Mike Polizze of Purling Hiss & Birds of Maya Interview
For the better part of the last decade Mike Polizze has been a mainstay in the Philadelphia music scene, best known as the guitarist from local legends Birds of Maya. In the last few years though the spotlight has shifted to Polizze’s own lo-fi, DIY, one-main turned full touring band, Purling Hiss. I recently picked Polizze’s brain about everything from how it is to play and record with a band to the earliest parts of Purling Hiss’ history. From humble beginnings in his bedroom on a 4-track tape recorder to his ground breaking 2010 tour with Kurt Vile. Now on Drag City Records with the likes of Bonnie Prince Billy and Ty Segall Polizze took some time out of his hectic schedule to catch up with Psychedelic Baby about the release of Water On Mars and everything else Purling Hiss…
Where are you from? Was the music scene there influential to you or did you look elsewhere for inspiration early on?
I’m from Media, Pennsylvania. I didn’t get into music through a music scene or community. I felt a bit isolated in that way from early on. Though I did go to punk shows in my teen years occasionally, they were pretty random.
As for inspiration early on, I had to discover music on my own. I didn’t really have any mentors until later in high school; there were a couple friends who got me into some music.
Your father studied music at one point academically; did he play a role in your interest in music? Is guitar your first instrument?
Yes, music was always around me from an early age. My parents had a good size record collection, and my dad would practice playing saxophone and piano often. My first instrument was the piano.
I know you have been in bands going back to your teen years, what were some of those bands? Did they record or release anything?
I’ve collaborated with people and been in bands dating back to high school, but never really recorded anything with anyone until I was in my early 20’s. Birds of Maya were the first band I consider putting something proper out with.
Was there a lot of music in the house when you were a child? Who did you listen to growing up?
There definitely was music all around me growing up. Between my father playing instruments and jazz records, and listening to my mom sing and play her music, I have a lot of memories of music early on. My grandparents had a big Wurlitzer organ that I used to play on all the time. I also fell asleep to the oldies station on the radio every night when I was in grade school; that seems like a good way for a song to really become embedded in your mind. Even as a toddler in the early 80’s my parents would have MTV on, and I would hear Michael Jackson and stuff like that. I was really scared of the “Thriller” video.
You were originally known as the guitarist from Birds Of Maya, are there any plans for new material in 2013?
Yes, I’ve been playing with those guys since 2004, and we are still going strong. We’ve been playing a bit more. There will be things to look forward to later this year.
What does the name Purling Hiss refer to?
I came up with the name while I was working on what became Purling Hiss’ first release, the Self-Titled album on Permanent Records. At the time it was just another 4-track recording I was getting into. I wanted something really unhinged and loose, with the guitars way out in the front. White noise was a component I was using to give the project its’ aesthetic, so the name is derived from some wordplay I came up with. Purling, besides something to do with stitching, is a murmuring or flowing sound, usually from a stream. That, next to the word hiss had a ring to it. I thought it seemed like a good fit for the music I was making.
Who are the members of the live band?
Mike Sneeringer plays drums and some backing vocals, and Kiel Everett plays bass.
How did Purling Hiss start and how has it evolved into what it is today?
Originally, it started as a solo recording project. I recorded and released two albums (Purling Hiss and Hissteria) before there was a live band, and by the time the third album (Public Service Announcement) came out on Woodsist Records, we were on our first tour. I formed the band when I was invited by Kurt Vile on a full US tour in the fall of 2010. We’ve since been a band.
How long have you known Kurt Vile?
I’ve known Kurt for about 7 or 8 years. Birds of Maya played a lot of shows with him back then.
The 2010 tour with Kurt Vile was a milestone in your career as an artist for several reasons; can you talk a little bit about the important role Vile has played in Purling Hiss’ history and that 2010 tour? What effect is it having on you at this point, some three years later?
Kurt’s had a huge impact on Purling Hiss! Besides being pals and playing shows together in the beginning, he’s also been a strong proponent for Purling Hiss. Especially when I gave him a hand-assembled CD-R/Self-Release I had just finished, which eventually became the “Public Service Announcement” album released on Woodsist in 2010. He gave his seal of approval, and hooked me up with Woodsist. Though Woodsist asked Birds of Maya to do a record a few years prior, this one was hooked up by Kurt. Between that and the invite to tour, he’s helped a lot.
Could you tell us a little bit about your writing process for Purling Hiss?
I’ve been continuing the path I’ve been on creatively, but the difference is working out the songs with the band. I’ll work on ideas at home and even record them sometimes, then bring it into practice.
I saw an interview where you said “if there’s an idea don’t wanna overthink it, if you think you stink”. Do you still subscribe to that theory? Lounge Lizards sounded much more constructed and intentional than the earlier Purling Hiss records.
I used to be really stubborn about writing songs. If I had an idea that initially interested me but couldn’t finish it, I would totally be stuck with writers block syndrome. There’s always a way out! I realized I had to find what quality originally stimulated me and re-work it; I learned that from playing with Birds of Maya. It used to blow my mind how we would jam on something for such a long time, feel like it was almost going somewhere, never quite making it, and the guys would be like “let’s just not play that anymore”. I took it as giving up. But I realized it could always pop up later, and we did indeed learn something from it. I brought that idea to working on my own stuff.
