How Polyphia helped bring virtuoso guitar music back with Remember That You Will Die
ON SEPT. 2, 2022, Polyphia hit the first major speedbump of their latest album cycle.
Twenty-six shows into a sold-out 28-date United States tour — just as they’ve dropped full details of their fourth LP, Remember That You Will Die — drummer Clay Aeschliman’s doctor confirmed that he’s dislocated his clavicle. Surgery will be required to put it back in place. As much as Aeschliman and the rest of the Texan collective are loath to let anything disrupt plans that have been literally years in the making, their refusal to perform at less than 100% means that scheduled home-state shows in Fort Worth and Austin must be postponed.
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“We were on those Bird scooters,” guitarist Tim Henson shrugs. “I guess they’re pretty dangerous...”
For a band that have built their name on precision and control — growing from high school YouTube virtuosos into the world’s hottest instrumental band — there is an air of disarray this afternoon. At his apartment, Henson is currently being mobbed by three dogs craving their owner’s affection after a month away. Fellow founding six-stringer Scott LePage dials in while still on the road, running errands and ferrying forgotten luggage on the way home. The pair waved off Aeschliman, bassist Clay Gober and the rest of the touring party mere hours before convening with AP.
[Photo by Lindsey Byrnes]
“This tour has been amazing,” Henson continues, visibly stung by ending such a triumphant run so abruptly. “It feels like right place, right time in where we are with the fans, with the music, with each other. Then this.” Henson is still reeling from what he describes as “the weirdest goodbye session” with the band and their crew. “It feels incomplete, like a blue-ball type situation,” he quips. “There’s been no climax.”
LePage concurs. “It leaves us with this strange guilty feeling,” he nods, “even though it’s out of our control.”
In a sense, days like these are what Remember That You Will Die is all about. While the title originated — in very Polyphia fashion — with LePage Googling “cool phrases” during last September’s Dance Gavin Dance tour, it has taken on greater weight over the months since. The original Latin translation, memento mori, whispered into the ears of triumphant emperors in ancient Rome to ensure their groundedness, has obvious applicability to young men with the world at their feet. Characteristically, Henson puts his own spin on that. “It’s a seize the day kind of thing,” he smiles, pensively. “You need to do the shit that you need to do when you need to do it — before you can’t.”
If anything, their latest setback has only added urgency to Polyphia’s booming ambition. Although the band are open about how it’s their constant imperative to “level up” with each new release, pushing their technical ability, composition, sound design and mixing, the sheer boundary-obliterating maximalism on show here suggests they have taken a quantum leap. From the striking, nylon-stringed experimentation of “Playing God” to the steely dubstep of “Reverie” and the decadently layered rage beat of “Neurotica,” they’re deftly fusing pop and metal, jazz, EDM and countless other genres in-between.
“When someone asks me about a record’s ‘stylistic progression,’” LePage grins, “I normally think of the question as, ‘What was I listening to when we started writing?’ Here, I tried to bring every element that we’ve ever done. I wanted to showcase every sound in my arsenal.”
Striving to explain how they managed this, Henson narrows Polyphia’s approach down to three bullet points: greater emphasis on collaboration (more on that below); increased maturity in their sound; expanded focus on sound design and production. Rather than descending into a dry conversation about studio techniques and musical theory, though, the shred master outlines the album title’s chilling dual meaning and how it connects to the innovations therein: a tale of the unstoppable march of technology, and the apocalyptic future of artificial intelligence. “By second track ‘Playing God,’ we’re already building things that are becoming too smart for us. It builds and builds until ‘All Falls Apart.’ Then there’s a ‘Bloodbath.’ ‘Ego Death’ represents the end of it all.”
Machine sounds reign supreme. Although human performance remains very much at the heart of Polyphia, the multitude of writing and recording sessions that took them around America, from Los Angeles (where Henson was resident at the start of recording) to Detroit and home to Texas, were largely focused on removing the organic tone of metal in favor of the feeling of preprogrammed beats from pop and hip-hop. On a conceptual level, this involved factoring in production from the very outset of the writing process as a producer like Skrillex would. On the practical side, it required the construction of the carpeted “cave” in which Aeschliman recorded percussion, visible in recent playthrough videos from Henson’s newly constructed home studio back in Texas.
