Right before we lost Purling Hiss to the cloudy ether that is a tour van across the US and into Europe, we had a chance to get Mike Polizze, lead shredder extraordinare, on the phone and recounting creation histories. There was chitchat on everything from his old—yet still very relevant—side projects, the things he's looking most forward to on tour, and the way a “normal teenage kid” turned into a guitar and gear afficionado honing a not overly squeally, meat-and-potatoes guitar sound. After spending a few too many lines mutually nerding out over gear, we delved into the complexity of the band's latest and greatest LP, Water on Mars, an effort that is thoroughly psyched-out while keeping one bruised toe on the ground. The band began their tour yesterday at 285 Kent in Brooklyn, then are on to hometown Philly tonight, after which they'll travel out of our reach for the next two months. Catch them play at these places and see what Polizze had to say about the Philly vs New York debate below.
Could you give me some background info on what happened with or is happening with Birds of Maya? I know you were playing with them, then branched off by yourself, and I wanted to know what made you decide to move on to a solo thing.
I started playing with those guys in 2004, almost ten years ago now, and we’re still a band. In fact, we’re going to be putting something out next month on a label called Little Big Chief Records. The band has always been sort of about just being friends and playing, so there never really was a goal to tour and take up our lives and our schedules. There was always more time for work and life and stuff like that. It was awesome. It was basically just having friends. We would do shows and put out albums—we’ve only put out a few releases—but it was never in a bad way. It was at our own natural pace and in the meantime, I would always just record on my own that didn’t really fit with the band, and I got a four-track way before I was in a band with them. Around 2007 or 8, I was working on a new thing that was kind of a spin-off of Birds of Maya stuff, but with more guitar and less like a band, even though there were drums on it. With that four-track, I did a recording that was drums, bass, and two guitar tracks, and I called it Purling Hiss, which wasn’t even really a band name, it was just another recording project that I was working on. I hand-assembled some CD-Rs and art and just put it up online. And the band Purling Hiss kind of got started because Permanent Records somehow stumbled across it and got in touch and asked if I would send them more, so I sent them the full album and they loved it and we decided to put that out. I actually put that out on a small CD label called CDArchives.org, but it’s not really around anymore.
So what happened after that? How did the full band idea come about?
I put out a couple more records after that and then the reason why it became a band was because Kurt Vile was ready to do a full US tour in the fall of 2010, and with plenty of time, asked me if I wanted to take this project on the road. I got the band together and we’ve just stayed a band ever since. So Birds of Maya is a band that’s still there and still exists, I just have more time to do other stuff.
Do you still play with B.O.M. or is there no time for that?
No, I do! It’s cool because we were so sort of inactive on a normal band routine. With shows and stuff like that, we could always pick right back up whenever we wanted to. Any time we feel like doing a show, we’ll do one, and sometimes we’ll go six to eight months—but I don’t think we’ve ever gone a year without playing a show. We’ll hang out more often as friends and maybe play some music, more than we actually practice or have some sort of routine, like “Okay, we need to start playing these songs.” We’ve been playing together for so long that we became really intuitive with each other, almost telepathic. It’s actually kind of funny, we were just watching some lost footage that some guy had of us from 2006 playing one of Johnny Brenda’s first shows, when they first had opened the venue. I look back and I kind of laugh at myself because we were a band that had a lot of chops. We were actually really tight when we had rehearsed and since now we don’t do that so much anymore, we’re really devolved and much sloppier. But I think what makes the better band now is that we still have those references, you know? We still have all that and it kind of comes out in a way, like we’re throwing shit against the wall to see what sticks now and it’s kind of more interesting. That’s the kind of band we’ve become. It’s kind of representative of us not practicing as much. We get together and we do it when we can, you know?
Where do you know the Birds of Maya guys from?
From Philly. It’s kind of funny. In 2004, I was in Spaceboy on South Street, I don’t know if you remember that music store.
Yeah, they closed it. I remember.
