Polyphia’s latest release, New Levels New Devils, out Oct. 12 on Equal Vision Records, is a crazy walk through a carnival funhouse. The Texas-based instrumental band’s music is twisted, bent, and constantly morphing like a hall of mirrors full of people. It sounds like standing in a video arcade while “Asteroids” from Atari comes alive in the air, a constantly-tapping barrage of notes that feel like asteroids and saucers floating faster and faster in space. Polyphia dilate pupils like drinking a four-pack of energy drinks and spending the afternoon pumping quarters into arcade games.
“With this record, we kind of just like really intricate trap beats—we just play them on real instruments,” guitarist Tim Henson says. “We’ve had djent-y death metal songs, real pop-ish kind of songs. We’ve had electronic kind of songs. It’s whatever kind of music we want to make [without] really putting a label on it.”
Polyphia may have more in common with hip hop artists like Fetty Wap than other instrumental bands like labelmates Night Verses. According to Henson, they’re a different kind of band. “I don’t feel like we’re in the same kind of thing with anyone just because of the way that we are writing,” he explains. “It’s really not traditional. [Guitarist] Scott [LePage] and I are producers. We have a lot of producer friends who work in hip hop and electronic music. I do a lot of sessions with a lot of friends. With our music, we have a million friends and just say, ‘You want to work on some Polyphia music and have, like, a section here and a section there?’ We’re all having fun. It’s just a general idea, and then, it’s like, ‘OK, let’s get bass and drums on this.’ It’s not really a traditional [way of] making the music like a band would.”
No matter how Polyphia are categorized or what genre they fall into, New Levels New Devils has multiple meanings, crossing over from the lives of the musicians to the meaning in their music. Henson explains the essence of their process, saying, “We wanted to experiment with darker sounds. ‘G.O.A.T.’ and ‘O.D.,’ they’re much darker that anything we’ve ever done. We’re very much about contrast. We’re pretty much idiots, but we play fairly complicated music. There’s a contrast there. Half the record is really hard and dark, and the rest is more playful and light—hence the tigers: there’s one tiger with two different heads on the record [cover]. One is just chilling, and the other is roaring—the contrast between the dark and the light. We’re big fans of sarcasm and irony. Pretty much everything we say is not what it is, and what it is is not what we say. That’s the concept of this record.”
So, if it’s trap music with samples and live instruments arranged together, what’s important to the process isn’t the computers with which Polyphia record and produce their music, it’s—Henson interjects, “Guitar first, the instruments—I think a little of both. Things that come straight from your hearts and hands, your mind, those tend to be the best things. Arranging afterwards, in Ableton [Live], that’s important for the song. The general ideas need to be fire to start with. Once you have fire ideas, you do the extra work on the song structure, making the song go somewhere and do something and mean something to someone.”
New Levels New Devils dives in on the fact that the band are leveling up. They’ve recently graduated from van touring to bus touring, and as their popularity grows, so do the challenges. Henson fills in the blanks. “Van life sucks,” he states. “Then, we got to the bus—and bus life sucks. My friend back home was like, ‘Well, new levels, new devils,’ and I was like, ‘What the fuck did you just say?!’ I was like, ‘Dude, that is hard as fuck.’ As you get bigger, you’re going to experience more problems. As you grow, things are going to change.”
Polyphia blasted out their new record throughout 2018, starting in January and finishing the mastering in June. They never left it alone, writing, recording, and mixing it everywhere they went, including the bus. They started before tour, took it with them, and finished after tour. Henson exudes pride in their work. “Even though the record was made in such a short amount of time, it’s something we’re all very attached to,” he says. “It means a lot to all of us. A lot of people are upset about the things we’ve been saying—it’s all fun and games there, [but there were] thousands and thousands of hours poured into that record from each of us. Lots of crunch time binging on it rather than taking a break—just really going hard on it.”
New Levels New Devils has a dynamic sound that bounces with every pluck and tap of the strings, every riff, and every growth in the size of Polyphia’s touring machine. The album offers a greater sense of the band’s musicianship. Is it just their love of irony and sarcasm, or are they trying to start rap-battle-style trouble with any fan or foe who will listen? This instrumental band aren’t afraid of controversy, especially when it comes from a place of passion. “We’ve been calling ourselves the biggest and the best metal band in the world, because metal fans seem to get very upset that we even call ourselves metal,” Henson says. “To say that we’re the biggest and the best is very tongue in cheek for us. They take it very seriously, and [it] offends a lot of people.”
“Whether they hate it or love it, the more passionately they feel about it, the better,” he concludes.
Photo by Travis Poston