Interview by Nick Hutchings
Photography by Aaron Biscoe (portrait) and Tiffany Yoon
The Replacements are back! But if they weren’t it wouldn’t have mattered because they had a ready-made replacement and that was the band Purling Hiss. Boasting a delicious Spooner-ism for a name, Purling Hiss is the alter ego of Mike Polizze. As KRS One might have said “it’s the sound of the Polizze!” As James Naughtie on the Radio 4 Today programme may have announced them “Hurling Piss”.
This is a band chock full of tunes, and attitude. Polizze has been making music as Purling Hiss for a good while, starting off in his bedroom recording spiky four-four four tracks full of hiss and piss, but since 2013’s “Water on Mars” he’s become a full band mostly so he can (fuzz) peddle (sic) his enthralling brand of weirdo punk pop on the road proper.
At the tail end of last year he snuck out the amusingly titled “Weirdon” on Drag City Records and like a F117A Stealth bomber it buzzed under the radar but laid a string of cluster-banging garage rockers in my head and made my cerebral cortex caustic. He counts Kurt Vile and War on Drugs Adam Granduciel as fans but he’d certainly made a new one in me.
With songs like “Forcefield of Solitude” that are part Pavement, part Petty, and pure pop nuggets like “Learning Slowly” that feel like J Mascis was sticking a rocket up Real Estate’s winsome posterior, it’s fair to say that “Weirdon” has been on repeat play. If you like the Meat Puppets or the Minutemen then this band could be your life. I spoke to Mike about his, on the eve of their European tour…
How would you describe Purling Hiss to the uninitiated?
We’re just a rock band simple. It didn’t start out that way. I didn’t have a band, I was just documenting recording ideas on my 4-track recorder and I just wanted to make some really fuzzed out psychedelic harsh sort of punk songs. Then I passed them around to WMFU the radio station in Jersey City near New York and I remember hand-assembling CDs and it became a thing. Small labels picked it up and put it on vinyl before I even I had a band. For people who don’t know who we are it started off as a side project of mine that turned into a band. It picked up when Kurt Vile asked me if I wanted to go on tour and I formed a band because of that. It’s just electric guitar music inspired by rock, pop, punk, psych sort of stuff.
So the previous album “Water on Mars” was that the first one as a band?
Yeah, that was the first one to have other people on it, and the first Drag City record.
How did it change having a band, was it still you writing or do others chip in?
It was still me writing but the difference was I brought the ideas to the practice where we hashed them out and rehearsed. You can really hear the difference. For one we’re in a studio so it’s better quality and you can hear it more clearly. It’s weird; you just document and keep going.
I love that record, I love all the albums but I’m so used to making my own recordings and having complete control so it’s a learn as you go sort of a thing. “Water on Mars” was like a band-rehearsed album that we cut in the studio.
Did you have a producer in the studio?
We went with our local favourite best friend Jeff Zeigler and also Adam Granduciel from War on Drugs was involved and helped out too. He was a great guiding light. Him and Jeff were together a lot so it was putting more heads together and Adam knew how we played and he could communicate with Jeff who’s got a great ear and a great studio. That was a good experience for us.
It must be weird going from bedroom where it’s all you to a studio with a producer…
The weirdest part about it is people on the receiving end, the listeners – I understand they want to identify the artists a certain way and before they saw the band, those old recordings to me are almost like sketches or drawings or paintings. They’re sort of in the distance, they sound older. And the way you’re hearing it that way – those old lo fi recordings there’s no way you’re going to hear it live like that.
There’s some bands that pull it off but I did it sort of ass backwards, because all I was doing was just making recordings for myself. I didn’t know it was going to turn into a band or else I might have done it differently.
So I sort of started over again and you just keep moving forward. Sometimes you alienate people and sometimes you gain new fans. I have no idea. I’ve heard mixed reviews and it’s just my honest trajectory forwards. This is the timeline, this is the narrative that’s happening. I didn’t have a band and then I did and then the band mates changed and we did the last record (“Weirdon”) with someone differently. There are a couple of change ups but in the end it’s still me and it’s still guitar music.
How is it taking direction in the studio?
I admittedly had a bit of a hard time with the first record even though I loved all the people, it was my own responsibility, and it was hard to adjust because I felt naked. I could layer things on my own but it was mirroring back exactly what I was putting out. It was hard getting with band mates and working with other people’s ideas and so I kind of used that album as a measuring stick. After it came out I was like how do I want to move forward from here because that was my first experience.
After “Water On Mars” we went to Europe, that was two years ago, and I remember coming back and in Spring/Summer of 2013 I wrote “Weirdo” and I demo-end it on my own in the Fall, and then a year ago I went up to New York and recorded with Jason Meagher who recorded Steve Gunn, Jack Rose, Blues Control. It was less of a band album, I had different band mates – I had my drummer Jason from Birds of Maya play drums on it, and sometimes I did songs by myself. It felt back to a solo album in a way, that’s not to say the guys didn’t bring a band vibe.
The album was really written on my own and the band that we’ve had lately has sort of turned into a band on the last few tours. Working with Jason was great; it had that more homespun feel to it. Kind of ramshackle. There’s some highlights of heavy guitar stuff but it’s sonically almost lo-fi feeling even though it’s hi-fi at the same time.
It’s super poppy, has that always been there, trying to get out?
