Mixdown Issue #326 cover stars Polyphia chat the band's evolution, their signature Ibanez model and much more ahead of their huge tour down under.
Guitar players can be a conservative lot. They don’t like things to change too quickly. You can buy guitars and amplifiers today that are virtually identical to models released halfway through the last century. We’re three decades into the mass-market availability of seven-string guitars and they’re still seen as too modern by some.
The Floyd Rose tremolo has been around for about fifty years and even that’s a step too far away from tradition for many players. And yet, the instrument continues to evolve in the way it’s built, played and recorded. And for those who have always known technology, it’s natural to take the instrument in directions that have very little to do with what was going on in the 50s and 60s.
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Enter Polyphia. The Texan quartet’s music is unashamedly modern, unflinchingly progressive, and just as likely to borrow from modern pop and hip hop production as it is from the instrumental guitar music of the 80s and 90s, or the jazz-fusion and progressive rock of the 70s. The band’s journey hasn’t been an easy one: just check the comments under any article on the band shared on Facebook and you’ll see plenty of takes from more traditional guitarists, ranting about how they don’t understand this approach, how it’s too far away from what guitar has always been.
The thing is though, Polyphia don’t give a crap. They’re here to make music their way, to keep themselves happy, and to express themselves in ways that feel creatively fulfilling and naturally authentic to them. And they’ve heard the criticisms. They’ve seen the comments that they’re not as comfortable live as in the studio. And they’ve put in the work to shut those comments down once and for all, as Australian audiences will see when the band returns for their first solo headlining tour in June.
“We’re the tightest we’ve ever been,” founder Tim Henson says over Zoom while walking around in Columbus, North Carolina prior to a show.
“We started taking our job a lot more seriously in the last couple years – well, since the pandemic really – where we do Monday through Friday rehearsals. We started to treat it as a literal job and rehearsed literally every single day on the weekdays, so we started this tour good.” He laughs.
“As opposed to other tours where we didn’t even get good until the last few shows. But we’ll be coming to Australia very prepared. And I was just told we’re shipping all of our stuff to Australia so we don’t have to tone it down for the fly rigs. It’ll be a proper Polyphia show.”
The last time the band toured Australia was on a co-headlining run with Intervals in 2018.
“Dude, to be honest, five years ago I was probably really drunk for all of those shows,” Henson says matter-of-factly.
“So there are not any single songs in particular that stood out to me as far as audience reaction, but I do remember it being a good time and the Australian fans going ham. I felt the love. That’s what I remember is I felt the love. The thing is, before the pandemic, most of our prefrontal cortexes had not developed and we kind of prided ourselves on being the world’s most unprofessional professional band. But now that we’re fully realised adults, we’re like, okay yeah, this is kind of like a real big real big deal for us now. So we should probably take it as such.’ So we’re trying to be just the absolute best that we can and to give our fans the experience that they deserve for supporting us as much as they do. A really cool thing is we started this tour last week and we’ve been asking the crowd, how many of you guys have seen us before? And only 25% of the people like cheering. And we’re like, okay, how many of you haven’t seen us before? And the whole room lights up and it’s just like, wow. That is a really big growth indicator. And to see some new people on board with us, it’s just like, okay, we almost get like, a second chance to kind of be like, oh yeah, no, we’re good live!”
Polyphia will of course have their signature Ibanez guitars on hand during the shows.
“Growing up seeing Steve Vai with like a new signature model every year and seeing all the crazy stuff that they can make, when we first joined Ibanez I was like, ‘oh dude, I can’t wait to one day get access to the LA Custom Shop. That’s like such a golden thing because they don’t offer it to the public, they only offer it to their artists and I was under the impression that you had to be with the company for 10 years or something to even get access to it. But within our third year they offered us signature models and we were like ‘let’s go!’ So I got a signature model before I got a LACS. And it’s just awesome. I love them. I’ve always played them, since I was younger and they’re just such a great company to work with.”
Henson’s latest signature model is a nylon string acoustic with a twist, inspired by an obscure Ibanez model released in the early 2000s.
“Picture an electric guitarist who picks up an acoustic guitar and is scared off a bit with the heaviness of the steel strings. Like you pick up like a campfire acoustic guitar, and it’s just not that shreddable and it’s just not that fun to play, you know? Now picture that guitar player picking up an acoustic guitar that they can play everything they can play on electric and it sounds cool as fuck. And so, that was kind of the idea when I picked up that original SAN500 in a pawn shop a few years back, I was like ‘dude, this is a full-on Ibanez electric neck on this thing but with nylon strings!’ So I started playing our music on it and I said to Ibanez ‘let’s make a better one!’
So this new guitar is kind of in between a nylon neck and an Ibanez neck. It takes a little bit of getting used to, but it’s certainly a lot easier to play than an actual fully acoustic nylon string guitar, you know? The neck is super fast and the guitar itself is so light. It’s really comfortable to play. I love handing it to people and getting their first impression and getting to live vicariously through them. They always seem to light up and that’s like, such a good feeling for me to have had a hand in bringing that joy to them.”
Speaking of nylon-string sounds, Fishman has just announced two new Polyphia active pickup sets with multiple voicings including one inspired by the tone of a nylon-string acoustic.
“We kind of stumbled upon it accidentally when we were doing the R&D for those pickups,” Henson says.
“I was doing the thumpy percussive kind of playing, and they had turned whatever that switch on was and I was like, ‘yo, that’s crazy as. It almost sounds like a nylon guitar, kind of.’ That’s the closest thing that I could put my finger on. Obviously it’s a world away from a real nylon guitar considering you don’t even use nylon strings with it, but it’s a happy accident we stumbled upon and it’s unique and something that didn’t exist on the market before, and however you wanna apply that – I know there are people who are a million times more creative than myself who are going to have a blast with it.”
Our time up, Henson offers the following parting words:
“There’s just so much excitement for me and the entire band for how stoked we are to finally come back down under and put shrimp on your barbies and such.”
Polyphia’s Australian tour dates are as follows: June 27 – The Tivoli, Brisbane, June 28 – The Metro, Sydney, June 29 – Northcote Theatre, Melbourne. For tickets, head here.