Agitators. Merry pranksters. Tim Henson and Scott LePage,the diabolical guitar duo and main drivers of the Dallas-based progressive band Polyphia, own up to all of it.
Over the course of the group’s 12-year career, the two ax wizards have delighted in busting balls and messing with their fans’ heads (who can forget the band’s aptly titled 2017 EP, The Most Hated, on which the celebrated virtuosos purposely featured nary a lick of fretboard theatrics?), and in preparation for the release of their new album, Remember That You Will Die – their first studio offering since 2018’s New Levels New Devils – they came up with their most devious plan yet: the grand fake-out.
“First, we made everybody wait a really long time,” Henson says. “We teased that we had a new album in 2019, and then we kept teasing it. Pretty soon, people started joking that the new album didn’t really exist, so we went with it. We even made some merch that said, ‘The new album is a myth.’ We wiped all of our socials clean, and everybody went crazy.” He laughs. “That’s when we dropped the song Playing God on them.”
As a preview of the new album, Playing God caused fans to flinch at first. Featuring Henson and LePage blitzing merrily on nylon-string guitars (in this case, custom-made, soundhole-less Ibanez nylon-string models), the track was a wildly entertaining sonic and stylistic mélange of flamenco, bossa nova and trap.
It marked the first time the two musicians played nylon-string guitars on record, but judging from their acrobatic and deeply soulful leads, along with their impossibly cool and casual badassery, one might easily assume they’d been born with the instruments in their hands.
At the time of this writing, the sumptuous video for the track (“We filmed it in the bougiest mansion we could find,” cracks Henson) has racked up nearly 10 million views on YouTube – clearly, the mad genius behind the band’s anti-marketing tactics delivers results. “I guess the people missed us after all,” LePage jokes.
Henson and LePage’s penchant for hubris has been well documented. In a 2019 interview with Guitar World, Henson pulled no punches: “I think we’re great. If I were a kid, we would be my favorite band. That’s how cool our music is.”
Reminded of his comments, he now laughs and says, “We were in our shit-ass period back then. Now we’re older and we want to let the work speak for itself. We know we’re doing pretty cool stuff; otherwise, we wouldn’t be so excited to share it with everyone.” He pauses, then adds, “I don’t know. I feel like I’ve got less to say about it now.”
LePage weighs in, saying, “We still feel like we’re hot shit, but we’ve learned that we don’t have to be silly geese about it. What hasn’t changed is that we just make music we want to hear. I guess that means we like some pretty cool music. It’s been working for us. We try to filter out stuff that isn’t great.”
In stark contrast to how they recorded previous albums, Henson and LePage, along with bassist Clay Gober and drummer Clay Aeschliman, took advantage of the extended Covid lockdown periods and concocted Remember That You Will Die in a more leisurely, freewheeling manner.
“The time off the road was like one big snow day from school,” Henson says. “It was a nice change of pace that allowed us the opportunity to really figure out what kind of record we were making.”
The album’s core production team remained as it did on New Levels New Devils – Henson and LePage, along with longtime collaborators Judge and Y2K – but whereas that record featured a smattering of guests, this time out the band unfurled the welcome mat for a dizzying array of talents.
There’s R&B-hip-hop production duo Brasstracks, Canadian keyboardist Anomalie, pop-R&B vocalist Sophia Black, emo rapper and singer Killstation and Deftones frontman Chino Moreno, among others.
And what do you know? There’s even an appearance by a certain guitarist known as Steve Vai. “It was a dream come true getting Steve on the record,” Henson says. “I mean, c’mon, he’s a fucking legend.”
Let’s get right to it: Remember That You Will Die is a true original of our period and an across-the-board motherfucker. The artistic reach of the genre-bending band appears to know no boundaries, and the sophisticated manner in which they construct their material, matched with their highly charged instrumental prowess, makes for a thrilling and, at times, shattering listening experience.
The soothingly sensual, electronica-laced The Audacity lulls you in before it explodes with walloping riffery and hyperspeed soloing. Henson and Page pepper Sophia Black’s sunny vocals on ABC with smooth rhythmic jabs, but before you know it, they’re somersaulting over themselves in a whiplash-inducing assault on the senses brimming with sheets of fleet-fingered fretwork runs.
On the horn-driven R&B groover Genesis and the ’70s soul stunner Reverie, the two guitarists make their instruments sigh and swoon, but at unexpected moments they dish out showstopping leads that turn the music on its head.
