With its Thick Sound and Cultish Vibe, Polyphonic Spree is Winning Converts with Symphonic, Saccharine Pop
"We get that all the time," laughs Spree leader Tim DeLaughter over the phone from his home in Dallas. In the background children's restless voices rustle excitedly. ("I've got three kids," he explains, "and they're driving me nuts right now.") The 37-year-old DeLaughter speaks with a soft, lilting Texas drawl, drawing out his replies after chewing on questions for a moment, even though he's probably answered every one thrown at him a hundred times or more. Since forming in the summer of 2000, the Polyphonic Spree has grown from DeLaughter's "next" project after the sudden and unexpected demise of his previous band, Tripping Daisy, into a traveling carnival proselytizing pure euphoria that has crusader-trekked through England. And the Spree has done it with little more than a demo passed off as a debut album and a heralded 2002 South by Southwest music festival appearance. But it was enough to grab David Bowie's attention. And in its performances' wake the Spree leaves a trail of converts picking jaws off the ground. "At first, [the cult question]'s what people were mainly talking about in the U.K.," DeLaughter says, "until the music finally broke through and they got past that."
But the Spree's rise isn't the old saga of a promising, eager band catching a break. It is a story that starts with tragedy, finds inspiration in childhood memories, and churns out unabashedly happy music. And the truly disarming thing is that DeLaughter feels the Spree really is only starting to hit its stride.
Back in 1999, Tripping Daisy wasn't a band with the world in its palms, but life was pretty good. Sure, its label, Island Records, dropped the band the previous December after its 1998 Jesus Hits Like an Atom Bomb came out--probably because there wasn't a single as instantly alt-radio-friendly as 1995's "I Got a Girl"--but critics and fans embraced what execs didn't. The band didn't take time off to lick its wounds; instead, the quintet started working on a follow-up to release itself. DeLaughter co-opened a record store, Good Records, near Dallas' hipster haven Deep Ellum. And then Wes Berggren, Daisy guitarist and DeLaughter's longtime friend, died of a drug overdose in October 1999, and everything fell apart.
"I was severely dedicated to Tripping Daisy," DeLaughter says. "I mean, I had been thinking about the band [Spree] prior, probably about six or seven years ago. But it was just kind of something I had always talked to myself about, how 'I wish I had this or I wish I had that, how one day I'm going to put a band together . . . ' It was something that I wanted to do later on in life. I thought I'd be an old man doing it. I had no idea that Tripping Daisy was going to end the way that it did."
DeLaughter hibernated for a number of months following Berggren's passing and Daisy's demise, but that idea for a band he'd do as an old man still wandered his mind. He knew what he wanted it to sound like. He didn't envision a large band; he just heard a lot of instruments--harp, flute, theremin, trombone, flugelhorn, French horn, violin, organ, and vocal choir in addition to the usual guitar, drums, bass--but he'd need people to play those instruments. And he came up with some song ideas. But that's all it was, ideas.
"I always have this problem of kick-starting myself in getting things going," DeLaughter says, his drawl almost too perfectly complementing his aw-shucks attitude. "I get it realized in my head, and then it's like, 'OK, do something.' And my wife and a good friend of mine, Chris [Penn], said, 'OK, we're tired of hearing about it. We're just going to book you on a show, and you're just going to have to put it together in two weeks.'"
So in 14 days DeLaughter sweet-talked 13 people into playing with him--ex-Daisy bandmates, musician friends, people whom other people told him about--and that group opened for a July 2000 Grandaddy show at Dallas' Gypsy Tea Room as the Beginning Stages of the Polyphonic Spree. Songs were worked out in rehearsal, where DeLaughter's melodies and arrangements were fine-tuned through group improv--improvisation being a requirement for entry--until a finished song was sculpted.
