AUSTIN DAZE: How and why did you decide to become a musician?
GUY FORSYTH: I grew up in the suburbs and while my mother played a little bit of piano and my father played a little bit of banjo, it just wasn’t something that we did when our family got together. Although we would sing in the car, we would sing songs and we would all love similar songs and put on records and listen to them and sing along, we weren’t making music. That didn’t occur to me until later when walking down the street, I would see a street musician and I was like, “Wow, look at that! He’s playing music”. There’s this magical thing that is happening.
I’m a musician because I am a fan.
AD: At what point did things change for you as a musician?
GF: Well I started playing guitar and harmonica when I was 16-I had a book. It was a Christmas gift from my dad when I was 16. I got John Gidick’s Country and Blues Harmonica for the musically hopeless, which came with a cassette tape and a harmonica. And so you put the cassette tape on and it goes, “Hi, I’m John Gidick, I’m going to teach you how to play the harmonica. Ok, I’m starting with G-chord so take your harmonica and blow through it”. It was just really simple. And the way that he taught music was very different than the way that western classical musical notation is taught. Instead of it being, this is a C, this is a sharp, this is a B, stuff like that, he was all like, “Ok, this note is the wailing note, and this is the root, the river of music. This note stays in the river and this note comes out of the river and it wants to go back to the river so if you listen to this note you can tell there is this tension there”. And I loved the way that that was taught!
David Maloney was a friend of mine who lost both of his arms in an electrical accident when he was 13. And he taught me how to tune the guitar with his feet because he had played the guitar before that. He also played some harmonica and we hung out a lot and we were in choir together and stuff like that. So that was the first guitar that I played and learned how to tune.
The big change, I think, happened when I started to play guitar and I could go and play guitar and have my musical experience by myself-it wasn’t because I was listening to music. I was a socially weird enough kid that having a skill like playing guitar was very useful. For socially backward people, it gives you a way to relate to people at parties and stuff like that. I know that’s a universal story for a lot of guitar players that I know. It’s just a thing to do; it’s a gift; it’s something you have to offer. And so that’s really nice.
AD: How about the saw? Was that self-taught?
GF: I guess it would have been ’91, I was in Europe and living out of a back pack and playing on the streets to just make enough money to eat. And I saw a person playing the musical saw underneath the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam where the ceilings are these beautiful old brick arches. He was there playing the saw and he was playing classical music and he was playing opera pieces. It was so beautiful. I don’t know where I was going or what my plan was but I just sat down and watched him for about three hours. And at the time I guess I thought that that was a really cool thing but I didn’t really think about learning how to play the saw. I started to hear it sometimes on recordings and so that became something that I would hear and say, “Oh yeah, that’s the saw, that’s a really cool sound”.
About the same time we had started the Asylum Street Spankers and so our search for strange and unusual instruments was in full swing. I met a percussionist, I forget his name, who played the saw, not really melodically, he would just use it for strange sounds, and I got him to come sit in with the Spankers. Olivier Giraud, the founder of 8 1/2 Souvenirs, he also plays in town at the Continental Club I believe, he went and got a saw, got a bow, taught himself how to play. I sat next to him in the Spankers, so I got to sit next to him and watch him do it. When he started to play in the 8 1/2 Souvenirs more full time and wasn’t able to play with the Spankers, I went out and got a saw and a bow and taught myself how to play from watching him. And then when I left the band, Cristina (Marrs) got a saw and bow. So it’s like this virus that has been running around Austin.
AD: What brought you to Austin?
GF: I was doing Renaissance festivals as a stunt man. I was living up in Kansas City and travelling around playing Robin Hood in a choreographed stunt show. It was like the three stooges-there was a lot of physical comedy, a lot of flips and throws over water and stuff like that. While doing the Texas Renaissance Fair I had come down to Austin with some friends and we went down to Sixth Street and went down to Joe’s Generic Bar when it was still open and saw a band playing there. It was just a rough little blues band and I ended up getting up and playing harmonica with them. I called out some obscure Bo Diddly song and they knew it and I was just like, “This is great! I love this town!” Doing Renaissance Festivals I was working for tips, you know you just pass the hat at the end, and I saw that musicians were playing for tips here and I knew that I could do that; I just knew I could do that because I had been making a living passing a tip jar.