Both Chimera (featuring Delaware-based rapper Lil West) and Bloodbath (featuring Chino Moreno) could qualify as the album’s standout guitar moments – the former blends flamenco with hallucinogenic psycho metal, while the latter features a foot-on-the-monitor arena rock solo for the ages.
But the true tour de force here is the devastating closer Ego Death, an orgy for guitar fans that zips through so many moods and textures that it’s hard to take it all in on just one listen.
Henson and LePage claw and gnash their way through each space left by their nimble rhythm section – at times, the guitarists’ parts are tightly woven; other times, they’re bursting from a popcorn maker – and then Vai arrives, in full-fledged rock god mode, painting the walls with majestic colors that glow and burn.
He darts across the scene, obviously relishing every second of it as he creates a mini opera of whammy wails and searing melodies that builds to a breathless climax.
But for all of the wondrous guitar playing on the album, both Henson and LePage take issue with a certain word affixed in the parlance of their fretboard community. “I wouldn’t call what we do ‘shred’,” Henson says. “It’s more like ‘a lot of notes.’ You’ll notice one or two motifs in each song, and then it expands to a lot of notes before going back to the main motif.”
LePage agrees. “I’m dancing around the word ‘shred’ myself,” he says. “It wasn’t in my head when we were making the record, but on certain songs I thought, ‘What would any crazy guitar player do here?’ It’s not shred for the sake of playing a lot of notes; it’s playing the right notes to complement the music – but in a faster way.”
How does your perception of your music change after you’ve brought it out into the world?
Scott LePage: “It changes big-time. We’ve had songs on our records that we thought would be really popular, but they got overlooked. And vice versa; we have other songs that we don’t think much of that become very popular. It’s strange.”
Tim Henson: “Once the music is released, I stop thinking about it. We finished Playing God three years ago, and it’s just been sitting there. I’ve heard it way too many times. I remember showing the video to some friends, and they were like, ‘This is so cool!’ I kind of didn’t care about it anymore, but their reactions re-ignited my interest in it. Two weeks later I went back to being bored of it.”
A few years ago, you released the decidedly non-guitary EP The Most Hated that had your original fans scratching their heads – and some ran away. Have you noticed them coming back?
Henson: “With that release, we sort of weeded out the pretentious ‘We’re here first so we own you’-type fans. We knew they were going to like our prior stuff, and that was fine. What happened was, we got new fans. It wound up being our biggest period of growth; it was a shift from being an amateur band to what we are today. Even now with this record, half of our fans might hate it, but the other half of the record is very much fan-serviced.”
What’s your process for collaborations? Do guest artists sometimes sound like a good idea but they don’t work out? How does this all happen?
Henson: “We’ll sit there and do a song a billion times till it works. We’ll make a collaboration work if we really want it to happen. Sometimes I’ll do studio work outside of Polyphia, and I’ll work with a producer and a collaborator, and then I’ll say, ‘Hey, this is really cool. Can I have this for Polyphia?’ Most of the time they say OK, and it becomes a Polyphia thing. Sometimes you stumble into it.
LePage: “On Playing God, we had a ton of things on that song that didn’t work out.”
On that song, you guys use nylon-string guitars for the first time. Do you listen to much flamenco or bossa nova music?
Henson: “Not really. Some people have made comparisons of this song to Al Di Meola and Paco de Lucia, but I’ve never listened to them. The way the song happened was, we were in Cologne, and I found this nylon-string, S-shaped Ibanez guitar.
“I texted Ibanez and asked them what it was, and they said it was a failed project from 1998. I bought it, plugged it in and started messing with it, and it was right when I rediscovered the harmonic minor scale.
“If you play that scale on a guitar like that, it sounds very classical or Spanish influenced. The great thing about the guitar is its thin neck and its upper-fret access; you can play stuff like you would on an electric. We had Ibanez make new ones that are semi-hollow bodied.
“After we tweeted us playing the nylon guitars, we got so many comments from people: ‘Where can I buy that? I’ve gotta have it.’ I sent screenshots and a demo of Playing God to Ibanez and said, ‘When we drop this song, if you don’t make this guitar, you’ll miss out on a lot of sales.’ [Laughs] For a while, we were talking with Tosin Abasi about doing an Abasi nylon guitar. When we told Ibanez about it, they were like, ‘No, it’s cool. We’ll make you one.’” [They both laugh]
You two seem to exist in your own world. How do you stay pure? Obviously, you listen to a lot of artists…
LePage: “Oh, yeah.”
Henson: “We listen to a lot of things outside of what we do, so it’s not easy to keep that stuff out. We’re not leisurely listening; we’re absorbing. With the years of guitar playing we have under our belts, we have a lot of influences that we put into our Polyphia generator, and it becomes something else.”
