Philadelphia isn’t a place generally spoken of with the same reverence as those other, more mythologised centres of American rock’n’roll – a Seattle, say, a Detroit or a New York City. All the same, for the last decade or so the city has kept hitting home runs. From hometown heroes The War On Drugs, Kurt Vile and Steve Gunn to a rich punk rock demimonde that includes Sheer Mag, Swearin’ and other paragons of the DIY sound, recent times have seen Philly kicking out the jams with the best of them. But if Philadelphia lacks the hype afforded to some of its peers, it means that it can still shelter a few best-kept secrets, and of those, Mike Polizze might just be the best of all. A transplant from nearby Media, a borough a short drive out to the city’s west, Polizze has carved out a sterling underground rep through his work in two bands – as guitarist for hard-rocking power trio Birds Of Maya, and as the creative force behind Purling Hiss, a decade-old project that’s released a string of frenetic, squalling but increasingly ambitious records through celebrated imprints including Mexican Summer, Woodist and Drag City.
As most have understood it, Purling Hiss and Mike Polizze are more or less synonymous; founded as a solo project, later expanded into a live unit, one was effectively interchangeable with the other. Polizze going out under his given name, then, feels like a calculated and symbolic move; an indication of a change of sound and style, something real and honest presented without mask or pretence. Long Lost Solace Find is all of those things, but it’s more too. Shunning electric guitar shred and garage distortion in favour of languid fingerstyle acoustic music and heavy-lidded balladry, these 12 tracks feel on the surface light and casual, but scrutinised up close betray a deep artistry and care. It’s the sort of record that makes you wonder: where, exactly, has he been hiding this stuff?
If you’re looking for an antecedent for Long Lost Solace Find, you might look to Kurt Vile’s 2011 breakthrough LP Smoke Ring For My Halo – another record that found a Philadelphia rock’n’roller choosing to soften and space out his sound, reaching back into the annals of folk and heartland rock for inspiration. This is particularly worth mentioning because Vile himself is all over Long Lost Solace Find. A buddy of Polizze since the mid-noughties, the pair have toured together, jammed together, and batted ideas back and forth. Now Vile’s on board as a kind of right-hand man, backing roughly half the album’s songs with trumpet, Farfisa, slide guitar and occasional winsome backing vocals. For a glimpse of the pair’s special chemistry, pull up first at “Revelation”, a mussy-headed folk strum that swings from hippie melancholia to starstruck romance in four-and-a-half perfectly pitched minutes. When the chorus breaks out for the first time, around 90 seconds in, it’s like sunlight breaking through the clouds, and just when you think you’ve seen it all, Vile steps up to cap off the track with an audaciously jaunty horn solo.
There are many reference points that run through Long Lost Solace Find, but it sounds like a Philly record to the core, harnessing a few qualities – sly virtuosity, a woozy amiability, a sideways swing at rock classicism – that are coming to feel like city trademarks. It was recorded over the course of a year at Philadelphia’s Uniform Recording with The War On Drugs’ engineer Jeff Siegler on the buttons. Considering this extended gestation, it feels remarkably cohesive. It’s beautifully recorded, carefully multi-tracked, but with the freshness and integrity of the live performances feeling intact. Most crucially, it never sounds overcooked, the likes of “Wishing Well” and “Sit Down” unfurling with an unhurried spaciousness that feels like the perfect foil for Polizze’s casual, dizzy lyricism.
Certainly, Polizze’s got a way with words, although his songs are seldom easy to pin any one specific meaning to, more typically communicating their spirit through a language of mood, feeling and vibe. His lyrics have a playful, sometimes mischievous quality, often laced with internal rhymes and half-rhymes. At times he summons up stunning imagery, as on “Edge Of Time”, a psychedelic country ballad that wends its way from a “mountain of begonias” to the distant reaches of the cosmos. Elsewhere, there’s fun nonsense, like the “bam-bam a rambling man, a midnight sham” of “Revelation”, or the frayed “Marbles”, a song about going mad, or perhaps being sane in a world gone mad (“It’s twisting my melon/And it’s hurting my custard/And mangling my brain”). The song “Cheewawa”, meanwhile, appears to be named after a particularly vicious Pomeranian dog.
If there is a presiding tone here, it’s matters of the heart, and the difficulties of navigating such. In Polizze’s words, Long Lost Solace Find is a record of “moody jams and love songs”, and much here falls into both categories, the general message being that romance doesn’t always run smooth. Even when Polizze’s at his most melancholy and hangdog, the songs themselves gleam like diamonds. “Went the wrong direction, reaching perfection/At losing your affection, always on your mind,” he sings on “Bainmarie”, a bittersweet love song with a lilting guitar line that sashays in and out, capricious and elusive. “Eyes Reach Across”, meanwhile, finds Polizze writing the post-mortem of a romance as his fingers lead a merry dance up and down the fretboard. “You did the crime, but not the time,” he muses, “and take my heart but give no part.”
