Mike Polizze of Purling Hiss discusses his four-track roots, Ampegs, and letting his song-guts hang out.
Mike Polizze got a four-track recorder in 1999. He was 18 then, and fresh out of high school. Polizze spent a lot of nights playing around with home recording, and in 2003, he laid down the first tracks he’d release under the moniker Purling Hiss some years later. Each record since then half-buries two or three decades of influence, an amalgamation of Black Flag, Sabbath, and the poppier side of Dinosaur Jr. or Sonic Youth, all of it cloaked in a buzzy, white noise.
Between their first record in 2009 and now, Purling Hiss saw an explosive output of vinyl and cassette, roughly two EPs, a split 7”, one compilation, a live tape, and five full-lengths. The latest of which, Water on Mars, seems a bit of a departure from the band’s lo-fi roots: it’s bigger, it’s crisp, the lows are lower (much lower), shattering the transmission loss between Purling Hiss’s heavy live shows and the lo-fi (albeit ripping) pop of their back catalog. I spoke with Polizze about buying that initial four-track, making the new record, and the space between the two.
Tyler Curtis What’s with the higher production this time around? It’s not masked by the buzz and white noise of everything before. Maybe your intention’s different with Water on Mars? Or at least, something more fleshed-out?
Mike Polizze I feel like I shed my skin a little bit on this one. All the recorded stuff I did before was poorly lo-fi, with varying levels of quality. Most of the past recordings weren’t intended to be released when I recorded them at the time, because I didn’t know what it was going to be. A lot of it was first take, a lot of it was just poorly mixed. And I kind of did it on purpose. A lot of times I buried the vocals, not always on purpose, but just sort of kept them underneath. It was sort of like the learning process, before I was confident with the drums or the vocals. Plus, it was fun to experiment. Using the four-track recording as the tool itself in the process to give it it’s aesthetic. It’s like part of it’s own personality.
I bought a four-track in 1999. I was 18 then. So for the first few years, I just kind of messed with it a little bit. But around 2003, 2004, I really started recording. And there’s kind of where the backlog started. I was just recording stuff, and by the time Permanent Records put out the first Purling Hiss record, I had already recorded a bunch. That was kind of new at the time, so they kind of got me right when I was doing that. But we’re talking like 2004 to probably like 2011, of stuff you might hear, whether it’s on a tour-only tape cassette release or another record I did.
TC Like Paisley Montage or something.
MP Exactly. Some of that stuff is a mix of a new and old. And stuff like the Woodsist album, and the Richie [Records] album, they were all kind of around each other. But Water on Mars was just the right thing to do. It was sort of embracing what was happening around me at the time. I went through a lot of tough choices because I wanted to continue that narrative, so to speak, with the texture and the aesthetic of what it was, and since we had been a touring band for the past two years, this is just honestly what it became. And it’s not, to me, totally a departure, but I think it’s easy to perceive what it is. It’s like, Oh, this is what it sounds like when they have a band, and they have fully-realized songs, and this is what it sounds like when they go into a studio. So there’s no four-track or lo-fi or whatever you want to call it. There are none of those tricks there, it’s pretty straightforward. And that’s what I wanted. I kind of wanted a clean slate. And this is sort of middle-of-the-road, where we’re at.
TC You said those first albums, every one up until Mars, actually, had a very “demo-like” quality. But not to a fault, and that’s just one way those records were so affective. That in mind, it’s hard not to think of someone like Robert Pollard. I think he had a very similar trajectory with Guided by Voices.
MP Oh yeah. I really love Alien Lanes, man.
TC Especially in the 80s and early-90s, they’d just leave tracks cut up, seemingly unmixed, like a hodge-podge of ideas not fully realized or executed. It might sound like a chaotic mess at first, endearingly shitty, but it was so crucial to the entity they became. How transparent they were, wearing their production on their sleeves.
