Shiny happy people

March 28, 2003


The unwieldy Dallas ensemble known as the Polyphonic Spree introduced itself to the music world in a most auspicious manner, preceding Robbie Robertson's keynote address at the most un-rock 'n' roll hour of 10 a.m. by kicking off the 2002 South By Southwest Music and Media Conference.

With 24 members dressed in flowing white robes led by the bouncing, jumping, maniacally grinning Tim DeLaughter, the self-described "choral symphonic pop outfit" was the runaway hit of the festival. And its acclaim only continued to build at SXSW 2003, as the group played two packed gigs on different sides of Austin on the same night.

With DeLaughter and a nine-member choir gleefully intoning feel-good lyrics such as, "Hey now it's the sun, and it makes me shine!" while 10 musicians saw away behind them on everything from tubular bells to French horn to tuba, theremin to trombone to timpani, there's something undeniably goofy about the Polyphonic Spree. (When I first wrote about the band last year, I couldn't resist using the tag "Wellbutrin rock.") But you can't fault the band for a lack of ambition.

It's hard enough to get three or four rock musicians to pull together in one direction, much less the musical army that DeLaughter leads. So, how does he do it?

"It's really just everybody kind of pulling their own weight," DeLaughter says. "The way that it all started, people knew that they had to be on their toes to make this work, and we just stressed that, 'Hey, man, you can't mess around; you have to be on time!' The ages range from 16 to 37, and everybody knows what it takes to keep this thing going, so they kind of act accordingly."

The former leader of the gonzo psychedelic pop group Tripping Daisy (which released four albums in the alt-rock heyday of the '90s before disbanding after guitarist Wes Berggren died of an overdose), the 37-year-old DeLaughter formed the Polyphonic Spree in 2000 with the intention of realizing a sound that he'd been hearing in his head since he first fell in love with music as a preteen.

"I go back to the first record I ever bought, back when I was a kid about 9 years old, and that was a 45 of 'Beach Baby' by the band First Class," he says. "I listen to that song today and to me it sounds like a Polyphonic Spree song. Bands like the Association, the Fifth Dimension, the Cowsills--I've always really, really felt the appeal of that kind of 'sunshine pop.' With Tripping Daisy, I was pulling more from what was relevant at that time. I had my own influences, but at the same time the feel was more relevant to what was happening then. Whereas this band is pulling more directly from when I was a kid."

Not that DeLaughter is operating in a vacuum. Where Tripping Daisy was clearly influenced by the mid-'90s two-guitars, bass and drums version of the Flaming Lips, the Polyphonic Spree clearly owes a debt to the orchestrated Lips of "The Soft Bulletin" and "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots." But the Lips travel with an orchestra that is mainly confined to pre-recorded backing tapes, while DeLaughter's group recreates its sound live onstage, with much more visceral results.

"You have no idea how much of a kick it is to lead this band," the singer says, chuckling. "It's awesome--really, really cool. When it was all coming together, we were all just in the living room playing these songs--I'd bring them in on guitar or piano, and everyone would just improvise and add their parts--and for me it was just overwhelming because I was kind of realizing a dream and a sound I've been wanting to do for a long time. I'd be sitting there strumming a guitar and tears would be rolling down my face.

"It's such a weird spot for me, and it seems like I'm still evolving in my role in this group every night. At the beginning, I wasn't even going to be in this group; I just wanted to put it together and watch it and hear the sound. It was a very self-indulgent move to put this thing together. It wasn't practical by any means, and financially it was the weirdest thing I could have ever come out with, but I just wanted to hear it. But in order to translate to these guys what was going on, I had to become part of the group, to show them the songs and how we were going to play them, and I became kind of a key instrument in it."

Indeed, DeLaughter has more in common with an amped-up preacher at a gospel revival meeting than he does with a traditional rock frontman. But then few of the members of the Polyphonic Spree are what you'd call conventional rock musicians.

"The whole process of putting this band together was the easiest thing I've ever done," DeLaughter says. "It took me 2-1/2 years to put my first band together; it took me two weeks to put this band together. The reason why it was so easy is that I wasn't really looking for people that were like-minded personality-wise.

"When you're first starting a band, you want to find people that are like yourself, where you share the same philosophy on certain things. This band wasn't really like that. I mean, I went to my friends who played certain instruments that I needed to fulfill this sound, but then I went to acquaintances and people I didn't really know and I just started putting the word out for people who played specific instruments. The father of a friend of mine would come up to me and say, 'I know this kid who plays French horn and I think you ought to really check him out.' At that point, I'd say, 'Great!' And it kind of just went from there.

"Some of these kids in the group were like air-tromboning in their bedroom to rock bands," he continues. "They kind of wanted to be a part of that world and all the sudden it was like, 'Here's an opportunity!' After we played the first show, the people that were in the audience saw that there was some great instrumentation up there, so they felt compelled to come up and say, 'Hey, I have a friend that does that' or 'Hey, I play this, do you need that?' If I had to do anything it was just to say, 'Well, can you improvise? Come on over and play and let's see if you're good enough!' And it just kept growing."

The group released its debut album, "The Beginning Stages of ...," shortly before SXSW '02 on DeLaughter's own independent Good Records label. It was subsequently picked up by a subsidiary of Warner Bros. in Europe, and the major-label dollars enabled the band to do several full-scale European tours over the last year. Now it's undertaking its first extended American jaunt (it will perform in Chicago at the Empty Bottle on April 10 and at Metro on April 11), and it's hoping to secure a better deal in the States for its recently completed second album.

In the era of Avril Lavigne, it's anybody's guess whether the Polyphonic Spree will be able to connect with the American masses. But as much as we need such musical ambition, we could also benefit greatly in these dark and over-marketed times from the upbeat attitude and the inspirational message.

"I certainly didn't put this band together to send out a message," DeLaughter says. "But once it got together and people started reacting to the music, it turned into something I had never even thought about. I was more or less thinking on a sonic level, and then it turned into this kind of spirited celebration that caught me off guard. I was like, 'OK, what is going on here? Hell, I really don't know!' I know that it makes me feel really good, and I really feel like I'm part of a celebration when this band cranks up and gets going on all fours.

"It's really hard for me to describe and talk about, but the effect that I see that people are having from this group is like nothing I've ever experienced. I wish that I could lay out this wonderful dialogue and say, 'Well, this is my intention,' but I really don't know what it is at this point."

Some things like the Polyphonic Spree just have to be accepted on faith. Amen, hallelujah and turn it up.