I didn’t even know what your voice sounded like until an hour ago. We pulled this thing out of thin air.
  And so I was, like, that should be the next recording, the next live thing. And that went well. Dave Harrington and I—on that record he played guitar and electronics—we just ended up talking a lot over the course of that. Our paths overlap in very specific ways, but he has much different technical expertise and more adventurous studio knowledge than I possess, and so I was like, I think that Dave would be a good guy to work with on this. And again, I think the label was like, really? He doesn’t really make rock records like you do. And I was like, yes, that’s kind of the point.
  Bringing on Dave had a huge impact on the development and the sound of the record. He lives in L.A., so we talked a lot, and then I sent him all the tracks to mix, and that had a huge, definitive effect on the final product. But also the band changed. Doug McCombs on bass is a huge presence, and he’s someone I’ve become friends with over the last ten years or so, and we’d done gigs together. I’d usually put together a band specifically for little tours or little gigs and sometimes the personnel would change. We had done some gigs together like that. He’s just one of those people who’s really inspiring. Because of his many musical accomplishments, he’s always like where’s the stage, let’s play. Always 100% gung ho and committed and involved. He’s a great musician with a huge scope of what music can be. And then Tom Malach, the guitar player from Garcia Peoples who I’d gotten to know well over the last number of years, we’d played together a bunch. He’s also another real gamer, a fearless kind of music person who has incredible ears and is willing to take a leap in terms of improvising, but also in terms of harmony and getting under the hood of a song and really contributing. And Ryan Jewell, who I’ve played with a lot, he was the one holdover. The other guys were all new members of the band. I think their contributions are massive.
  We ended up recording at a new studio down in Richmond, Virginia. I’d never been there, but I took the advice of Steve Wynn from The Dream Syndicate, who’d recommended it to me many times. And in the course of seeking out a studio a couple of other arrows pointed in that direction and I thought we should go try that place. And that was also just a great contributor to the overall tone and effect of the record, because we lived there for a weekend and we just played all the time. There was nothing else to do. It was a good, immersive experience.
  I also made demos of all of the songs beforehand, which, it’s one of those things like, why didn’t I ever think to do this before? I think that’s how most people make records. But in the past I would go in, and sometimes it was the first time the band learned the song that would be the take that got recorded. I would always think about those Dylan records in the sixties, or something, or even the more recent ones, that I think he gives a pretty improvisatory flair.
  Because of the pandemic there was more time for the music to gestate, fewer distractions, I guess. So I think all of those things contributed to it.

RM: I’m really interested in the organization of what’s composed and what’s improvised on the album, and so I’m interested in how much the demos represented what eventually came to be. How much of this did you through-compose or imagine in advance—before you got everyone there?

CF: It varies. I have some guitar students, and a thing that I always think about and that I tell them is that to me the best improvisations should sound composed, and the best compositions should sound improvised. That’s when they’re most alive, to me. Each track is different, but for example the second song on the record, “Heaven for a Few,” that one I’d made a demo of to a click-track, and I totally mapped out all the guitar parts, and when we recorded it we left the middle part and the outro kind of blank. I was like, I’ll overdub the guitar solo at a later date.
  I had done a guitar solo at my studio nearby, which is very primitive. I was there one night and threw it down in two takes or something and didn’t think much of it, other than oh, that sounds good, I’ll make that better next time when we do the overdubs. And so we recorded the basic track, and then came back to Philly where I did overdubs. I spent like two hours trying to improve the guitar solo, and I was like, this is not happening. I can’t get it. It just wasn’t working.
  I went home, and I was like, maybe I should just take these primitively recorded tracks from the demo and use those, which were one mic in front of an amp that was buzzing, as opposed to all the other stuff, which is all carefully recorded with good microphones and an impressive signal chain. Anyway, the demo recording is what we ended up using on the record. Which I dashed off in a minute. So that song is both pretty meticulously written out, all the guitar parts and everything, but then that one part was just a thing that I vomited out without thinking at all, and that’s the thing that stuck.
  The first track, “Experimental and Professional,” that was the last thing we recorded. It was the last day in the studio, we were running out of time, like, oh shit, we’ve got to get this last one down, and I think it’s going to be kind of a long one. So we did it in one take. But also the tracks are very heavily worked over by Dave in the mixing, and he made some severe contributions. I hope that they come across as not sounding like some rebuilt, manufactured thing, because that’s one of the things that he really brought to the record. But you know, again, it’s this whole thing where you’re working on a recording, and sometimes the energy of the improvisation. To capture that is important, but after that it’s never going to change. In a live performance it can change anytime, but in a final recording you need to make something that maintains interest after repeated listenings, hopefully.
  Another track is the final track, “Robot Energy Machine,” which after Dave sent me the mix of that I texted him like, Damn you, you’ve made me totally need to rethink the shape of the album. Because I was imagining it as being this song, and then this outro jam that would fade out. And he just put that one over his back and went for it. We did do a very basic sort of fun-in-the-studio kind of rhythm workout at the end there, figuring like, we’ll fade this out, but we might as well have some fun while we’re doing it. And he just totally took it into another realm that I hadn’t been expecting. I always welcome chance into the process, whether it’s in the moment or letting other people bring their information to a project that I couldn’t have foreseen.

