The Philadelphia band talks about going from being an experimental basement recording project to a power trio opening for Kurt Vile.
Philadelphia’s Purling Hiss started as the experimental basement recording project of Mike Polizze, guitarist for heavy psych rock outlet, Birds of Maya. After a couple of very lo-fi solo records and an invitation from friend Kurt Vile to join him on the road to open each night of a six-week tour, Polizze reinvented Purling Hiss as a explosive power trio with hooks to spare.
With each new record Polizze has aimed to try something different than before, and Purling Hiss’ latest venture, Weirdon (which comes out this week on Drag City Records) is no exception. The record finds the band shaking off more of the dense fuzz that flavored its early records and the heavy riffage of its relatively cleaned-up 2013 DC debut, Water on Mars, to let Polizze’s songwriting chops take center stage. Recorded with Jason Meagher (Blues Control, Steve Gunn) at Black Dirt Studio, the album is brimming with sunny power pop anthems, dusky, psychedelic meanderings, and off-beat indie punk. Though they still pop up from time to time, much of Polizze’s bombastic guitar heroics (though he might laugh at that term) are tempered down for more dynamic leads that hit their sweet spot each time and unite the diverse collection of songs together.
I recently spoke with Polizze about Weirdon, his continuing musical evolution, and his recently rediscovered love of cartooning.
Noisey: Why Weirdon? What’s so weird with this record, in particular? I don’t think this is actually one of the “weirder” records in your catalog.
Mike Polizze: I don’t know. Maybe I thought it was weird, maybe some of the themes running through it are weird. I come from the guitar aesthetic, sonically, going to live shows growing up and digging punk and psych rock, so I don’t think the structure of the songs is that new to me. It’s visual too. The record cover is kind of cartoonish and it lends a surrealistic, sort of Gonzo cartoon aspect to it, with songs like “Airwaves.” I try to think out of the box a little bit and make it eclectic. It’s 2014 and it’s different than it was for a band like The Rolling Stones. There was a lot of different music back then, of course, but our generation has so much music to swallow. From the pop world, the mainstream world, underground punk, or among record collectors, there is all this stuff to take in. I picture this album as a collection, a gallery of these different experiences. With Weirdon, I had a list of names and the artwork I was putting together—it was all there on the table and the computer—and this was just what was in my mind, I guess. My bandmate from my other band Jason Killinger from Birds of Maya and Spacin’, who always helps me with my art, saw the list and he really cracked up with that one.
Maybe it is more challenging for someone coming from your background to write a conventional pop song, even if the music sounds easier from a listener’s perspective.
Yeah, totally. The first couple of records were more like exercises that expanded one idea. On this one, there is more change and structure and it is evolving in a way where I think I will spiral back, eventually. I don’t come at it with a specific idea, I just start jamming without even paying attention until something makes me think, “Oh what was that?” Then it’s kind of like chipping away at an ice block like a sculptor. I start from out there and work back. I have jumped around a bit but in the grand scheme of thing the music isn’t that different. Dizzy Polizze [reissued by Drag City in April], that’s an old record from 2006. I’ve been doing this for all that time. So, the noisier stuff, I’ve done that. I’m not going to keep doing the same thing. Everyone’s life changes and you change and you move on.
When Birds of Maya plays, it’s really off the cuff. Whatever happens in the practice space is what happens. With Purling Hiss, I usually start the idea and bring it to the band and then we work it out. There are some songs on this album that I did by myself. I always want to have as many people as possible on the record, but sometimes it’s a timing thing too.
Did writing those songs on your own shape the record differently than if they come from collaborations?
Yeah. I just go through little phases. I’ll start working on three different ideas that have a similar feel to them. The very first song and the last song are kind of similar, they have a guitar lead, but in a pop way.
For the last album, Water on Mars, we did a spring tour in the US and then we did a European tour. We got home in June, 2013 and I started writing and demoing in the basement. I did that and knocked these songs out, these demos, until September and October. I had a blast doing it. I just holed myself down in the basement and got back to the drawing board. The last record was a little more worked out in the band room, and this was more worked out at home.
