Purling Hiss :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Mike Polizze’s Purling Hiss has been sculpting guitar squall for nearly a quarter century at this point, tossing wiggy, psychedelic freakouts into the mix since the late aughts. At first a solo lo-fi recording project, later a trio, briefly a quartet and now a threesome once again, Purling Hiss has spewed corrosive, exhilarating noisy rock for decades. There’s a reason that the word “hiss” is embedded in the band name. 

Polizze’s project before Purling Hiss was the equally unhinged: Philly loud-rock legends, the Birds of Maya. Still, it’s fair to say that our guitar hero has also indulged a quieter side. His acoustic album, Long Lost Solace Find on the Paradise of Bachelors label, was one of 2020’s prettiest and most laid back folk rock recordings. 

Now with Drag on Girard, Polizze resumes his assault on the amplifier, with a blistered headlong brilliance. We talked to Polizze about the album’s double-guitar configuration and its unpremeditated process, its long gestation period, during which Polizze’s household did a little gestating of its own, making him a dad. 

But mostly Polizze tells me about the instinctual creative process that fuels bangers like “Baby” and “Drag on Girard,” songs that grew quickly and naturally out of riffs, often in a single take. “It was almost like, let’s just have fun. I don’t want to work on composition too much. Let’s just let it be loose and fried and enjoy each other’s company as a band,” he remembers. | j kelly

Aquarium Drunkard: You’ve been doing a lot of softer, folkier stuff lately. What made it time to rock out again?

Mike Polizze: I feel like things got staggered by accident because of the pandemic. We started tracking this Purling Hiss record in 2019. It’s a murky time period. I started playing Purling Hiss solo sometimes around 2015. It was Chris from Paradise of Bachelors, who I’ve been friends with for a really long time who talked me into it. It was his idea for me to play solo. 

He offered to do a Paradise of Bachelors record, and so I kind of mellowed out with that stuff a little bit. But I never really stopped with Purling Hiss. It seems like such a long time ago that I did a full-length. It was 2016, the last full-length. So really everything just got delayed. The album would have gotten put out sooner if it wasn’t for the pandemic and also all the manufacturing delays with the vinyl. That really screwed things up.

The one silver lining of that is that…I hate for people to think the album is old when it’s new. But the good thing was, I wasn’t done with the album. The album was put on pause because of the pandemic, so I did get to go back and work on it more. It’s still pretty fresh.

I was basically juggling two things simultaneously. I was starting to open up a new channel with some solo stuff and was still maintaining Purling Hiss as well. I’m actually at a point right now where I just really enjoy being in multiple projects. Because why not? I’ve got Birds of Maya, too. They’re my oldest band.

AD: Are they the same kind of songs that just get treated differently when you do them solo versus with Purling Hiss, or when you’re writing them, do you say, oh that’s a solo song. Or that’s a Purling Hiss song?

Mike Polizze: No, I think whatever’s in my surroundings and whatever’s seeping into my subconsciousness dictate what’s going to happen. It was a little easier with the Paradise of Bachelors record because I knew what it was going to be. When I was doing Purling Hiss solo, I was still combining electric and some psychedelic elements and loop pedals and feedback. It was still kind of noisy but also quiet, too. But when I got into the headspace of doing a Paradise of Bachelors record that made it easier for me to get into a folkier place. With Purling Hiss, I pick up an electric guitar and I just kind of mess around until something sticks. I’m not really thinking about what I’m playing. It’s like I’m fishing. I’m just waiting for something to come along and if it sticks, I caught it. 

AD: I was thinking that, for instance, “Out the Door” on this record could have started as an acoustic song. It’s pretty loud, but the core of it, you have used it for Long Lost Solace Find

Mike Polizze: Yeah, That was one of the first. I do remember using a voice memo on my phone for that. I was playing electric guitar. I got a new phone around that time and it was one of the first voice memos from this phone. I have thousands of voice memos.

AD: Oh, that’s funny. That’s how you do it. 

Mike Polizze: It’s become that way in the last three years, because it’s so easy and I don’t want to forget ideas. I constantly make voice memos.

But you make a good point. I was actually unplugged playing it. And you’re right that that could have been an acoustic song. I think there’s some overlap, definitely. I’m actually now starting to multi-task with projects. I might have multiple projects if I’m playing with people, like Birds of Maya. I’m starting to get used to multitasking just between projects now. I might have to think about that more. Like, what kind of song is this?