AD: Tell us about your songwriting process.
GF: There have been some songs that have come so naturally that it threatened to spoil me in my writing process because sometimes something just knocks on your head and says, “Let me out, let me out” and it emerges fully formed from the brain. But those are so seldom and far between. Mostly, it requires a whole bunch of just going back to it and just working on it and trying to find something that you are satisfied with.
No two songs have ever been written in the same way. It’s always a process of trying to hear this thing that’s not there yet and waiting underneath the song tree for some sort of idea. All there is to say about that is you have to make space for it. That can be really difficult when you are trying to do things like run a record label, rehearse a band, maintain instruments, keep everybody communicating and keep shows booked-all this really business, focused work–and still try and create an opening that allows some sort of artistic thing to happen. As a songwriter, you have to keep producing stuff so that you have somewhere to go and that you have something to give to people. But it’s hard to get into that unattached artistic space that allows you to put your antenna out and catch a song as it goes by when you have all of these concerns-like eating.
AD: Has the process gotten easier over time?
GF: I think that yes, over time, what I have now is more craft. There is a period of time when you are just forming and things are starting to take shape for you, that there is a huge amount of power in your early work. It may not have the same sort of skill or craft that can come from 10 or 20 years of working on it, but sometimes it’s so strong that it doesn’t need that same sort of craft. Sometimes my favorite sort of art comes from young artists whose holy fire is so obvious in them it just forces its way through whatever tools they have, no matter how limited they are. I think that now, because I have done this for awhile, I know a lot more about the craft of songwriting and so there are certain pitfalls that I can avoid. Although sometimes those pitfalls are the ways into a song–the ways that things are broken.
AD: Do you think for you, songwriting is more of a structured thing than just letting go?
GF: I think that I get ideas all the time. But the one thing that I know is always true about songwriting is that you need to have a piece of paper and a pen. When it comes knocking you have to be able to go, “I’d really like to go do this thing, but I have to catch this song”. It’s in charge. If you’re going to write a song, you have to let the song come the way it wants to come. You can’t force it. You can have your rhyming dictionary and your rules of songwriting and force some things into it but those aren’t usually the songs that I care about as much.
But it’s also been different in the past couple of years because I’ve started writing with other people which I never did before because I was so paranoid about messing with whatever this thing was, whatever my artistic process was-because I don’t understand it-and I was afraid I would break it or something like that. But working with Mark Addison and Nina Singh and Carolyn Wonderland and Darden Smith, I’ve had a great time writing with these other writers. It requires giving up control. Especially at this state where my own identity to myself is tied up into me being a musician and being an artist. That’s very limiting because I’m holding onto that and holding onto that gives you a sense of security but security is the opposite of creativity. Creativity is what you can’t know. Otherwise it’s not creativity, it’s craft. You’re reproducing something. Maybe instead of making a blue elephant, you’re making a red elephant. It’s still going to be an elephant. But to be creative is a dangerous thing to your identity because your identity exists in this little box that you have formed but your creativity is so much bigger than that and it could go in any possible direction and that’s scary.
AD: Does Delta blues still influence you today or have you moved to new sources of inspiration?
GF: Still, when I go back and listen to the Sun House stuff and the Robert Johnson stuff and Willie Johnson stuff and other examples of early American blues, I’m still struck with how passionate and forceful that music is. Still through these records that were made in the 20s and 30s, there’s this tiny little window into this other time when music was not about business. Those records were made and sold and so they were actually products, but those artists weren’t formed in a time that was looking at music as a commodity. Those were people that had a musical response to the world that they were in that was for medicinal reasons, not economic reasons.
