The Cover Story

Polyphia: “We can do whatever we want. That’s all I know how to do”

Certain corners of the press may have you believe that guitar music is dead, but Polyphia are here to say otherwise. At the beginning of a sold-out UK tour, off the back of knockout LP Remember That You Will Die, the Texan instrumentalists are taking heavy music to new horizons and inspiring a new legion of fans along the way…

Polyphia: “We can do whatever we want. That’s all I know how to do”
Nick Ruskell
Travis Shinn

We’ve been talking to Tim Henson a whole 30 seconds before he shows us his arse. A surprise, to be sure, but it explains why he’s at a funny angle. He’s using Zoom on his phone, at the same time as he’s lying on a tattooist’s table.

“Dude, I’m getting my first ass tattoo today,” he grins, before moving his handset down to show us the enormous chrysanthemum outline on his derriere. Over the next hour, he will wince only once as he undergoes his latest lengthy procedure, something he shrewdly explains is down to the fact that, “I own a numbing cream company.”

Even the question as to whether all this is wise before getting on a plane to Europe in a couple of days’ time, and thus spending more than half a full day sat down, is shrugged off. “It’s whatever, dude. I’m kind of covered anyway, so I know what the healing is like.”

This is about the level of stress Tim and fellow Polyphia guitar wizard Scott LePage, dialling in from home two hours away, are feeling right now. That is to say, none. This week, they’ll arrive on our shores for their biggest UK shows to date, including two sold-out nights at London’s O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire. The most concern the two show about anything is when they drawl back and forth hypothetically as to whether it’s better to do the two nights in London (Scott: “It’s more boss, it’s like a residency”) or do one bigger night in a larger room (Tim: “Dude, bigger is way more appealing to me”).

Such is life in Polyphia right now. Things are comfortably on the up-and-up – streams over the 50-million mark on Spotify, being hailed as guitar heroes in an era where such ideas are oft considered dead and irrelevant, that sort of thing. Put this to them, and the response isn’t so much denial or defence as a slight curiosity that such a thing has been pinned to them in the first place.

“We've been able to stand on the shoulders of giants, in a way, with the people we looked up to,” says Tim. “And it's really cool, because every day on TikTok, there's always some fucking kid out there, who's been listening to us and is doing some of the wildest shit I've ever seen. It's just exciting to see.”

“When people ask me that question: ‘How does it feel to, like, you know, (adopts ‘big, important things’ voice) MAKE GUITAR MUSIC RELEVANT AGAIN,’ or whatever the fuck they say, I’m not thinking about, ‘Alright, this thing I’m writing needs to change guitar music,’” adds Scott with his big, likeable laugh. “I'm just looking to find a way to translate a feeling.”

This is, though, very much what ‘they’ are saying about Polyphia. Tim and Scott are both ferociously talented guitarists, easily able to spar with heroes Tim mentions like Steve Vai and British legend Guthrie Govan. They’re also doing things like nobody else around at the minute – as Tim puts it, “Basically mixing the guitar shit we love with Drake.” Last year’s Remember That You Will Die album is the only place you’ll hear a guest spot from Steve Vai rubbing up with appearances from rapper $NOT and New York production duo Brasstracks.

“We’ve always been an outlier, and I definitely thought of it as a negative,” reflects Scott. “For years, I was like, ‘Man, this is gonna fuck with us for a long time.’ But I didn't want to start writing shit that fit anyone else's type of style. I guess I was like, 'Well, you know, I guess we'll just kind of figure it out.'”

“I didn’t want to start writing shit that fit anyone else’s style”

Hear Scott LePage talk about striving for originality

They make a good pair, Tim and Scott. Aware of one another since they were knee-high to a grasshopper, friends since they were in high school (the latter is the slightly older of the two), and making music together for well over a decade, conversation with them frequently leads down roads of shared memory and nostalgia. Both have a friendly, slightly slacker demeanour, bubbling with enthusiasm without ever crossing into anything approaching boastfulness or arrogance, in an accent that says ‘Southern U.S.’ rather than ‘Texas yahoo’. Often, they’ll chime in to add on to one another’s stories, most of which involve each other, the wage of being a partnership for so long.

Even before they knew one another, their lives were on a similar track, both discovering guitar through their dads, being introduced to what they refer to as “dad rock” records by Black Sabbath and Jimi Hendrix, living more or less on the same street.

