Scott LePage has something to show us. It’s like Michael Bay is directing the Zoom call as he bounces off his chair in the studio to a room out back where the Polyphia guitarist has got this something he wants to show us – specifically an amp, an actual physical guitar amp, which he tell us is the next frontier in his prospecting for tone.
“I picked this bad boy out, a Meshuggah amp, dude! I just run it through and Orange cab, and it just sounds as smooth as shit. I cannot believe it. I just wanted to show you it. It’s gnarly.”
It is. It is one of those hand-wired by Fortin signature Meshuggah heads that look like a Plexi with a nuclear reactor wired in series alongside the EL34 power tubes, Meshuggah logo in the Marshall font, a bad-ass MVC [Meshuggah Volume Control] push-pull dial for more gain compression, for blowing the roof off. It’s something else, all right.
It’s also something different for LePage, who, alongside Tim Henson, has been taking guitar into unchartered territory, not only embedding it within predominantly electronic compositions – borrowing from trap, and the aesthetic of EDM, and whatever fresh sound has came upon shuffle lately – but fully engaging with the digital transformation of electric guitar and guitar culture. If ever there was a band who personify the future-forward protocols of guitar plugins, a signal path of 1s and 0s, all on hard-drive, it’s Polyphia.
Their new album, Remember That You Will Die, its title virtually speaking to our inevitable obsolescence, was four years in the making, and is a paradigm shift for progressive guitar music. It’s metal, it’s pop, it’s tricksy.
Featuring guest collaborations from Deftones’ Chino Moreno, Sophia Black, and Steve Vai, it’s as audacious as you might expect – there is a song titled The Audacity because of course there is.
It’s virtuosity, too. As LePage tells us as he checks in from his home studio, he and Henson will write this stuff, they’ll record it, but it is still in the lap of the gods whether or not they will be able to actually play this stuff.
Similarly, LePage is not too sure yet what he wants to take from this Fortin Meshuggah amp, but he’s enjoying the journey.
“When you buy someone’s signature thing, you always have to expect, ‘Okay, it’s not going to sound exactly the same.’ It is not going to sound exactly like Meshuggah,” he says. “They have the equipment, the amp, the guitar, the wood in the guitar, the pickups in the guitar, the room, the speakers, fucking everything, right? Everything is different.
“But when you plug that thing in, it’s like, ‘Holy shit! I actually sound like Meshuggah!’ [Laughs] It was the first time I plugged something in and it was exactly the fucking sound. They really nailed it.”
LePage has been chasing after one of these for a couple of years now. Passively. He was no desperado about it. “I was not looking all the time – like Googling every morning, ‘Meshuggah amp’ I just happened to run into this one, and it was on Reverb, too, so you can send an offer and negotiate it,” he says.
But he’s not sure where this experiment with a physical amplifier that pushes all the air around the room and sounds like Meshuggah is going to take him. And that is part of the point. Because Polyphia, above all else, are a band who have made a sound following their nose and chasing that sense of curiosity.
As LePage explains here, that’s how Henson found an electric guitar nylon-string and thus a sound that gave Polyphia a thrilling new dimension on Playing God and Chimera, that creative restlessness is how all the collaborations come about, and that’s why this album might just be the most radical guitar album of 2022.
That radicalism could be traced back to 1997 and the release of a kidney-bean shaped amp modeller and multi-effects unit that changed the world…
You balance this digital transformation of the guitar with that the virtuosity of the instrumental guitar scene. And it poses a philosophical question for us, because as guitarists, have we truly reckoned with digitalisation yet?
“Well, dude, the funny thing about the whole digital era is that we have all these sick drums, and electric guitar but it is still a physical thing that you have to perform and play, but all of the things, all of the guitar tones, all of the things that we do to the drums and the bass in post while we are mixing and writing, and all that stuff, it’s all digital. It is all 1s and 0s.