I still love that stuff. The highest ideal of what I think music can be is this medicinal side. This thing where music is a food for the soul; it’s a way that we nourish our heart. That’s the thing that I’ve gotten from those recordings more than what key they are in or how their guitar is tuned. Although the way that I play guitar is so tied up into the approach to the instrument that I got from that. I use heavy strings, I use finger picks, and I use open tunings. So that’s a real Delta blues approach to things. That’s not the only place that those things are done but that’s where I got them from.
AD: You’ve been playing around Austin for years now, what has gotten better for you as a musician here and what has gotten worse?
GF: I get a lot of respect from my peers which feels as good as anything could because I’m a musician and I’m a fan and I love the Austin music scene. The reason I live here is because there is so much music. That’s really excellent. I am able to use my position as a musician to talk about things that matter to me in the media-such as examples like this. That feels good. I think we all want to be heard. Everybody wants to be witnessed.
But I think that the way the society is changing right now is leading people away from music. At least away from the social experience of live music. People more and more and more are being conditioned to stay at home and watch television or surf the internet. They are placated by passive experiences where they’re fed input through a tube. Almost all of those types of media, even the Internet–although the Internet is a fabulous tool for communication–mostly are a one way transmission. People are surfing the net and just getting the content that they want. Television and movies and even radio now, is a one way transmission that gives the illusion that your experiencing a community. That you are a part of something. But in fact, all you are getting is what they want to give you. The thing that is being sold on television is the viewer. You’re the thing that is valuable here and the advertisers pay the television station so they can have their thoughts in your head. Live music, especially in communal experiences where people bring their own thing whether it’s that they sing or they play or they dance or they just want to come out and be around it, they just want to come out and enjoy the energy of the room, that is a thing that makes the group stronger as a whole. It is an old form of technology practiced all over the world in every community in every part of the world that makes communities strong and has allowed humans to exist in difficult times throughout history.
As we are told more and more, we will be happy if we have such and such thing and we deserve an ever increasing amount of convenience to sit and have our needs catered to in a way that doesn’t require us to interact with any other person. We get up in the morning in our own house, get in our own car and in our sealed container, and drive to our work where we sit at our cubicle and don’t interact with people at all. People are starting to be more and more frightened about the possibility of having to interact with other people. What will this get us? Who will we become when we are only the things that they tell us we are supposed to be? Because all we will be is the thing that they want us to be which is a cog in their machine. A consumer of the things they are selling, a totally passive tool for their business plan.
AD: What would your solution be?
GF: It’s really tempting after a hard day of work to just go home and collapse and sit in front of the TV and relax-just veg out for a while. And sometimes I’ll go home and listen to music and just sit on the Internet and sometimes that’s all I have the strength in me for. But you have to reach out to other people. You have to get out. You have to go and find out what other people are doing. You have to talk to people. Because otherwise, people will take advantage of you. The system will take advantage of you and turn you into a commodity. If you were made of gold it would melt you down. And you are made of gold. This is a special thing-you do matter. You’re not just some commodity that somebody else who has never met you is still going to control your life because it works out good for their story. You have your own story and you have to find out what your story is. And I don’t think that your best possible story is the story of the guy who sat in front of the TV all the time. That sucks! That sucks!
AD: Tell us your thoughts on musicians sharing their political messages with the audience at their performances.
GF: One of the things about this job that I have is that I travel a whole lot all over the country and to a lot of different places in the world. And when I’m working I, on average, will meet 20 new people a night. I don’t always just talk about political things but a lot of people bring up their own political thoughts to me and so what I feel that I have is a perspective that comes with interacting with a huge amount of people. I see people from all different walks of life. Not just the people that come out to the shows but all the different spots in between-gas stations, rest stops and staying in hotels. I try and get out and see stuff when I go places. My critique of politics, and I can’t speak for any other musicians, comes from getting to talk to so many different people from so many different walks of life in so many different regions. And that shows me that there is a huge difference in the way that people see the world. So any sort of political belief that is extremely narrow and only sees one side of the story, I find to be troublesome and will create a situation where you have a small amount of people controlling a large amount of people and that I think is bad. “We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal.” Those are good words. I see that too.
