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Electric guitar, once an essential and irreplaceable aspect of rock and roll, has undoubtedly faded a bit from the limelight in the modern, alternative world of popular rock music. Despite the fact that many modern rock bands have replaced electric guitar with vocals and synths as the nucleus of their tracks, some groups continue to stay true to the traditional and guitar-focused sound of early rock and roll, while adding their own unique twist to the genre.
Such a faction of modern-day guitar enthusiasts holds Mike Polizze, guitarist and songwriter from alternative rock band Purling Hiss.
When he first began playing, Polizze maintained a somewhat simple style, sticking to freestyle noise guitar which would be recorded on his four-track tape recorder from the late ’90s, a sound which eventually integrated itself into Purling Hiss. Although the band’s new record, High Bias, is more musically structured than their earlier albums, Polizze made sure that he was still staying true to his freestyle guitar roots.
“It (High Bias) is a mix, because it will have song structure, but then will transform into more of a free-form thing. The last song (“Everybody in The USA”), has a long jam in the end that I kind of wanted to bring to it,” he says.
While his love for noise guitar has remained constant throughout his musical career, Polizze’s commitment to Stratocasters has been just as steady: “I have kind of been using the same stuff more or less over the last twenty years. As far as guitars, I’ve always played a Strat. Now I play a ’90s reissued Mexican Strat with a humbucker in it,” he says.
Polizze’s taste in amplifiers and equipment is much more diverse: “I play an Ampeg VT -22 head, the version where people often take the head out of the combo amp and use it as an independent head […] I bought a Fender Twin tube amp, and I’ve been messing with that, but I still think the Ampeg is even stronger and louder, that’s really my baby. I play through a half-stack with a 4×12 cab, and use an Electro-Harmonix turbo boost pedal. I also have a Big Muff pedal that our friend modified. Currently, I have been using an MXR Carbon Copy delay and an MXR chorus pedal on some of this songs on this album,” he explains.
One of the most influential musicians in Polizze’s life was Jimi Hendrix, who sparked his fascination with guitar-based music, as well as heavily distorted playing. He states, “With Hendrix, I remember my favorite performance was this sloppy Woodstock recording where they were all out of tune. It was just so raw and so cathartic…I loved how noisy he was. I knew there was more to it,” he says.
Many of the riffs featured on High Bias were pre-written by Polizze before the album was conceived. While recording them; however, Polizze added a substantial amount of overdrive, and a simple setup in order to add a classic rock style to his compositions. He strove for a classic, yet energetic sound while creating the album, saying “Some of the riffs on this album that I’d been writing for Purling Hiss are old. For Example, ‘3000 AD’ is heavy on the chorus pedal. I actually wrote that riff a really long time ago, and then I just brought it back. I like to rely on the power trio style […] I like the classic sound, and electric guitar has always been one of my favorite things,” says Polizze.
In the process of recording High Bias, Polizze first tracked the drums and bass live at the Uniform Recording studio in Philadelphia, PA with sound engineer Jeff Zeigler, and then later added a guitar track to the mix using Zeigler’s Ampeg Reverberocket, which he would later overdub with a track he recorded using his Ampeg VT-22.
“I recorded through his [Zeigler’s] Ampeg Reverberocket, which is a great ’60s amp. It’s got a straightforward, very simple sound. The more you push the volume, the more it distorts. It’s very natural and unadulterated – no effects required. I did the whole album with that amp, and then I got my amp and I overdubbed. I just doubled it, and did the same thing to produce an interesting [texture] next to it. They’re similar [the two guitar tracks], but I wanted to add a bit more dimension to the mix,” says Polizze.
While converting the artistry of High Bias’ studio production to a live performance, Polizze has found the translation to be smoother than in the past, partly due to the fact that there were no extra instruments piled onto the album as there were on earlier albums.
“Well, what’s great about this album, and what I really feel good about now for the first time, is that the transition is completely smooth for us from studio to live. There have been times in the past where I have recorded multi-instruments, or just certain songs that were better if they had two guitar players live, even though we don’t have two guitar players live,” he says.
Unlike past records, Polizze is pleased by the fact that High Bias can be almost perfectly replicated by Purling Hiss in concert – “I had that problem where I thought, ‘This sounds great on the recording, but how do I translate this live?’ With this new album, we worked it out as a band, and we can play all nine tracks live, and it will sound the way it sounds on the album. We’re really proud of that. It’s a real big band album.”
Polizze advises aspiring guitarists not to fear the lack of popularity in guitar-based rock and roll, and instead continue to play one’s own musical genre or medium despite its ability or inability to fit into the modern scene.
“I notice that people talk about guitar music’s popularity, or lack thereof, but I think it’s still there, and I think people have always wanted it to be there. I don’t think that people should be dissuaded from playing it if they have creative endeavors and if it’s what they like to do. I think rock and roll is a timeless form of music and expression at this point. I don’t think it can get old or dated. There’s something about electric guitar that’s cathartic and just pretty amazing,” says Polizze.
Regarding the future of rock and roll, Polizze does not believe that innovation lies in the progression of musical technology, or the ability to introduce an extremity of tempo or volume, but rather to further evolve the style of rock music by adding various influences from other genres.
“I just think that we’re at the point where technology isn’t really a factor anymore. Also, the experiment of extremes is something that’s almost been exhausted. Some people get bummed out thinking that something cannot be done if it’s already been done before, and I think that you have to recognize the limits to which people have stretched out up to this point. With electric guitar, there have been extreme genres in metal, for example, where bands have done the lowest metal with the most tuned-down guitars. There’s someone out there who has played slower than anybody. It’s been done before,” he says.
Polizze believes that in order to further evolve a form of music, one must take hints from the past, and use them in a way that they have never before been used. Instead of trying to push the boundaries of one genre, he argues that it is necessary for modern guitarists to create from what has already been created.
“You can find a good balance, and then experiment with all the genres that have already been created and try to put them all together, put them through your own filter. I think that the future involves bringing the past into light, too. Recognizing all the histories that interest current artists, and using them to create a new style by recognizing what has been created even in these last 20 or 30 years. It’s just this narrative that keeps on moving forward; there’s always going to be these different documents of music, and you have to try to keep on bringing them forward,” he says.
Bearing influences of power trio, guitar-centered classic rock, mixed with the modern art of double tracking and creatively selecting effect pedals, Mike Polizze is not only an active part of guitar music’s evolution, but indeed, fits into his own definition of rock and roll’s future.
Standout Track: “Fever”
Follow Purling Hiss on Twitter @PurlingHiss