“I still look at music as a giant open canvas”: the “new weird Americana” guitarist paints a visionary new masterpiece.
BY JORDAN LAWRENCE
Chris Forsyth’s Solar Motel wasn’t built overnight. Admittedly, the group that plays on the LP, the Philadelphia guitarist’s first for North Carolina’s Paradise of Bachelors, came together pretty quickly, and the basic tracking was finished in a weekend. But the sound they flesh out had been in his head for years.
It’s there in the drifting blues sprawl of “Downs & Ups,” included on the 2012 solo outing Kenzo Deluxe. It emerges during the middle portion of “Paranoid Cat” — the 20-minute title track to his scattershot full-length from 2011 — where riffs ricochet and spark, threatening to erupt as they do on his new effort. And, he says, it’s there on a 7-inch he released way back in 1998, a record that few people ever heard.
“It was like 200 copies,” Forsyth recalls with a laugh. “I put it out myself. I had no idea how to put out a record. I used to make a lot of recordings on a four-track, and I put out this 7-inch and just kind of tossed it out into the world. I think I sent some copies to some magazines, but I didn’t know any writers. I didn’t know how anything was done. I had no distribution. It’s pretty close to the last few solo records I’ve made. The Solar Motel stuff is obviously full-band and is firmly planted in the rock idiom, but in terms of the lyricism and the songwriting, it’s all kind of there in that record. Whatever I’m doing now, there’s definitely a through line to stuff that I was doing when I was 20 or 18.”
Solar Motel benefits mightily from this patiently constructed framework. Existing somewhere between ambient guitar excess and classic rock boogie, the four-part suite moves with an elegant ferocity. Droning riffs build slowly into full-tilt shred-storms as organs pierce and the rhythm section rumbles. As with Forsyth’s more restrained work on his own, the melodies build with an exacting sense of purpose, a foundation from which the guitarist rips into the stratosphere, gliding through solos that sooth as they scorch. It falls comfortably within rock ‘n’ roll’s most accepted territories, but it pushes at the boundaries, delighting in giving familiar sounds a new purpose. Put simply, it feels like a classic.
Forsyth’s ability to so fully realize his vision came, in part, from years of being challenged. Before his recent foray into solo performance and composition, he spent eight years playing with Brooklyn’s Peeesseye — first Perfect Salvation Initiation, then PSI before the name disintegrated further. That trio challenged many conventions, Forsyth’s included. They balanced feral feedback and lulling fuzz, distorted barks and hypnotic chimes. They most often improvised, letting their conflicting sensibilities battle it out instead of arguing. It was contentious, and it sharpened Forsyth’s focus.
“It was three people who had entirely different record collections getting together,” he says. “Our tastes in music sort of overlap, but left to our own devices, we’re all pretty much out on these different poles. There would be arguments in the band about what we were listening to at the time. Someone would put on something they were really into, and somebody else would be like, ‘Jesus, do we have to listen to it again?’ We juxtaposed these really divergent influences, and everybody held their ground.”
Forsyth moved to Philadelphia in 2009, completing Peeesseye’s New York exodus. Now stretched across the globe — JaimeFennelly in Chicago, FritzWelch in Scotland — the group is on a long-term hiatus, freeing Chris to follow his own muse. New to town, he was encouraged by the late Jack Rose, a Philly fixture and a legendary guitarist who spent decades excavating similar Americana weirdness. Forsyth had long been interested with the ties that bind this country’s musical roots — the pathways that guided Neil Young from delicate musings to extended jams, that carried Bob Dylan from folk protester to garage rascal. His solo forays quickly indulged this fascination, extending blues licks and traditional picking patterns with an increasingly cosmic palette. It was new territory for him, and he was initially unsure of its merit.
“I just decided that I wanted to go with what felt right and what pleased me,” Forsyth explains. “Jack was a part of that. When I first moved to Philly, literally a month or two after I moved here, I played a show that like three people came to. Two of them were Jack Rose and one of his friends. He came up and was super complimentary, and it kind of boggled my mind that he was so into what I was doing. I was like, ‘OK, this has some value.’ There was certainly some encouragement I drew from that.”
The new album unites the boldest ideas from Forsyth’s recent works and lets them loose in a full-band setting. Joined by drummer Mike Pride, bass guitarist Peter Kerlin, and keyboardist Shawn Hansen, he summons otherworldly vibes with typical rock tools. On “Solar Motel Part I,” metronomic riffs build to a dominating thrum before they’re undone by Forsyth’s playful noodling. The melodies seem aimless, but they soon catch fire as a muscular groove kicks in with cowbell smacking that would make Christopher Walken proud. Reaching its climax, the song devolves into smoldering clamor. “Part II” emerges from these ashes, rekindling the blaze, a pattern that repeats throughout.
“The next record might be totally different,” Forsyth says. His Solar Motel Band remains, but the lineup has shifted. Most of the new players live in Philly, making shows and practices more practical.
“I have a band that plays all the time,” he continues. “I’m sure there will be some different elements. I still look at music as a giant open canvas. It’s not, ‘Oh, I play in a rock band now. I play rock music.’ Rock is a lens through which I see the world, but musically, it can be anything it needs to be.”