I might not be as smart as this person over here or I might be able to lift more than this person over here, I might be a man so I can’t give birth like this woman over here, but our similarities are much more significant than our differences. I think it is the responsibility of every American to participate in the governing of this country. And the way that we do that in a democracy is through communication and conversation. And there is no shortage of punditry, if I’m using that word correctly, in the media. People are giving their opinions all the time coming through the television so why would it be unusual that anyone in our society would take whatever opportunities that they could possibly have to say the things that matter to them? It’s all of our responsibility to. And if you go see a musician and you don’t like the things that they say, write a letter to the paper-that’s great. Do something! Don’t just sit on your ass and let somebody else tell you what to think or let it be somebody else’s role to say the things that you say just because you like the way so and so speaks. What do you think? It’s ok to bumble around and not know exactly what you are saying when you talk because it’s through the conversation that we start to learn things. If something really matters to you, speak out. But don’t forget to listen to other people too. You’ll hear the thing that you really believe in somebody else’s words. Which happens to me all the time. The construction of ideas is an art as well. That’s also what song writing is, it’s trying to find a way to say something that resonates with people. Even if it’s something that is really bizarre sounding and doesn’t make sense.
We must keep asking questions. We must keep being awake. We have to keep looking. We have to keep searching. We have to keep trying to figure stuff out.
Balance is a process of constant correction. It requires you to pay attention.
So much of the media is telling you to go to sleep. “Don’t go out, there is a weather watch. Stay at home and watch American Idol. Be very scared. Maybe shop online”. That’s not a life. That’s not an existence. What is the novel of your life going to be about? Are they going to make a movie about your life? Is there a poem your life is about? Your life is a poem. Write your poem. You don’t have to use music. You don’t’ have to use words. You don’t have to use paint. You can do anything.
Now, about other musicians speaking their political beliefs-more power to them. Whether it’s the Dixie Chicks or Toby Keith, good for them for actually saying something and for taking a position. I saw a poster with Anna Nicole Smith on our way down to San Antonio last night that says, “Boycott Kentucky Fried Chicken because they scald the chickens when they de-feather them”. I’m inferring this from the billboard but I guess it’s easier to get the feathers off the chicken if you just pour boiling water on them which is pretty depressing. But she is making a stance. On the other hand, come on Anne. I’m glad you’re caring about the little chickens and stuff but we are dropping bombs on people. There are people willing to die by swimming across the Rio Grande to get here so that they will have something to eat. Is that because America is great? Or because there is something wrong with Mexico? Or is it because America is manipulating the economy of Mexico? These are real difficult questions to figure out but we’ve got to figure them out or more people are going to die. I want my story to be that I tried to help somebody. You have a billboard up there-that’s wonderful. There are children being abused, bombs being dropped, poisons in our water, and you’re worried about the chickens. That’s fine. Just fine.
AD: You’ve dabbled in acting a bit and you seem to be a natural at musical theater. Is there anything in the future for you there? Is it more fun to act or play music?
GF: I think that they are very similar experiences because the way that I think about music is that music is a tool for transcendence and so when I’m singing a song, in the best possible scenario, it’s taking me somewhere. And hopefully I can bring people with me on this trip, whatever it is. Theater is the same sort of thing. It’s a type of storytelling, like music is. I think they are the same sort of muscles. One of the things that got me out of theater and into music primarily is that I can write, act and direct up on that stage with a guitar. It’s my thing; I can have a lot of control over it. There is more direct interaction with the audience. I really enjoyed doing the Renaissance Festival stuff that I did because a lot of it was improves–you were really playing with the audience. It’s easy to get people to play with you. The best thing in this world are the people.