After that first show people approached DeLaughter saying they wanted to join, asking him what instruments he was still looking for. ("The very first instrument I wanted was a harp," DeLaughter remembers. "But he was the last one to make it because, you know, a classically trained harp player who can improvise, that's not just something you can open up the closet and go, 'Oh. There you are.'") The group ballooned to 24 people. And three months after that first show the entire ensemble went into the studio and recorded that 35-minute first set over three days to use as a demo--which was eventually released as the band's 2002 The Beginning Stages Of . . . debut--to send to booking agents and promoters to try to get Texas gigs.
The band played sporadically around Texas for a year, started its annual Christmas jubilee at Dallas' Lakewood Theater. Then its heralded 2002 SXSW appearance prompted gushing live reviews--especially from those adorers of American charms, the British press. David Bowie heard about the band and invited it to perform at London's annual Meltdown Festival, which turned into the Spree spending a large chunk of 2002 traipsing around the United Kingdom bowling people over.
What makes the Spree so indomitable isn't easy to pin down. It's not just its music, sugary and swelling symphonic pop that critics have compared to the Flaming Lips' The Soft Bulletin and that benchmark of gossamer pop, the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds. Yet Stages is nowhere near as fully realized as either, and live the group is something else entirely. The sight of all those people onstage--DeLaughter, the large band, and choir--prepares you for a noisy clamor, not the Spree's sweetly stirring pop.
And nothing braces you for the emotional rush of the band live, an almost bodily surge. With robes flying, music swelling, all those voices singing--it's nearly impossible not to smile, no matter how much you know the Spree plays some of the most saccharine pop around right now, so beguilingly simple it sounds childlike.
"A lot of bands I was inspired by as a kid are now coming out through this group," DeLaughter says. "Orchestrated pop was a big part of my life as a small kid. It pretty much turned me on to pop music. The Fifth Dimension, the Association, Wings, Burt Bacharach, Percy Faith--Percy Faith, of course, being more of Mom and Dad's music, but that was something that I heard a lot. Walt Disney storybook records, which I used to wear out. But they all had a pop sensibility, a friendliness in the sound that would help you tell a story."
The Spree's songs are obviously musically indebted to DeLaughter's childhood influences, but lyrically he's reaching back, too. Stages is an album literally about uplift and hopeful, happy thoughts that border on the sacred, from the opening track's "Have a day, celebrate, soon you'll find the answer" to the third track's "Days like this keep me warm, keep me warm, keep us warm/ And love like this means more."
Given the content and tenor of the Spree and its backstory, it's almost a cliché spiritual response to a tragedy: Following an awful event (Berggren's overdose), longtime friend DeLaughter re-evaluates his own life and decides what's important to him and sets out to do it. Clichés are trite, but they're clichés because they happen.
In the Polyphonic Spree's case, what started as DeLaughter's baby has gained a life of its own the more people are exposed to it. And the relative ease of this growth while working with a band this large has surprised DeLaughter the most. The endeavor involves compromises from everybody involved; touring is expensive ("We just did our first Midwest and West Coast tour over here, and I had to borrow money--actually, like $38,000--to be able to do it," DeLaughter admits), so members don't really make a lot of money. Something else holds everything together.
"It just kind of turned into something else that I'm still trying to get my finger on," DeLaughter says. "Sonically, we're pretty much exactly what I was looking for, but live it's so much more because it's peoples' energies involved in it and not just sounds. There's actual human beings playing this music, so you get a whole new feel and a whole new action to the music. Now that the band has been together almost three years, it's started to evolve and react off the music, and we're playing and interacting with each other onstage. And before you know it, we've got this frenzy going on. I don't really know how else to explain it."
Just a bunch of young people who feel good about making other people feel good and do it because they believe in it--sounds suspiciously cult-esque. "I had no intentions of being a cult leader when I got this going," DeLaughter says. "But I guess no cult leader really does."
The Polyphonic Spree plays Washington's 9:30 Club on June 10 with the Trachtenberg Family Slideshow Players and Patrick Park and on June 11 with Corn Mo and Patrick Park.
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