But there is a sense of a sudden snapping into focus on his new solo album, Solar Motel. It’s a fierce, exploratory record, which sounds, in a way, like an instrumental sequel to Television’s Marquee Moon. Not incidentally, Forsyth studied guitar with Richard Lloyd of Television when he was living in Brooklyn in the late 1990s.
“I try to make the phrasing lyrical and concise,” he says. “I like it to be articulate. Television’s like that too. The guitar parts spook you. They can spiral on for 15 minutes, but they’re always really clear.
“Marquee Moon is just in my blood. In the town I grew up in, nobody knew who Television was, so when I stumbled across that when I was 15, 16, a light-bulb went off. Then, studying with Richard automatically makes him/them my biggest influence because he taught me so much. I feel like it’s just something that’s in my DNA. But the exact music wasn’t specifically inspired by it.”
Lloyd, in any case, is not a conventional teacher. “He’s an incredibly brilliant guy – he taught me a lot of fundamental practical things, but he also has a very cosmic approach to music. So some days we would just learn certain scales or patterns or tricks to get around the neck, and other days he would read poetry and talk to me about the nature of creativity. It’s funny, because Television is referred to as the first punk band in New York, but I think they, and Patti Smith, are actually like the last hippies. There’s definitely a line between that kind of Sixties’questing approach and what they did. They just cut their hair, you know?”
Forsyth’s journey towards Solar Motel was a long, winding journey through the backroads of experimental, improvised music. Peeesseye (a trio with Jaime Fennelly and Fritz Welch) toiled at the coalface of rackety minimalism for a decade, and Forsyth considers their work to be his “first serious musical accomplishment” after a long period “down an experimental rabbit-hole”.
“We always felt like outsiders – we were a little too lyrical for the noise scene and we were a little too freaked out for the rock scene so we didn’t fit anywhere. It was also an anarchic group – nobody told anybody what to do, we improvised a lot, though we also composed pieces. I’m very proud of the records.”
Ultimately, Peeesseye drifted apart geographically, and split when the logistics of living in different cities grew too complicated. “When Brooklyn started to change the various members of the group started leaving New York. First Jamie, then Fritz – he lives in Glasgow now, Jamie lives in Chicago and I moved to Philadelphia. So the band got destabilised.”
Without a band to consider, Forsyth began to concentrate on solo work. “I could really just do exactly what I wanted, so I started going back to roots, playing more lyrically, mostly electric guitar but combining the psychedelic thing with some strong melodic sense. His luck really changed in 2011, when he was awarded a Pew Fellowship: “It allowed me to not have to bar tend or wait tables or hustle money so much. It allowed me to go deeper into the music.”
The first result of this deeper creative focus was 2012’s Kenzo Deluxe, which can be considered Forsyth’s first true solo album. It was followed quickly by Solar Motel. The music is hard to categorise, though Forsyth is wary of aligning himself with space rock or psychedelia. “I feel like space rock or psychedelic rock is a style that people attach themselves to; I’m trying to make music. It comes out as these extended conversations, or motifs, but the aim is always to have a point, musically.”
For the moment, he has settled, with some reservations, on Cosmic Americana, a label borrowed from a review of his 2011 album Paranoid Cat. “There’s a lot of American roots music that I’m influenced by – blues and country and jazz – although it’s maybe a little less overt. It’s not a stylistic thing to me, more of a musical thing.
“I try to make the phrasing lyrical and concise. I like it to be articulate. Television’s like that too. The guitar parts spook you. They can spiral on for 15 minutes, but they’re always really clear.
“By the same token, one of my all-time favourite guitarists is Richard Thompson, and he would be the ultimate English guitar player. There’s a meeting point in there somewhere.”
Since the album was recorded, over 18 months ago, Forsyth has assembled the Solar Motel Band, with Paul Sukeena (guitar), Steven Urgo (drums), and Peter Kerlin (bass), and says the music has progressed further. “It turned out a really good chemical reactions. There’s also a lot of spaces on the record that are wide open, or improvised. I always want that instant creativity thing happening. That aspect of it has gone into a whole other realm, and the character of the players is really strong. So it’s snowballed.”
Forsyth has also found time to score an experimental soundtrack to Robert Frank’s infamous Rolling Stones film Cocksucker Blues. The Forsyth version is called, Never Meant To Change The World (Cocksucker Blues). “I screen a really degraded bootleg DVD of Cocksucker Blues and I erase 95% of the sound from the film. Mostly it’s just dialogue. There’s all those weird hanger-on bits of dialogue which are some of the most interesting parts of the film, so I left some of that in. But basically I reframed the film with my music. I’m a Stones fan, but I’m a huge Robert Frank fan also, and I think aside from being interesting to Stones fans I think it’s a phenomenal film.”
The film was conceived for a Philadelphia art gallery, under the heading The Big Idea.
“I thought, oh, The Rolling Stones, they were once a very dangerous proposition and, God, that kinda failed.”
Solar Motel is on Paradise of Bachelors. www.thechrisforsyth.com