Whether it’s playing music, dancing, f**king, or fighting, you are interacting with people. That’s where this special thing is. Sometimes people fight because it’s the only way that they can interact with people-which is too bad. We are looking for this connection-whether you are looking for it through sex, or through art, or through dancing, or power struggles. We are still looking for some sort of connection.
AD: Occasionally you still sing with the Spankers, how is playing with them different now than the early days at the Electric Lounge?
GF: Well I think the biggest difference between then and now is that we know how to play now. I think when the Spankers first started we had no idea and we weren’t’ going to let it stop us because we really loved this music and we wanted to be a part of it. Often you’d have us all trying to play a song and we had no idea what to do but we would listen to the song and try to find some little piece of it that we could recognize and play that part and do this thing and it was so not an exact science. The Spankers now are such a polished and amazing group of musicians there is almost nothing that they couldn’t just play. The show is a lot more focused and some of the newer players who are the band are fabulous musicians. They are just able to adapt and play almost anything. There’s a lot of freedom in that band conceptually to do different things. You can do a Led Zeppelin song, and a hip hop song and a country song and a blues song and a jazz standard and a song of TV jingles back to back and they are all played perfectly. At least appropriately. There’s a lot more focus. It’s really fun playing with the Spankers. I often get this sort of proud parent feeling looking at the Spankers because it’s really not my band now. It’s great to play with them and great to sit in with them and in the past couple of months to get to do some work with them and to tour. It’s great to see the amazing artists that they have become. And getting to play at Ruta Maya for an audience of people that in many cases were still in grade school or younger when the band started. Being able to still light people up and show them a whole different way of doing things, that’s really cool.
AD: Tell us about your new band.
GF: It’s Josh Gravelin playing bass, although he plays lots and lots of instruments–almost anything. Rob Hooper playing drums and Colin Brooks playing guitar and steel. Everybody sings and everybody writes stuff. It’s a great unit and we’ve been writing a lot of stuff recently which has been really, really fun. I’ve done a lot of songwriting on my own and solo work but getting together with three other talented individuals who bring their own stuff to the table is so much more fun for me. I work best when I’m reacting; when I’m working with people. It’s about that connection. It’s about this elixir that we create by bringing these different influences in. There’s this great American gothic vibe.
AD: How is the new album doing so far?
GF: Well we are selling in areas that we are playing and it has gotten some airplay around the country. We are still trying to find the right booking agency to get out on the road in the best possible way. We are going to be going out in the later part of the summer and so that’s what we are looking at right now.
AD: What’s next for you?
GF: I’m happy to be writing with the band and looking toward the next record even though we won’t be going into the studio too soon. It’s just more fun. I like writing songs and making stuff. That’s the thing I’m most interested in right now-really focusing so that the band gets better and better and we have more fun doing it. That’s the main thing that I’m working on right now.
AD: We like to play this little word association game to get you thinking.
AD: Three favorite songwriters.
GF: Lucinda Williams, Tom Waits, and Jon Dee Graham
GF: You’re probably not talking about the big red dog so I’m thinking Mr. Antone who has been a hero to me and a Saint of Texas music. He is responsible for the music seen in Austin as much as any other person.
AD: Kinky Friedman.
GF: My next governor.
AD: Saxon Pub.
GF: My living room. It’s one of my favorite places to play and one of my favorite places to see music. It’s the real thing: they have music there every night. They’ll have two and three bands. The amount of music playing in that room is astounding.
AD: Local Restaurant.
GF: Kim Phung.
AD: Green Party.
AD: Richard Linklater.
GF: What I love about Rick is that he is all about voices on film. One of his manifestos must be: trying to use film as a way to let the broadest possible palette of people speak. That is a truly noble role.
AD: “Before the Music Dies”.
GF: I am so happy to be a part of that fabulous documentary and I hope that it gets the widest possible exposure because it comments on how the economic side of the music industry is benefiting from the fruits of the tree of music and not watering the roots. My head is blown up and inflamed right now because supposedly when Elvis Costello saw the film he said, “I really like that harp player” ***