Chris Forsyth is the gentleman's Helios Creed, a space-streaking guitar wrangler who has spent the last decade squeezing strange and wonderful sounds from his instrument, be it squalls of noise from his former gang of ear-agitators in Peeesseye or in the breathless angular riff journeys of his solo albums. His latest project is Intensity Ghost, a frequently mesmerising new LP of instrumental Kraut/psychedelic/post-punk jams performed with his Philly-based Solar Motel Band.
The songs on Ghost cover a lot of ground, zooming effortlessly from the autobahn woosh of Neu to the static-y feedback storms of Sonic Youth. Still, it never seems mired in the past. And while Forsyth is a walking encyclopedia of rock n’ roll, he takes care to keep the Solar Motel Band from sounding like a retro act. “If you’re looking at one era of music, it always harkens back to something else,” he says. “It all comes from the same stew, really. I try not to think of things in terms of eras too much. It’s more about the end product. What’s the person going for? What’s the music make you feel?” For some songwriters, inspiration often comes from flipping through their pile of dusty old records. For Forsyth, it’s about where he’s at, both physically and emotionally. Such would be the case for Intensity Ghost’s storming opener, Ballad of Freer Hollow. “I actually wrote that song when I was on that road,” he says “I attach place to a lot of the music I write because there’s no lyrics, so for me it’s often about a time or place where the idea first struck me.”
The triumph of Intensity Ghost is that it expresses so much without actually saying a word. From Earth to Earthless, Naam to Karma to Burn, many of Forsyth’s contemporaries are mired in an endless rehash of late 60’s Altamont/Vietnam bummer-psyche. In stark contrast, the Solar Motel Band soars high above the blood rivers and bone piles. It’s a trip, sure, but a positive one. And according to Forsyth, he’s never quite sure where the songs are going to take him.
“For me it’s always emotional, but it’s never a preconceived thing,” he says. “It’s not like I think, ‘Ok, I want this song to be positive’ or anything. For me, the songs encompass a lot of stuff. Take Freer Hollow, for instance. To me, that is the catchiest song on the record, but it’s also eleven minutes long and has a four minute section in the middle where the bottom drops out, and it just becomes this feedback excursion. And the thing is, when we recorded that song, that was the first time we played it like that. The song was still a little bit unknown to the band when we did the take, and all of us were like, ‘Oh, that was the one’ when we finished, because it felt like something had happened. We knew we had certain things already, like the hook, the refrain, and the bridge, but the stuff in the middle really completes it. It’s much bigger that way. So it’s not just one idea or one feeling.” He’s also willing to let the music take the wheel when necesssary. “There’s a lot of improvisation on Intensity Ghost,” he says. “It’s probably 40% improvised on the record, and when we play, sometimes more.”
While Forsyth is known for being a solo artist, he is quick to point out that the Solar Motel is a band, a group of collaborators, all with important roles. That shows on Intensity Ghost. This is not the work of an ego-stroking shredder.
“There’s a definite band dynamic at work, and that’s what I was looking for,” notes Forsyth. “The solo instrumental guitarist archetype has two ways. One is like Yngwie Malmsteen, and that’s not something I was ever interested in. That’s the show-off, flashy, shred thing. Or, it can like John Fahey, who I’m totally interested in, and who is a huge influence on me. But I’m trying to find something in the middle, because I’m also interested in Neil Young and the Meat Puppets, Television and the Grateful Dead. I’m interested in trying to evoke that kind of stuff, to have a team play sort of thing with my music. In the band, the two guitars are always doing different things and I imagine for someone who’s just listening to it, they might not be able to tell who’s doing what, necessarily. That’s all by design, because a lot of my favorite bands are like that. Like the Rolling Stones, for example. It’s hard to tell who’s playing what most of the time. That’s ideal to me.”
Forsyth plans on taking the Solar Motel Band on the road in the coming months, bringing Intensity Ghost to visceral life on stage. In the meantime, there is the LP. What does the man behind the music think is the optimal way to listen to his heavy, trippy space-jams? In a car, screaming down the highway? On the top of a mountain?
“Either of those sound good,” Forsyth laughs. “People have said that it has the suggestion of travel to it. A friend of mine got a speeding ticket while listening to the rough mixes of this record, so I’d take that as a sign that it’s probably good for driving.”