Paul G. Marchesani is a freelance producer and radio host from Philadelphia. He’s in the midst of a project called the Forest Kids Collective, a shared musical universe of 27 characters each with their own discography. Through the power of the internet, Paul and I were able to chat about how the project started, what it’s about, and where it’s all going.
How did this project start? It’s grown into such a diverse, interconnected world. Was that what you had in mind from the outset?
I used to watch David Firth on YouTube a lot, which was like the old Salad Finger videos. Creepy animations and other things like that. I was always intrigued by the music on there, and after a little bit of research I discovered Boards of Canada and was like, ‘Oh my god this is music? This can be considered a song? Having a old documentary sample talking about volcanoes for like a minute and a half with some reverse synths. That’s a song?’ It was so mind-blowing to me. So I started this project called Phlegmatic Stare, which was pretty much just interludes of interludes. There was a lot of me just figuring out music in that, figuring out producing. It was also me finding I could make any sound I wanted to if I just kept working with that sound — this really malleable sound — as a concept. I started to dabble with a little microKORG I have still and never looked back.
I put out like five records of Phlegmatic Stare and I didn’t like them, because they were all bad. They have some quality to them as weird minimalistic interludes of interludes, but it’s not the greatest work ever. Then I moved on to Crossing Bridges and that was kind of a stepping stone/birth, you could say, of the whole collective, because it was like, ‘I need to evolve.’ Crossing Bridges got to be super big. Not popularity wise, just a large project. I had almost like 300 songs just for Crossing Bridges, or something like that. Something ridiculous. I didn’t want someone to be like, ‘Oh, what do you do?’ and they go to Crossing Bridges and they’re like oh this is a fuck ton of music. I couldn’t even tell you what style Crossing Bridges is — I still can’t. It’s all over the place, but now it’s kind of solidifying into a kind of contemporary electronic. After Crossing Bridges became so big I was like, I don’t want to keep putting more on this one name. I want to do something different, I want it to be called something different. I eventually started making _XPRESSWINDOW, and Forest Kids was originally a group effort between three people, but then those two other people only added a little bit in to the first ‘Forest Kids’ record. It was very cinematic and theatrical, like a weird soundtrack. I went a few years not even really thinking about this whole collective thing, I just kept on writing so much fuckin’ music and all these different kinds of styles.
So long story short, there came a point where I wanted Forest Kids to be the big name, because I was really proud of that record we first put out — I first put out, I guess. There wouldn’t be the record without me, let’s just say. I had Wave Complex and _XPRESSWINDOW, I was starting to make H A C E. There were all these different styles. I always knew my music was connected in some way. I was always a visual music creator, thinking of a scene or thinking of a person, of something going on in one of the songs. After a while it just kind of snapped like hey, this is a universe. This can be a world. So I started connecting the dots, like Crossing Bridges is one of the oldest characters because he’s, for me, one of my oldest projects. Crossing Bridges is immortal and has all these powers, is super strong and so on because he has such a vast discography. That’s how it’s kinda reflecte. Like, Phlegmatic Stare was the guy who started the whole universe. It’s a pretty big storyline.
So it initially gave structure to your experimentation, then solidified into a narrative of its own. Your site says it’s still in brainstorming and character development. What is the current storyline? It must be evolving constantly?
Phlegmatic Stare and Crossing Bridges are some of the main, original people. This was the original state the universe starts in — our reality, no magic or anything fancy going on — and then for some reason the US government found these sacred gems, magic gems in the sense they didn’t know what they were. So, they put them in warheads. You could say it was kind of Adventure Time-esque how there’s a nuclear fallout and it becomes this magical world, and these gems change the world to make memories, dreams, and different realities come true, or demons and ghosts or goddesses and whatnot. The gems are kind of like psychedelic drugs mixed with power and currency.
So, once the world changed, which is all the product of Phlegmatic Stare, because he was this scientist Solomon Paley, who convinced the government to use the gems. And I just put out Violet A. Foster, which is a blur ambient project, and that’s another one of the main characters. Violet goes through a lot, because she becomes and is affiliated with several characters, as well as meets and interacts with different characters. So Violet worked with Solomon Paley, and once the war heads fall she is now thrusted into this universe with all this magic and crazy shit happening. Along with all these other people who are either made of the world or were changed by the world. Most people don’t know what the world was before this change.