[Photo by Lindsey Byrnes]
“If you were to play this music inside a car, turn it all the way up, then step outside of the car, it would bump like rap music,” he explains, espousing the benefits of such an unusually involved approach. “Comparatively, if you were to do that with a metal record, it would sound like shit.”
In the era of playlist-led listening, too, the approach to genre was less “mixtape” than wired mashup. “Each song is drastically different,” Henson enthuses. “It’s almost as if Polyphia were the artificial intelligence — a sonic equivalent to one of those image-generating AIs. You type in ‘Bossa nova classical guitar trap beat’ and you get a song like ‘Playing God.’ You enter ‘Ariana Grande hyperpop prog’ and we play ‘ABC.’ You try ‘trap-style metal’ and you get ‘Fuck Around And Find Out.’ Hell, a track like ‘The Audacity’ could be the result from punching in ‘Jazz, shred, whatever the fuck!’”
BEFORE THEY BECAME THE GENRE-DEFYING disruptors we know today, Polyphia’s dream label was prog-metal powerhouse Sumerian Records. Following 2011’s four-track demo Resurrect — dropped when LePage was 18 and Henson just 17 — the LA-based indie reached out by email. The message was agonizingly direct: “Where’s the singer?”
It’s a question that has dogged the band for years. Having opted, early on, to maintain tight focus on the narrow core of guitar, drums and bass, most would argue that their instrumental restrictions are why Polyphia stand apart. On Remember That You Will Die, however, they have no time to be steered by their limitations, bringing aboard everyone from trilingual LA singer-songwriter Sophia Black (“ABC”) and San Diego-based visionary Killstation (“Memento Mori”) to Deftones frontman Chino Moreno (“Bloodbath”) and legendary six-stringer Steve Vai (“Ego Death”).
“When we started working on this record three years ago, our record label asked us to put together a list of dream collaborators,” Henson explains. “We had everyone from Rick Ross to Chino and Steve on there. We had always known that we wanted to do a bunch of different collaborations to stretch our wings in terms of saying, ‘Yes, we can take on any style, and we’ll do it. You want a pop song? A metal song? A rap song? We’ll give it to you.’”
That attitude is the real key to Polyphia’s individuality, compelling them to diverge from the trail blazed by revered peers like Animals As Leaders and Periphery. “Number one, we like those other genres,” Henson stresses. “We actively listen to those genres. We want to participate in those genres.” The other bands from their scene? Henson isn’t sure they do. “You have to put the work in,” he explains. “I can’t imagine a djent crossover with a pop artist that would actually be good without having put the work in on the pop side to understand why that kind of collaboration could work.”
[Photo by Lindsey Byrnes]
Unquestionably, RTYWD is a labor of love. Although Ross never returned their calls, and work on an original version of “All Falls Apart” with Tilian Pearson of Dance Gavin Dance and SoundCloud star Trippie Redd fell through, eight of the record’s 12 tracks still boast notable guest spots. Sure, the boys’ guitar work is largely less ostentatious than that showcased on 2014’s Muse, 2016’s Renaissance and 2018’s New Levels New Devils, but there is an astounding dynamism and diversity that’s testament to the enormous effort and attention to detail poured in. No feature feels tacked on, either: each one at the heart of its own naturally grown composition. Indeed, the first sound to really catch your ear — one which ties through to the record’s thumping close — isn’t guitar but the bellow of horns courtesy of New York hip-hop producer Brasstracks.
“Brass is such a triumphant, epic opening and closing sound,” Henson smiles. “They wanted to give us fire." And Polyphia wanted to give them, like every guest player, the space to shine. For fans and potential future collaborators, they needed to prove that emotional resonance was more important than nerdy intricacy. “We need to serve the [composition],” Henson stresses. “That’s something that Scott and I will never allow our egos to get in the way of. We care less about showing off our chops than making good music. We want to have songs that stand the test of time.”
