When Toby Forrest — the vocalist for Los Angeles progressive funk rock band Cityzen — was 22, his dream was to move from Arizona to Colorado to ski, make jewelry and play music. After college graduation, Forrest and his buddies went to the Grand Canyon, where he jumped off a cliff and did a swan dive. But something went horribly wrong. The water level was lower than Forrest had anticipated and he hit the bottom head first, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down.
After extensive hospitalization and rehab, Forrest worked in web design, studied psychology, performed comedy and acted. But it was hard to get over his first love, music. In high school he'd played in several groups, and when his former bandmate Jeff Line moved to L.A. seven years ago, the pair began writing songs together.
At his home in Van Nuys — which he shares with two friends and three dogs — Forrest, now 36, is animated and energetic, with piercing blue eyes that reveal a playfully mischievous spirit. He's constantly cracking jokes (“I don't have use of my hands or triceps, so most people think I'm just a lazy paraplegic.”), but he takes his music quite seriously.
Does it bother you to have to talk about your accident all the time?
No, not at all. I can remember it as clearly as if it was right now, but I don't have an emotional reaction to it. It's good to educate people.
Did you know something was wrong as soon you were in the air?
No, I was great in the air. I had perfect form. (Laughs.) I have a tendency to look at the glass as half full, which, in this case, is not always a good thing.
It seems you had always been something of a daredevil.
I would jump off 25 foot cliffs. There was no stopping me. I could have met somebody in a wheelchair at that time who said, 'Don't do this or that…' and it wouldn't have mattered. The irony is that out all of the crazy things I'd done, this was the least crazy.
What was going through your mind in the hospital?
I was like, 'Well life has changed. I can't breathe. I can barely talk. Music isn't going to work and I don't have hands to play an instrument.' So life started over basically.
And yet you've made music work. You've played SXSW and all along the Sunset Strip.
If you're a creative person and you're not creating, you're dying on the inside. I've done all these things that musicians have dreamed about and continue to dream about. There are kids in Ohio right now and all they'd want is to play House of Blues main stage and I'm going to get to do that. I am optimistic and I'd love to play Warped Tour next year and to have another album out, but if at the end of the day, just having played every place on the Sunset Strip and having gotten to create a bit of noise is it, that's enough.
How are you able to sing so powerfully?
I've had people in the medical field ask me how I am able to have the power at times that I have and I have no idea. I think passion overrides any obstacle. When the music is there, my brain doesn't think about the limitation. I just feel it.
What does Cityzen (pronounced “city-zen”) mean?
I never saw myself as one who wanted to live in a city. I was always such a nature boy before I was in a wheelchair. I hated pavement and L.A. would have been my last choice. But now it's where I am and I was asking myself, 'As an individual how do you find peace among so many? And I thought…ah….city..zen.' It's a hybrid word. I've always been a fan of double meanings.
It must be frustrating because you don't want to be defined as a musician in a wheelchair, but it is obviously something that is going to attract attention.
It's part of the territory. My primary goal is to entertain myself, then other people and then to educate people, and maybe last is to inspire people. I think inspiration is a hot potato and we should all pass it around. If you don't know about spinal cord injuries, I know a lot, so let me share it. But our band is not about disability. It's not that you are going to see a disabled band or a band writing about disability. I want it to be about the music. Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder are blind, but you think of them as musicians first. I haven't seen that with people in wheelchairs. I mean, damn it, we're on the handicapped sign. (Laughs.)
Cityzen play a free show this Sunday, March 4, at 9:40pm at House of Blues Sunset Strip.