But the main thing that you take from Long Lost Solace Find is that Polizze is a true craftsman. It’s something you might already have figured out from Purling Hiss, were you able discern it through all the noise and distortion. But here it’s all laid out and on show, each song striking the right balance between live-and-unplugged spontaneity and smartly plotted orchestration. The album’s one instrumental, a focused and intricate fingerstyle excursion titled “D’Modal”, harks back to the music of another Philly hero, the late and lamented Jack Rose, and through him a legacy of acoustic guitar wranglers from John Fahey to Robbie Basho. Elsewhere, songs blossom with sweet little moments that elevate a good song to a great one; take the jaunty little whistle hidden in the depths of “Edge Of Time”, or the passionate whoop he lets out in “Rock On A Feather”.
Polizze says that Purling Hiss is by no means done. But it’s clear that on Long Lost Solace Find, he’s uncovered a rich seam of songwriting, classic-sounding yet modern, unquestionably nostalgic in temperament but undeniably vital despite it. In short, you get the sense Mike Polizze is going to be knocking around these parts for a while. As he sings on “Do Do Do”: “Racking up the years, holding back the tears/Going deaf in style, hope it takes a while.” Well, amen to that.
Mike Polizze on being part of the Philadelphia “gene pool” and first playing with Kurt Vile…
Does going out under your given name feel like a clean slate?
Yeah, I feel like I’m, you know, shedding my skin a little bit. But it all makes sense, because it’s more of an intimate affair. It’s out of the shroud of that wall-of-noise, loud guitar thing – this more up-close songwriting thing. And it kind of made sense working with the label Paradise Of Bachelors.
It was thanks to Paradise Of Bachelors that you started performing solo shows, right?
I’ve been good friends with those guys, especially Chris Smith, for like 15, 16 years now. Back in 2015 he kind of caught me off guard. He was like, “One of my bands, The Weather Station, is coming through… Why don’t you do a solo show?” I was shy. Like, “I don’t know, I really only play with my band,” and stuff. And he twisted my arm. That was the beginning. I played that show, and it seemed like I was pretty busy [with solo shows] for 2015 and 2016. The big difference between then and now is that I would play sitting down playing acoustic, but I would still, like, add distortion and use loop pedals. After the show, Chris was like, “No pressure, but if you ever want to do like a solo record…” And I was like, “Oh, that’s cool.” I never really thought of it that way. That was the beginning, right there.
So how long have you written in this kind of style?
I feel like I struggle. Because I love all kinds of different music – but I’m always like, how do I harness this? I want it to be cohesive. You don’t want to do something that’s all over the place. I’ve written acoustically – quieter songs, mellower songs – my whole life. But I feel like this is great and special because they kind of like… made sense. When Chris asked me and I agreed to do it, I could kind of envisage, like: what can I conjure, making a record for Paradise Of Bachelors? I brought some old ideas, I came up with some new ideas. It was a new thing for me, too.
It feels like this record sits in a lineage of Philly music.
Yeah, it’s really nice to be a part of like the gene pool of, you know, similar artists – Jack Rose and Kurt Vile and The War On Drugs and Steve Gunn. It’s like we’re a little family. I grew up around Philly, moved there in my early twenties and made friends, and that’s where all my musical friendships came from. I met Chris from Paradise Of Bachelors, like, the first month or two after I moved. I definitely feel there’s a lineage that’s been there over the last 15 or so years, namely around Fishtown. A lot of people have dispersed, but we’re still in touch. I was 10 years younger than Jack Rose, but I got to meet him right before he passed away. He actually liked Birds Of Maya, invited us to play a show together. And he did an interview with Arthur magazine, said nice things about us. He was kind of intimidating, but I look up to him as a musician and an artist.
You’ve known Kurt Vile for years…
In 2008 going into 2009, he was doing a tour, and Jesse who plays in the band couldn’t do the tour so I filled in and played guitar – this was when Adam [Granduciel] from The War On Drugs was still in the band. It wasn’t like a super bonding moment – I’m sure he was just focusing on his tour, you know – but it was a really fun trip. Like, it was one of my first tours and we’re going out to Chicago to open for The Black Keys for two nights in a row. And then he took Purling Hiss out on our first tour. It’s kind of always felt like we’re gonna do something together. He has a crazy good memory. He remembered something from 2008 where we sat down for, like, five minutes – it was probably at someone’s house on tour. We jammed on something, started to connect. And then that moment was gone forever. Then two years ago, he’s like, “Remember that time we almost wrote a song?” [Laughs] I was like, “I remember that, but you remember that? You’re way busier.”
What role did he play in bringing this record together?
He often plays on friends’ albums, makes guest appearances. I just said, “Hey man, you want to come in for the day, any chance you’re around?” I had this idea, maybe he could play trumpet on the bridge to “Revelation”. He just showed up with all his harmonicas, a trumpet, this Dobro slide guitar, he had it open tuned to E. He just ended up playing on a bunch of songs, and it was great. It felt like such a natural thing, it was only for one day, and it was seamless. I had just a simple idea for what he could do with his trumpet, but his phrasing is just so great. It’s jazzy, like Coltrane or Pharoah Sanders. It just felt inspired. It was really neat.
INTERVIEW: LOUIS PATTISON