They had an ad up with some cool art on it, really psychedelic looking art, and it said something like, “Looking for a guitar player, garage/psych-rock. Into The Stooges, The MC-5, and Blue Cheer.” Stuff like that. Something about a lead guitarist that they were looking for. I remember just back then, something was going through my head like, “Oh man, like I can totally play classic rock stuff, but I don’t know if that’s like the cool thing that they’re looking for.” But I got in touch from that flier and we just became instant friends.
That’s great. That reminds me of something I really want to ask you, actually. I wrote in my review of your new record, Water on Mars, that the thing that really sticks out to me is that it is so rare to hear somebody that plays guitar like you. I feel like there is less and less of an emphasis on the lead guitar player just shredding to death, and I’m curious about what your creation story is with your guitar playing. How did you get into playing guitar and how did you start forming that style?
Back in my teenage years, probably around when I was 13, I started playing what was on MTV, you know, alternative rock stuff like Nirvana and whatever. Just like every kid back then. And then I got bored of that, obviously. I didn’t really have that community; I didn’t get involved in that DIY thing back then. I was just a normal teenage kid, so I got into classic rock, that’s what I turned to. I got into Hendrix and Pink Floyd and Zeppelin and The Beatles, but Hendrix was the number one for me. So I just started to mimic what he did. For years. And by the time I was 18—and I guess I liked punk before that, I just wasn’t as informed—I started to get into buying whatever punk stuff was around, like The Misfits, Bad Brains, Black Flag, The Pixies, and I started to come to shows more. It was weird kind of coming from this classic rock perspective as a guitar player into more of a punk aesthetic over the years. I’m not saying I’m punk or anything like that, but it just mixed. And I think at this point, the music I’m making is influenced by classic rock, psych rock, and punk rock. I mean the first time I picked up a guitar was over fifteen years ago now, so I’ve been playing for a while.
What was your first guitar?
I actually switched guitars right away. What I got first was a [Fender] Jaguar and I kept having problems with the pickups, so I just switched out right away for a [Fender] Stratocaster and I’ve playing the same one ever since.
The same one since you first started?
Yep, same one.
I watched a video of you on the Village Voice where you were talking about your gear. Is there a reason you’ve kept playing the same one all these years, despite having so many other guitars to play? Have you updated the Strat at all?
I’ve tried other guitars over the years and I really do want to [play another] because I think that when you play different guitars, you write differently, too, and I think that’s a good thing. It’s just [this Strat] stayed with me. And I have updated it; I’ve tried different gauge stings. I use really slinky strings so I can pull the shit out of them to get that crazier sound that stretches. I put different pickups in there, too. It’s light and it hits a certain frequency better for me for the way I write than other guitars do because other guitars are great for rhythm, but they have a really regular sound for me. I don’t know, if I was using a Jaguar or a Jazzmaster or something. I’d love to get a few different Fenders, but I think it’s just a matter of being practical at this point. I’ve written so much on that guitar, too, that I’ve forged my sound on that thing, so it kind of became my staple instrument and identity in a way.
Yeah, totally. Do you have a host of pedals that you use, too? Or do you stick to one or two?
I’m really subtle with it. I’m okay with pedals, but it depends what kind of band I’m in. With Birds of Maya, we’re really stripped down, so it’s kind of like, “Let’s just plug in and play.” I’ve used pedals in that band before, but right now, we’re going back to keeping it regular. With Purling Hiss, it’s still pretty simple. I have a few different pedals. I have a Big Muff and I have a boost pedal, which is just a little bit of oomph to it, and then the Big Muff puts that over the top. I’ve been messing with a delay lately but I’m really subtle with it. I’ll maybe hit it for one note and let it ring out so you can hear the delay and then I’ll turn it off right away. I really like to have the natural sound of the amp itself being broken up. I do use them, but I keep it simple.