MP I agree, man. I was going to say, having weird sounds in the process, and having that actually in the recording is really cool to me, and that’s why I’m proud to have put out what I did before. I knew what I was putting out. I compiled it into a playlist, and made it into a record. And even though a lot of it seemed half-baked, half-realized, or seemed kind of like basement songs, or demoed, or any way you want to describe it, I like that about it. I liked listening to other artists, and I always liked listening to outtakes and demos, you know what I mean? And as an artist, as a songwriter and a guitar player, when you grow up with whatever songs you grew up with, and then you get to hear a demo of it before it was done, you get to see the process of how it was made. And I think that’s how I learned; those were the building blocks. So, when I learned how to play guitar, I’d obsess over playing my guitar along to whatever album I’d want to, and any chance I’d get to see how different versions of people’s songs would show me the process of their creativity.
So I like to think of the early Purling Hiss as the building blocks, somewhere you can watch me grow, in a way. And I think it’s important because I kind of wanted to that. I’m sure that’s what you mean, too, with Guided by Voices. You could really see the guts of a song, and the recording process, and how it’s fine-tuned and refined along the way.
TC Some early reviews for the record mention J Mascis. I think that comparison makes sense, sure, somewhat regarding the lead work, but mostly in your guitar tone. How did you craft it?
MP Well, I use a VT-22 Ampeg, I play it through a half stack, because I think originally a VT-22 was actually a combo amp, and they took it out and make it into a head. So normally people with half-stacks would use a V4, but I’m using a VT-22 through a big cab, with four 12-inch speakers. And VT-22s are cool, man. They’re so heavy! They used those on Exile on Main St., I’m pretty sure. It might not always sound the same for what I’m doing, but the interesting thing about the tone I’m getting is that I’m playing a Strat, which can be kind of high end-sounding, and can be pretty shrill. And I get that out of that amp, too, but that amp is pretty heavy, you could even play a bass through it. And it’s got a natural fuzziness to it. I’ll try to use a wah sometimes, but I don’t over use it. It’s mostly just for texture, as opposed to just your typical wah wah wah. And I have a just a regular boost pedal, and a Big Muff I use sometimes, and that’s it.
TC How do you consolidate what you’re playing through on a record like Public Service Announcement and a show with a full band?
MP Well, that’s actually been fixed. I think what you just said was a problem in the last couple of years, but isn’t a problem anymore. Before I had the band, I was recording just whatever I wanted to with whatever instruments and whatever resources I had around. It didn’t matter, because I didn’t have a band. I was just going to be creative, and just make songs, and see how they sound. And a lot of that stuff came out on record. So when we started playing live, that was the problem right there, that was the conundrum.
I’ll give you two examples. One would be people who liked the albums, but never saw us live, would come out expecting to hear something lo-fi and see something totally different. They’d see a loud power trio and go, “Oh, that was cool, but I thought that was going to be different.” Or the opposite. People would come out and see us, having never heard us before, having no idea what we sounded like, and would want to buy a record expecting it to sound like the live show, and then get this lo-fi album that would sound totally different. But we fixed that.
But as far as me recording on my own, I still do it at home. I haven’t done that much lately because I’ve been pretty busy with other stuff. But I still plan on recording ideas and documenting ideas, and demoing ideas, and then bringing it to the band, and then we’ll work it out as a band. And then we’ll have that cohesive sound from now on, so it’s not all over the place. That could evolve in any direction, you never know. I don’t want to abandon the home recording stuff, though.
TC It seems like you guys are up here every few months for a show, and it seems like a lot of my friends in bands up here are always playing Philly. I’m glad we have such a working relationship.
MP (laughter) Yeah, man. If we’re talking contemporary music right now, like really, really right now, I’m stoked on that Parquet Courts album, man. Saturday, we’re playing that show with them in Brooklyn. I saw them in Philly last month, and they were great, and I actually met them before when they were in that band Teenage Cool Kids. So there’s a little bit of history there.
TC I love Teenage Cool Kids. Did you meet them when they were still in Denton?
