Words by Jonathan Stout
Although some of the listening public expect more from rock n’ roll nowadays, there’s something to be said of the expression, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” It might be a rarity nowadays, but some bands are still able to create timeless, yet progressive, sounds simply with the traditional band format of guitars and percussion.
This is the case with Philadelphia’s Purling Hiss, who’s latest album Drag on Girard (out on Drag City) continues in the band’s wonderfully rewarding tradition by blending punk, classic radio rock, grunge and slacker to create melodies and earworms that are destined to rumble around in listeners’ ears well after the record stops spinning. Layered swirling guitar tracks by band leader Mike Polizze charge forward with rolling percussion that coalesce so seamlessly that the album rushes by too fluidly to give the listener a chance to skip a song. Instead, the only choice is to restart the album again once it’s finished. Again and again.
Off Shelf: Drag on Girard is your first Purling Hiss album in 6 years. How have you been spending your time outside of this project?
Mike Polizze: Since the last Purling Hiss full length LP, and a couple EPs, I put out a solo album that features more acoustic guitar and mellower songs to put it simply. That ended up coming out during lockdown in 2020. We actually started tracking this new Purling Hiss record at the end of 2019, but with the pandemic, it pushed everything back. We worked on it at a slower pace so it was a combination of taking our time, and covid affecting everything. It’s great to be back!
OS: Did you work with the same collaborators/bandmates on this release as on High Bias or is it a different band nowadays?
MP: Yea, during High Bias, it was with Ben Leaphart on drums, and Dan Provenzano on bass, but nowadays its with Ben and Pat Hickey on bass. But all three of them get together to play Magic the Gathering and Warhammer so it’s all one big family. [laughs]
OS: This album really fires on all cylinders from the get go, with the opener “Yer in All My Dreams.” What was your songwriting process? Did you labor over the songs for a few years or did it come together quickly?
MP: That particular tune was one we have worked on over the years, and was fun to watch evolve into its finished form. But maybe we’ll change it again? Some songs came along quicker than others. The B-side longs-jams were improvised a bit in the studio. We took a loose and improvised approach to much of the record.
OS: Your songs blend shades of punk, classic rock, grunge, slacker and more to create a very cohesive sound that you’ve honed and developed throughout your discography. Although Drag on Girard is a consistent next step, was there anything new or different that you gained inspiration from during the making of this record?
MP: I’d say a more first-take approach. We were working as a quartet around when recording the album, and we had all these ideas in a short amount of time. So we treated it like playing a show. I think we tracked the record in two days.
OS: The pandemic was a time when many artists were forced to take a step back and reassess their approach – whether it was a break from touring, increased online presence or increased focus on writing and recording, among other things. Did the complications of the pandemic shape the creation of this release at all? Has your approach to your craft changed at all?
MP: Yeah, I feel affected by the pandemic with our music. It feels like starting over a bit. The idea of touring and everything back in motion feels out of step and not where we left off a few years ago. We tracked the album in two sessions, but I couldn’t go back for like a year to do overdubs and mixing. And when we got back to that, it was a slow process that we just accepted, and took our time. Not to mention the slow-down of record manufacturing that also set everyone back.
OS: One of the biggest defining factors of your sound is your use of fuzz and distortion effects. Were there any specific pedals or guitars that you enjoyed using during recording? Do you mind giving some insight into your current setup?
MP: Sure! I play through an Ampeg VT-22 head and just run a boost sometimes and a Big Muff pedal. I’ll use a wahwah, and delay as well. But I’ve really relied on that Ampeg for a lot of this sound used in Purling Hiss and Birds of Maya.
OS: Your releases have varied in terms of recording styles- from lo-fi home recordings to more traditional studio arrangements. How was Drag on Girard recorded?
MP: We recorded at Jeff Zeigler’s Uniform Studio in Philadelphia. This is our third full length LP we recorded with him, and I also did my solo record there. We recorded this LP half on 2” tape and the other songs right into Protools I think.
OS: Drag City’s been your home for a while now. What keeps you there and what do you enjoy about being a part of that label?
MP: They keep putting my stuff out! [laughs] They’re great. It is awesome to work with them. I never had a musical idea or a recording I gave that they didn’t seem excited about. They’ve never shot any music down, and have always been open to ideas, output, and have been super supportive.
OS: The music industry is having a hard time bouncing back since the pandemic – from artists struggling to break even from tours, astronomical ticket prices for fans, dismal streaming payouts, etc. What keeps you interested and inspired to continue playing music, both in general and with Purling Hiss?
MP: I’m just always writing songs and jamming, playing guitar during any free time I get. It’s just something I love to do and have to do. Just to keep playing and documenting ideas. It’s a real joy to be able to do that and play music with friends.
OS: What’s in the cards for the rest of 2023? Do you have any tours or festival appearances planned?
MP: We’re doing some shows around the release of the LP-east coast dates with Chris Forsyth and Garcia Peoples. We’re looking forward to planning more dates soon!