Chris McQueen and Henry Hey of FORQ discuss audio-visual art, record making, Bokanté and Lazarus

A lot has happened since the release of FORQ’s eponymous debut album in 2014. Keyboardist Henry Hey has worked with the late David Bowie on The Next Day and musical Lazarus, Chris McQueen has become a fully-fledged member of Bokanté, bassist Kevin Scott (a Donny McCaslin and Wayne Krantz collaborator) has joined the group and Jason “JT” Thomas has toured with Roosevelt Collier, Shaun Martin and Mark Lettieri. Those commitments haven’t prevented the group from making a further two studio albums and developing their sound both on and off the stage. We’re excited for their return to Band on the Wall next week and were glad to speak to guitarist Chris and keys player Henry about a wide range of topics, ahead of the date.

Michael has understandably taken a step back from the group recently, allowing bassist Kevin Scott to become a permanent group member. How did you meet Kevin and what convinced you he was the man for the job? Has the sound or dynamic of the live band developed since Kevin’s introduction?

Chris: ‘Kevin came to us through the recommendations of some of our mutual friends. He lives in Atlanta, far away from all of us, but it’s funny how small the world of instrumental musicians is sometimes. I had heard about him from friends in Austin and Henry had heard about him from friends in New York. He’s a great fit because he’s a 4-string Fender P-bass sort of player, but he also loves using pedals and aggressive or weird sounds. Since we’re a quartet there’s a lot of room for the bass sonically, but for Forq it’s also important that the bass play a bass role. In other words, being groove-oriented rather than playing a whole lot of fills and high melodic things. And Kevin plays that way. It’s always best when you get the right people and just let them play how they want to play, rather than trying to shape people into the role. The sound is developing all the time; every tour we’re adding new songs (or old songs we haven’t played live), and we’re experimenting with opening sections up or adding more free improvisation without losing the story-arc of the songs. That process is totally defined by the tastes and styles of the individuals, so Kevin is a big part of that development.’

You’ve recorded three FORQ LPs to date. Being such an accomplished live band, what’s the plan when you head into the studio – do you prefer to track everything live and aim for a particular type of sound? Have your production ideas evolved over the course of the three records?

Chris: ‘We always record the foundation of the songs live; four musicians in a room playing off of one another. In this band we also have fully embraced the idea of adding layers and making it a produced piece of music, rather than just a demonstration of the live sound. That’s a slightly different approach than a lot of groups in our genre, but I think it reflects our varying tastes. All of us listen to a ton of different kinds of music, and we love 80’s pop as well as John Coltrane’s Quartet. Then of course we have to figure out how to recreate those things in the live setting! But that’s a fun challenge.

That basic album-making concept has been pretty much established since the beginning, but each album kind of hones our ability to achieve the live-plus-production balance in a satisfying way. We’re always looking for a way to do something new and different, because that’s really the only reason to do this at all. But there are some overarching stylistic things that we probably can’t veer away from in Forq: groove-oriented songs, emotional expression (whether that emotion is serious or quirky), songs that seem to tell a story, weird sounds and big dynamics.’

A number of contemporary instrumental, jazz and funk artists: such as yourselves and your GroundUP colleagues, Vulfpeck, Esperanza Spalding, Jacob Collier etc., have recognised the importance of video content and online activity to engage and grow an international fan base. Did you envisage these things becoming so vital as you were coming up as musicians and has it altered the way you think about creativity and music as a consumer product?

Chris: ‘Yes and no. I was definitely a product of the MTV generation; I started playing music because of Radiohead and Nirvana and other groups with great music videos. So not only am I not opposed to video content, I actually love the idea of creating a complete audio-visual piece of art. But at the same time, none of us imagined, while learning our craft and writing songs, that we would also need to learn how to be our own brand managers and social media experts. Because of the decimating effects of streaming on the music industry, bands now have to be so much more DIY than they used to. So for the most part, not only are we (and I mean all bands) writing and performing the songs, we’re also booking most of the gigs, arranging flights and hotels, running recording sessions, maintaining spreadsheets for the band’s finances, creating promotional videos and posters, and thinking of which social media posts we should “boost” with ad money etc. At times it feels very silly, and I think a lot of us would be happier in a fantasy world where we could spend all of our creative energy solely on the thing itself rather than all the stuff around the thing. But on the other hand, we have complete control over how we present ourselves, and we have a direct link to our fans. And that is pretty special. I think bands gradually figure out how to do the social media/consumer part of this in a way that is fun and natural—and that’s usually what works the best anyway. I for one have had a blast learning some very basic video techniques to make some of Forq’s stupid but entertaining promo videos.’