So, is there a shared quality that unites the disparate roll call of artists they’ve chosen to bring in?
“The one quality that everyone that we collaborate with [shares] is that they’re sick as fuck,” Henson jokes (sort of). Maybe “audacious as fuck” would be a better description. Every artist featured here has an appetite for working outside the box and a willingness to challenge themselves to keep pace with modern guitar’s most prodigious players. “Polyphia aren’t the most immediately digestible thing,” Henson says, bluntly acknowledging their habit of hitting more notes in a single song than some would across a whole album. “To even entertain the idea of a collaboration with us, people need to be open-minded. They need to have an appreciation for things that are beyond surface-level.”
Naturally, many of the collaborators came from Polyphia’s immediate circle of friends and colleagues. Killstation, for instance, had already featured Henson on the banging “Radiation,” while Brasstracks’ Ivan Jackson is name-checked multiple times during our conversation with real love and respect. There was particular value, all the same, in tapping into the experience and perspective of some bona fide rock legends.
Vai had been one of the boys’ childhood idols, but when a NAMM Jam at the 2020 trade showcase put them on the same stage, they found out the admiration was mutual. In an interview with Guitar World, he subsequently named Henson one of the contemporary six-stringers taking the instrument to the next level: “Tim is exploring new grounds. I’m seeing an evolution in a direction that I didn’t… that I couldn’t even see coming.” Henson gleefully reciprocates the sentiment: “That was fuckin’ awesome: a moment with our guitar hero acknowledging us!”
[Photo by Lindsey Byrnes]
Even more eye-opening were the sessions with Moreno, and his openness to sharing ideas in the studio, not just with the band, but their songwriting buddy and esteemed rapper lil aaron, as well. “With pop and rap, there could be 20 people in a room and everyone’s ideas are welcome,” Henson reflects. “A lot of rock dudes are less open to interjection. We were surprised to see how much Chino enjoyed lil aaron being there and how open he was to take on board other people’s suggestions.”
With familiarity having been sacrificed at the altar of innovation and ambition, though, will fans be as open to this new era of Polyphia? On this tour, no RTYWD tracks featuring vocals were aired, not because there was any fear of backlash, they explain, but to reserve the big reveal for the arrival of their painstakingly crafted studio versions. A clearer indication of the band’s thought process can be gleaned from the sequencing of the album’s advance singles, with relatively conservative instrumentals “Neurotica” and “Playing God” kick-starting the cycle before the full tracklist dropped alongside the brilliantly bonkers “ABC.”
“That was an us decision,” Henson admits. “‘Playing God’ was the first song we had dropped since 2019. We needed to reel back in our fanbase, to rally the troops.” “Neurotica,” he explains, was another fan-service song. “You’re getting fast, you’re getting great melodies, you’re getting instrumental. Plus, it’s a bopper,” he adds, emphasizing the importance of riling up the fanbase before smacking them in the face with such an unapologetically poppy third offering. A mischievous grin. “I guess ‘ABC’ was a way to let everybody know that we’re back on our bullshit.”
AS HEADY AS IT IS HAVING Polyphia unpack their complex musical process, they’re every bit as engaging when setting their instruments aside. Candid recollections of last week’s AP photo shoot feel like proof of that. Wrapped in more layers than even their densest compositions, the boys were shoved into a stretch limo in an anonymous Los Angeles warehouse. The problem is that these kinds of warehouses don’t come with air conditioning. And it’s not possible to spark the engine to turn on the car’s without the fear of carbon monoxide poisoning.
“Man, that was hot,” Henson grins, reliving the well-dressed ordeal. “But it was cool.”
