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.
Five months later, Polyphonic Spree played its first overseas gig -- actually, its first gig outside Texas (and the first-ever airplane ride for some bandmembers) -- at David Bowie's Meltdown Festival in London. Since then, the group has been to Britain eight times and has now played more gigs in the U.K. than in its home town.
Reception in Old Blighty has been overwhelmingly positive (with the exception of comments made by professional mope Thom Yorke, who called the players clowns). Spree has performed in every conceivable venue, from churches to the Reading Festival, and reams of paper have been used in media coverage over there. Somehow, a major label has embraced such an unorthodox act, shelling out the cash required to transport the band across the Atlantic, which costs about $30,000 per trip.
In fact, it's the cost-prohibitiveness of this project that precluded an earlier American tour. As the band is on DeLaughter and Penn's label, it is very much a small-time effort. The fact that there's a record out at all (The Beginning Stages of...The Polyphonic Spree, officially released in 2002) is a fluke.
"It was intended to be a demo; it wasn't intended to be a record," says DeLaughter. "We just wanted to get something out there to show promoters what kind of music we were doing so we'd have an easier time getting gigs. We had this demo, and people started wanting some recorded music, so we decided to put it out on our own label. So, the record is out there but it's not, you know? It's independently distributed, because we don't have a lot of money."
Never mind the logistical difficulties -- or the notion that such an endeavor can only produce a fluke, on-off record before imploding or exhausting the novelty aspect -- DeLaughter says that lack of plain old cash is the only thing that could hold the group back. Spree's second record, which is already recorded and mixed, remains untitled and unreleased. That's partly because the band is still pushing The Beginning Stages in the U.K., where it was released six months ago, and partly because releasing it simply costs more than what is in the label's coffers right now.
But money's not going to stop the giddy group from spreading its message of joy far and wide. There are much more heady concerns at the fore. The main objective is to leave no face unsmiling and every heart full to bursting with the euphoria of basking in the glory of something as simple as the sun.
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