LePage: “That’s a big part of the challenge – finding a way to implement guitar in new ways. We’ve got rap songs on the record, but we still fill them with guitar – and really interesting parts throughout. That’s the fun bit.”
You said a few years ago that you don’t practice –
Henson: “Yeah, fuck that! [Laughs]”
LePage: “We practice now. We have to.”
Henson: “We practice so much now. Before we had this ‘We are the most unprofessional professional band’ shtick, but now that we’re older and this is very much our livelihoods, we take it very seriously. Our stuff is very difficult to play, and we don’t want to disappoint our fans. The last thing we want is to bite ourselves in the ass. Saying we didn’t practice was one of those shit-ass statements we made a long time ago.”
So what do you practice now? What do you have to get better at?
Henson: “We have to get good at playing our own songs. [Laughs] A lot of these songs are our most difficult things ever. Some of the vocal tunes are pretty easy, but the rest of the stuff, the instrumental songs, are by far the hardest things we’ve had to play; they require a lot of attention to detail.”
LePage: “Playing God is the obvious one. Neurotica is another one – it’s got a crazy-fast solo part. The rest of my parts are very expressive, and I try to stay within the picked harmonics. I try to stay true to what I did on the record, and I want each part to come off with its own sound when I play live.”
The song Reverie has a bouncy, ’70s R&B feel. There’s some great soloing passages with harmonized effects, some of which sound like vintage Prince. Am I in the right lane here?
Henson: “Yeah, sure. The original idea for the song started with a soul sample, and then we spun it into a Go Hard beat. Then I did some thumping parts on it after Tosin showed me how to do that. Scott took more of the melodic leads. It ended up being very super-R&B and soul. So yeah, I can see the Prince reference.”
ABC with Sophia Black has some wild solo runs and cross-cutting rhythms. The music is all over the place; it sounds like it’s jammed into a Cuisinart.
Henson: “That one started when I played the riff of this super-popular TikTok sound, which I think was made by a Vocaloid. It’s a VST that you can use to make vocal sounds by programming it. I made a TikTok of it and it really popped, so I wanted to recreate it as an original piece of music.
“I did a session with Sophia, who’s half-Japanese, and the Vocaloid vocal part I had was in Japanese – it’s like a vocal riff. I asked her to sing a syllable for every note, and she asked me how many parts were in it. I said, 'There’s 26 parts,' and she said, ‘Oh, like the alphabet.’”
“She’s such an incredible writer. She worked out the whole song in three hours. Y2K took the riff and structured it throughout the song, and then Sophia wrote the verses, so we had this super-bare-bones pop song with this crazy riff at the beginning. Then I handed it to Scott, and he added a guitar solo and little nuances.”
LePage: “He said, ‘Remix it,’ so I did. It came out pretty crazy.”
Memento Mori with Killstation is so groovy and spacey. There’s a brutal guitar solo that features snarling riffs and harmonic swoops, but it’s all so melodic.
LePage: “Honestly, I don’t like to think of that part as a solo; it’s more like Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana, where Kurt Cobain played the melody part on guitar. That’s what I was thinking. It’s like you have this awesome vocal song, and then you have this great guitar part speaking to you in the same way as the vocals. At least I hope that’s how it comes off. It’s a pretty cool guitar section.”
Henson: “I prefer to think of it like Purple Lamborghini, the Skrillex-Rick Ross song. The drop is instrumental.”
LePage: “Yeah, that’s a good example.”
Bloodbath with Chino Moreno is the most straight-up rock track on the record. Who busts out that old-school metal solo?
LePage: “That’s me. It’s funny, because that song was less rock in its earlier stage. We did a session with Chino, and after we got his vocals I said, “This isn’t right.” I redid the guitars except for Tim’s parts to make them fit the vocals. Then I added that solo because it would sound badass.”
Henson: “That’s my favorite Scott solo ever. I think he channeled Dimebag, Wes Hauch and even a bit of Planetary Duality by Faceless [guitarist Michael Keene].”
LePage: “It’s got the heavy whammy pulls and shit like that. Yeah, Wes Hauch. His guitar work on the Alluvial album Sarcoma is incredible. I listened to the shit out of that.”
And, of course, there’s the epic Ego Death with Steve Vai. How did that all come about?
Henson: “We knew going into it that it would have to be important. We’ve had this idea since 2019. Steve invited us to jam with him at a NAMM show; afterward, we asked him about being on one of our songs.
