16 Feb CATCHING UP WITH THE POLARIZERS
Since I’ve been keeping tabs on The Polarizers for the past few years, I knew an interview with them would make a fitting first entry. Trey, Victor, and Miles breathe fire into their music – a blaze lit by richness of character and unshakable heart. Their album, The Ruthless Pursuit of Respect, ignites your soul and thrusts it onto a dark path of hard rock and bluesy soul. (Bandcamp link is provided at the end of the interview; late night listening is ideal.)
Towards the end of November I was able to catch up with The Polarizers at The Scotland Yard Pub in Canoga Park, where they played some electrifying new music. The thick crowd inside the pub and the clusters of fans around the band between sets kept me from an interview that night, but I was there with one of my best friends sipping some pretty smooth sake and experienced zero disappointment. I even managed to don one of Victor’s skeleton gloves for a few hours. At the close of the night, er, sometime in the early morning, The Polarizers invited me to join one of their practices, so that we would have plenty of time for the interview without any interruption.
On a recent frigid night, I made the drive down to Canoga Park, first stopping at Erewhon Calabasas to score my coveted iced almond milk latte. When I arrived at nearly nine and found the boys with their instruments setup outside, I realized I should have grabbed a piping hot cappuccino. Knowing me fairly well, though, they had already prepared. I gladly accepted some extra layers of jackets and took a seat with them at a picnic table.
The cold air soon faded into obscurity, as we began an honest, artful conversation. Some drank coffee, some munched snacks, and some enjoyed a little of both as the minutes passed without notice and the size of our group slowly grew to include a handful of close friends and supporters. The conversation, which unfolded over the next few hours, is chronicled below in a pure Q and A format. Talking music with The Polarizers in this dark, intimate setting outside is something I will never forget.
Trey Shackelford (guitar, lead vocals)
Victor Lopez (bass, backup vocals)
Miles Gussin (drums, backup vocals)
Q & A:
How did The Polarizers come into being?
Trey: This is how it happened: we had this free recording time at a studio named after probably my favorite artist of all time – Marvin Gaye, whose music was ESSENTIAL in my upbringing. I was really excited about this, but…the other guys in the band at that time didn’t appreciate it. We had enough hours to record an album, and I’d show up ON time EVERY time ready to go. The drummer would show up after drinking, and once we got into the studio, nothing would get accomplished.
We kept putting off the recording until the next day. It became a cycle. The bass player would often arrive high and unable to play as well. I was fed up, and kicked the bass player out of the band. Then, it was just me and the former drummer, who I was highly fed up with as well; but, I wanted to give him another chance since he’s the younger brother of one of my friends. We needed to replace the bass player. That’s when Victor came into the picture. Victor was already a friend of mine, he plays bass, and he’d be around all the time.
Victor: Yes, I was in this band, Hijinx, and on the ride home from our last show, there was a HUGE argument and the band split up. After that, I stopped playing music for, like, a few months. Since I had more free time, I would just go over and kick it with Trey. I saw what was happening in his group, and he told me about the studio time and needing to record. One day he called me and told me that he kicked the bass player out. He asked me if I wanted to play with them. I told him that I wasn’t that good, and that I don’t know how to play – I just listen and play. I told him I couldn’t, but Trey wouldn’t accept a “no”. He told me to stop saying “I couldn’t”, and asked me to bring my bass over, so we could jam without the drummer – just he and I. And we did.
How long ago was this?
Victor: Probably about six years ago.
Trey: It got to the point that Victor and I and our old drummer were playing, but the drummer wasn’t showing up for practice. It was apparent that he didn’t care; he was lackadaisical. Sometimes, he’d show up and not even play. You gotta understand that my house was like a fucking pirate ship, and people were just in there smoking and stuff – like a whole gang of people in the house. Victor and I would be in one of the bedrooms, fully dedicated to music – drums set up, a bass amp, and a guitar amp, but the drummer would be too focused on the girls in the house to actually play with us. That’s when Victor and I talked about it and agreed to find another drummer.
Miles: I had only known Victor from friends and had seen him maybe three times before he randomly called me that day. He asked me if I played drums, and I said, “sort of.” Like Victor, I had been in a band previously, only mine was in middle school. We had broken up in the 8th grade and didn’t start playing again until the 10th grade. But, even then, we didn’t practice that much. When Victor asked me to be in the band, he told me that they played only traditional blues. At that time, I had only played pop punk and straight time. The blues is swung with the triplet feel, and I didn’t know how to do that.