“And man, I remember when amp simulation was starting to become a thing, and I remember when it started to pick up, and then I remember when it really started to take off and, back in the day, it was expensive. Line 6 had that POD, it was that red, bean-shaped physical thing that you had to buy, and it was an amp simulator with effects and shit like that, and then they had the POD Farm, which is a plugin – you just unload it and boom! You’re good.
“POD Farm, when we started experimenting with it, oh man! It was honestly life changing, because we realised that we didn’t need to spend thousands of dollars on equipment to sound good. Yeah, there is a lot of analogue things still – I am just starting to get into physical amps. I could never afford it before, and now it’s something that I have shown an interest in wanting to learn just because I want to learn about it, I guess. But the digital thing, man, plugins and stuff like that, it’s so easy.
“I have this right here [holds up Apogee Duet 2 USB audio interface]. This is everything on tour. You just plug this shit in and you can do whatever the fuck you want – as long as you have the computer plugins and all that stuff. I am very thankful for the digital world. It has made everything very easy on us.”
It’s like an iPod moment for guitar.
“It’s fantastic, dude.”
It would be amazing to hear what Polyphia would have sounded like if you started out in the ‘70s.
“[Laughs] Yeah! Oh it would be very, very different, man, because a lot of the guitar parts that we write, we do in pieces. We will record a little part of it and then we will punch in to do the next part. It’s not like we sit there, learn it, and then perform it, all in one big three-and-a-half-minute go, so it would be very different.
“I think so, anyway. It would come out pretty different. It would certainly take longer, that’s for sure. But yeah, the whole ease of use with the DAWs and everything, it has made it faster for us to operate in that way, ‘cos now I can just record it in pieces and take that shit and learn it later.”
Yeah, but then you actually have to learn it later. You have to perform it. Is that the scary bit? You must think, ‘Shit, we’ve got to play this stuff.’
“Sometimes. And sometimes we take a look at what we have written, like Chimera, where I did stuff on an eight-string guitar, and I had tuned the low string down a half-step halfway through the song, just because. We were recording and I said, ‘I want this note! Why the fuck not? Let’s just do it real quick. It’s probably still possible.’
“But then Tim wrote all of his nylon-string stuff to it, so there are parts where there is nylon guitar, and then there is parts where there is distorted eight-string electric guitar. If we ever do play that one, I am very curious to see how we end up making it work
“What we do when we write is we think in serving the song, right? Most of the time anyway. There is a small aspect of, ‘Okay, this needs to be performable.’ But sometimes we just do cool shit for the sake of doing cool shit and we worry about it later. If we have to change some stuff, we do that.
“We did the Chimera guitar playthrough and it we had to cut it so Tim could switch his guitars, so I am not sure if that is going to be a feasible thing to play live but it is a cool song. I think we did a good job with the song. We’ll see if we can ever make that one happen!”
Even if you have to divert from the menu a little, it’ll give something for the people on the internet something to talk about…
“Yeah, that’s very true.”
It’s a different way of thinking about guitar music, almost like how a hip-hop producer might approach it, the way J Dilla might have pieced together a beat and some melody, and you do that with guitar. That’s quite radical.
“Thanks, man! Honestly, if we hear a certain sound in our head, we just try to figure it out. That’s really all there is to it. There are formulas we use to try and help us execute but really it just starts with the idea.”
Yeah, like what Steve Vai said to you, ‘If you can hear it, you can play it.’ What was the biggest lesson you learned from working with Steve?
“Honestly, this might sound lame, but honestly it was just to be – how do I put this, because I don’t think I was a dick before or anything. He kind of taught me to be nicer, not nicer but I guess more gracious.
“What I mean by that is, like when he is doing the solo, and he is sending it over to us, he’s like, ‘Guys, this is my gift to you. I want you to take this solo and do whatever you want with it. This is yours. This is your music, and I am happy to be a part of it.’
“Tim and I have always handled things very, very professionally when we work with other people [but] seeing Steve act towards us the way he did and then realising that is truly how he acts towards everybody, it was kind of like reopening your eyes to something that you might have been slowly closing your eyes to.