A pointed appreciation of what’s on-trend is the last piece of the Polyphia puzzle. Keen aesthetic focus is part of that, with at least 14 visual artists — one for each of the 12 tracks, two typographers and outfit sculptor Nusi Quero providing music video props — tapped for just this album. “Everybody likes things that look cool,” Henson rolls his shoulders. “If it didn’t look cool, people probably wouldn’t check it out.” An on-point internet presence helps, too. Despite being “more Boomer than Zoomer” when it comes to specific app updates nowadays, Henson emphasizes that they still think deeply about online presentation, having stopped looking to “igno-rappers like Lil Pump doing dumb shit online” for influence, in favor of higher-profile figures like Future, “who’ll put the album art online, and that’s it.”
[Photo by Lindsey Byrnes]
While it’s tempting to see Polyphia’s particular brand of extroversion as a reaction to the hyper-conservatism ripping through their native Texas, too, Henson is reluctant to give weight to such simplistic analysis. Referring back to offerings like 2019’s “Look But Don’t Touch” video — where they posed as Mormon missionaries entering an afterlife that’d make Lil Nas X jealous — Henson admits that may once have been the case. “But these days, we don’t feel particularly attached to any kind of political message,” he explains. “We want to keep it about the music — the aesthetic and sonic qualities of what we do — rather than pushing people’s buttons.”
Far more pivotal is the willingness to tap into their colorful personalities as readily as their mind-bending skill sets.
“A lot of that is just trying to embrace ourselves as people, and to be ourselves,” Henson gestures. Indeed, it’s something the band have long struggled with. But following this tour, they’ve found real confidence in the endless hours of prep and practice put in. “For that hour-and-a-half onstage, we’re owning it,” he asserts. For Polyphia, hiding under a rock isn’t an option.
“It really helps to have three motherfuckers who are your best friends doing it with you, too,” LePage adds. “Half of my [mindset] is the confidence that comes from playing with my bandmates. The other half is self-doubt. Fortunately, having my friends there means confidence wins out.” Henson nods: “Maybe a lot of the guys in these other bands aren’t peacocking around because they don’t have their friends to do it with them.”
That leads to the ultimate question facing Polyphia: Does it feel like they have got what it takes to bring real guitar music back to the forefront of popular culture?
“I’d say that Machine Gun Kelly did that,” Henson says with a playful grin. “MGK is the father of guitar music! Seriously, though, guitar is so prevalent right now. Look at MGK, WILLOW, acts like Internet Money and Lemonade. Guitar itself has been making a comeback. We’re just doing what we do. We exist in a time that we exist in. We don’t want to take credit for something that’s happening anyway.”
LePage struggles even to see the logic of the question. “It’s weird,” he narrows his eyes. “For me, guitar music has never not been cool.”
More pointedly, while there are plenty of acts right now who love to pose with their six-string and can strum a few chords, there surely are none cracking the mainstream (or anywhere, frankly) who can play their instruments like Polyphia. Has there been a band who’ve been able to traverse the worlds of rock and pop, making shred seem this cross-culturally cool, since Van Halen?
“It’s super easy to be mad corny when you’re doing virtuoso guitar,” Henson speaks frankly. “Off-script, it’s almost corny in itself. But to find the things that are musical about that, and to put it in contexts that aren’t corny, is the real challenge. I think a lot of bands who play that way aren't really concerned about those things. If you look back, taking in Eddie’s work with Michael Jackson on ‘Beat it,’ maybe the last time it was cool was Van Halen.”
It’s not a bad comparison. It’s also one to which Polyphia are unafraid to live up. Leaving behind their “cult” status to come as far as they already have has only stoked the desire — and the belief — that they can be the biggest band in the world.
“I’d like to say that we want that for ourselves,” Henson declares. “We want to be that household name. More than anything, we want to have the freedom to make whatever kind of music we want, with whoever we want, whether that’s today’s largest stars, legacy acts or newer artists. Getting through the door is just so difficult. We just want access. To get that, you have to grow. At the end of the day, the better things go for us, the more time we have to make dope shit.”
Whatever Polyphia’s next evolution may be, count on it to melt your face and blow your mind.