So Violet A. Foster in this new trippy world where there’s three tiers to like reality. There’s the meat realm (1st Realm), which is where we are, meat and physicality. And then there’s ghosts, another kind of spiritual plain, which is kind of an upside down carbon copy of everything, but it’s desolate (2nd Realm). It’s not like grimy and greasy like the upside down is in Stranger Things, it’s simply a empty copy. And like these other people, like my character RANDEL, who’s an angry ghost and the father of H A C E and Sertainly Someone — Sertainly Someone’s not out yet — but all these people are interconnected in ways like that.
So Violet is now in this world and she meets Crossing Bridges, who doesn’t know why he’s immortal or why he survived this thing either, and they pretty much fall in love and explore the world in its very early stages. That’s what a lot of the records are about. A lot of the records are flashbacks to the very beginning of the world when the first two main people were exploring it and finding the other characters. Like, Crossing Bridges is actually Christopher Bridges, and so Violet and Christopher meet RANDEL by going into the woods and they find this little cabin, and it turns out this cabin is infinitely larger once they go inside. It’s like a magic ghost cabin and there’s all these songs that are them going through this adventure until eventually they get creeped out and leave. The last song is “Never Going Back There”, or something like that. So the powers in the world as well are very cool. The gems give you power, or they can enhance or power, or you can relive a memory or relive a dream, and most times when you do those you go into the second realm and there’s other people in the second realm that you can meet, come in contact with, or they’ll mess with you or attack you even. Like H A C E is like a prankster kind of ghosty person, so one of his first scenes is when someone’s on a dock enjoying the view of an ocean because oceans no longer exist, he’s just alone fishing or something, and H A C E appears next to him and is like, ‘Hey, pretty nice view huh?’. And the guy’s just like ‘… Yeah, I guess so. Who the fuck are you?’ Then H A C E is like, ‘Pretty nice view!’ then like the whole fuckin memory just crumbles on itself. Things like that.
So like the powers would be like you obtain a gem, and depending on what kind of gem it is you just kind of absorb it — I’m kind of figuring that part out — or you activate it somehow. Another cool thing is dream-casting and thought-casting. Most characters can dream-cast. They think of something or create something like you would on LSD or something, be like, ‘Hey that looks like that’ — blink — and it becomes that. You could be like I’m thinking of this right now and it becomes that, coming through the second realm, and so brings it from imagination to physicality, and they can use it for as long like — say they make a sword or whatever out of thin air. That’s just how it is. And then they’ll like slice someone up, fight’s over, sword disappears.
People like Crossing Bridges or Aura Lynd, who are brothers (and I just put out a new Aura Lynd EP) are thought casters, which is permanent. So if they made a sword it would be there forever. Crossing Bridges creates monuments and crazy things like — if you look through the Crossing Bridges albums most of those are actual places in the world. The first record he put out is the Ben Franklin Bridge here in Philly and like boom he made the Ben Franklin Bridge in the reality, and another one is Sears Tower from Chicago. Boom, that is a part of it, like that’s his ‘Inferior Operator’ tower where all these other things happen. Things like that — like Dromida. That’s all these mini planets that he created once Violet died, and Violet has a huge story as well. They’re all… it’s all like that. Anything specific you want to hear me dive into, because I’m looking at a million roads I could talk about right now.
I think those million roads are part of why I find the project so interesting. As you build the foundations of a world like that, how do you keep things focused?
It just kinda comes. I don’t really do much else. I have a little corner of studio stuff and a TV, that’s pretty much my life. I find a pacing important, because if I wanted to I could just sit down every day and write infinite albums, infinite music, keep it going forever if I wanted to. But there’s so many other steps I have to take: finalising a thing, getting artists for the cover, and now I have to find people to illustrate it, and then I have to sit down and really map out the story. It’s not like a big task, but it just kind of comes normally. I mean it is a huge task, but it just comes.
My focus is my drive because I want to do it. I want to finish this grandiose project. It’s deep-seated in me, it’s a part of me. It’s like not a hobby, it’s not like, ‘Oh I’m bored, I wanna make music.’ It’s like I have a half hour, maybe I can make another ambient track, or I have a half hour, I can check out that one song and adjust it a little bit. Right now as I’m speaking to you I’m real-time mixing down a mix/master of the new Imisu album. It’s just a constant part of my life. I’m always either pushing it through distribution or trying to get it promoted by other people, or just writing music. You know, weed helps me ground it, and The Office maybe. Other than that my friends are a great support group. They feature on a lot of stuff and they help out with a lot.
Do you already have an ‘arc’ in mind?
I have an ending and a couple of other crucial moments that need to happen. It’s more like I have chapter 15, chapter 27, chapter 1, chapter 7, and chapter -13 done. It’s like that. They’re all pieced out and I’m trying to connect the dots for myself. Once I do that it will be much easier for me to explain it to someone without having to go through something ridiculous like this. When someone asks me ‘What are you doing music-wise?’ it’s impossible for me to be like, ‘Well, I’m making this whole world out of all my 27 projects that I’m gonna have, and I’m halfway through it, and each one’s going to be a character…’ It’s a mouthful.