“The music industry and shit like that can be fucking intense and complicated and you get stuck in the business world of it, sometimes, but he has been doing it for decades and it really just seems like he is at peace with himself. Because of that, he can act with just pure kindness towards everyone.
“I mean, that’s just the kind of fucking guy he is! You’ve talked to him. That’s how he is. Working with him, it’s like, y’know what, dude, those are the things I want people to say about me. I want people to be like, ‘Scott, Polyphia, they were so cool to work with.’
“I don’t think that we have given anybody a reason to hate us or anything like that but... It was just cool! They always say don’t meet your heroes but this was very much not that type of situation. He was very, very, very kind to us. He treated us like we were his family.”
It sounds like he has given you a different way of thinking about things. What do you look for in a collaboration? You choose them really well.
“Thanks! Most of our things come from us reaching out or people reaching out to us, because that is where the true desire to work – the motivation to do it – comes from. It’s the personalised [approach]. You are talking with the motherfucker whom you are going to write a song with; it happens a lot easier than managers fixing it up.”
“This record I have to look at the tracklisting to see. ABC? Tim, when he was living in LA, he moving back to Texas, and he sent out a mass tweet, ‘Hey, I am moving back to Texas in three months, so if you wanna work with me, or if you have every thought about hitting me up, let’s fucking work before I leave.” Sophia Black tweeted back at him and was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do a song.’ We’re like, ‘Hell yeah!’ That’s how that one came about.
“$NOT, Tim was doing a session and they sent him a couple of songs that they had in the vault, and Tim wrote a bunch of shit to it. The Audacity, with Anomalie, I think he hit Tim up and said, ‘Let’s work.’ Tim was like, ‘Fuck yeah – if you want to send us something, go for it, because we are in the studio right now.’
“We were in Michigan, doing drums. One of the few sessions that we did for drums. And he sent us something that he had from his YouTube channel. We had never heard it before. We just fucking went nuts on it.
“Brasstracks! Ivan [Jackson] fucking loves working with us and we love working with him. I mean, we’re just fucking friends, so he is always down to do stuff with us which we think is really fucking cool.
“And then Chino [Moreno, Deftones], an old manager knew him, so we always had, y’know, the email in the drafts. And for this record, we were like, ‘You know what? We actually have something. Let’s see if he wants to write anything.’ He sent us some emails back and we were like, ‘Hey, man, let’s get into the studio and finish it up, polish it up,’ and that’s how Bloodbath came about.
Do these collaborations change the way you write?
“It’s all different in its own way but we do try to mould the style around the artist. Like, Bloodbath, with Chino, we wouldn’t have given him ABC because that is not his jam. Actually, it’s quite a funny story. We had something for Chino and we sent him something, he wrote stuff to it, and then, once we finished up the session in the studio, I took that one home and changed everything, all the guitars, except for one of Tim’s parts and a couple of my parts here and there.
“I restructured the whole thing. I rewrote the chord progression. I changed fucking everything about the song just because I felt like our stuff no longer did his stuff justice. Yeah, a lot of these songs go through three, four, five different versions until we are finally happy with it, and some of the songs didn’t make it to the record. God! We probably have like 20 ideas that just didn’t make it, which we are either going to come back to one day or they’ll just be buried.”
For actually writing song ideas – and what a great title for the record – do you think lyrically? Or maybe even visually? Is there any theme to the record?
“Honestly, a lot of our ideas, like the birthing versions of these songs… This record took us four years because Covid came and fucked us out of two years in terms of doing shit, so we had a lot of time to sit down with this record and finish it, and write new things during the Covid thing.
“But even before then we had a bunch of ideas, and it comes from whatever Tim and I are listening to, new releases, things like that, and I don’t want to say trends because we don’t really do that whole thing. We kind of just make our own shit out of it, I guess, but when it comes to visualising things, writing, I am not ever thinking about lyrics because I am not a lyricist. I wouldn’t know where to start.
