Posted February 16, 2014 by Jeff in Tunes

Chris Forsyth: Unhinged and hurtling through the universe

Solar Motel Band
Solar Motel Band

With his backing group, the Solar Motel Band, guitarist Chris Forsyth makes instrumental music that’s been appropriately described as cosmic Americana. You can hear the influences of both Television and the Grateful Dead on his latest album, last year’s Solar Motel. Forsyth spoke to us via phone from his Philadelphia home just before embarking on a short tour in advance of a new studio album release.

Talk about what first made you want to learn to play guitar?
I started playing guitar when I was 13. I wanted to play “Stairway to Heaven” like anybody would at the time. The kind of short version is that I grew up playing in rock bands. When I was in my twenties, I spun away from that. I moved to Brooklyn and I got deep into experimental music, improvisation, free jazz and that kind of world. I was in Peeesseye which was based in Brooklyn in the 2000s. We skirted the edges of the noise scene and the freak folk thing that was happening. We were outside those areas. We were too freaky for the freak folkers and not harsh enough for the noise scene. In 2009, I moved to Philly. By this time, Peeesseye had broken up. We had all left New York. I started playing solo, and I started getting back into more lyrical and rock forms, still with an expansive, psychedelic point of view. That’s the arc I’ve been on for the past five years. Back in the ’90s, I studied with Richard Lloyd from Television for several years. That had a big influence on my trajectory.

I didn’t know he gave lessons.
I think that’s how he makes his living and has for a while. I would go to his studio once a week for an hour. 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 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.

What he like as a teacher?
He’s a phenomenal teacher. As a guitarist, I think he’s one of the best. His first solo record is good and he’s had moments as a sideman. He’s a great teacher and considers himself a student. He’s great one-on-one. A lot of it was fundamental stuff. He’s a trippy guy. He’s really thoughtful and hyper-intelligent person. He’s into the harmony of the spheres and music as this cosmic manifestation of the universe. Those lessons were super influential to me.

…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 he world. 

How’d you wind up making music that sounds so cosmic?
I don’t know. I feel like it just has to do with the expansiveness of it. 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? I think it’s the difference between actually playing music and following a muse versus acting out a pantomime of what it is supposed to be like. That [sort of simulation is] what a lot of rock bands do, 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 he world. That’s the approach we take.

What was the recording process like for Solar Motel?
The record was recorded two years ago. I had put out Paranoid Cat in 2011. That record was half with a band and half solo. 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. Then, I recorded Solar Motel at the same time. It just took a couple of years to finally see the light of day. It was made with players I had played with. It was an ad hoc session. It wasn’t a living, breathing band. When the label agreed to put the record out, I needed a band to play it. The guys who played on the record lived in New York and Kansas City and all over the place. 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 and I set up a residency for the group rather than play a gig every month. We found a spot that was reopening and we played every Thursday night for a month. Both musically and for the audience, it snowballed over that month. I posted some of the live recordings on Soundcloud. They got picked up by a few blogs. It was organic and natural. It’s a testament to the band and our weird chemistry that we have 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.

What’s the concept at work on the album?
It’s just music that’s not written. It developed over the course of a year. The four pieces are separate in a way. 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. It’s just music and you have to call it something. I like the way the words sound together. It’s a reference to a dilapidated old motel in New Jersey near where I grew up. It’s a weird creepy vibe-y thing. Some people have a haunted house and we had the Solar Motel. It’s an odd place where weird things happened. And it’s got a cool name. I used the name as a reference to the songs and when I sequenced it together, I realized it was like a suite and the songs are in the same key. I figured I would frame it as that.

Would you ever want to add vocals to the mix?
Maybe. First of all, people ask this all the time. I don’t think vocals are necessary. But some might show up. I’ll leave it at that.

Do you have a new album in the works?
It’s in the can.  I finished about three months ago. It’s with the band. It’s going to be called Intensity Ghost. It’s five songs. We’ll play a bunch of that material on the tour. It’s cool because I think we captured the band in a good way in these recordings that will come out later this year, maybe in the fall.

Upcoming 2104 Tour Dates









Asheville, NC @ The Mothlight w/ Greg Cartwright

Nashville, NC @ The Stone Fox w/ William Tyler

Louisville, KY @ Dreamland Film Center

Columbus, OH @ Bourbon St

Milwaukee, WI @ Cactus Club w/ Mind Over Mirrors

Detroit, MI @ Trinosophes

Chicago, IL @ The Empty Bottle

Cleveland, OH @ Mahall’s


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].