As for an arc? Probably explain how it started and then introduce the characters, and then have the characters’ interactions, and then have those interactions climax, and then I have an ending. It’s gonna be really something. Crossing Bridges takes a major part in it because he‘s one of the oldest ones and he can thought-cast, and by doing that he creates some people in it as well, because he created the Dromida planets, and on one of those planets is Civil planet. Civil planet is pretty much just a giant city planet and several characters live in that world and will disappear when he disappears. So it’s kind of this whole mess… but yes, there’s an arc.
You mentioned artists and illustrators. What needs to happen outside of the music for the universe to be fully realised?
Well the biggest thing is illustrators and, yeah, pretty much just illustrators. I’m decent with photo editing, I’ve made most of my artwork, but I’m no artist. If you see on the website I have my friend Nigel who’s really really good at illustrating and does most, if not all of the illustrations. I’d say 98% of all the illustrations on the website are him. He’s awesome, takes his time with it, but he’s a little hard to nail down because he’s always busy with his own stuff, so I need illustrators, people who think this is awesome and want to be a part of it as much as I’m a part of it. Character design is a big thing too because once you design the character you can put him into these situations. Once you have what he looks like, or they look like, or she looks like, you can flesh things out way more.
I’m trying to do the first installation of a manga, or comic, whatever you want to call it. Graphic novel. But it’s going to be the Gun Trail and that’s going to be for my Bleached Bison character… artist… person. So that’s in the works right now and it’s a whole desert adventure with my J character, Just the Architects (John Clide Beachwood) and he goes through this whole journey and stuff. But I need people who can make comics, I need people who know how to put it together frame by frame, panel by panel, and can help write it with me. I can do this stuff no problem and I have all the ideas, I just need someone — a couple people even — to help with the physicality of drawing. Hell, I could make the panels, but I need artists, in that sense.
Have any of the events so far taken you into musical genres you weren’t expecting?
I mean, all of this I wasn’t expecting. I really like most music. It’s very rare that I don’t like a certain style, it’s more who’s playing that style. A lot of people say that country or rap is shit, but there’s amazing rap. There’s great singing rap, there’s experimental rap, there’s weird rap, there’s dope rap, there’s rap to shake your ass to. The same is true with something like country. Like, yes, stadium country fuckin sucks, and anything on the radio probably considered country fuckin sucks. But there’s country artists that you’d never expect on Bandcamp and other smaller platforms. Country itself is just more spacious, flourishy rock in a sense, and that’s just another element to play with. Bleached Bison is kind of country-esque with a mix of alternative rock, indie rock, electronic music, IDM, and, like, sand sounds. But it’s pretty cool. That’s a style.
I’m starting to do drone metal and creepy stuff like — Violet A. Foster is super weird. It sounds like you’re in level one of a horror video game and you’re in a cutscene or something. I would never have expected to be making stuff like that. Or, I don’t know, I used to be in an indie band, I used to be in an emo band, and they really reflect in a lot of the styles through the guitar elements. It’s all cool. I’m starting to create more metal and harder sounding stuff. This was going to come eventually, because metal was the first style I played. It’s all coming together. It’s all very organic and beautiful, in my head.
Nice. What’s been the hardest album or EP to make so far?
Probably the hardest thing I did was about four years ago. I did a record for Crossing Bridges called Inferior Operator. That was 44 tracks and each 11 songs was a new section in a different style. This was the first big idea I ever had because it was a mixture of four different styles. The whole thing is about addiction and overcoming it, so the first part was all dark electronic music, to more upbeat electronic music in the second part, then all ambient in the third, and all real instruments in the fourth. It was just this really long process. That was probably one the biggest and hardest things I’ve done, even though it was four years ago.
Are there any characters you don’t particularly like? In the sense that they’re kind of unpleasant, or worse?