You’ve met, jammed and performed with some of the greatest contemporary musicians on the planet. Who, more than anyone, has left you awe-struck with their wisdom and abilities?

Chris: ‘My biggest mentor was someone that most people have never heard of: Bernard Wright. He is an insanely gifted keyboard player who played with Miles Davis and Marcus Miller and Cameo, and so many other amazing artists. I played gigs with him for about 2 years in the Dallas area, during which time he was also a member of Snarky Puppy. I had just graduated from the University of North Texas with a degree in jazz, which basically means I had some technique but almost no real feel for music. Bernard and many other jazz/Gospel/funk artists in the Dallas area like Robert “Sput” Searight (of Snarky and Ghost Note) were kind enough to take in some of us jazz school kids and let us jam and gig with them. One night after a gig I asked Bernard if he could teach me how to play funky, and he responded by saying “Can I?”—like “please, let me help you.”

I went to his house and took one 90 minute lesson on the basics of building rhythms. And he’s not a guitar player really, but his understanding of the conceptual foundation of rhythm and even specifically guitar rhythm was so deep that I only needed that one lesson. I basically took all of this information and have continued learning from it ever since. Beyond that he’s also someone who seems like almost everything he says is a word of wisdom someone should write down in a book, and frequently one of those nuggets will resurface to continue teaching me. Recently Mike League reminded me of one that has come back into my playing in a helpful way: the idea that you should always be playing “below your chops”—as in totally in control; you’ve practiced to the point where you can execute whatever idea you’re playing comfortably and relaxed.’

Robin Lumley of Brand X once described his Fender Rhodes as the ‘heart and soul’ of his ensemble, suggesting that, if his array of keyboards and synths deserted him, he’d be comfortable doing the entire set with it. Does his sentiment resonate with you and for yourself and FORQ, do you feel that there’s a keyboard among your selection that you couldn’t do without, that really drives the sound and is ubiquitously useful?

Henry: For me, the (acoustic) piano will always be my home.  That sounds strange to say in answer to this question as we have so little, if any, acoustic piano in our recordings, but it’s where I began.  Sitting down at a great piano—especially after being away from one for a while—is like having that summertime picnic food that reminds you that life is ok. With that being said, there was a time when the rhodes was the mainstay of my sound in this type of ensemble. Certainly my previous band, Rudder, contained more rhodes usage than Forq does. However, as we evolve as a band, I’m finding that I enjoy moving further and further away from ‘just’ rhodes, and I like to see how much I can be surprised by making my home in, perhaps, a non conventional sound. I love weird sounds – they are thrilling to me.’

You’ve been making a new record with Bokanté & The Metropole Orkest recently. What can you tell us about those sessions and your role within them?

Chris: ‘Well for one thing they used more tracks than probably any album in history! On top of the fact that Bokanté has four super creative and eclectic percussionists who love to overdub strange instruments and Malika, who is the master of layering vocal harmonies, the engineer, Nic Hard—who has also been the engineer for all of the Forq albums—is basically obsessed with doubling instruments and running tracks into Space Echos to get different options.

So add in an orchestra, and it’s a really really big record. But of course considering the tastes of the people involved, it’s also extremely focused and dynamic. It’s all-acoustic, so myself and Bob Lanzetti had the pleasure of recording really beautiful instruments like acoustic guitars and acoustic baritone guitar in the giant main tracking room of Dreamland Studios, which sounds amazing. Being normally an electric guitarist, it was a really nice experience to play simple and exposed instruments in that way. The only other record I’ve done that on is an acoustic duo album, Western Theatre, I made with another Austin-based guitarist, Matt Read.’

Your work on the production Lazarus, as well as David Bowie’s penultimate studio record, were understandably major events in your life and career. Having had time to reflect on everything that happened over a relatively short space of time, what’s the most important thing you’ve taken away from the experience?

Henry: I’m certainly not the first to say this, but working with David Bowie was a deeply profound experience. I could talk about it at length and have in some interviews in the past.  Without going on too long, I’ll say that there are two tenets that stuck with me the most from my time with David:

1) Choose art first, and make it the absolute best that you can. This sounds simple, but I think that the deeper message is to not allow your art to be diluted by outside influences (commerce for example). That’s not always easy to do, but I do believe that it’s what is ultimately best for the work and certainly best for the soul.

2) Treat other people as peers–and with compassion, no matter their ‘station’. This too is not always easy to do, but I watched David do it over and over again and in doing so, define what it truly means to be a generous, giving, compassionate human being.’

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Wednesday | 27.06.18

FORQ + Shyfinger

Band on the Wall, Manchester