After some convincing, I went over Trey’s house to the pirate ship. We practiced all the time. In his two bedroom apartment, we would play amplified music and a drum set until 1:30 am and the neighbors were COMPLETELY cool with it. It was, like, no big deal. For a long time, I was still living with my parents, and I would literally go to Trey’s, drink whiskey and play music all day, sleep on his couch, and then do it all over again. I’d go to work, come back with pastries, and start another day playing.
Victor: I wanted to play music, because I really have a love for music. If all of these people I look up to, if they never would have picked up an instrument and just started playing and creating, then they would never be who they are today. And I thought, if I want to play music and if I want it to be great, I just need to practice in order to become what I want to hear. I’ve always had this pull towards music. When I started playing it sounded horrible, but all I could do was keep playing. Practice, practice, practice to understand what I was doing. I took a class in college, Music Appreciation – I don’t know how to read music, so the way I learned how to play my music was to play one note at a time.
After doing that for some time, I would listen to my music, my favorite songs, and I would sit there with a CD and push play. I’d listen to the first riff and then find it on the instrument. And after I figured that out, I would go to the next little section, and figure that out until I knew how to play the whole song. At the beginning, it would take me a few days, but after doing it for a while, I could listen to music and figure it out. Now my hands just go to the correct note when I listen to music because I put in the time. Right now, I am trying to figure out what I really want to play. I need to develop my sound and my style, but I know that takes years, too.
How do you guys get and stay focused?
Trey: It’s one of those things – you set your mind to it and you DO IT. You soldier it out. If you are focused on something, and you want to do it, you will. No excuse.
Victor: Staying focused is something I’ve learned. We’ll be jamming out on three notes for hours, and it sounds like shit, and it seems stupid, but if we just stay focused, at some point, we just CREATE something. Like, if we play it a little differently and change something a little bit. I stay focused for those moments – once you get to that point, you create new music. You feel where things are going, and that’s why you do it. You have to stick to it.
Miles: We all want to get better at our instruments, and we all enjoy playing together. Even on cold days, I’m still focused on the fact that I want to continue to get better. For me personally, I live in an apartment, and I can’t just set my drums up and practice, so practicing with the band is also MY TIME to practice. Even if it’s a few hours, it’s easy for me to stay focused, since this is the time I get to play my drums and these are the guys I want to play with. It’s fun. It’s a blast. Even if it’s cold, once we start playing, everything is cool.
Do any of you have a routine or something special you do as a band to prepare for shows and recordings?
Victor: Yes. There have been times where one of us was super high, one of us was super drunk, and the other one was cross-faded, and we were, like, “What are we tryin’ to do here?” – so now what we do before a show or a recording is drink a little and smoke a little just to relax and align with one another.
What album(s) could you never part with?
Trey: What’s Going On (Marvin Gaye); The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (David Bowie); Electric Ladyland (Jimmy Hendrix); Couldn’t Stand the Weather (Stevie Ray Vaughan); Bitches Brew (Miles Davis); Earth A.D. (Misfits); Me Against the World (2Pac); The Best of Sade (Sade); Wish You Were Here (Pink Floyd); Dark Side of the Moon (Pink Floyd); The Wall (Pink Floyd); Black Sabbath (Black Sabbath) – by the way, I could keep on going with this list for days.
Victor: Collection I & II (Misfits); Static Age (Misfits); Kill ‘Em All (Metallica); Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables (Dead Kennedys); From the Cradle to the Grave (Subhumans); Rum Come Ya! (Barrington Levy); White Album (The Beatles); Stations of the Crass (Crass); Totally Exploited (The Exploited)
Miles: Revolver (The Beatles); White Album (The Beatles)
At what point did each of you know music would play a major role in your lives?
Miles: My entire family plays music – my dad, all my sisters, all my uncles, and my cousins. When we had family gatherings we would go to my uncle’s studio, pass the guitar around, and all play. Even if I didn’t continue to play music, music would still have played a major role in my life. It’s always been there, not even just listening to music, but making music – I’ve been doing that with my family since I was a little kid. My dad used to sing us songs that he wrote as lullabies for me and my siblings to go to sleep.
Victor: My dad plays guitar, he’s a singer/songwriter, and he would always play. He told me when I was in my mom’s womb, he would play music, and I would move around in her stomach. And so I’ve always had music around, at all times. It was there for me, even before I could hear anything. Since I was a little kid, everything was music to me – the wind, a can rolling down the street, cars driving by. I still find music in everything.
