Nusi Quero and Polyphia: The Making of Stage Armor
Stage presence is a real thing. The best bands, the best musicians, have this aura that is hard to describe in tangible words, but let’s just say you know it when you see it. Björk, Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, they have that thing that rivets you when they perform. A lot of it has to do with what they are wearing on stage, that mixture of fantasy and make-believe, of mystery and impracticality, the kind of oh-so-important fashionable art that pumps up the music.
Nusi Quero is an artist who has waved his magic wand over and around some of the biggest pop stars, creating what he calls wearable art that transforms into signature iconic uniforms. Channeling his imagination, he has designed otherworldly work for Grimes, powerful pronouncements for the before-mentioned Beyoncé, as well as a celestial closet full of fashion shoots. But when it came to the all-instrumental band, Polyphia, who were about to shoot the music video “Neurotica” off their newest album, Remember That You Will Die, Quero tried his hand at instrument design, creating one-of-a-kind face masks and guitar, and bass and drum “armor” for the band. We sat down with Polyphia guitarist Tim Henson and Scott LePage, along with Quero, as they discussed a shared vision for visual identity, what makes a good collaboration, and the enhancement of a stage persona.
Evan Pricco: How did you all become aware of each other and your individual talents? What was the genesis of this collaboration of amazing guitars, masks, and other visuals?
Tim Henson: I think I saw Nusi’s work on Instagram and then again on Twitter. I saw that, in addition to the cool body armor pieces, he had embellishments on his instruments. He had one for his guitar, one for his keyboard, then one for a microphone, and then another one for a guitar. I think there was just a general appreciation for each other's work.
Nusi Quero: You have to understand, I was a guitarist for ten years, but when I saw Tim and Steve playing, it was mind-blowing to me. The way they played was like nothing I'd ever seen. So, fuck yeah, I was into it.
TH: And then as we were doing the artwork for our album, I really wanted to include more than just artwork. I wanted real, tangible pieces to be used in conjunction with the music videos. So I typed up this crazy long message and then just hit him with a fucking novel in the DMs.
Because there are multiple people involved, there's sound, there's visuals, there's different parts of the puzzle that need to be put together. Was the process pretty seamless among all of you?
NQ: It was really good. I will say, Tim is an excellent communicator and steerer of ships, a captain, you could say. It was pretty fluid and also terrifying.
NQ: Because they were in Texas, and so in order for me to make these instrument things, I needed, literally, exactly perfect 3D models or 3D scans of their instruments. They're all a little fuzzy and there's things like the light getting confused and then it'll just knock off half of the instrument. And the scale can sometimes be peculiar. But we talked about a lot of design elements, the aesthetic language that Tim had envisioned for the entire album, an ornate, almost Geiger-like feeling. And so we landed on the aesthetics, and then I generated some designs and we decided the band all liked their versions. So then I got them printed. They were in Texas and were going to fly to LA the day before their music video shoot so I could Cinderella-shoe these pieces onto their guitars. I had a whole band here, and we were all in the back of my shop with all my Dremels and sanding tools. It was just chaos back there. But yeah, I cut them down to fit, and, for the most part, it was Cinderella. Pretty good.
TH: I think we were drinking margaritas.
The masks are amazing, too.
NQ: Yeah, thanks. They had to scan their faces too, but some of them had facial hair, and 3D scans are tough, man.
When you go into this kind of collaboration, does it change the music for you at all? Did it alter the way you were thinking about the music you had already made, maybe bring new life to things?
TH: I think the biggest feeling from the pieces that Nusi made was at the music video shoots when we were all dressed up. I had the stuff on the guitars all fitted and everything, so for me at least, it gave me some confidence of, “This looks sick as fuck.” And I know it looks sick as fuck because one of the features for that song, he came in and saw us with the masks on and the armor on the guitars and shit, and he was just like, "Dude, what the fuck is that?" That was just such a sick feeling to hear that reaction from him.
Scott LePage: And it made me feel fucking badass. I remember we were drinking White Claws when we were doing that video, and in just putting all that gear on, I was like "Oh dude, I feel like a fucking celebrity or something like that." It made me feel special.
NQ: I mean y'all have no idea how much that means to me to hear that. The majority of the work I do right now is… I make women's wear, essentially. Not practical wear, but they’re wearable! And for me, the big motivation is that I want to empower these women. It's like, they look amazing, but they’re also wearing this crazy alien armor. I know that for many of them it gives them an elevated feeling. It makes them feel like powerful characters in a video game or something. And to have that sort of same category of great reaction happen with a completely different sort of intervention or adornment is really sick. Cause it's, like, this is a guitar, not body armor. That's the shit. I want to help. I want to make power-up items for video games, for this video game that we're all playing.
And it's also, it's a different kind of armor. I mean the guitar on stage or the instruments, each is a unique kind of armor and a different kind of adornment for different kinds of musicians and artists.
NQ: I think it's an amazing human tradition to embellish things, make them more than they were given to you. It was such a trip reading all those comments from people because I gave it a lot of care. But also I know all the guitar heads who follow Scott and Tim, and I was expecting that it might be perceived as sacrilege to do this sort of adornment on guitars.
TH: We've got a lot of questions in our VIP sessions from the tour, where kids were asking if the face-plate armor pieces would be available for production. And I was like, dude, these pieces, if you've ever seen them, they're pretty expensive!
Nusi, how do you know a collaboration works for the musician or the artist that you're working with?
NQ: We live in this sort of social media-metric reality, and when I see the artist excited to share that, I know it's working. Because most of the work that we do is made to share. It's not in a gallery. And when I see them excited to show the world what we made, I know that we did a good thing together. But also I think that when you make something good with somebody and then there's this artifact, a song or an image or this video of these really crazy embellishments for these instruments, I think there really is sort of an objective beauty to the product. Art that you can just look at, nod, and be like, "Yeah, that worked. That's good. That's a good mark we just left."
And then Tim and Scott, as musicians, you're collaborating together, putting together songs, putting together moments in the music. But when it goes out to the visuals, is there a little bit of letting go that is almost therapeutic?
TH: I would say so. I think that having trust in who you're working with is very, very important. I think just that first time that we went and hung out, as I was saying earlier, we realized we had so many of the same ideologies, we felt the same about so many different things just beyond what we were going to be working on. And I think it is very, very important to have similar mindsets when you’re collaborating with someone.
NQ: I will say I wish that sort of trust that you were able to afford me is something that I had with other people I partner with.
TH: I think that comes from the mutual risk of being a creator.
SL: Yeah, just going back to what you said about every single thought going into it is just deliberate and has intent, just that. The first thing I did when I took Nusi’s work home was to lay it out and just look at it for twenty minutes, and I'm thinking to myself, I don't think I could have ever thought to even draw this, let alone fucking make it a physical being.
When we interviewed Radiohead last year, they were saying that they realized early on in their career that their visual identity would always mark a period of time for them, and that they put so much effort into the visual identity because they knew each was going to be this little historic marker for them as a band and as collaborators. It was very, very important to them. When did that become important for your band?
TH: Since the inception of the band. It's been a learning process because we started the band when we were sixteen, seventeen years old in high school. And so, when you're that age, you don't know anything about anything. Every year we put out music has been an identity change, like a new era, and as we get older we kind of figure out our tastes and what we like and we get help from professionals like Nusi to make us look cool because we started this band in high school. It was a very DIY thing. And now to be able to have incredible people to help us with our vision makes it a really nice journey.
Polyphia’s album, Remember That You Will Die, is out now via Rise Records.