Every Purling Hiss record prior to Water on Mars was recorded exclusively by guitarist and singer, Mike Polizze. He was laying down every drum track, each bass line and every layer of grimey lo-fi guitar on his own. However, it’s now a group effort. Polizze is now accompanied by drummer Mike Sneeringer and bassist Kiel Everett on the new album; it’s a major change in not only the album’s sound but also in song writing.
“Now I’ll have an idea and practice it with the rest of the band,” Polizze says at a table in Fishtown Tavern, just blocks from their practice space. “It’s just an obvious difference for me and how it went from me literally recording everything on my own in my bedroom and now everyone puts a bit of their own spin and personality on it.”
Polizze originally put the power trio together to just be a live band. Although Water on Mars suggests otherwise. It’s a complete album with highs and lows, spot-on sequencing and maturity shown by its players by never over-stepping one another, only playing what’s necessary for each song. It’s clear that they’ve been putting their better foot forward in working together as band. And naturally as they continue to work together as a unit in practice more they’re starting to gel more.
“Now Mike will come in with ideas and they won’t be completely worked out,” Sneeringer says. “But he’s writing all the time, so he’ll just want to share a certain guitar part he came up with. And sometimes he’ll just noodle around on stuff and I’ll subconsciously start playing along.”
Immediately Everett agrees, saying that they’ve been creating music more by “picking up and playing” rather than Polizze teaching him a song or telling Sneeringer how the drums should sound. Even though Polizze is still the primary songwriter, he’s been letting their practices and jamming influence the direction of songs. And he never felt uncomfortable about adjusting their creative process.
“It’s been better in a lot of ways,” Polizze says. “I’ve learned their personalities and it’s helped me know how to bring ideas to start with because I know their playing now and how the others will complement it.”
However, the three personalities in this band are noticeably a bit different. Polizze is a fast-paced guy at times. But he isn’t hyper. It almost just seems like he can’t get all the words out of his mouth fast enough, and can be a bit tangential when he speaks as he sits straight up against the back of his chair. Sneeringer speaks distinctly slower and never without thinking first as if to not waste a word; he casually keeps one leg rested over his other knee. As for Everett, he’s a little more reserved and soft spoken, leaning forward on the table in front of him, often checking his cell phone. But combined musically they’re perfectly complementary, like three long-time friends that have gone through school together, learning a lot along the way.
That education of each other’s playing is on display on Mars. Purling Hiss’ songwriting matured beyond chord-strumming and blasting through guitar solos layered on top of lo-fi riffs as heard on the albums such as Hissteria and Lounge Lizards.
As a trio they excel in more structured songs like the melodic “Mercury Retrograde,” a song Polizze says is about “everything being on the fritz and going wrong.” Which actually seems to be a recurring theme. The mid-tempo track, “The Harrowing Wind,” where Polizze sings “A change in atmosphere/ Rebukes a longing/ And your money no longer pays/ The harrowing wind came today,” shows a side of the songwriter that wasn’t seen on prior releases. Now there’s clearly something inspiring Polizze’s writing, something that’s a little heavier than the simple lyric writing he’d done on song like “Midnight Man,” from Lounge Lizards. The same goes for “Face Down.”
“I had a friend that got mugged in Philly,” he says. “Someone who’s not from Philadelphia might have a totally take and not know it’s about this city. It’s essentially about the darker side of living in an urban atmosphere.”
Sneeringer’s drumming on “Face Down,” twists Philly pretzels around the listener but is never convoluted. That’s how he plays on the entire record actually. Sneeringer’s playing isn’t ever that flashy, but it’s rock solid. And for a driving, fuzz grunge record like Water on Mars, Sneeringer plays exactly what’s necessary and nothing more.
“I really enjoy jamming with these guys,” Sneeringer says. “But I come from a more punk background where everything is just super short songs and everything’s to the point. So drum-wise, my playing is being shaped a little because Mike has great drum instincts to give me ideas. He’s super attentive to the overall sound of the band, which I’ve never experienced.”
The improv they’ve been doing and working into their live shows is of the adventurous variety at times. The album’s title track, “Water on Mars” features five minutes of classic Polizze guitar noise, bending notes beyond recognition and toying with feedback.
“I like making music that’s almost interactive to the listener,” Polizze says. “I don’t want to make anything entirely complete. That’d mean that it’s done. I always love listening to music that I can keep going back to for ideas.”
Water on Mars has also shone a new side of Purling Hiss paying more attention to song lyrics. The simple guitar strumming on “Dead Again,” leaves the listener with little more than the lyrics to pay attention to and try to make sense of what Polizze is singing. He says he was trying to make it psychedelic lyrically rather than sonically.
Lyrics were basically the only part that wasn’t collaborative on Mars. Surprisingly, Everett, who is the main songwriter in his own band, Tin Horses, didn’t work with Polizze on lyrics.
“I didn’t write any [lyrics] because I think lyrics need to come from whoever’s singing them,” Everett says. “They need to be able to feel them. I know I personally wouldn’t be able to sing someone else’s lyrics.”
The Hiss recorded Water on Mars at Uniform Recording in North Philly with Jeff Zeigler at the production helm. They also brought long-time friend, Adam Granduciel of the War on Drugs into the studio with them to give some input on production.
“Adam’s really understands us as a band,” Sneeringer says. “He’s seen us grow and change since the beginning. So it helped to have someone in the studio who’s witnessed that progression so closely.”
But it doesn’t take a close friend to see that Purling Hiss has changed, rather, moved into the next phase of their sound since Sneeringer and Everett began playing with Polizze. The more team-oriented effort in writing has only proven that they truly are a trio and no longer just a one-man recording project.
Water on Mars is the featured album in this edition of Unlocked; hear the spotlighted single “Mercury Retrograde” in Monday’s post, read Tuesday’s album review, watch the “Mercury Retrograde” video in yesterday’s post and check back tomorrow for more on the extracurricular activities of Purling Hiss.