Mike Polizze, the Pennsylvania native who records as Purling Hiss, has gone through a series of transformations over his relatively short life. After barely squeaking through high school, he waffled through a series of dead-end jobs while living with his parents before finally connecting with the Philadelphia band Birds of Maya. He’s also undergone an aesthetic transformation: His first few recordings were proudly skuzzy, power pop melodies buried under layers of gunk and muffled by deliberately lo-fi recordings. But on 2013′s Water on Mars, he spit-shined his songs until they glowed. The just-released Weirdon goes even further; its opening track, “Forcefield of Solitude,” is lit up ’70s-rock guitars. The rest of the record combines Polizze’s uncanny ear for hooks with early Dino Jr.-style squawk and buzz. It’s one of the year’s most instantly endearing albums.
We talked with Polizze from his home in Pennsylvania about how his childhood shaped his songs, the worst job he ever had, and whether or not Jesus is an alien.
Can you tell me a little bit about the part of Pennsylvania in which you grew up?
I grew up in Media, PA, which is in Delaware County which, next to Philadelphia, is the second most populated county in Pennsylvania. I think. I was in this hub-type area where you see so much traffic and so many different kinds of people from so many walks of life. Media sits next to Chester, which is this very impoverished area. I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood, and I lived in a neighborhood that kind of looks like a suburb — but not a plowed, flattened, cul-de-sac type thing, with cookie cutter houses. All the houses kind of looked like they were built in the ’50s, and they looked different from each other. Media has some upper-class, affluent neighborhoods — the rich kids — and then there are the poor kids, and I was somewhere in the middle. When I was a teenager, I had some friends that grew up in a lower-class family — they were good people, and I watched them struggle and really didn’t understand why. And [I also experienced] the opposite situation, where all of the other kids are doing something cool, and you can’t figure out why you’re not going on the snowboarding trip, and it’s because it’s too much money. You’re so close to both sides of the spectrum.
I read that during the time you were growing up, you kind of bounced from job to job.
Yeah, from the time I was 19 until I was 29, I had a lot of crazy different jobs. Nothing specialized, just menial jobs. I worked for Lucent Technologies, running fiber optic cable when I was 19. Definitely not the career for me.
Was that the worst job you ever had?
No. I was not quite a legal assistant, but I worked at a law firm, and it was total paper shuffling. It was a law firm that foreclosed on houses. I literally got hate mail delivered to me, because I was the handler — “c/o Mike Polizze.” I worked in the section that handled Western Pennsylvania, and I was so young and aloof that I didn’t realize what I was doing. I finally realized, “Oh, I’m the one mailing the letter, ‘Your house is going up for sheriff’s sale next week.’” And I had nothing to do with that — I was just another cog in the system. But because my name was on it, I’d get letters back that said, “Fuck you for foreclosing on my house.” I had an epiphany, where I was like “Oh no — this is what I’m doing. This sucks.” That was the worst year of my life. But it was a wake-up call — the next year I joined Birds of Maya and moved to the city.
Lucent Technologies sucked too. That was total opposite — get up at 5 a.m., drive to the city at 6 a.m. and you have your toolbox and dirty jeans on and you’re working in an AT&T building. One time I remember going in, and they were like “Mike, look at the ceiling. See that threaded rod?” — there was this metal rod that was coming through the ceiling. And I had to take a 20-foot ladder, and I was on the top rung, my arms stretched out above me and — you know when you hold weight above you for a while your arms get tired? I’m up there at the very top at 6 in the morning sawing through a metal rod, and the saw got stuck. But because I was so high up, I couldn’t let go. I just remember thinking “Fuck this shit. I’m not gonna break my neck falling 20 feet for this job I don’t even care about.”
You said that this was the worst year of your life. What made it so bad?
I was going through social changes. I fucked around in school — I graduated with like a 1.6 GPA. You just watch people go past you, and you question yourself. My mind wasn’t ripe at the time. Now that I look back on it, I shouldn’t feel guilty about it — everybody’s got to go at their own pace, and I just smoked a lot of weed and stuff instead. I was encouraged [by my family] to do something productive, and I had the freedom to decide, I just didn’t know what to do.
I think I had this guilt complex where I thought playing music was self-indulgent. I knew I wanted that, but I didn’t know how to get it. By the time I was 21, I realized I was still at home — and I wasn’t sitting there being lazy, I was going to the city and playing music with people — but I had a dead-end job and was trying to figure out how to take my creativity and do something with it. I went to one of those technical schools — what a waste of time and money. It was five months and eight grand, and my grandparents had passed away, so I took my share from their house and put it toward this. And I was all gung-ho. I was like “I’m doing something!” I really think that back then, just having something to do made me feel good. But I was basically lying to myself. I was definitely striving to do cool things, they just weren’t happening. I was going to shows and really enthusiastic about music and stuff, but I needed that outlet, because I wasn’t really going to college. I knew I liked music, I just didn’t know how to harness it.
Was it just that you thought “Oh, music isn’t a real career?” That’s a thing that happens sometimes – people have a dream of doing something, but they think, “Oh, but I can’t really do that as a job,” so they try to come up with something more practical.
