By Noah Hubbell
By Leslie Simon
By Brad Lopez
By Tom Murphy
By Noah Hubbell
By Inkoo Kang
By Dave Herrerra
By Josiah M. Hesse
The Polyphonic Spree is goofily earnest. Its members love life, and they love to sing about the sun. But they have a difficult time fitting on a stage together. A 24-member choral symphonic pop band whose on-stage couture is more Baptist church choir than rock star, the Spree resembles a roving flock of demented Teletubbies hell-bent on redefining the concept of glee club.
The brainchild of former Tripping Daisy frontman Tim DeLaughter, the project came about after the Daisy took its final bow -- a development that stemmed from the 1999 death of founding member Wes Berggren. DeLaughter lay low for a year or so, releasing the band's eponymous final album in 2000 on Good Records, the label/record store he runs with Chris Penn in Dallas. After a while, though, the itch to make music crept back in, and he started thinking more seriously about his pet idea.
"I'd been thinking about it during Tripping Daisy, but I didn't really act on it until after [the band broke up]," DeLaughter explains in a thick Texas drawl. "Polyphonic Spree was more or less put together to create a sound, kind of mix symphonics with rock, and instead of having one person singing, have ten people singing. It ended up being a lot more than that." DeLaughter kept toying with the idea until his business partner lit a fire under him. "Chris decided to put us on a bill, and we basically put the band together in two weeks. We played that first show, opening for Grandaddy and Bright Eyes -- there were thirteen of us -- and after that first show, we had people start coming up or e-mailing, saying, 'Hey, do you need this, do you need that?' Before we knew it, it was all put together. About three months into it, we had pretty much everybody."
"Everybody" includes Tripping Daisy alums Mark Pirro (bass) and Bryan Wakeland (who played drums on Daisy's first two albums, as well as for the Spree); DeLaughter's wife, Julie Doyle (one of the ten choristers); his teenage niece, Kelly Repka (choir); and players on viola, percussion, trumpet, flute, farfisa, cello, keyboards, French horn -- even a theremin. Some of the instruments were on DeLaughter's original wish list for the band; others were incorporated later on, sometimes at the insistence of young musicians eager for the opportunity to expand their repertoire.
"Basically, I went with my favorite symphonic instruments in the beginning," he says. "The theremin came into play afterward. Toby [Halbrook] was in the choir, and he asked if I wanted a theremin player, and I said, 'Sure, why not? Let's try it out.' And I asked him if he knew of one, and he said no but that he would get [a theremin] and wanted to learn to play. He turned out to be a great player after a couple of years."
That kind of spontaneity and desire to stretch the limits of one's musical abilities seems to be the driving force behind the Polyphonic Spree; that and sheer love for the music itself, which is what makes the live Spree experience so damned remarkable. Mirroring many depictions of gospel choirs in the movies, the bandmembers file to the stage from the back of the room, clambering in their white robes with multicolored hems onto makeshift bleachers. From there, the celebration begins, marked by explosions of gorgeous harmonies from the choir (especially in "It's the Sun," when all ten choristers and DeLaughter burst into a jubilant, perfectly layered "SUUUUUUNNNNN!") and reverent moments in which the French horn soothingly navigates a quiet bridge, all with DeLaughter's strange voice -- not quite a falsetto, not quite a solid tenor -- on top. At one point in the show, trombonist James Reimer stands front and center, holding his instrument aloft and tootling unabashedly toward the heavens, exulting in his trombone while DeLaughter plays to the crowd.
"It's a sight to be seen," the bandleader boasts. "It's truly an event, a celebration, when you come to see it live, 'cause you're getting the energy of 24 people exhausting themselves and wearing white robes. It's really an amazing experience."
This euphoric on-stage presence was on display at last year's South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas. The band was tapped to precede Robbie Robertson's keynote speech at 10 a.m. on a Thursday morning, laughably early for any working musician. "That turned out to be one of the most important gigs we ever played, as well as one of the weirdest gigs we've ever played," reminisces DeLaughter. "We got there and saw where it was" -- a cavernous convention-center ballroom -- "and the time...and it wasn't for fans, people out in the streets; it was basically industry people and critics. We just decided backstage, 'Let's go out there and wake these guys up, just go over the top with it and forget about where we're at and just play it.' So we did, and it came off really, really well."
So well, in fact, that the band's performance earned them an extended standing ovation, no small feat considering that the audience comprised a roomful of jaded, scowling music journalists drinking bad coffee, and puffed-up industry suits with cell phones surgically attached to their ears. More important, it's what led to the band breaking, and breaking hugely, in Britain: That morning's performance got them British management.