“What are the odds?” asks Scott. “And then we come together to jam and we pretty much know the same stuff – what are the fucking odds of that? Whenever we tell people that, they think that we're lying, because of how fucking picture perfect is.”

Scott was, in some ways, also one of Tim’s early guitar heroes. Having been a student of the violin since the age of three, practicing for hours a day (“Chinese mom,” he explains), at age 10 his father produced an old guitar he’d never mentioned before, to which Tim turned as a more exciting and fun musical outlet than the strict discipline of the bow and the string. Assuming his chops would stand him in good stead for an assumed similar instrument, Tim picked up his father’s axe to immediately discover “I sucked donkey dick”.

“I fucking hated violin. It was a really intense thing for a fucking toddler to do,” he laughs. “When I picked up the guitar, I totally sucked, so that was kind of the motivation to get good. It kind of became my escape from violin because I hated that so much. When you're a kid, and you're being forced to do the shit, it's just not tight. But I started on guitar and my dad would show me some stuff here and there. And then he also put me on to Black Sabbath.”

Anyway, with a similarly paternal launchpad built around Black Sabbath and the pentatonic scale (the basic blues scale from which much early metal was divined, and the road map if you want to do Tony Iommi, Jimmy Page or Kirk Hammett solos), Scott was already a couple of years ahead of him. By the time he was a young teenager, he had a band called Prophecy (“My dad’s band was called the same thing as well,” he reveals, proudly), who would play Green Day and Foo Fighters songs at Varsity Clubs and such. The pair knew one another a little. To the younger of the two, Scott was already a rock star.

“I remember looking at Myspace and seeing your fan page and your recordings and thinking, like, ‘Fuck, that's so legit,’” Tim tells him. “I remember trying to get the kids in my grade [who I was trying to start a band with] to fucking step their shit up so that we could go play a show and get a recording and put it on a Myspace page.”

“Playing guitar became my escape from violin because I hated it so much”

Tim Henson on finding the motivation to excel at guitar

Tim remembers going to a sleepover with Scott’s band, but no music was played, preferring instead to “stay up all night drinking Monster and watching Clerks II”. Their eventual joining of forces would come a couple of years later, via another coincidence. Tim and a drummer had begun jamming, and the rhythm sectioned mention Scott as a sharp guitarist. When he turned up, he nailed the “ultra-technical metal shit” Tim had written immediately, a story that shows how talented they both were as players, but also the composer Tim was quickly becoming.

“The shit that Tim had written over this drum track was fucking insane,” gushes Scott. “I remember going over to his place, and hearing the shit for the first time. And the stuff that I had written in whatever band I was in was kind of just mostly playing riffs that the other guitarist had written. And it was fucking hardcore metal, deathcore type of shit. So when I went over to a friend's house and actually heard some application of shred and things that I liked to do, but on a song with structure and melody and cool shit, I was like, ‘Dude, what the fuck?!’ I was thinking in my head, dude, ‘This guy. This guy’s got it. This guy’s fucking got the right idea.’”

So, they started a band. And then Tim got busted with weed, meaning curfew, meaning being – both from the plod and his parents – ultra, double-grounded.

“I was really into marijuana. I mean, I still am. I had a couple of possessions, which are like misdemeanour charges as a minor,” he recalls with a cheeky grin. “Because of that, I was on probation with a five o'clock curfew. Legally, I had to be inside the house at five o'clock. On top of that, I was extra grounded. So for my entire high school time, I was grounded on probation. And so what I did was just play guitar. I remember asking my dad, ‘Please, for the love of fuck, I don't care about hanging out with people, just let me jam with my band.’ That was the only extracurricular thing that I was allowed to do outside of school.”

“For my entire high school time, I was grounded on probation, so I just played guitar”

Listen to Tim recall when he was “extra grounded” and how he used that time to improve his skills

This worked out just fine for Scott, who didn’t have much else in his schedule besides “going to the creek to shoot my friends with Airsoft guns”. So they practiced, and got really good. And wrote more songs, where they had the idea to mix “Drake with all the virtuoso guitar shit I was listening to,” as Tim puts it. When Tim finished high school, he applied to the prestigious Berklee College Of Music. Somehow, he didn’t get in.