RM: Dave also remixed First Flight and made an album-length remix of that project.

CF: That was the thing that caused me to think, oh, he’s got to do the next record. We had been talking, and become friends over a year or two of developing this stuff, and then that’s another one of those things where I said to him—because I know he’s involved in remix culture and electronic music, which I’m interested in as a listener—and so I said, hey, why not do a remix of that record, and we can put it up as a download or something, and it might just be an interesting addendum. And then he got really under the hood, and took the music into a completely different place that I didn’t anticipate. To me it’s even more interesting than the first record, because it’s so surprising to me. I could hear the way that he could take a band that was recorded live and take it apart and put it back together in very interesting ways, and that’s when I decided that I wanted to ask him to produce this new work with me.

RM: First Flight has a jam vibe to it, though it’s more groove oriented than probably we would think about a jam-oriented record. But the remix album is like a post-rock album. It really sounds like Tortoise or like My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.

CF: When he sent it to me I said, you know this sounds like if Can parachuted into the present with the computer technology.

RM: So you had already heard those remixes at the time that you were sort of signing him up for this record.

CF: Yeah. When I was just trying to conceptualize how I was going to make this next record, and how am I going to make it interesting to myself. To get out of the rut or find some new traction.

RM: Can we try and sort of put a finger on what the rut is? And how does that compare to what this new thing is? Would you sort of try to pin a name or a label on what the new thing is? Can you do that?

CF: Labels … not very good with labels. Because I think—and maybe this is similar for other artists in different media as well—but when I have an idea, and sometimes, whatever, it falls out of the sky and sometimes it’s something that I’ve been working on for a long time, and I have in my mind like, this is like the ZZ Top power-pop song. Or something. And then I play it for the band, and I’m like, so I think this should be like a ZZ Top power-pop thing. That? OK, sure, I guess. The language that I put to it doesn’t often translate, and that’s one of the things that makes it interesting to be working with other people on things too. But I struggle with that. The music that I’m most interested in is usually deeply rooted in something, like you can trace it way back, but then it’s synthesized with something else new that can obscure its origins.
  I saw a great concert the other night. I went out to three concerts last week for the first time in a couple years, and it was Jaimie Branch, who’s a trumpet player from New York, and her group Fly or Die. On the surface, they’re a jazz group. Chad Taylor on drums, who played on a lot of those Chicago post-rock records in the nineties, and Chicago Underground Duo, he’s played with tons of people. He lives in Philly—phenomenal, phenomenal drummer. And then the bass player, Jason Ajemian, and the cellist, named Lester St. Louis. And I’d heard Jaimie’s music, but I’d never seen her live, and when I came home I was buzzing about the concert. My wife was like, how was the concert, and I was like, it was incredible. It was incredible because it was objectively a jazz concert, but it was also, like, a hip hop concert. And it wasn’t like, oh, we’re going to glue some hip hop onto some jazz. You could hear the rhythms and the textures that go way, way back into jazz, but it connected with how those same rhythms exist in hip hop. And it was not a superficial thing at all. This incredible fusion. It really knocked me out.
  I try to think of what I do in a similar way, like as a guitarist I have things that I’ve been working on since I’ve started playing the guitar. But since I’ve traveled through the world and been exposed to other things, you know, you kind of pick up other stuff like barnacles from art, or film, or music, or whatever that excites you. I try to put those things together in hopefully an interesting way, something about embracing both the past and the future somehow. But yeah, in terms of labeling it? Jeez…I don’t. Like yeah, I guess I make rock records, but I hope that the complexity of it comes through without pounding you over the head about it. I hope it hits your body first and then your mind.