That was part of it. I was like, “You can’t go to school for music,” and so I just sort of kept forcing myself to try to break out of this confinement. And once I started going to more and more shows and getting more involved, going to record stores and buying more records, I realized that there was a community. Eventually, I went into Spaceboy Records on South Street [in Philadelphia] and saw an ad that said, “Looking for someone to play lead guitar who’s into the Stooges and Blue Cheer.” And I was like, “Whoah this sounds really cool. But is lead guitar cool? I don’t want to be in a bar band.” I had that spunk in me, still. I was in my early 20s and going to see Lightning Bolt. [But I replied to the ad and] met Jason [Killinger] and Ben [Leaphart] from Birds of Maya, and we’ve been friends ever since. They had some experience and were great artists and had great taste in music and they inspired me a lot.
You mention that you were into Lightning Bolt and the Stooges, but I also know that you were a really avid fan of classic rock. That struck me as interesting, because most people think of those two types of music as being opposed to one another.
I feel like a lot of kids discover punk first, because they relate to it. Then, years later, they’re like, “Alright, fine, I like the Grateful Dead.” For me, I was 11 years old when 120 Minutes was on, so I was like “Oh yeah, I wanna get a guitar and rock!” And after that got bland, I was like “Fuck, I don’t know what to listen to next.” I didn’t have an older sibling or older friends or a mentor to be like “Hey kid, here’s Black Flag.” And so I’d heard of Jimi Hendrix, and I started smoking pot around that same time, and I remember being stoned and listening to his music and being like, “How the fuck does he do that? That’s so creative.” I didn’t know how to express what I was hearing back then. I understood it, but I couldn’t articulate it. He was breaking out of the box and being an artist.
I’d moved away from musicianship over the years. I grew up in a musical house, my dad had jazz records around, he was a musician. So [Hendrix] was the start of my search for using guitar as a way to express ideas that didn’t have to be conventional. Hendrix opened that shit up for me. And that led to Sabbath and Pink Floyd. I understood punk — I went to a bunch of punk shows in my teenage years, but they were all current, and I didn’t know [the bands] they were referencing. Finally someone gave me Damaged by Black Flag, and then I got Bad Brains and I started hanging out with a friend who got me into Fugazi and Minor Threat, and then I kind of went off on my own and started picking stuff up, like Surfer Rosa by the Pixies. I kind of realized it on my own. But that wasn’t until I was like 17 or 18. I didn’t really care for a lot of contemporary stuff at the time, so I just kept going to stuff from history, like Stooges and the Ramones, and being like “This rules. Finally.”
I feel like one of the places where both of your influences kind of converge on the new record is “Reptili-A-Genda,” which is pretty psyched-out and ’60s sounding, but also has the kind of ramshackle aesthetic to it as well. And the lyrics — it sounds like you’re talking about conspiracy theories? Are you singing about them seriously, or ironically?
It’s both. It’s kind of poking fun, but how could you not be totally freaked out in 2014? It’s like, who can you really trust? How much do you really know? How many rights do you really have? And some of the conspiracy theories out there are just absurd and funny, but at the same time, you start to say, “You know what? Anything’s possible.” Everybody who used to work with their hands are getting replaced by computers. Religion is still relevant, there’s terrorism and the NSA, there’s Obama approving drone strikes. What can you do about it? You want to contribute, but at the same time you feel helpless. And you want to feel protected. So I’m throwing all of this imagery into one song, and I’m not presenting a solution to it, and I’m not even giving my opinion on it. I’m just observing all of these things that are around us. There are times I’ve been laying in bed stoned in the middle of the night freaking myself out, wondering if I’m being monitored from another planet and we were just planted here. I mean, Jesus might be an alien from a couple of solar systems over.
I’ve heard that theory before. Given how far you’ve come sonically, when you look back at your earliest recordings, what would you say characterized them?
The earliest recordings were probably the Dizzy Polizzy album that Drag City reissued. Those songs were probably written in 2004 and were completed around 2006. That was the first CD-R that I did. Those songs are characterized by an appreciation of pop sensibilities and classic rock, but with sort of a DIY/punk execution. I’d say if there’s anything punk about those recordings — which there’s not, really — it was just my approach. I hand-assembled CD-Rs and silkscreened the covers, and it was completely under the radar. That was the beginning of my identity — “Oh, I like mid-tempo guitar-oriented stuff that has pop sensibilities, that were psychedelic and had a punk aesthetic — a homemade, handmade feel.”
I’ve been saying to people, “There’s always tons of music to listen to, but the Rolling Stones and Zeppelin were dialed in to the bluesmen they were referencing. It’s weird to grow up in these times with FM radio and, like, 80s dance music. I was a little sponge when I was a kid — early Madonna and Michael Jackson songs are embedded in my brain forever. So there’s just so much to reference. You’re trying to capture your whole life, and you want to concoct this thing tastefully, but you can’t ignore what you grew up with. You also have to know when to discard it. If I bake a cake and put everything in the refrigerator in it, it’s not gonna taste good. So I’m still learning. I’ve definitely made things that don’t taste good before.