AD: I understand there’s something interesting going on with the two guitars on this record. Can you talk about that a little? 

Mike Polizze: It’s funny. We were a quartet for a little bit and now we’re back to a three-piece. 

When I went into the studio, I really enjoyed how we did it. It was an off-the-cuff process where the songs were mostly written but I told everybody don’t worry about it. Let’s have something loose. We can always move on from there. If it’s good or not. Part of that was, we were a quartet at the time, so that was some of the difference. Sometimes I’ll be the only guitar player and I’ll do overdubs but this was sort of a live, in the studio process. A few of the songs were first take. 

I think there were a couple of takes where we had our guitars set to whatever parameters they were, whatever settings they were on, and that was a tight fit. There are some shrill moments, but I kind of embraced it. Once the tape was laid down, it was like there was no going back.

AD: Embracing the shrill.

Mike Polizze: Yeah. It was an experiment in that way. It was two of us at the same time. I never really tracked in that way.

AD: Who is the other guitar player?

Mike Polizze: My friend Kiel [Everett], who used to be in the band. He’s not in the band anymore. Just pandemic. A lot of people’s lives changed, and we just didn’t get it back together. The band’s been through line-ups, you know? So, we’re back to a trio version, and it’s working out just fine.

AD: When you talk about two guitars, you think about Television. Are they an influence on you? Or are there other bands with two guitars that you think about?

Mike Polizze: I was more influenced by the idea of how I wrote the song and how I felt like a song might be served well with two parts. I do like Television. Obviously Marquee Moon is a stellar album. 

AD: There was that month where everybody was listening to Marquee Moon

Mike Polizze: Exactly. Of course. Maybe a couple of songs on our B-side have a Crazy Horse element to them. I really like that. The slower tempo, letting the guitar kind of breathe and have the two parts. We’ve done that a couple of times before. Ten bands will pop into my mind after this, you know? But Crazy Horse, and I do like Television…

AD: That’s a much cleaner guitar sound than you favor. 

Mike Polizze: Yeah. But I do like the idea of playing both roles as a single guitar player, switching between rhythm and lead. I like to think it gives it a 3D quality. You’ve got to work for it a little bit, and I like when guitar players do that, because it shows how their mind is working and how their craftsmanship is. If you know someone is a one guitar player in a band but they switch roles, it’s kind of neat to see how they approach that multi-level task. 

AD: Sure. There’s a lot of buzz and feedback on this album, which is a pretty consistent feature of your work. What do you like about that kind of sound?

Mike Polizze: I don’t know. It goes back to the formative years of playing music with people. Obviously culturally, we’re influenced by loud bands. But I like all kinds of music. 

You end up in all kinds of scenarios when you play shows. You’re doing exactly what you do, and then you get sound people asking you to turn down or whatever, and there’s nothing wrong with that. They’re just trying to make it work in the house. 

But I realized recently. I was thinking, why do I play loud? And I realized it’s based off the only acoustic instrument, the drum set. So, if the drummer is playing loud, you’ve just got to match how loud the drummer is. It’s kind of like live mixing. 

But also, just based on the music that we played, and this goes back to the formative teenage years. I was listening to classic rock and punk and psych. When I was a teenager I loved Hendrix. Or Led Zeppelin or Sabbath. They’re the real easy examples. And then just taking the buzz and feedback, how can you take that one component of all the things you like in a classic rock song and just grab onto that one component? Which is constant feedback and distorted guitars. How can you push that and make a statement out of it. By no means am I the first person to do that. I’m trying to find my own place in that world. 

AD: The amp is another instrument. 

Mike Polizze: Exactly. 

AD: There’s a track is called “Baby.” And I understand this might reflect something about your personal life?

Mike Polizze: That’s really funny and coincidental. It’s funny because I recorded that song somewhere between 2012 and 2015. I really just kind of come up with lyrics, almost like syllables over the chords I’m playing. There’s no real idea yet. I’m sounding it out phonetically, putting syllables over the music. “Baby” just kind of popped in. I pictured it being a funny Ramones song or something. I didn’t have a clear idea. 

It really is a funny coincidence because we do have a baby now. She’s almost two. She’d turned into a kid. 

AD: It’s an amazing thing, isn’t it?