“I think [in] colours a lot. I have like those colour lights in my studio. In my other room I have those lights that change colours, so I’ll be like, ‘Alexa, make the room blue! Make it orange.’ Like, the energy you get out of it – not to come off too spiritual, but it can be fun to do that. Finding the vibe of it is a fun way to keep yourself encouraged and motivated.”
Colour lighting is interesting; colours, music, it’s all frequencies. Did you see Julian Lage’s videos for his new album? Each song was performed in the same place, almost the same blocking, but with different lighting, and it really changes the energy.
“That’s pretty cool! I’d never heard of it. But I tell you what, dude, I am going to think about that frequency thing from now on… Capture the freqs!”
The nylon-strings give the record a really cool texture, this sort of programmed virtuosity with how the strings have that different attack.
“I’ll give you the history on the nylon-strings. We were on tour in Europe, and I think it was in either Cologne or Prague. Basically, Tim went into a music store and found this fuckin’ Ibanez nylon electric guitar – it was like an S body, and it had fucking nylon strings on it and one knob.
“It wasn’t like a semi-hollow or anything like that. It was just a fucking electric guitar with nylon strings, and he was like, ‘What the hell is this!?’ So he buys it, and takes it back to his hotel, starts writing stuff to it, and he asks our dude over at Ibanez, ‘What is this?’ And he goes, ‘Oh, this is a failed version of a nylon electric guitar that we tried.’ I think it was in the ‘80s or ‘90s, but it just didn’t work. I guess everyone back then was just going into shred and shit, high-gain, so it just didn’t work out.
“Tim was like, ‘Damn, this thing is fucking cool!’ So he took that and made it his own, and then now we have his nylon guitar and they’ve made a whole new one for him.
“Shit like that, dude? He could have just looked at that and thought, ‘That’s cool.’ And then gone home. Story over. But instead he looked at that and said, ‘Let me fucking try something with it.’ He picked it up, ended up loving it and now we’ve got Playing God and Chimera – and other shit in the vaults that people haven’t heard. ”
That's the cool thing. You pick it up and who knows where it is going to take you?
“Yeah, dude, just taking shit like that and rolling with it, doubling down on trying new things, that is our mindset to this whole record. We have always had this sense of experimentalism, like The Most Hated was like, ‘Okay, we’re fucking different, we’re gonna call it something so people are aware that it’s gonna be different.’ And Remember That You Will Die is almost more a mindset than it is just trying to come up with something cool; all of the songs tie into each other, like their names.
“When we were first writing the names, it was like an iRobot theme where AI takes over the fucking world! Then Tim and I got together and were like, ‘It’s kinda lame, right?’ [Laughs] We scratched that a little bit but kept bits and pieces, because you go look at the visualisers on YouTube, they are all robot monster things, demons and shit like that.
That fits with the digital theme but then not so much with the rest of the record.
“We kept some of it that we thought was cool but, yeah, it all ties together in our brains, and we did know that we wanted to keep it pretty cohesive in terms of music, so the order of everything is very thought out and intentional. Genesis, that, to us, just sounded like a fucking intro song. Playing God, just get right into it, right? The Audacity, we wanted to showcase some of the ability, I guess, and then it starts taming down a little bit on Performance.
“Then you start to get into the serving-the-songs songs. But yeah, I guess all that just to say that, trying out new stuff? It kicks ass, man. That’s why I am getting into amps and stuff because you never know what kind of shit you are going to write.”
Well, it's going to be with the Meshuggah amp, it's going to be loud. It’s like the guitar player’s equivalent of buying a tank.
“Dude, it is so funny. I’ll test shit. I’ll play shit as loud as fuck and I’ll go outside and see if I can hear it, and you can a little bit, but my neighbours are kinda old, and I think they’re hearing is degrading, and I have never gotten a complaint. So that’s good news for me because I’ll fucking blast this shit. My hearing is degrading, too. I need that shit to be loud!” [Laughs]
- Remember That You Will Die is now now via Rise Records.