Trey: Straight up, it’s in my blood. My dad used to play blues guitar, but I never knew him. I’m from the delta, I grew up on the shores of the Mississippi. It’s in my blood and it’s been around me all the time. There is no way around music, even if I tried, whether I play it or just listen to it. I tried to play music for a long time as a small child and it just wasn’t happening. Once I figured out I was left handed, all the instruments I was trying to play on weren’t working. It didn’t stop me, though – I still made music – whether I was beating on a wall, or rapping, or singing harmonies to bells. Music is inside of me, no matter what. Even if I never play my guitar again. I don’t need a guitar to be a musician. I love music. Life would be boring without music. Life would be nothing without music, for real. Music is what calms me down, gets me up, and makes me move. Music is always here. (Victor points to Trey’s David Bowie shirt as proof.)
Who do you rely on for encouragement?
Trey: Me – that’s who I rely on. No other possible option. Where there is a will, there is a way, and the will is here. I’m a fighter, so I get to practice and I’m aching sometimes. My chest hurts from pushups, my face hurts from being punched, and my legs hurt from doing squats and kicks on the bag. Then, I come here with these two and hit a note, and I’m like, “Let’s do this shit.”
Miles: Yeah, that’s what keeps me encouraged, me. I want to get better. Anytime I’m not feeling it, I’m just like, I KNOW I’m going to get better. Keep playing. I encourage myself.
Victor: Self-encouragement, and all of us here TOGETHER making music. Just as much as we encourage ourselves, it’s the existence of US and practicing together. It’s organic.
What is a typical practice session like?
Trey: Exactly what you are seeing now. We show up outside, rain, sleet, or fucking snow. We have played in the rain, we do it all the time.
Miles: The only time, out of like a hundred times, I remember us stopping due to weather is when my drums started to fill up with water on the top in the head – that is the one time that we stopped. We usually set up under the tree, because the tree provides shelter, and we can keep playing no matter the circumstance.
One time I got hit by a car. I was skateboarding, and you know those signs on the side of the road that show a kid chasing a ball with word ‘caution’ above it? That was me! – I ran into the street chasing my board, and a car hit me. I went up on the hood, cartwheeled and showed up on the other side. Long story short, I broke my ankle. I didn’t know what to do – it was my right foot, which I needed for the kick drum – KIND of important. We tried playing one practice where I just used my hands, but it was weird and it didn’t sound good. I had a double kick pedal at the time, so I set it up, took the right foot off completely, and played with my left foot. I’m back to using the right foot now, but my left foot got stronger, and we didn’t miss a practice – not even because of the accident.
Victor: Yeah, we play as long as we are able to. There was this one time when I had just started working at this new job as a chef. I was really scared of using a professional knife, because I never really used one. I bought a Japanese knife that was extremely sharp. We had a show set up to play at the Whisky Live, the whiskey convention of all whiskey conventions. Three days before, I was cutting an onion and looked up, and I sliced half of my middle fingernail off– it was bleeding everywhere! And three days later I had to play a three hour show. I played with only half a nail – it was a gnarly cut, but we did it.
What do you remember most about the first show The Polarizers ever played?
Miles: I was exceptionally nervous for the first time in my long line of playing shows. I seriously feel sick. I didn’t talk to anyone. I was stoic – I felt like I was going to throw up the whole time, because I felt like I wasn’t that good.
Trey: I was piping hot and cold as ice. I was ready to rock!
Victor: At the beginning I was worried, because it was the first show. I had never played with these guys in public before, and it was a bigger crowd than I was used to. I looked into the crowd and felt nervous, and then I looked at Trey and Miles and thought – it’s just like us practicing. It’s just me making music with these guys. Then, I figured out I had nothing to be nervous about. We had been practicing these songs, and I knew what we were doing. After that I wasn’t nervous to perform ever again.
How would you categorize your music?
Trey: There is no category, no genre – we are just musicians and we play music. We aren’t punk, hard rock, metal, blues, country, or grunge. None of that. We are a mixture of sounds and feels. We are just a band and we play music.
If you could spend a day with any musician in history, who would it be and why?
Trey: Jimi Hendrix, just because I have a lot of similarities with him. I’m not even close to the musician he is, but I can relate to him in many ways.
Victor: Cliff Burton – I picked Metallica’s album Kill ‘Em All because of the song “Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth)”. It starts off where you think it’s a guitar, but it’s actually a 4-string bass with a distortion pedal and a fuzz pedal. This guy just rips it and plays with his FINGERS. I haven’t heard good music from Metallica since Cliff died, but Cliff would be the person I would want to talk to…because he’s a CRAZY bass player.
Miles: My dude is not dead. Dave Grohl: that’s who I would want to meet. 100%. Aside from the fact that his drumming is so influential, he has the perfect life. He seems like a super chill dude, a really good dad, and an overall awesome guy. I’ve seen other musicians and I never try to talk to them, but I would definitely want to talk to Dave Grohl.