RM: In this regard, it’s worth reminding the readers that Marshall Allen plays on the record. That suggests the one of the idioms here might be a conceptualization of improv, and improv-oriented music in the Philadelphia area as embodied by the Sun Ra Arkestra.

CF: I would not compare myself to them in any measurable sense, but a massive influence for sure. And when you think about it, Sun Ra had this image or this sense of being an avant-garde wild man, but he was a big band guy. The throughline in his music was dead by like 1943, or 1944, when bebop killed off big band jazz. And he was like, no, I’m going to keep doing big band jazz. As well as picking up all this other stuff, keeping big ears and a big mind open to all these things, and it’s obviously a Philadelphia treasure, a national treasure, a world treasure, the Arkestra.
  The music that they make, it’s very fortunate to be able to see it pretty often in Philly. They play a few concerts a year, at least, the whole Arkestra, and then he [Marshall Allen] and other members are doing other little things around town all the time. That music is just so full of joy, and you think about Sun Ra himself, who was a Black, queer pacifist from the south, coming up in the '30s and '40s, and just how literally alien he was to the society that he lived in. And yet he translated it into this incredibly joyous experience that contains all of the pain and the agony and the struggle as well as this bottomless well of joy, it seems. It still is very present at their concerts. It’s not self-consciously avant-garde. It’s reaching out to the children in the audience as well as the super old heads, expert music snobs or whatever. It’s got something for everybody. It’s so inspiring.
  And when you meet those guys, you see how in the moment they are at all times. The session that Marshall did for the record was incredible and it took me a while to process what even happened because it was a bit of a struggle to get him into the studio. Maybe because they’re so in the present that they’re operating on their own trajectory with time. And I had some familiarity with Danny Ray Thompson, who was the former player-manager in the band. He was the second most senior member after Marshall, I think he’d been playing since the sixties. And he passed away a couple years ago. So I wasn’t sure who to reach out to.
  I asked a couple people around town and they said talk to Elson, he’s the new manager. So I sent Elson an email and heard nothing, sent Elson another email and heard nothing, and I was like, well, maybe it’s not going to happen. But they were playing a show at this arboretum in the fall. I was going to go to the concert anyway, but then I’m standing there, and I’m like, I should just go figure out who Elson is. So I went up and I said hello to Marshall, and he was very gracious—we’ve met, but he has no reason to remember who I am. But of course he was like Hey! How’ve ya been? And I said hey, I’m wondering if you might want to do this session. He said talk to Elson. And I said, Okay, who’s Elson? Which one is Elson? And I should have known—he’s at the merch table.
  So I go over, and I buy a t-shirt, and I say, Hey Elson, I sent you an email…and he was like Oh! You’re Mark’s friend. Let’s do it. We definitely want to do it. And I was like great, why don’t you give me your number and we’ll schedule it, I’ll call you. And he said, well what are you doing tomorrow? And I actually had another session booked the next day, so I was like, well, I can’t tomorrow, but you know, I’ll book the studio, I’ll come pick you guys up, I’ll make it real easy. And he’s like Okay, give me a call.
  And so when we physically left it became another attempt to track him down, and when I finally got him on the phone I had a couple of dates at the studio I usually work at, and I said how about this date or that date? And he was like, oh, that’s the end of the month! And I said, yeah, I guess it’s the end of the month, but it’s only two weeks from now. And he said, well, what are you doing tomorrow? And I got him to kind of agree to do one of the dates, but when I got off the phone I was like, I’ve got to find a place for tomorrow if I want this to happen. And I fortunately found a studio in Germantown right near where they live, and I called him back and I said OK, Elson, new plan: I’ll pick you up tomorrow at 11 AM. And he said oh, no, no, Marshall doesn’t do mornings. 1 PM. And I pulled up, and they were sitting on the porch waiting for me.
  Marshall just sat down and played incredible stuff. He did a few, four or five passes over this track, just improvising along to it, and then Dave in LA mixed together pieces that worked well and so forth. He was in and out in, like, an hour. Maybe an hour and fifteen minutes. And everything he played was completely on point. There’s no I’m trying to do something and I missed, it’s just I’m doing it. And it was all incredible.