Yeah, you can hear that in your sound. I don’t want to turn this into a whole gearhead conversation, but I play guitar myself, so I’m always curious about this stuff. Last question on gear: What kinds of amps do you use? Are you particular about those, too?
I’m starting to get that way, yeah. I think that I’ve never really been into nerding out on gear and I’m trying to get better at that because it’s always good to know these things. I think in 2004 (I guess a lot of stuff happened that year), when I started the band with Birds of Maya, I got a half-stack. I transferred what I played with them into this band, so I might expand on that. The amp that I’m playing is an Ampeg VT-22. This is going to get super nerdy for a second, but this is just what I’ve heard. The VT-22 is like a V-4, where the V-4 is not a combo amp, so it’s the head plus the speaker, which makes it a half-stack. The VT-22 was built as a combo amp, like a little amp that was combined with the speaker in it, but they took the guts out of it and made a head out of it, and so I use it as a head and I play it through a half-stack, through a 412 speaker. That’s what I play. It’s a real meaty, meat-and-potatoes, heavy, low-end sound, and it’s a cool interesting tone that I get out of my Strat because Strats can be kind of squawling and high-pitched so it makes a kind of cool, middle ground. I’m thinking about switching it up. We’re gonna go to Europe in May and they don’t really have Ampegs out there, so I’m gonna get a Fender Bassman, which is really a comparable sound and it sounds awesome. I can easily see myself playing through one of those permanently. It could be transitional, I don’t know.
Yeah it’s always hard to know exactly which to choose since there’s so much gear to play around with. I’ve been looking through your Bandcamp and wondering how you felt about starting to get other people involved in what was initially a solo project? Was it a tricky process? And how do you know the guys who are currently playing with Purling Hiss?
Deciding to get the band together was easy because the offer was on the table from Kurt. If there was no offer to tour, and I myself had to go on tour, I don’t know if I’d feel compelled to do it. I’m friends with Kurt and it was totally set up, so in a way it was a really spoiled situation. We were the first of three bands, and we were really scraping by, but we’re big boys so we could do it. Deciding to start the band was the easy part, but the direction of the band is the tricky part. If you listen to the old recordings, there really were no boundaries for me creatively. Some stuff was really blown-out psych stuff, some stuff was lo-fi pop. I didn’t really have a strong identity except for being a bedroom, lo-fi solo project, you know what I mean? I seriously think depending on the personalities that I ended up being in a band with, it really could have gone any direction. I couldn’t have been a solo performer bringing tape decks out and having one guitar and having loops and performing. Bringing my bedroom thing to the stage wasn’t really my thing. I think that’s something you could see happening. I could have gone the whole psych-rock outfit direction like Wooden Shjips or Endless Boogie or other bands that are more repetitive. Some of my early recordings are really repetitive and have endless guitar solos. I had that with Birds of Maya, so I didn’t really want to do that [direction] either. The guys I play with now I feel like it couldn’t have been any better because I think it bridged the gap between the psych stuff and the pop stuff and it’s pretty straight-forward, us as a power trio. I think there’s a lot of luck involved with us just being friends, enjoying each other’s company, enjoying making music with each other, and just sticking it out.
It was 2010 when you when on tour with Kurt Vile, right? When you had this option on the table to form a band, what were the first practices like? And how did you know to ask these guys?
Mike Sneeringer plays drums and Kiel Everett plays bass and I had known them both previously so that made it much easier. I think the problem that was going on with Mike is that when there was no reason to really become a band, we just messed around with the idea like “Let’s get together and jam some time.” We made some noise a couple times, way before Kurt asked us to play. That was always in the back pocket, knowing that Mike had always said “I’m kind of looking to play, I dig what you’re doing, and we’re friends, so let me know.” And so that seed was easily planted. Then with Kiel, it was interesting because we lived on the same street as each other and then I moved and I didn’t see him for a while. And right when Kurt asked, I happened to stumble into him and we got to hanging around again, and I said to him that I was trying to put this band together, and I knew he played guitar and he was playing with this other band. So I told him that I was trying to get a four-piece together and would he want to play guitar? He was supposed to play guitar and had never played bass before, but the time crunch and pressure started setting in before we left for tour with Kurt Vile, and we were like, shit we don’t have a bass player, and we kind of just got practical about it and he was like, “I could try to play bass,” and all of us at the same time were like “Well maybe we’re a three-piece.” And we only had a minivan, too; it was really tight. Ever since then, Kiel’s been playing bass in the band. He still has another band, Tin Horses, that he plays guitar and writes in, so that’s his outlet there.