What do you want your fans to take away from your music?
Trey: We are real about the music. We live it. We talk the talk and walk the walk. We may have more haters than we have fans at this point, but, you know what – that’s motivation. Seriously, if someone is a fan of what we are doing, then they understand the realness of what is going on. We are not piggy backing on a story from before; we may reference a story from before, because it might make sense to what we are living. If we play it, we mean it.
Miles: For me, personally, with any art, but ours included, if someone takes anything away from it I’m hyped. Even if they are a hater, and they remember it. Take whatever you want from it. Whatever you take from it, I’m happy that you got something. We do this because it’s what we love to do. If there are fans – that’s amazing. Whatever you take from it is awesome. I love listening to what other people have to say about it.
Trey: Some people get it even if they don’t like the style, and they still respect it. Even some of the hardcore metal fans have told us our music is dope. You want people to be reactionary to what you are doing.
Victor: If people listen to the music, and whether they hate it or whether they love it, I appreciate that they gave us the opportunity to listen to it.
What do you guys do when you are not playing?
Miles: I play videogames, skateboard, and hang out with my wife. Sometimes, I sleep and eat.
Trey: I throw punches and take punches (if they can hit me).
Victor: I usually try to get stuff done that I can’t get done during the week. I’ll doodle around with the bass. To be honest, I sit at home and listen to vinyl music, from classical music to funk to jazz to whatever, and then I usually try to mimic the sounds of whatever I hear on the bass. I always have a bass lying around – I have six basses.
Today, what do you see as the band’s greatest challenge?
Miles: Us, ourselves. The only one who is going to stop you is yourself. I’m a drummer; I can drum on anything.
Trey: Yes. Self-motivation – we can hang with any band that is out there. We can bring that energy, and we can bring that feel. I am not in any way discouraged by anything that anyone else does.
Victor: We’ve had bands talk us up – that they have been to music schools, and play every instrument perfectly. But, if one of those bandmates misses a note, then the whole song gets twisted around. We’ve seen it.
How do you guys keep your minds fresh?
Victor: The way I keep my mind fresh is by not having expectations of what I am going to make. I play whatever I feel, even if it sounds bad. I know at one point it’s going to lead to something. Never have expectations.
What are your plans for the group moving forward?
Trey: Continuing to be musical – to write, to play. I live for the day, in the day, in the present. This is what it is right now. I’m in the moment. Nothing will stop me from making music, no matter what. This is a movement.
Victor: Pretty much, not stopping. I feel like just playing music. If we keep playing music, we can see what comes with that. I don’t have any expectations about where we are going to get. I just want to play music and if something awesome happens to us like getting on a bill or going on a tour and things start happening – that’s every person’s dream who goes into music.
Miles: For me, it’s like, we will see what happens. Like Trey said, living in the moment.
What artists are you currently listening to?
Miles: Eminem – partly because he just remastered “Infinite” and NOFX’s Punk in Drublic.
Victor: Currently, always, and at ALL times: Marilyn Manson, the Subhumans, and classical (Erik Satie and Mozart).
Trey: Same stuff I’ve always listened to, but in a new light. I feel like the best way to listen to music is to fall asleep to it. Your mind is clear and you’re in that quiet, still mode. I’ve been listening to Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, which our Miles hates, but I love it because it’s abstract; D’Angelo’s Voodoo; and your typical punk rock: Minor Threat, Misfits, and Dead Kennedys. I move toward aggression – call me crazy.
What is the craziest thing that has ever happened to the band?
Trey: Multiple crazy things have happened, and we’ve definitely been in some weird situations. The craziest, I would have to say – we played with a bagpipe player. Shout-out to Orion McCabe – that was dope! I randomly ran into this Irish guy. He invited us to play at a show, and we had a ball. That’s how we got to play at the Whisky Live LA show, all from meeting an antiques customer on the way to work. It was cool. It was memorable.
Who came up with the band’s name and how did it happen?
Trey: I watched a YouTube video that was speaking about Bruce Lee, and the speaker in the video stated that he was a very polarizing figure – throughout the whole interview, the speaker kept referencing the word “polarizing”. Bruce Lee was going against the grain; he was a rebel. He didn’t agree with the typical mentality of martial artists in his day. He was polarizing in his way, in his methods, and in his art. And the word just went into my mind. We ARE The Polarizers – we question EVERYTHING. This is US. I visited Miles and Victor – at this point we had many band names, including Black Cat Bonez (named after an old Muddy Waters song) and Angel Share.