Mike Polizze: Yeah. It’s like all of the above. All of the emotions. It’s a lot. It really is coincidental. I’m glad it happened. We started tracking in 2019, and that was tracked and then we got pregnant at the end of 2020. It really is a coincidence, but I guess it was fate. 

AD: How is that going being a dad with a little kid and also a musician?

Mike Polizze: It’s great. It’s the right time in my life. Everything worked out. I’m lucky. There are times where everything can feel a little bit overwhelming, but I think it’s making me better at managing. 

AD: Because you know you have to do it right now. There’s no screwing around.

Mike Polizze: Exactly, so any little bit of free time I get, I’ve got to get it down. I can’t let it get mixed up with a bunch of free time. It doesn’t always work out. Sometimes you get a little free time and you’re too tired to do anything. But mostly, it works. We were lucky. The pandemic, it sucked that it happened, but we made the best of it. 

AD: I was just seeing on the news that a lot of people had babies during the pandemic. There was a bit of a boom. 

Mike Polizze: Really?

AD: I guess there was nothing else to do.

Mike Polizze: Yeah, exactly. I’m not surprised at that. 

AD: You mentioned that your line up has fluctuated, but I was wondering if you could touch on the people that were in Purling Hiss for this album?

Mike Polizze: Ben Leaphart is playing drums on this album, and he’s been in the band since about 2014. And me and Ben actually go way back to 2004. He plays in Birds of Maya as well. He’s one of my absolute dearest friends and collaborators and bandmates in Philly. 

I grew up around Philly. Half my family is from Philly. I grew up in the burbs outside of Philly. So, I was always in and around there going to shows, but I moved there in my early 20s and met the guys in Birds of Maya. Ben ended up in the band, Purling Hiss in 2014, and that’s been going well. And Pat Hickey plays bass. I’ve been friends with him for a long time, since 2009 or 2010. He’s been in the band playing bass since about 2016 or 2017. Our bass player before that, Dan Provenzano, is great. He’s a busy guy. 

AD: He’s in Writhing Squares.

Mike Polizze: He’s in Writhing Squares, yeah. 

AD: And various other projects.

Mike Polizze: Yeah. He did what he could and then gracefully bowed out. He wanted to move on. Pat was there and it’s been super…this whole thing feels permanent. And then we had Kiel Everett play second guitar. He was actually the original bass player for Purling Hiss. So, he did the bulk of the touring and did Water on Mars with us, did the first couple of studio albums and then he departed for a little bit in 2014. And then he came back for a couple of years. Now it’s back to me and Pat and Ben. We were a quartet for a couple of years there. And that recording was the result. 

AD: How do you see this album fitting into your overall trajectory? Were you shooting for different things? Or do you feel like you got better at stuff? Was there anything like that?

Mike Polizze: I don’t know. This one seems like a lateral move to me, but not in a bad way, like in a cool way. It seems like there’s a natural tendency to have a trajectory or at least want a trajectory. When I was starting out, I was getting my experience and playing a lot with Birds of Maya in the aughts. Then as I started to get songs down, I began recording my own music. These lo-fi recordings. I really busted out a lot of stuff at once. I look back, and I think, “Whoa, I was energetic.” I didn’t realize. Those were all homespun home recordings. And so, when I went to Drag City, that was my first time going into the studio. Water on Mars was the first studio album on Drag City. And then I did a couple more. 

It’s weird. This album experience. Life changes a lot. It’s almost like I don’t even know. I don’t know how to answer that question. Where was my mind at? What were my goals? I think I felt like taking it easy a little bit. When Kiel came back into the band and we became a quartet, We did a couple of loose tours in 2017 and 2018, and it was fun. But I felt like it was a sidestep. It was a step out of the normal. Because there was a trajectory. It was only what we made out of it. We chose to stay busy. We wrote and we toured and then I kind of cooled off a little bit. 

AD: The last time I saw you play, you were in Greenfield on a bill with J. Mascis, who was playing Stooges covers. And you did at least one song with J. Did anything ever come of that?

Mike Polizze: That’s amazing that you were at that show. That was during the time that we were a quartet. That was the same line-up you saw that made this record. We’ve been so lucky to have toured with Dinosaur Jr. and getting to know people like John Moloney who tour manages them and plays in Sunburned. Just hanging out with the Dinosaur guys. 