How do you blend classic styles like power pop and psychedelic rock and still keep it fresh?
I grew up around old music. I used to fall asleep listening to the oldies station so I think it was in my subconscious. My parents always had music out. My dad was a music school dropout and he had all of these cool records, anything from Coltrane to Mahavishnu Orchestra, Wayne Shorter, Pharoah Sanders, a lot of cool Blue Note records. There was a rumor he saw Hendrix, I’ll never know—he passed away. I’m not so much into idolizing guitar players as I was when I was first learning how to play the guitar, but that is a big deal to me.
When I was a teenager, I got into classic rock before I got into punk music. I’d go to local punk shows and see my friends’ bands, and then I got into it later so I think I brought the old sound with me, referencing classic rock’s styles but being aware, not so old that it can’t sound fresh.
A lot of bands don’t update those sounds and just make things that have happened before.
Yeah, totally. With some people, it’s one dimensional, you know? You have to reference something, or bring two styles together and make it work, then put it through your own filter and discover your own music. I don’t know what I’m going to sound like [on each record], but when I start look back at the stuff I’ve done, I can start to understand what I do now. I don’t like to repeat myself too much. That works for some people, they tend to brand themselves, but as it gets bigger, it starts to sound the same and I’d rather not do that. “It’s America, it’s a product.” They make it like a product, and it’s like, “Man, the artist really suffers because they change with the world.” I’ve reacted to other opportunities, too. I would have just stayed in the basement and kept recording and learning on my own, but then all of a sudden it was, “Cool, I get to do this now, too.”
I kind of love the story about Purling Hiss jumping on tour with Kurt Vile and all of a sudden, you’re a full-time band. Like you said, one opportunity totally changed the trajectory of your music. What do you think you’d be doing with this project now if that hadn’t happened?
That situation is totally unique but I feel like I’d still be doing it, somehow. I put in the time to learn how to do these things and I got lucky. I’m grateful that Kurt took me out on tour, but I think I would have popped up somehow. I was already doing it. But let’s say it didn’t work out. I’d probably just have a normal job and a place in Philly and keep playing out and making records. I like other creative outlets too. I’ve circled back to a childhood interest of mine—animation and cartooning. I’m cooking up some ideas just for fun. It’s an old interest that came back and I thought, “Why don’t I actually try this?” I could make a 30-second pilot of something and if it totally sucks then I will know to leave it alone.
Did you draw all of the art on the Weirdon cover? Is this the kind of artwork you’d want to pursue?
I drew all of them, then I scanned them all with Jason, my bandmate that helps me with all the layouts, and I think it looks pretty cool. I’m influenced by John Kricfalusi (the guy from Ren & Stimpy) and Shel Silverstein; the classic black and white look. I’m influenced by the Golden Age-era cartoons a lot. It’s classic, the same way the music is, and it would be cool to bring the visual and the audio together.
Have you done anything like that for your music?
I’ve made these little videos on YouTube that you may have seen, but they’re not animation. I started messing around with editing in the last couple of years. My friend John has made some videos for us that are kind of cartoonish—actually, he’s working on a new video for us, and he’s made a new movie, Digital Physics, which he’s trying to get into festivals. But that’s the closest I’ve gotten on animation for my music [so far]. I’d like to keep moving and trying out new things like that. It would be cool: a full-spectrum stimulation of all senses. That’s the newest interest, and I think that will take up a lot of my time outside of music. We’ll be on tour too, so that will take up a lot of time.
What’s next for Purling Hiss after this cycle?
I don’t know. I’m starting to pick up the guitar again and I think a couple of riffs are coming together, but I’m not really writing. It’s fun, that’s what this time is for. There’s never any pressure but this time it’s just for fun. If the riffs stick around it could be the very beginning of what could be next.
Jamie Ludwig is on Twitter - @unlistenmusic