It’s kind of funny I’ve always loved pop and hooks and song structure and I definitely wanted to display some songwriting in the last couple of albums because I’ve always got the shredder sort of moniker, and that’s cool. When I was putting out the two Purling Hiss records they’re very guitar heavy and that was supposed to be sort of experimental and heavy on the guitar and less about songs structure, but if you listen to some of the poppy stuff like the album I did on the label Mexican Summer (“Lounge Lizards”) they had pop elements too but they were so lo-fi they came off as experimental but this latest album is definitely poppy.
My next step is to take a step back and just chill and combine some of the guitar work and the pop and see where I can take it from here. But I love pop music, I really do.
What is a “Weirdon”?
I like things whether they’re songs or lyrics where you might not get a clear picture but you might get a couple of ideas what something is. It makes things interactive, like Purling Hiss – people think it means Hurling Piss, but it actually doesn’t mean that. But I realized that at the end and it’s a great icing on the cake. I was like cool – leave them hanging, and also it shows I do have a sense of humour but that’s not why I named the band that.
“Weirdon” sounds like “hard on” but also like a planet “I’m from the Planet Weirdon”. It can be anything you want as long as it conjures some imagery. Some of the drawings on there are gonzo-y and weird. Maybe it’s just me but a couple of people have said, “Well your album’s not that weird”. It doesn’t have to be, but some of the songs are weird. They’re silly and fun, some are serious. I wanted it to be trippy in a wide-eyed kind of a way. Gonzo-y or exaggerated in a pop way rather than in a psych guitar way like I’ve done in the past.
“Purling Hiss” is a great Spoonerism like when Jeremy Hunt the Culture Secretary was mixed on Radio 4’s Today programme…I’m amazed that wasn’t the reason.
When I first came up with it, it was an experiment I was doing on the guitar. I didn’t know if it was the band name or the name of the recording. I was really into weird guitar tones and fuzz and white noise. I looked up white noise and it occurs in nature too in streams and water “sssh” sound. I looked up some words I could think of and Purling means stitching and also the swirling effect in a stream or river so I thought that was cool imagery to complement the music. And “Hiss” is an obvious word; it has a ring to it.
I was thinking about calling it Hissing Purl at first but then I thought Purling Hiss sounds better and then I didn’t even realize until later it was a Spoonerism too but that was just funny. There’s a little bit more depth to the meaning of the name.
You obviously have a sense of humour – what’s the lyric in one of your songs about 6pm?
“It’s the end of time, it’s about 6pm”. It’s nonsense. To just combine the elements of a song, the way the music sounds you choose a couple of words, and certain inflexions and it comes off in a peculiar way but it doesn’t have to mean anything.
It’s hard to be a Bob Dylan type and tell a story that’s a clear picture. “Sundance Saloon” is an interesting bar full of characters but maybe it was a drunken guy lamenting about the end of the world. He could be right, or he could be crazy. It’s not really clear.
The other thing about the lyrics there seem to be a lot of female names crop up – for instance Sadie…
All that song really is, is images of me driving and listening to the Beatles even though it doesn’t make sense because I said “Revolver”’s on and “Sexy Sadie” is not on that album but it doesn’t matter. I’m driving and listening, and instead of “Fortress of Solititude” I say “Forcefield” but sometimes that’s my favourite place to be in the van, because it’s your think tank – just talking about things. And going down 95, the main highway.
It was supposed to be about after the last tour I did and getting back and we were touring in that same vehicle and it is home sometimes. It’s crazy because it’s so small.
What is your vehicle?
It’s a Mini Van, and the back seat’s out and it’s really on its last legs, but it’s sentimental in a lot of ways because I’ve been all over the country with it a bunch of times and been through a lot of crazy situations and it’s got many miles on it.
Have you given it a name?
Yeah, Silverwing because I hit a wall and we did a bodywork job on it and it’s grey, just the primer on it. I never painted it. It’s a red mini van with a silver wing. In actual fact that’s a lyric in the song too.
How many people do you cram in that?
There are 3 of us.
Is that why the band members have changed around since the two albums?
Yeah, you know it’s just opportunities to join other bands have come up.
They’re not sick of you in the Silver Wing?
Sick of the van – four years of doing the same thing. Jobs keep you home that sort of thing.
When you come over on the tour are you going to use that as an opportunity for writing?
Sometimes touring is busy enough where I don’t really get to be creative but sometimes you get a couple of hours to yourself to play guitar and it all comes out. I imagine I’ll come up with some ideas. I think last time I was in Europe with the band, towards the end of the tour I started using voice memos on my phone to record ideas and it was a new phone for me then. It was the first iPhone I got and I just have hundreds and hundreds of voice memos now cos it’s just so easy to hit record and throw down a 20s idea so I don’t forget about it.
With the tour, what can people expect to see? Lots of between song chat?
Usually not too much banter in between. I talk a little bit and we’ll play a lot of stuff off “Weirdon”, we’ll play a couple of songs from “Water On Mars” and a couple of old ones. It’ll be a three piece. We’ve even got a few new songs. We played a benefit in Philly last weekend and we played some new songs that went over pretty well so that was nice.
Do you throw any shapes?
More just dropping to the knees and making feedback into the amp and rolling around on the floor, all that stuff.
What’s your favourite song to play live?
I like “Learning Slowly” a lot. That’s one of the singles off the album for new stuff. “Six Ways To Sunday” is a fun one to play, we do a little jam at the end. “Airwaves” is fun, that quick pop song. We do a Minutemen jam at the end, meets the Meat Puppets stuff, that’s fun to play. Those three songs for newer stuff. But also “Mercury Retrograde” is fun, “Run From The City” is an old one we still play.
Weirdon is out now on Drag City Records.