RM: Can you talk a little about how you construct a solo?

CM: It’s funny, because the things that are at the forefront of my mind when I go to the studio and play are these other ideas that I’ve been struggling to develop over the past few years that didn’t quite make it onto the record yet. Everything that I know is derived from what I learned from Richard Lloyd. And, without getting technical about it, there’s just a way of arranging the notes and building up momentum that I learned from the various techniques that he taught me, which have to do with maps of the guitar neck and how to structure music modally and using intervals, so I think that a lot of it comes from that. And Richard said this thing that stuck with me, which was that a great guitar solo—and I would extend this to any sort of creative act—he said it should be kind of like running down a hill. When you’re running down a hill you’re not going oh, I will put my foot here, and then I will put my foot here, and then I will carefully put my foot here—you’re going down, and you’re just trying to stay upright. And sometimes you don’t make it, and you fall over. And sometimes you make it to the bottom, and there’s no way of rationally understanding how you did it necessarily. You can’t even think that fast. But you practice and you prepare, so that you can get yourself in a position to do that. And that’s like in that solo to “Heaven for a Few.” I could sort of figure out what the notes were, but I couldn’t recreate it. There are other things that I can recreate just fine, but I couldn’t do that. There’s a certain amount of relying on the moment and just sort of going for it. But I’ve been trying to learn to play in what would be considered a horn or a jazz way, like focusing on chord tones as opposed to scales. I’ve done a couple of casual lessons with horn player friends of mine, and just the way that they think of music is just totally different than the way that I think most guitar players do. And it has to do with the architecture of the instrument and the interface that they’re using and also the tradition of how they’re taught that stuff. For rock guitar players, there’s practically no tradition of how to learn this stuff, people usually just sort of hunt around and maybe pick up some things.
  I’m still working on all of that. I took lessons with Richard Lloyd in the late nineties, but it took me like ten years to properly use what he taught me in a way that I felt was convincing. I understood it, but I couldn’t do it, and right now I’m in the midst of trying to bring this other vocabulary in somehow.

RM: Can we talk about the Richard Thompson song on the album? The record as a whole is not an album of songs, but you threw in this really incredible song that’s a very different flavor in the sequence of the album. Can you talk about that a little bit, and how you prepare to sing when singing is not an entirely frequent thing for you?

CF: With Richard Thompson, I’m a huge fan. About singing, I think the reason I felt most comfortable singing that song is that I felt really invested in what I perceived to be the meaning of the song. And both from a classic pop-rock song structure point of view it’s an incredible construction, and the lyrics are just so taut and full of imagery and meaning. I think the first time I heard that I could imagine the casual listener might hear that song as like, oh, it’s a love song or something. About relying on your partner, your mate, or something. And I listened to more and more and kind of got into the imagery of the lyrics, and I think it’s about faith, actually, and I suspect from what I know about Richard Thompson that it might be about God. Because he’s a Sufi Muslim. But then it’s like, well what’s the difference between faith and love? It’s just a song that feels both really immediate and bottomlessly deep to me. The song itself isn’t a blues or anything, but there’s also these deeper roots to “You’re Gonna Need Someone On Your Bond,” the blues song. That’s another song that I interpret to be about faith, and God.
  I like to bring in covers, because every time the band reconvenes to play some gigs, you’re going to use the same material as your repertoire to some degree, but I always like to bring in some covers to get the band thinking differently and keep me on my toes. Because it’s fun, and because a lot of bands that I’ve liked often did covers. I grew up going to see R.E.M. and they would always play two or three sort of increasingly left-field covers. Covers allow me to access a different thing. I do write lyrics and songs, but that’s a much slower thing for me. And a much more difficult process.
  And I think the Thompson song sort of fits with the Evolution, Here We Come idea, for all of the reasons I just said, what I think the song is about. I mean I’m not a religious person myself in terms of observing any specific organized religion, but I do believe that humans aren’t necessarily the top of the pyramid, whether it’s conscious or not, I have some humility about that, our place on this earth. And I think that song speaks to that also, and that a lot of problems that we have on Earth are clearly the result of human error and avarice and arrogance. The bill’s going to come due, and hopefully we can pay it.