MP Yeah, man. Last year, in Denton, we played at their house at like three in the morning. We played at the 35 Denton Festival with the other guys from Teenage Cool Kids, and that was really cool. Those guys are great. And I could go on and on about Philly. We have a really awesome community here. Richie Records is really awesome, like a cornerstone of the whole scene. They put out Kurt Vile, Purling Hiss, that Spacin’ album. And hey, Dinosaur Jr.’s still cool! I still listen to a lot of old stuff, a lot of bands that don’t exist anymore (laughter). Like recently, stuff like Earth A.D. by the Misfits and Dragnet by the Fall. And the Flamin’ Groovies. And I love SST, man. That’s some of my favorite shit. Like Black Flag, Dinosaur [Jr.], Sonic Youth, Meat Puppets. All of it. That ’80s stuff is the best, man.
TC A lot of people tend to remember the more straightforward punk from SST, but I think some of the best stuff they ever put out was the real weird shit.
MP All the weird stuff is what gave them so much character, you know? I think it’s cool that they got sick of the hardcore thing, they grew out there hair, and started getting weirder bands.
TC Drag City has such a phenomenal history tied to indie music. Pavement, Royal Trux, Joanna Newsom, Stereolab. Ty Segall’s on there now.
MP I feel very grateful to be a part of that. And the history, it’s totally incredible. Royal Trux and Pavement. I think Drag City’s done a really good job of harboring and supporting really out-there artists. I think it’s really easy to notice certain bands pigeonholed into trends. But Drag City has the ability to see through that. Like Dope Body, they fit in nowhere else, but in the best way. But then you’ve got that juxtaposition with Ty Segall, who is right-on with everything, and has so much energy with his output and his live show. And then my friend’s band, Pearls & Brass.
That’s the other thing about Philadelphia, too, is the Allentown connection. Allentown is just an hour and a half from Philadelphia. The guy who plays bass in Pissed Jeans now is Randy, who was the guitar player and singer for Pearls & Brass, who did an album with Drag City back in 2006.
TC In another interview, you mentioned some points where you felt like music is fun, but partitioned off into this “unserious” space in your life, and were uneasy about not getting “serious” and going to college. It seems like you dissolved that bogus separation, between “serious pursuits” and playing in bands. I’m sure putting Mars out on Drag City reaffirmed the path you chose.
MP Yeah, that’s definitely true, man. But that was my mentality. I’m almost 32. That was my thought process when I got out of high school. Like, What do I do now? I took some classes here and there, I dicked around with the idea of college, but I totally wasn’t going to go. For me, this was the better decision. I don’t have any debt. I don’t have loans to pay off. And I don’t have a degree. (laughter) And when I look back at all the years, I didn’t even realize I was learning, but I was. Whether it was buying that four-track, or recording in my bedroom.
When I was 18, I wasn’t living in Philly yet. And I was never really that cool, and I’m still not that cool. At the same time, I’d go to R5 shows at the Church in Philly, and I did have an idea about what was up. But even then, I was really insecure about community and having friends that were in that community. So I went through phases, and because I didn’t feel like I was a part of a “scene” or whatever, I had to make so many things on my own. I had to make up music on my own and record it, come up with the concept for it, and play it out. And by the time I finally made it into Philly, and started hanging out with people, I still didn’t have a lot of friends there, didn’t feel really integrated, you know what I mean?
But it’s totally worth it, just having these experiences and learning that way. Yeah, that was my mentality when I was younger. I didn’t know what to do. And part of me wishes I was a little more mature about it when I was 18, so I could just be like, “Oh, this is what I’m going to do. I’m going right the fuck on tour.” But like I said, while a lot of kids were touring in their punk bands when they were 18, I didn’t have that. I had some friends here and there, but I really wasn’t integrated into those circles. I was a little outsider, but I think that ended up helping me, because I would go to every and any show. It could be a punk show, it could be a hardcore show, it could be a psychy folk show. It didn’t even matter. It was such an impressionable age, and those awkward years define you in a really strange way.
Mike Polizze’s scuzzy Youtube rabbit hole:
Tyler Curtis is a writer and San Francisco-transplant living in Brooklyn.