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From simple one-man recordings to a touring trio opening for buddy Kurt Vile, Purling Hiss takes the show on the road thanks to a blend of heavy yet catchy recordings and the tight-knit underground Philadelphia music scene.
Founded in Philadelphia, singer and guitarist Mike Polizze had no intention of forming a band when he began making music under the moniker Purling Hiss, since the idea was simply to record the ideas in his head.
“I didn’t really know what it was going to be, I was just recording ideas and just documenting,” explains Polizze. “I didn’t even know the first recording was going to be an album.”
What started as simply making art spawned from the ideas he documented started getting buzz, and he released two albums as a solo artist.
That all changed when he was invited to tour with fellow fuzzed-out Philly musician Kurt Vile in 2010. The invitation arrived after albums on Permanent Records and Richie Records had already been released. Since at this time it was still a one-man project, Polizze recruited Mike Sneeringer of the bands The Loved Ones and Puerto Rico Flowers as drummer and Kiel Everett of Tin Horses on bass, and they have been a three-piece band ever since.
Though the early work didn’t fit with the live shows at that time, the creation of new songs led to an increasingly similar connection between recording and playing live, as their personalities were cohesively carving the music they were playing. “There’s a great feeling to have ideas and then document the recording and see how they turn out,” Polizze says, noting that learning how each person plays his instrument and how they sound collectively gradually caused the live show to better complement the sound when they were recording together, rather than playing what Polizze had created himself.
Nowadays “things are better and tighter,” especially on the new album Water on Mars, which is being released by Drag City. Taking a cue from both the fuzzy, heavy riffs from the catalog, Purling Hiss infuses a new melodic garage rock sound reminiscent of Nirvana’s later efforts and Dinosaur Jr., but at the same time keeping the energy of the humble taped recordings that have formed the backbone of the band.
Purling Hiss’ transition into a more melodic sound on Water on Mars has been a “natural progression” of Polizze’s songwriting. Even though he clarifies he has ”always had sort of a pop sensibility in me from the beginning,” it hasn’t been until now that he has started to open up both lyrically and musically. Tracks such as “The Harrowing Wind” and the recently premiered single “Mercury Retrograde” showcase the melodic, laid-back vibe Purling Hiss has transitioned into. However, the band still knows how to make a lot of noise, as witnessed by the sprawling seven minutes of “Water on Mars” and heavy but catchy opening track “Lolita.”
As a teenager, Polizze’s influences were mainly classic and punk rock behemoths such as Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, and The Rolling Stones. After starting to learn guitar, his interests shifted into bands such as Black Flag and Bad Brains, before developing a curiosity for 1980s college rock such as The Pixies and Hüsker Dü. Basically, anything with loud guitars was a point of interest. That heavy, guitar-oriented sound has been crucial to Purling Hiss’ textured sound, which combines punk rock attitude and abrasive experimentation with classic rock’s emphasis on guitar lines and melodic sensibility.
For his own gear, it has been more about modifying the Fender Stratocaster he has had since he was 15 rather than shifting into different guitar builds. Since Polizze has been playing the same Strat for so long, it has been easier to develop a unique sound, and when he bought his beloved Ampeg amplifier almost ten years ago, it was a starting point for creating a seminal combination that he still cites as the key factor in the band’s unique wall of sound.
Unlike most digital recording being done on Pro Tools today, Purling Hiss has mainly recorded on four tracks. Although the band does take advantage multi-tracking, the recording setup remains simple. In the beginning, when the music was still a solo project, Polizze had just one mic for all of the instruments, and as he explains, “If I ran out of room on the four track, I would just run the rest on the computer… but that’s the old recordings.”
For the new album, the trio finally went to a recording studio for the first time. The result is a more polished sound, and there’s a noticeable difference on the new album’s cleaner approach. The previous record, Lounge Lizards, was a quick and concise punk rock-infused mix of distorted and squealing guitars that sounded exactly as it had been recorded – on a tape machine. Water on Mars provides sonic clarity and varied dynamics not previous heard, and even incorporates ballads into nine fantastic new tracks.
The War on Drugs’ frontman Adam Granduciel helped produce Water on Mars. Sessions were at Uniform Recording in Philadelphia with the assistance of Jeff Zeigler, and because everyone knows everyone in this scene, Polizze has been working with The War on Drugs’ on their new material, as well. Considering the emphasis on a sense of community that the Philadelphia scene embodies, it’s no surprise he had an influence on the recording. Polizze comments:
“He knows us personally; he understands the music that we’re playing…it definitely had an impact on the recording.”
Other than local indie mainstays such as Dr. Dog, The War on Drugs, and Kurt Vile, one of the staples of indie rock in Philadelphia is Richie Records, which Polizze recommends as a starting point for those curious about Philly rock music. Started in 2005 by Richard Charles, the drummer of the raucous disbanded punk group Clockcleaner, Richie Records was founded to shine the spotlight on lesser known acts in the area. Of the label’s prolific roster, Polizze’s go-to bands from the label include Watery Love and Spacin’, and of course, Polizze’s other band, the bluesy Bird of Maya, which emphasizes recording rather than touring.
The importance of community is apparent in not only the music, but how the band itself formed and how the idea of touring was sparked. Without Kurt Vile, Purling Hiss may not have ever become a touring band, since Polizze had already established a name for himself in the Philly underground scene, but had not been prompted to start a band until Vile’s suggestion of a tour. Purling Hiss’s trajectory been shaped by not only each individual in the band, but also the Philly scene. Its communal aspect just goes to prove it’s nice to have friends in hard-rocking places.
photos by Tiffany Yoon