Victor: Don’t forget Old Souls
Trey: When we were playing shows, before we had the name The Polarizers, I’d be up at the mic and I couldn’t with confidence say a name. It came to the point that we wouldn’t say a name.
Miles: We were embarrassed to say a name! Trey would just mumble through a name, so no one could hear it.
Trey: When I told Miles and Victor, the name stuck IMMEDIATELY.
Miles: When we played the next show, Trey spoke the name into the mic, and it stuck. It felt right. We had so many social media accounts for all of our previous band names, but we knew this one was the final. We didn’t feel embarrassed. It made people think.
Trey: During the same time, Allen Iverson was also being considered for the Hall of Fame and the 2pac “Resurrection” documentary came out, and in those two instances both figures were also referred to as polarizing. I knew I couldn’t ignore it. I knew it was right.
Victor: Albert Einstein. He was very polarizing – all his physics professors didn’t understand why he would question everything. He never actually believed his own theories, because he would even question those.
What’s the most discouraging comment you’ve received and how did you move forward from it?
Victor: When I was just somewhat playing bass, before I was in any bands, I was dating this girl. I would always practice or attempt to play music when she was around. And, one day, she told me, “You kind of really suck. You should probably give it up. Like, you are never going to get good.” Hearing that pushed me to just sit there and make noise. Even though it wasn’t anything at the time, I was making music. And look at me now – a reference to Marilyn Manson. I think at the time I was listening to Mechanical Animals when this girl said that, and there’s this song called “Disappear” on that album – and those lyrics are pretty on point. Listen to them.
Trey: People have said all sorts of messed up stuff to me, but I don’t let it bother me. Whatever. I’m doing it – are you? Nothing discourages me. It sounds hollow to say that, but I’m serious. Nothing is going to stop me from doing what I want to do – I don’t care what anyone thinks.
Miles: I’ve never been discouraged by anyone’s comments, but then again there’s nothing that could discourage me from playing music.
I’ve heard you’re passionate about your home base in Canoga Park, California- tell us why.
Victor: We want to put Canoga Park on the map. This is the armpit of the valley. A lot of people don’t like it.
Miles: Canoga Park is positioned to be the arts district of the valley. The Polarizers have been instrumental in multiple stages of the Canoga Park Art Walk. We’ve played at every single one. Anywhere we’ve been, we’ve been proud of, but Canoga Park is the best. As a band, a lot of BIG stuff has happened to us here. The Canoga Park Youth Arts Center, where we practice, is amazing. We’ve met people who helped us record here. Our album came from here. Canoga Park is the jam. And, besides all that, it’s a cool town.
Trey: We represent this place, because we’re from this place. We defend it. It’s ours.
Victor: We ARE Canoga Park.
If you weren’t busy making music, what other art(s) would you pursue?
Victor: If I wasn’t making music, I wouldn’t be here; but, if I had to choose something, I’d probably play a sport or just listen to music. For me, I’ve never had to think about life without music. It’s like life without air.
Trey: Martial arts – which has been my life since I was six years old. It’s what I do. I’m a fighter.
Miles: Honestly, if I wasn’t making music, I probably wouldn’t be making art.
For those who haven’t listened to your music yet, what song / album listening order do you recommend?
Trey: Listen to our album, The Ruthless Pursuit of Respect, in order: start with “Birth of a Ronin”.
Miles: Every album we put out will go in order, so listen in order. The second song on the album, “Cold Steel for Hire”, is another part of the same story, the same saga.
Victor: Every song we make, we make to flow one into the next. Musically, we try to switch it up. From playing the Canoga Park Artwalk and from me and from us, as a band, watching other shows, I hate sitting through a forty minute show where every song sounds EXACTLY like the last song played. It’s the same repetitive sound. I don’t want to waste people’s time, especially our time, by playing the same riffs over and over and over. It’s supposed to be a journey. And if you live the same adventure every time, then it’s not an adventure. It’s just…going to work.
Trey: The word “ronin” is a very specific term that applies to all of us in the group. We are masterless swordsmen who answer to no one. As a ronin, I answer to no one, and our music, the essence of our sound, is fueled by that. Our music incorporates the ronin feel. It’s rebellion. It’s revolution. It’s everything you don’t think it should be. And that’s why we are polarizing. The word “ronin” – what a ronin is, we live that. We are that. I sign my name that way. I literally write in Japanese.
LISTEN to The Polarizers:
Bandcamp: The Ruthless Pursuit of Respect
YouTube: User: Timeisdistance
LISTEN to WHAT The Polarizers are LISTENING TO:
Spotify Playlist (User: Ivy Cayden, Playlist: MMM: The Polarizers)