Interview | Chris Forsyth

Philadelphia guitarist Chris Forsyth opens for Rhys Chatham Brass Trio on Sunday, February 13. A member of boundary-pushing, outsider trio Peeesseye and caretaker of the Evolving Ear imprint, Forsyth builds upon a firm foundation of minimalism, blues, improv, and psychedelic rock while always articulating new sonic terrains. In preparation for his performance, Ars Nova Workshop spoke to Chris about his recent tour with Tetuzi Akiyama, his upcoming Family Vineyard album Paranoid Cat, and Chatham’s influence on his work.

You played several dates late last year in duo with Japanese guitarist Tetuzi Akiyama. Was there a particular moment during your improvisations that stands out? Where the dialogue seemed to optimally connect?

I love the dynamic of touring with another artist because you get to hear them every night and see how their practice evolves (or doesn’t) each night. I've had great experiences traveling alongside other artists and sharing bills with them, like Steve Gunn and Ignatz and Es, as well as with bandmates in Peeesseye or Phantom Limb & Bison, where we'd be largely improvising or developing material every night together. But with Akiyama it was a combination of both, since we were each playing solo sets as well as duo sets most nights. He's simply one of the best guitarists I've ever heard and his breadth is really astonishing. That's one of the things I most respect about him.  He can make magic happen with the most abstract sound-oriented approach as well as straight up finger-picking or blues playing. He could probably jam with a squeaky door hinge and it'd be compelling. I think his "straight" playing - which is actually totally bent - is woefully under-documented, at least as far as I'm aware. Someone please put out an Akiyama solo finger picking record! I don't think he differentiates in a hierarchical way between idioms - he just kills. That's inspiring to me.

How does Paranoid Cat depart from and/or build upon your last record, 2009’s Dreams?

Well, in my mind, it's the logical extension of what Dreams started, which was the very simple notion of taking pieces I'd been playing solo on tour and fleshing them out in the studio with some very talented collaborators and friends. Over the last year or two that I was in Brooklyn (2008-2009), I was also experimenting with some band lineups, playing gigs with Peter Kerlin on bass and, initially, Ryan Sawyer on drums, and then, a little later and more consistently, with Mike Pride on drums. I've been playing with Mike off and on since 2000. These dudes all have rock n' roll hearts, but also totally sophisticated conceptions of music and big musical personalities. They know the power of a simple idea, they don't need a ton of direction, and they think fast.

But running a band is hard, especially when people like these guys are so busy, so I took these tunes that I've been playing live on tour and demoed them (an early, much shorter, acoustic version of the song "Paranoid Cat" appeared on the Imaginational Anthem IV: New Possibilities comp on Tompkins Square last year), and then went into the studio and slowly built up the tracks, often starting with me and Mike Pride's drums as the basic track. I overdubbed organ, bass guitar, and percussion myself.  Then I either conducted sessions with people who I thought could bring something to the pieces - Marc Orleans on pedal steel, Hans Chew on piano, Nate Wooley (another longtime collaborator) on trumpet - and farmed out some of the tracks to others to simply add stuff on their own - Koen Holtkamp's synths, Jaime Fennelly's harmonium overdub, and Shawn Edward Hansen's organ playing especially. On the basic tracks and the overdub sessions that I supervised, everything was largely done in just a few takes.  This whole process took about 18 sporadic months - six months of generating material and live woodshedding followed by six months of recording, followed by six months of waiting for the record to come out! The record was finished in August 2010. So, now that the record is done and the music is all there, I plan on doing gigs with a band lineup of this and other material. That's my main focus for 2011: a quartet that can play these pieces as well as improvise and make things happen on stage.

Like your past releases, both solo and with Peeesseye, Paranoid Cat features a diverse cast of collaborators. Do you see these musicians as conversing from distinctive aesthetics or as already occupying the same, albeit less obvious, musical continuum?

I don't know. I suppose people like to break things into formats that can be more easily digested, but, as I said, these people all have such broad conceptions of music that I see it as being all one thing. No one with any real depth draws their influence from a shallow pool.

You’ll be playing this show with organist Don Bruno. Is he a member of the new quartet you’ve assembled?

Don's a really brilliant multi-instrumentalist. One of the most astute musicians I've ever known. We have really deep roots and played a lot of music together in the early to mid 1990s - real formative experiences, psychic trekking. We've only recently started playing together again after a hiatus - I did some more trekking and he did some trekking and we ended kind of in the same place as we were when we left off, except I think we're both much better trekkers now. He'll be playing organ and synth alongside Mike Pride, Peter Kerlin, Hans Chew (piano), and I for some shows around the time of Paranoid Cat's release, including a live set on WFMU and a record release show at Issue Project Room in Brooklyn, both on March 18. I'm in the process of setting up a Philly show for the group as well. In addition to Don's keyboard playing, I imagine he and I will also be doing some double guitar stuff as set lists develop and gigs get booked.  It's exciting.

Tonight you’ll be opening for Rhys Chatham, whose guitar ensembles you’ve participated in. How has Chatham influenced your own musical path?

Rhys's influence extends so far because he's been influencing people for so long that the people he's influenced have influenced other people. It's exponential. As far as my direct experience with him, sure, playing in the Crimson Grail guitar army for two successive years (including the rain-out year) kind of blew my mind. Some of it is that thing that I love so much - embracing the variables of having lots of people doing something that is essentially simple. Brilliant, but simple.  It's control, but it's also open to the accidents and collisions of the player's interpretation. So, even though it's a composed piece and purely an extension of his personal vision, there's improvisation and differences in every performance and the players’ individual idiosyncrasies are exploited. There's magic there. I love that.

Chris Forsyth and Rhys Chatham Brass Trio perform on Sunday, February 13 at International House (3701 Chestnut Street).