But long before we started playing with Dinosaur—because we started playing with them around 2013. Every once in a while we would jump on a couple shows with them. But from our first live show, back in 2010, and I never saw it coming. People were oh, you kind of have a Dinosaur Jr. thing going on. And I really never meant to. That’s the truth. 

AD: But when I saw you play with J. I was like, oh yeah, that makes sense. That’s a good pairing. 

Mike Polizze: I think so, too, but I think the thing that irks me a little bit. The songs on this album are probably the most Dinosaur Jr. that a Purling Hiss record could be. 

AD: Nobody else sounds like him. The guitar sound that he does is instantly recognizable. 

Mike Polizze: Absolutely. We did some touring in Europe with them, and it was a really great time. I feel like…I don’t know how to explain it because I am the next generation, but I remember liking them growing up. My cousin let me borrow Bug or Where You Been? I totally dug it but I think that I’m also a person who likes music the same way he did, like I like really energetic music and punk and also guitar soloing. Not even guitar soloing. Not the flashy, silly parts. But just different guitar parts. And I think the end result of that is the same. It’s like the mixed inspirations…

AD: You’re not emulating him. You’re coming from the same place.

Mike Polizze: Yeah, but nothing came out, as far as a collaboration. I think I tried to hound Moloney a couple of times, like let’s make a noisy guitar record, the three of us. So maybe one day, that would be awesome. 

AD: You’ve talked a little bit about the process. You said it was a lot of jamming and working things out together. Can you tell me, maybe in the context of “Drag on Girard” which is such a monster cut, how you did it? How that came about?

Mike Polizze: That’s a great example. That came together from just jamming. I had the riff and then that was a prime example of the looseness and the first-take approach and the not-fully-developed song approach that we took. That’s the example. I love that. I don’t know if I was reading this before or after – Shakey the Neil Young book. It was when he was recording After the Goldrush. He rented a house brought in the band, but the people in the song didn’t even know the song, and he wanted that. That’s pretty cool, and I can relate to that. It’s not what I want to do all the time, but some of the time. There’s something special about being in the moment. Who knows? You might discover something and fall into something and it’s really neat. It comes from improvising. The “Drag on Girard” take, that cut, was really improvised. We sped it up and then slowed it down. The point of it is that you can take something that’s literally one riff and has no structure, and kind of build an experience around it. At least that was what we were trying to do. You know, let’s have fun and let our personalities go into it. 

AD: It references Philadelphia, which is where you grew up. How are things in Philly now? It was such an interesting musical hub before the COVID. Is it coming back now?

Mike Polizze: I grew up around Philly, on the outskirts, and I’m actually out here again now. We were planning on moving before the pandemic and then right when the pandemic was about to happen we moved. We didn’t know how bad lockdown was going to be. We didn’t know we were going to be stuck in our house for months. Remember, it was pandemonium. No one knew how bad this new thing was going to be. So, we sped up the moving process and got out. We knew we were moving, so we wanted to get to where we were going. But anyway, Philly…between the early 2000s and right before the pandemic was a great musical hub. I think it’s still there. I still have a lot of friends there. Some people must have dispersed. We didn’t leave because of the pandemic. I got married, and everything about our personal situation made it make sense. But I still live close to Philly. 

How is it doing now? That’s a good question. I feel like because everybody’s lives were affected. Everybody’s lives changed. I feel like it’s inevitable that it will set new paths. It doesn’t necessarily have to change where your friends are and where your happenings are. I still go down there. I’m there every week.

AD: Did a lot of the venues close?

Mike Polizze: Some did. But some reinvented themselves. Like Boot and Saddles is now Solar Myth. I haven’t been to it yet. There’s still a lot of places though. Some of the established venues, anything from the Met to Union Transfer, Johnny Brenda’s, Kung Fu Necktie, Ortliebs are mainstays. But it’s always felt that there’s a new DIY space. That comes and goes. That’s just good and natural. But admittedly, because of my own situation, I haven’t been down there as much. I’ve been to some shows. Bill Nace is putting on shows at Brickbat, Open Mouth showcases, and then I saw him play with Heavenly Bodies and Blues Ambush this summer at the Pageant Gallery. One big show, I saw Dinosaur Jr. with Guided by Voices. 

AD: Ooh, that sounds like fun. 

Mike Polizze: So good.