“I didn't have a back-up plan. It was just like, ‘Well… fuck,’” he recalls. “There was a week of depression, but after that, it was just like, ‘Okay, fuck college. Let's do this band for real.’”

The pair worked at a T-shirt printers “doing graphic design for soccer moms who want their fucking kid’s name and a soccer ball on a T-shirt”. This taught Tim how to design on Photoshop, and meant he and Scott could sort their own merch. It was a good hustle. It had to be, since Tim was lying to his parents every day that he was going to community college, when actually he was “getting up at the fucking ass-crack of dawn, pretending I had 8am class, and going and sitting in Starbucks with my laptop, promoting our music”.

The point at which Tim came clean to his folks about what he’d been up to was when it came to record Polyphia’s debut album, Muse. Dad, he said, I haven’t been going to college, and I’m about to ask the internet for a ton of money to make a record. And how did he take that?

“He was pissed off.”

No shit. And then came the next bit of good news for Henson Snr: Polyphia were trying to panhandle somewhere in the region of 15 grand to pay for the album. And just as he was presumably looking for the number of the nearest army recruitment office to knock some sense into his talented but daft son, the results came back.

“We ended up raising like 33 grand. That’s when my dad was… he wasn't pissed anymore,” grins Tim. “After that, he was like, ‘Okay, you guys could do this.’ I guess that was the moment that we all realised we could do this.”

Skipping a few chapters, Polyphia really can ‘do this’. Muse was quite the departure from the more djenty tech sounds of their Inspire EP that preceded it, but that’s all for the good. Where they’ve ended up now is somewhere entirely their own. On Remember You Will Die, there’s no metal, but there are ideas and creativity and imagination. Should you draw a comparison to Bring Me The Horizon for trying to bring in elements one wouldn’t normally get from a rock band, the pair agree, but really, they’re entirely their own band.

“It's probably the best thing we could have done, keeping the music about doing it for ourselves and no-one else. Because fuck everyone,” laughs Scott. “Just kidding. But as long as you're keeping it fun, and the passion and the fire is still there so you can continue to keep making shit that’s dope.”

“As long as, as an artist, you're you, you like what you're doing, you care about it, and you talk with it like you're proud of it, that's the best thing that you can do,” agrees Tim.

“Dude, chances are your fans will at the very least be able to appreciate the fact that you fucking just did what you thought would be good,” Scott continues. “Of course, there's a line. If you want to fart on the microphone in the middle of a song, that's a silly goose moment.”

For all this horsing around, Tim and Scott are serious musicians, and serious about keeping trains on the track. The same sharpness that has Tim owning the numbing cream company. The luxury of touring on a bus these days comes from working out how to get one because, as Scott says, “when you’re about to turn 30, after years of touring in a van, you need that shit so it doesn’t suck”. For so long, people told them they’d be the outliers on this tour, that tour, and that was a good thing. It meant you could do anything. Now people are catching up. Years feeling like the odd shoe have blossomed into a situation where Polyphia are both massive and liberated.

“It's like a double-edged blade,” says Tim. “The beginning is a lot harder, and then it gets easier as you climb the mountain. At one point it was like, ‘Who the fuck do we tour with? Nobody?’ It was just a struggle. But then once you get up the mountain, it's like, ‘Oh, we could do anything.’”

And with that comes the guitar hero stuff. Come on, you love it, right?

“It's fucking cool,” smiles Tim. “I remember being a young kid looking up to the people on those magazine covers, and we get to pass it on with our own little brand of what we do. Hopefully there's some kids out there that read these magazines and see us on these covers, and they go on to make shit 10 times doper than us.”

Ask them what they want out of this, Scott will say he just wants to “keep creating shit and getting to find ways to create a feeling through music,” while Tim, somewhat more ambitiously, plumps for, “I'm ready to keep busting ass and get to the next big [venue]. And eventually do like, Royal Albert Hall. We want to do stadiums and shit.”

Ambitious? Yeah. But then, the way Polyphia see it, things have become theirs for the taking. They might not be all up in your face about it – indeed, both are actually pretty modest gents – but in the sense of creative opportunity their success so far is affording them, the sky’s the limit. As Tim himself puts it as the tattooist continues to work, “We can do whatever we want. That’s kind of all I know how to do.”

And that’s the bottom line.

Polyphia are on tour in the UK now

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