“Throughout the next few years, we tried to find the right song, and this one ended up as the last one we did. It was one of the craziest, ‘notey’ songs we had, but the challenge was figuring out how it would work with Steve. We worked up different sections of it but made it in a way that it sort of starts over, if that makes any sense. It became something really intense, and then we sent it off to Steve.
“We went to visit him at his house, which was so fucking cool. His studio is like a children’s storybook library; it’s super-magical, with plants and a loft. We played him three songs before we played the one we wanted him to be on.
“For some reason, his iTunes was too hot for his speakers – and he’s got really big speakers – and the track was clipping like crazy. We had no idea why it sounded like that, but he thought it was really cool. There was this heavy 808 drop in the song, and it blew out his speakers! [Laughs]”
LePage: “Really big speakers, like six feet tall.”
Henson: “He got visibly agitated, and he called in his engineer to fix it.”
LePage: “We were like, ‘Fuck. Did we just blow out Steve Vai’s speakers?’”
Henson: “We asked him about being on that part, but he didn’t quite know what he would do.”
LePage: “He almost said no, but not because he didn’t want to do it; he just didn’t know what he would do that was worthy. He’s like that. He cares about the art so much.”
Henson: “He gave us this open-ended response, like, ‘We’ll see.’ So we left, and while we were driving we realized, ‘Fuck, we didn’t get a picture with Steve Vai.’ We were so bummed. I pulled over and we debated what to do. Finally, I texted him: ‘Hey Steve, we didn’t get a picture with you. Can we come back?’ We felt so silly. We sat there and waited – it was the longest 15 minutes of our lives. I started driving again, and I got a text: ‘Oh, yeah, sure. Come back.’ We U-turned and went back, and we got this shitty, horrible, grainy picture with him, but it was worth it.”
“A few weeks later, he said he’d worked on the track. He sent it over, and it blew us away. It was so awesome to hear a Steve Vai solo on our music. But we realized that it needed more from the backing, so I sent it to Ivan [Jackson] from Brasstracks, who lined the song with these heavenly horns. We kind of chopped Steve’s parts up because that’s what we do.”
LePage: “We told him that’s what we were going to do.”
Henson: “No, no, no. Steve said, ‘Do whatever you want with it. This is my gift to you.’ So we chopped his stuff up and sent it back to him. It took him a few days to respond. I think he was pretty taken aback. He said, ‘I didn’t expect to hear myself so Polyphia-ized.’
“We really chopped his shit up, which I don’t think anybody had done before. We ended up going back and making it true to the original, only because we wanted him to be really happy with it. We meant no disrespect – we just like to try things.”
These songs are so intricate and wild. How on earth are you going to play them live?
LePage: “That’s what we’re figuring out right now. I’d say we’re going to play half the new record live. The songs we’re doing aren’t impossible – they’re just really difficult. In the past, we recorded some songs we knew we wouldn’t play live, so our attitude was, 'Let’s just make it sound cool and do some crazy weirdo shit on it. We didn’t really do that on this album.”
Henson: “I would say we did, but we figured out ways around it. If there’s a will, there’s a way. And we have the will. We get there by practicing a shit ton every day.”
The album title – Remember That You Will Die. Not exactly a feel-good notion.
LePage: “Humans are self-aware of the inevitability of death, and they use their limited time alive to invent things that can exist eternally. Artists create things to carry on their legacy through the likes of their imagination, to be embedded into history forever.
“With the invention of artificial intelligence and its application to art and technology, the chances of dying out become less as people find ways to bridge the gap between human tendencies and computer thinking. Connecting the two ultimately leads to the perpetuity of the human experience, which is the closest humans have come to immortality. The album title ties into the art.”
Wow. OK, mind blown. So let’s go through the guitars you used on the record.
LePage: “Sure. I used the black Ibanez AZ seven-string and my Ibanez signature, the red SLM10. There were some AZ six-strings, and I did the nylon stuff… Oh, and the Ibanez RG8 and an S. I definitely used an Ibanez Iron Label Xiphos. That guitar inspired Bloodbath to be so heavy. I probably played a couple of Tim’s guitars.”
Henson: “We did a bunch of out-of-state sessions, and we brought a shit ton of guitars with us. I left, like, six guitars in Detroit; they’ve been there for two years. I used an Ibanez SC500N and the nylon guitars. I played my signatures – the THBB8 and the THBB10. There was an AZ seven-string and an AZ prototype. Oh, and I played my new signature prototype, but I can’t talk about that right now.”
- Remember That You Will Die is out now via Rise/BMG.