Polyphia is making shredding sexy. Musicians whose technical prowess on the guitar (or any other instrument) is way above average — say Steve Vai, Dream Theatre, Steven Wilson — tend to attract a heavily male crowd often dubbed “guitar nerds.”
And yes, the Texas-bred quartet is known for heady and heavy instrumentals coupled with psychologically provocative song titles, like “Playing God” and “Ego Death” on their latest, Remember That You Will Die. But Polyphia aims to cross over to a crowd who doesn’t know their arpeggio from their hammer-on.
With over 400 million global streams, 90 million YouTube views, and production collaborators including Y2K (Doja Cat, Remi Wolf, Tove Lo) and Johan Lenox (Kanye, FINNEAS). Add in vocals from $not, Deftones singer Chino Moreno and Brasstracks, they’re clearly on their way. The aforementioned guitar hero Vai on the song and video for “Ego Death” isn’t hurting the band’s credibility either.
Before they were modern shredding icons, however, Polyphia was just a group of teenagers with a unique goal.
“Polyphia consciously tried to bring two very, very different audiences together,” guitarist Tim Henson tells SPIN. “One being the guitar nerds and neckbeards. The other, girls our age who would be Justin Bieber/One Direction kids. So that was the goal, but over the years, we’ve been less trying to be something we’re not and just being us. Us being more authentic has obviously helped the growth of everything. It’s still very heavily male-leaning, but I noticed that at some shows there’s like hella girls.”
Along with Henson’s bandmates guitarist Scott LePage, bassist Clay Gober and drummer Clay Aeschliman, Polyphia’s blend of progressive rock/metal with hip-hop rhythms and bass-heavy trap music could bring together genres — or alienate the band from all of them. So far, it’s done both, as shown on the band’s latest album Remember That You Will Die.
“Honestly, our entire career has been upsetting our fan base from each record to the next,” Henson says. “I mean, we literally named one of our EPs The Most Hated, because we knew they were going to hate it. And they did. At first, it was so hated that there was almost a lack of response — almost indifference, which is worse than being hated! Then there was so much indifference that it became universally loved. And it just blew our fan base up. It grew so much larger because of that record, and so we really embrace making changes for our artistic expression and upsetting our own fan base.”
Since 2012, YouTube has been the primary force driving fans to the band (aside from touring). The early days saw them playing “balls to the wall as fast as we could play,” to the point that youth and a speedy technical prowess became the band’s initial calling card. These days, the band’s streaming and social numbers alone indicate that they’re rockstars, but in the most modern way.
“Yes and no, yes and no,” Henson muses. “I guess when we’re on stage I very much feel like a rock star. When I’m out in public, sometimes I’ll get recognized. But mostly it’s ‘Oh, you’re the guitar player from TikTok.’ So that makes me not feel like a rock star.”
Despite their undeniable talent, Henson was rejected from the prestigious Berklee College of Music after he applied to attend it after high school. He pretended to go to school for his parents’ sake but spent all his time online promoting Polyphia. The band launched an IndieGoGo campaign to fund the first record.
“When I finally told my dad ‘Hey, I dropped out of school a while ago, and we’re about to ask the internet for money,’ he got really mad,” Henson recalls.
His son’s ensuing success tempered any familial anger and then moving out of their teen years saw the band mature both musically and personally.
“If you’ve been following our music and all of our releases, this is the most recent evolution of the Polyphia ‘creature,’” LePage explains. “If the first album was like a prehistoric bird, this album would be like a muscular post-historic bird with wings and gills, and it could swim and breathe underwater.”
“This one is more accessible,” Henson laughs. “We’re working with vocalists — half the record has vocal features. And we’re a lot more mature in our instrumentals.”
Polyphia gives a lot of thought to its place in the music world — as do its fans. Many purists, especially in the instrumental guitar world, decry the change.
“The first album, they love the instrumental stuff,” LePage says. “I don’t even think they hate the stuff with vocals, I think they just romanticize the idea of a weird instrumental band.”
“The diehards kind of know by now that they’re going to feel many kinds of ways throughout the whole process of [our records and career],” Henson says. “Like changing feelings, which I think is more interesting than just liking something right off the bat.”
Appearing on a recent cover of Guitar World with Vai was a dream come true, but the band members have found it’s not the be-all-end-all. Sometimes, the most rewarding aspects of the band come from the work itself.
“You always have those goals in your head,” LePage says. “So it’s ‘Alright, sick, cool, now I gotta do all this other shit.’ Sometimes, you have so many things you’re doing and need to do and still want to do that when you finally hit a milestone like that, it’s kind of difficult to take a step back and really appreciate it as much as you can.”
“I think I feel the most excitement the minute something is composed or written,” Henson adds before turning to LePage. “You know that feeling when you make something dope and you can’t wait to bring it to the crib and show me? Or the next time that we’re in the car together, so you can fucking play it?”
“Fuck yeah, dude,” his bandmate says.
“It’s that early moment in the process. Sometimes when I’m making dope shit, I’ll tweet ‘God damn, I am snapping right now.’ That’s my favorite moment — the process of doing it, rather than the accolades that come with it.”