All appearances suggest 2012 was a busy year for Philadelphia-based experimental guitarist Chris Forsyth. In the span of 12 months, he managed to record and release three full lengths, perform at South by Southwest in Austin, complete two tours and collaborate with choreographer Meg Foley and lighting designer Lenore Doxsee on an installation piece titled The whole time in the meanwhile, which begins its run this week in the city. But, for him, this frenetic whirl of activity is really nothing unusual.
Since emerging on the fringes of the Brooklyn experimental music scene in the early 2000s with such units as the drone-heavy All Time Present and the confrontational improvisational trio Peeesseye, Forsyth has always been something of a prolific dude. But when Peeesseye dissolved a couple years ago, he started to question the idea of playing music in the New York area. “I realized that there wasn’t much holding me there anymore, except this vague feeling that New York City is the center of the universe,” Forsyth recalls. “I looked at my life and realized I actually stood a better chance of building a life around the things that I do—putting out records, touring small venues, collaborating with other kinds of artists—almost anywhere besides New York City, especially if I wanted to have a family and a somewhat sane lifestyle. So, when my wife got a job offer in Bucks County, we jumped. I grew up and went to college around New Brunswick, N.J., and spent a fair amount of time coming to Philly in the early ‘90s. Tons of shows at the Khyber Pass and all the Siltbreeze fests.”
Upon landing here, Forsyth fell in with the subterranean sect that revolved around the acid folk ensemble Espers. He also struck up a friendship with the city’s sadly departed adopted son of folk guitar, Jack Rose. The combination of the new sonic environment and being out of the N.Y.C. pressure cooker saw Forsyth’s playing move away from the prying tension of his previous work and into a more lyrical and linear approach to the guitar. “I don’t think Philly has brought out anything that wasn’t already there,” Forsyth says. “In a way, I was returning to some approaches that I’d abandoned in the late ‘90s. But I was fortunate to fall in with Jack Rose and a number of people around him, all of whom had—and have—strong opinions and omnivorous musical knowledge. I think it gave me the confidence to re-incorporate more overtly rock statements into what I do and to be comfortable with that.”
Forsyth’s first “overtly rock statement” was the 2011 full length Paranoid Cat, a sprawling batch of ass-kicking, instrumental psychedelic rock tracks recorded with a full band consisting of members of Boston’s Sunburned Hand of the Man and New York’s D. Charles Speer and the Helix. Last year, he released the beautifully celestial-like Early Astral, a duo album with electronic artist Koen Holtkamp, as well as the entirely solo Kenzo Deluxe, the title an obvious homage to the part of town in which Forsyth dwells. But sneak listens to his upcoming LP, Solar Motel—another full band recording conceived at the studio of Philly’s go-to weirdo producer, Jeff Ziegler—hint that the best has yet to be heard. Solar Motel is broken up into four suites of music, each one of them escalating in sequence with head-swelling psychedelic bliss while showcasing Forsyth’s equal admiration for the guitar interplay of both Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd from Television and Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead. It serves as a perfect example for what Forsyth calls his music: cosmic Americana.
“I didn’t actually come up with it,” he admits. “I think someone used that term in a review of Paranoid Cat, and I liked it, so I took it. It reminded me of Gram Parson’s concept of ‘cosmic American music.’ Everything that I do kind of grows out of a lineage that can be traced back to the blues, that whole American stew. I’ve toured in Europe quite a bit, and people over there love to hear a bent note in a certain way, and part of it might be that they mostly can’t do it themselves with proper conviction. The whole primitive American thing—and I don’t just mean American primitive—is attractive to them. I’m not nationalistic in a political sense, but I started to realize that I really am an American musician, and my experiences mostly come from the musical history of this country. America is insane and beautiful, and it’s birthed all this amazing art, mostly from the ground up. As for the cosmic part, well, music preceded math, science and literature. Everything comes from music. It’s got magic knowledge in it.”
If any piece of music in Forsyth’s catalog proves those sentiments to be true, it’s Solar Motel. I’ll be waiting to hear it. If you’ve got a lick of sense, you’ll do the same.
Tues., Jan. 29, 9pm. $10. Johnny Brenda’s, 1201 N. Frankford Ave. 215.739.9684. johnnybrendas.com. The whole time in the meanwhile runs through Jan. 27 at the Neighborhood House at Christ Church, 20 N. American St. 267.521.2473. birdbirdbird.org
Floetry’s Philadelphia story