I think the Lounge Lizards EP was just a natural progression from the earlier recordings.
You recorded the first four Purling Hiss albums and both of the limited cassettes yourself; will you explain the recording process and what sort of equipment you used to record those albums?
Some of the recordings date back to 2004. All were recorded on my Yamaha MT4X (I happen to be next to it right now, otherwise I’d forget the model name) which I purchased as a floor model at a Sam Ash music store back in 1999. I recorded all the instruments and vocals by myself. I had a single Shure microphone that I used to mic everything, one track at a time. Recording the drums first made the playback much easier for overdubbing the other instruments.
Have you always been a lover of analog or have you dabbled in digital recording? It seems to be just about everywhere, almost unavoidable at this point, but as far as I know all of your releases have been recorded on analog equipment.
I love analog recording. At the time of recording the old stuff, I wasn’t experienced in recording techniques, nor did I have a lot of resources. The goal at the time was just to record the ideas and create the song. I’m no gear head, though I’m more interested in learning more and producing now. The recordings are crazy and all over the place, nowhere near a normal engineering technique; which I think, makes the recordings interesting and unique.
I always filled the 4-tracks on the recorder, and when I ran out and wanted more, I ran all the tracks into Garageband as one track, usually just to do vocals, exporting them as an mp3. I tried bouncing tracks on the 4-track (combining of tracks to create more) one time, probably when I was 19 or something and it didn’t work, so I never tried again.
Can you tell me about the release of “Public Service Announcement”? It has a markedly different sound than Purling Hiss’ first two albums.
The interesting fact about Public Service Announcement is that it was recorded before the first two official Purling Hiss records. Public Service Announcement was recorded in 2007, so it wasn’t initially a part of the project, but I wanted people to hear what else I had done.
The Lounge Lizards EP was the first time you went into writing an album with the knowledge it was going to have to be performed live by a band. How did that affect the writing for that album? How has it affected writing since then for Purling Hiss?
That was a record that did come out while the band was together, but it had been written and recorded before the band. This new record, Water On Mars, is the record where I really wanted to capture and compliment the band’s sound.
You have recorded the bass, drums and guitar for every Purling Hiss record up until this point, is that the case with Water On Mars as well?
This is the first album with the full band, and it’s a great feeling. It really turned out great, and to play those songs live, and have the recording sound the same is awesome. There’s only one song on there that I play alone, and that’s because it’s acoustic.
In April of last year, all three members of the touring band recorded the track “Lolita” over two days in a professional studio environment as part of the Shaking Through documentary series. Did you enjoy the experience? Did you learn anything that you used on the new album?
Yes, it was a lot of fun to collaborate with everyone at Weathervane Music, and Adam Granduciel from the War on Drugs, who curated the episode. It was just one day, one song, so it was a long one. I hadn’t been in a situation like that before, where there was a whole camera crew and producers all at once, but it was a great learning experience, and I think it really helped to carry over to when we recorded the album later. The album was recorded by Jeff Ziegler at Uniform Recording in Philly, and co-produced by Adam Granduciel.
Are there any plans to re-issue the extremely limited, tour only Dizzy Polizzy or Paisley Montage cassette tapes material in the future?
Not at this point. I had plenty of out-put in the last couple of years. Those tour only self-releases were a lot of fun to have available, the point was to keep it rare.
All of your albums have either been on vinyl or cassette; however Water On Mars will be available on CD through Drag City Records. Have you intentionally avoided CD releases until this point and if so why?
No, in fact the Self-Titled album was released on CD before Permanent Records released it on Vinyl. There’s an original 500 CDs that were released on archivecd.com out there in the world, somewhere.
Most if not all of your releases have been on different record labels thus far, do you have plans to continue working with Drag City after the release of Water On Mars?
Yes! It definitely feels great to have found a home, and with the way the band has evolved, and some of the songs have changed up a bit, it makes a lot of sense.
You’ve basically only used your Mexican Fender Stratocaster when writing and playing live since you were a teenager, is that still the case? I noticed you were playing your girlfriend’s Hondo H-76 in the Waters On Mars promo video…
Yeah, I still play the same old Strat, though I have another 1978 American Stratocaster that I have as a backup, and play a lot at home. I should work it into the set more. I just wanted to use the Hondo for the video because I think it looks cool. I love the way it plays too.
Originally you weren’t always pleased how the Purling Hiss recordings translated into the live environment; however in October of 2012 you released the aptly titled, A Little Off Center which is a live performance for WFMU radio. How have things changed and progressed since the band started playing out? How do you feel about the live Purling Hiss live performance at this point?
That’s my favorite live recording that’s out there, and I think it really captures the spirit of the band. We’ve just been practicing a lot and playing live so much in the last 2 years that we are really learning our own language. It’s better than ever, and we are really starting to improvise more in the practice space and feed off each other. It’s only going to get better.
What does Purling Hiss have planned for 2013?
With the release of Water on Mars, we plan on supporting it by touring. Right now, US and EU dates are being worked out for the spring. An announcement will come soon.
Who should our readers be listening to from the Philadelphia area?
Anything on Richie Records or Siltbreeze Records.
Is there anything I missed or you would like to discuss?
I don’t think there’s anything you missed. Thanks Roman!
– Roman Rathert