Has there ever been any thought about getting a second guitar player or will you stay as this power trio?
Yeah, I could totally see us doing that, it’s just not a reality right now. I definitely always write second guitar arrangements, so when you listen to the old stuff, there’s always second guitar. And even with this album, Water on Mars, I really wanted to capture us live as a power trio, but I just couldn’t help myself. There were just some songs that I had to add a second guitar part to.
Yeah, to try to fill it out.
Exactly, so a second guitar could be inevitable in the future.
That’d be a cool addition. Now that you mention this Kurt Vile tour, it’s got me thinking about something you might have some ideas about. I don’t know how true it is or if it’s all in my head, but do you think there’s been a Philly revival in music over the past few years? Do you have any thoughts on that or seen anything of it yourself?
Yeah, I mean, I don’t know. I guess it’s perspective to some people. For me, I feel like I’ve been playing with people in Philly forever, so kind of on the outside, I’ve lost perspective on Philly getting attention. From outside the city, I could definitely see that Philly has been getting this attention, but within the city, there’s always new bands coming out. I even feel out of the loop lately with some stuff. Between Kurt and Pissed Jeans, bands that are international and tour and are on labels, I guess there’s definitely a good community that we have for sure. It’s definitely true, it’s a thing. It’s a good city, it’s a good community of musicians and artists, and I think it is kind of happening right now.
Has there ever been any instigation to move to New York? I know that’s a big thing that people from Philly wrangle with. There are so many shows there and there’s such a scene, bigger than you could maybe find in Philly. Do you think you’d ever consider that?
I separate Philly from New York a lot, actually. I think they’re just geographically close to each other. I mean, it’s cool that it’s there. I like visiting New York a lot, but Philly definitely has its own thing going on. I don’t think it’s personally that influenced by New York. I guess it has to be a little bit by way of people traveling to and from, but I’m definitely staying here.
Yeah, Philly’s the place. Let’s shift gears a little bit and talk about this new record, Water on Mars. Do you have a favorite song on the record or a favorite aspect of it while you were making it?
It’s weird because there are different aspects to it. I think the song that pops out in my mind is “Mercury Retrograde.” I remember in the back of my mind thinking that was a song that out of all those songs, it sort of encompassed a little bit of all the personality throughout the album. So it had some of the licks and dynamics and structure from the album; and it had some of the pop sensibilities and hooks and phrasings and even the lyrics. It just encompassed the personality of the album, I think. We weren’t sure what song we were going to do a track premiere for, and that was in the back of my mind, and it turned out to be the unanimous vote at Drag City, which was fine with me. The one we were toying around with originally was “Harrowing Wind,” which I think is an awesome song, but I think it plugged along a little, it’s not as poppy, it has much more of a lazy hook. When I think of “Mercury Retrograde” and “Rat Race,” they’re right next to each other on the album—and not to give away too much, but it’ll probably be a similar thing live too—those are really special songs to me. They kind of encompass the last two years of us being a band. I really love all of the songs, and we’re going to be premiering these songs live as well for the first time.
That’s great. You don’t have to give this away, but the song “She Calms Me Down”, that’s one of my favorites on the record, actually. Will you be playing that live? It’s a much calmer ballad.