AD: So, things are sort of bumping along, doing okay?

Mike Polizze: Exactly. It’s weird. I’m happy to comment on my own personal situation, but I guess I can’t comment on whatever it is happening…

AD: I feel like we have more music up here, because people aren’t doing these big national tours. They’re going out for a weekend here and there. And we’re close to Boston and New York, within driving distance. So, we’re getting more stuff. Whereas before people would go big city to big city. 

Mike Polizze: Yeah it’s a great spot. You’re in Western Mass?

AD: I actually live in New Hampshire but most of the shows I go to are in Western Mass. Although there are a couple of new places, one in Brattleboro and one in Keene, that are getting some interesting shows. It’s been pretty good. It was great when Moloney was running the Root Cellar, and he’s not doing that anymore. But there’s still stuff to see. 

Mike Polizze: We’ve got to get up there. I really want to. We only have four shows right now. We’re taking it kind of easy. Easing into it. I think everybody kind of has to because everything’s backlogged. 

AD: You don’t want to come up here in January or February. It’s too much of a risk with the weather. 

Mike Polizze: Totally, maybe in the summer or fall. 

AD: So, have you played this stuff live very much, and does it need a lot of work to convert it for the live experience? It doesn’t seem like it would.

Mike Polizze: We’ve played a couple of the songs. I am trying to get a vibe down. It’s more about, for me, when we get together and we’ve got 45 minutes to an hour. Let’s put all this stuff—this is what we’ve got, this is what we’re working on—let’s whittle it down. We’re basically trying out all the tracks on the record and knocking a few out. Some are sticking. Some are going. But we’re going to try to play as much of it as possible. 

AD: Are you working on any collaborations or side projects? Anything besides the album?

Mike Polizze: I am still working on solo stuff. It’s not a secret thing. I have the solo stuff that I do, Purling Hiss stuff that I do and Birds of Maya, and with all of the above there are things in the works. And there have been ideas of collaborating with other people, but it might be too soon to say. It might not happen. It’s nice to keep that open, though. I definitely have some ideas. There’s a lot going on, though. I have a lot of stuff I’m working on. 

AD: Have you heard anything good lately? Music? 

Mike Polizze: I just went back and pulled a bunch of Wayne Shorter albums. I can’t take full credit for it because my dad was a saxophone player, and he had a pretty cool jazz collection. So, I’ve been listening to a little bit of that. And hmmm, what else? It’s so random. I’ll go through phases where I obsess about whatever I’ve recorded for myself, and then I won’t listen to any of my stuff, and then I’ll listen to a bunch of other of other people. For some reason I’m always a deer in the headlights when it comes to this question. I listen to a ton of music. I do. And then I’ll forget what I listened to last week. 

AD: You mentioned the Neil Young book. Are you reading anything else interesting?

Mike Polizze: Yeah, I picked up the Sun Ra book. It’s a coffee table book. Hudson Vinyl did it. That’s been awesome to have around. Then I’ve got a book I’ve never read, True Grit.

AD: Oh, the western?

Mike Polizze: Who wrote that? Charles Portis? These are books I’m going to read, and then I got the Grateful Dead biography, not Deal. It’s Long Strange Trip. And I got the SST one, Corporate Rock Sucks.

AD: Oh yeah, that sounds interesting. I’d like to read that, too. 

Mike Polizze: And then I was into some true crime stuff. Friends lent me the book that Patton Oswalt’s wife wrote about the Golden State Killer. She was writing the book and she died before he got caught. That sucks. I mean, it’s good he got caught. I’ve been really lagging on getting into a good book.

AD: You’re busy. 

Mike Polizze: But I have all that stuff on deck.

AD: Right, so what do you think makes a great song great?

Mike Polizze: Oh, man, I’m learning to really appreciate not overthinking the song process. When you first spit something out, that’s where the energy and the goodness of it is. I have a hard time replicating it in the studio sometimes. Like what was it about the demo that was so good? Sometimes the demo structures will be weird, but they end up being more of a natural thing. Like I’ll do something three times instead of four times on the demo, and it will feel more sterile when I try to do the right number of parts. I’m trying to work on that a little bit more. 

I guess what makes a great song is that the artist finds their specialty, what it is that they do, and just runs with it. Whatever it is about their character, their personality for music, they capture that and can really document that, that’s really special. 

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