Thursday, June 8, 2017 12:08 am
Art music from the heartland
“I’m mostly interested in expanding the palette of sound,” said Chatham-based musician Mark Schwartz, who records under the name Forest Saints. “I don’t really see a distinction between music, noise and sound – it’s all fair game.”
Recently, Schwartz has developed into a veritable one-man art-rock cottage industry. Over the past 12 months, he has self-released five full-length Forest Saints CDs, all of which are available for streaming at bandcamp.com, each boasting its own distinct mood and character. The most recent is an ambitious, two-disc set entitled In the Company of Wolves, featuring appropriately dark, mysterious moods and textures. That is in contrast to September’s Bitter Pill with its echoes of wild and woolly ’90s alternative rock, a la Sonic Youth. In further contrast, Schwartz promised the next Forest Saints CD – entitled Summer – will be “tribal, tropical, exotic, psychedelic and sunny, with lots of late ’60s and early ’70s psychedelic and progressive rock influences.” Ironically (or perversely) Summer is slated for release this coming December, just in time for Christmas.
Schwartz is a compulsive music-maker with nearly omnivorous tastes. “I’ve always written tons of music,” he said. “I was in a folk band for 10 years and I think I wrote over 300 songs for it.” Schwartz has said that any time an instrument is in his hands a song is going to be written, a claim which may not be entirely tongue-in-cheek. “One morning recently I picked up this old, broken toy guitar that I have – it has four strings left on it and the neck’s cracked – and I was in the process of just moving it to the basement and started playing around on it – and by eight that evening I had three new tracks recorded,” he said.
The creative process behind Forest Saints (a name he said was chosen simply because “it seems more evocative than ‘Mark Schwartz’”) is perhaps even more unorthodox than the music itself, which can be by turns melodic and dissonant, beautiful and abrasive, often in unpredictable but striking combinations. Rather than writing chord changes and lyrics ahead of time, rehearsing and perfecting them before recording, Schwartz says he will simply pick up an instrument and hit the record button, making the first sounds that occur to him in that moment. This initial track acts as the basis for a series of overdubs which eventually become the finished song. “In any Forest Saints song, the original take is going to be buried in there somewhere – I just build on top of that. I try to keep it as organic as possible,” he said. Sometimes what starts as a three- or four-minute take will evolve into a 17-minute song as layers lead in unexpected directions. “There’s a song on the new CD that started out with an analog synthesizer track and wound up incorporating a Polynesian group-sing,” he said with a grin. “There are no rules as far as the songwriting goes – I just follow where the music takes me. Whether a particular song ends up being harpsichord and violin or totally fuzzed-out guitar, so be it.”
Schwartz, 46, holds a master’s degree in clinical psychology from University of Illinois Springfield and was employed in the mental health field for 20-plus years, dealing with everything from juvenile delinquency to substance abuse. He most recently worked as a medical case manager for people on Medicaid and Medicare for a state program which came to an end in December 2016. He is currently unemployed and living off his savings. “I probably shouldn’t say this,” he said, “but I often feel like work just gets in the way of what I really want to be doing.”
He had begun his college career studying music at Belmont College (now Belmont University) in Nashville, Tennessee, but soon realized that he was not interested or suited to the way it was being taught. “They were trying to groom studio musicians,” he said. “It was all completely contrary to everything I’d grown up doing.” He quickly switched to a psychology major and gave up music completely for a couple of years.
Schwartz’s other ongoing musical project is the End Times Trio, a noisy and uncompromising free jazz combo featuring polymath saxophone player Frank Trompeter and drummer Richard Gilman-Opalsky, who is also an author and political science professor at University of Illinois Springfield. Schwartz characterized the trio as “another great avenue to break musical rules” and said they have recorded over 30 discs of music, although only one has been released, 2008’s Fracture Time released on Fire and Flux Records. The trio’s music is mostly improvised, although they occasionally work from written scores. Sometimes during live performances, the three musicians take visual cues from old silent films or French cartoons which are run backwards. As for Schwartz’s contribution to the group, “Frank and Rich always call me the anti-guitarist because I do the opposite of what you expect a guitarist to do,” he said.
“Most of my creative ventures are some kind of mix of old and new – old sources, new techniques,” he said. “I read in audio magazines about how to supposedly record the best vocal sound and it’s telling you to get this certain kind of microphone to capture the high end and having a closed studio environment – and here I am recording with a Sears microphone from 1964 while the furnace is running.”
Contact Scott Faingold at firstname.lastname@example.org.