I don’t know. I try to make all the characters awesome and cool in my head, and of course I like them. There are villains, like there’s GoldEater. That’s a very old type of dragon creature that’s awakened after the big change. He just wants to absorb all the gems and be super strong. There’s a couple of villains in there that are evil and unpleasant, and actually a couple of entities in the second realm — the ghost realm, imagination realm — I have some characters from bad LSD and mushroom trips. Like RANDEL is a ghost I met on mushrooms; Jeff is a demon I met on LSD; and H A C E is like a second Paul. It was like I pulled a beanie over my face and I called it hat-face — H A C E — and that was this whole separate personality I developed on acid. Stuff like that. Maybe they’re unpleasant as in what they’re from. Like RANDEL and Jeff, I still have PTSD from them, but I made them part of my world. I like all my characters. They’re all very cool. I even like Jeff regardless of what he is. He’s kind of like a fishing demon, as in when a character takes a gem to relive a memory or explore the second realm. He’ll try to latch onto you, and you enough to make kill yourself. Then you’ll be dead in the second realm forever and that’s where he can, you know, get you or whatnot. I like all my characters, but yes some are unpleasant.
Could you talk about the third realm a little more? A lot of what you’ve described so far seems to be a back and forth between the first two.
The third realm is very Final Destination — the Super Smash Bros. level. All black, very simple and minimal. Just kind of like a platform, or you could even say it’s like right outside the truth door in Fullmetal Alchemist. Those are just some examples. It’s only for Forest Kids and really high tier gods, but mostly until right now I don’t really have any other people for it. It’s Forest Kids only, and that’s not even the real name for them. I’m going to give them a deeper name, a more ancient name, like how Imisu is Ovilis. Third realm is for Forest Kids — they’re only called Forest Kids because when they go down to the first realm they will just be these like all-shadow black silhouettes, teen or children types with bright headlight eyes, pinpointy eyes. They’ll just be in the background sometimes, like Princess Mononoke forest spirit people, and they’ll also be there in danger. If, say, someone’s running from someone, they’ll just like appear and point the way to go, or guide someone to a sacred gem or something like that. So yeah the third realm is very aloft and not super present, but it’s there, and it’s only for top-tier things like Forest Kids itself, eventually a couple of other things will be there eventually.
With talk of chapters, when it’s all finished will there be a recommended order? What do you see as the ideal way to explore the universe?
I’d want it to be exploring the characters through the albums mostly. As in there will be main chapters and then mini backstory/origin chapters. Like the first installment is going to be the Gun Trail, so not only does it showcase Just the Architects’ John Clide Beachwood, but Bleached Bison, and the fact they’re in the same record. There’ll be special things in the background and other elements that you’ll see throughout the series in the Gun Trail. It will go from person to person, their individual journeys. After the Gun Trial will probably be RANDEL (the ghost) and that record will be called My Cabin Away from Everyone, and that will be Violet A. Foster and Christopher Bridges exploring RANDEL’s infinitely large ghost mansion. From there it could be Violet’s record, Before I Met You, or a Crossing Bridges record. There’s so many ways it can go. I have a very liquid idea of the first couple of steps, then there’s a couple grey areas of direction you could go. I want there to be a lot of call backs, a lot of things that you’ll hear in the background when you’re listening and be like, ‘Oh shit, that’s that!’ Or ‘that’s that!’ Or ‘that’s that!.’ A prime example will be in RANDEL’s cabin where on some of the walls will be repeating murals of my friend Matt Swayzie who uses several beats from H A C E, Sertainly Someone, & RANDEL (the ghost). So it’s like little tiny things like that that will be forever throughout it.
I’m wary of asking too many questions. I feel like there comes a point where the best thing one can do is just dive into the music.
Definitely. There is so much already, and even more in the works. I’m trying to make the experience of ‘diving into the universe’ like slowly getting to know someone. By starting at say for example Aura Lynd, there’s lyrics and a vague storyline there, but the most critical thing is individualism. To hear what Aura Lynd sounds like to Crossing Bridges, or _XPRESSWINDOW to WAVE COMPLEX. Who are these characters and how do they relate to each other ? What role does the album play in the storyline ? A lot of those answers are right there in the music, artwork, track titles, etc. So I agree just diving into the music is the best way to start experiencing the universe right away.
All right, one more. What’s with the characters following the alphabet?
I don’t know. There wasn’t a steady reason. Like most of these ideas, they just kind of form out of the muck. You could say music is a language, and these are the building blocks of language because they’re pieces of words and expressions and things like that and — yeah, I don’t know. It’s very simple for me to follow. I’m very OCD-oriented, very this needs to go here, this needs to be that, that is this. I have a board with all the stuff coming up and it’s just a bunch of records that are almost done or already done. I like to keep organised. Forest Kids A-Z makes it, I don’t know, a circle. It feels very full, feels like it makes for a good time. I don’t know, but it fits, in my head at least. It’s more of a personal thing I’d say. You could say some fluffy thing like, ‘Yeah, it’s the building blocks of language and I believe music is the easiest way for me to express myself, and that’s my language.’ Oh shit, that’s pretty good.