That’s a tough one to pull off. I don’t mind saying right now that that’s not gonna be in our lineup. The only reason why, though, is because there is so much arrangement on that song and we’re a three-piece, so unless there’s a special occasion where we get up and have someone play with us, it wouldn’t work. Adam from The War On Drugs plays piano on it and there are three guitar tracks—acoustic, rhythm, and electric—and then slide guitar. We do practice it live, and we’ll play it live some time, but we just gotta figure it out. I’m glad you like it, though.
Now that we’re talking about your live shows, you’re going on this huge tour starting tomorrow. You’ll go around the US and then abroad for a month. Do you have anything in your mind’s eye that you’re looking forward to seeing or doing?
The whole thing is we’re doing two weeks here, then doing the Midwest, Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and everywhere in between. Then we’re going to Europe and we’ll be there for a month, so that’s the big bulk of it, and I guess I’m looking forward to going to all the cities and countries I haven’t been to before. I’ve never been to Spain, you know. We toured Europe for two weeks back in 2011. But we’re going to Finland, Austria, Ireland. I mean it’s crazy.
Wow. Is there a band you’re touring with while you’re in Europe or is it a solo, hop-on-other-shows kind of thing?
We’re on our own but we’re playing with some other bands along the way. Some of the shows are gonna be great. We’re playing with Mikal Cronin twice. In London, we’re playing with Mikal Cronin, White Fence, The Pheromoans, and I think Jacco Gardner just got added to the show. We’re playing with Dope Body in Berlin. I think we’re playing with Bleached in Copenhagen. We’re playing in France at a festival called Lyon something, I don’t know if I’m saying this right, but we’re playing with a bunch of great bands there, too.
Are there certain things you always bring with you on tour? Personal things you’d never leave home without?
Probably a book or you know, my girlfriend got me a Kindle, so I’ll always have that. A smart phone is good thing to have when you’re bored. I keep it really simple, though. Music in the car is fine and a book to read, and that’s about it.
That’s good, though, simple is best. Less stuff to pack. If you could find some words for those of us out here getting excited to see this tour, how would you describe what it’s like to see Purling Hiss play live?
I think we encompass a really direct power trio when we play live. It’s sonically loud. On the recordings, you can get away with more because you can have more arrangements, it’s more cerebral. It can kind of take you places in that way. The live show is definitely more primal, more raw, more straightforward, by pulling the references out through the guitar, with the feedback, through the energy. It’s cathartic, very straightforward, and loud. High energy and high volumes.
Do you improvise live, too?
Yeah, definitely, we have some improv stuff going on.
Well I’m excited to see that. This is the last question I wanted to ask. Is there anything in particular that you’ve been listening to lately that’s been inspiring you? Or what were you listening to when you were writing the record?
When it comes to me writing music, it’s hard for me to pin down exactly what it is that got me into it, and it’s something as simple as song structure by studying the Beatles when you’re growing up. But lately, I always blank on these questions. I listen to music every day! What were we listening to? Last night I went over to our drummer from Birds of Maya’s house, he had our test press from our new album that’s gonna come out. It’s this raw live thing that we did. That doesn’t really count, though, because that’s our own stuff.
No, that’s okay—I know that this question is a difficult one when you’re put on the spot. I hardly know what I listen to and I write about music all day.
Yeah, It’s hard to say. When you’re writing an album, to at least give you a kind of answer for what we listen to while I was writing, it’s like you go through your memory bank and your life experiences because you’re putting your life into it. It’s more than just listening to someone’s album and thinking, “Oh how can I get that sound?” The tunes that get stuck in your head over the years, you build your own structure and format and your own creative palate that you build off of when you’re constructing these songs. It’s years of shit that I forget, but it’s there. I just don’t know where it comes from. You could be influenced by hearing music blasting from someone’s car walking down the street. It’s just a hard question to answer, I think.
No, no, it’s okay. It’s nice to hear that there are so many influences coming into play when you write, that anything can affect the sound.
I swear, as soon as I get off the phone with you, I’m gonna think of a thousand different influences and things I’m listening to and I’m gonna be hitting myself.