HOOKED ON POLYPHONICS
Tim DeLaughter is the cheerful mastermind behind THE POLYPHONIC SPREE, the world’s best happiest symphonic pop band. Ornate on record and staggering live, the grand tradition of Texas psychedelia has never sounded so ecstatic—or tasted so sweet. Text by Gabe Soria. Illustration by Paul Pope.
Originally published in Arthur No. 3 (March, 2003)
“This is going to be fun,” says the impish man with the curly black hair. He’s dressed in a flowing white robe, and he chuckles. The crowd titters in agreement. Then, like the thunderclap before a sudden and wonderful summer rainstorm, a firecracker burst of a drum roll breaks the anticipatory silence and the band behind and besides the man kicks in, and the choir behind them starts boogeying and the hairs on the back of your neck are standing up because for all intents and purposes you feel like you’re rocketing down the first drop of the world’s best wooden roller coaster, full of terror and elation, brimming with the beauty and potential of life, coupled with a stirring acknowledgment of its sadness and inevitable mortality.
“This is gonna be fun,” said the man in the white robe, and he wasn’t telling tales out of school. The band—the French horn player, the trombonist, the harpist, the flautist, the drummer, the ten person choir, and so on—are, like the singer, dressed in matching white robes, and although they’re only two songs into their set at the second anniversary of Dallas’ Good Records store, you can hear that they’re already working up an ecstatic sweat. The audience is besides themselves with excitement. And then the defiant simplicity of the song’s main refrain, almost like a school yard chant, comes in:
“You gotta be good!
“You gotta be strong!
“You gotta be two thousand places at once!”
And by the time the song winds down, the entire audience will be chanting along, singing with the band, hands in the air, beaming, beatific smiles on their faces. And the only people enjoying it more than the folks watching are the band themselves, all two dozen of them looking like they’re fit to burst from elation. That is what watching the Polyphonic Spree live is like. It’s the type of thing that makes you raise your hands up and say “Yeah!” while joyous tears of hope and fear brim at your eyes.
“So… how was your day?” I ask.
“Today was… wow,” laughs Polyphonic Spree ringmaster Tim DeLaughter, 37, over the phone from Dallas. He excuses himself from his dinner companions – he explains that the maelstrom of noise and chatter in the background is simply the sound of what seems to be his hometown’s busiest Tex-Mex restaurant – and walks outside to continue our conversation in relative silence. And this isn’t the first time he’s going to say that word, that “wow”. It peppers his speech liberally, and the way he wraps his soda-pop sweet Texas accent (it splits the difference aw-shucks good-ol’ boy and cosmic space cowboy) around it, it’s given its due as the English language’s best shorthand for awe and amazement. This fella (and his band) have got a lot of time for the wonder and the glory in this terrible and grim world and he wears it on his sleeve.
“We’re recording our second record right now,” he says, “So my mornings consist of—I have three kids and my wife is one of the singers and also one of the managers of the group—my mornings consist of getting up, running around, taking baths, trying to get the kids dressed (which is a total nightmare), and once we do that we head to the donut shop. They like to get donuts, so we do that and then we get them off to school, and that’s basically when our other day starts. We take care of all the things we need to take care of and then we head to the studio around 11:30 and spend all day here until midnight tonight. I’m just taking a break to get something to eat.”
And a break seems to be in order. Formed late in 2000 by DeLaughter (formerly of indie-rock could-have-beens Tripping Daisy, who broke up in 1999 after the overdose death of guitarist Wes Berggren) with a mere dozen members, by the beginning of the 2002, the Polyphonic Spree had doubled in size (the youngest band member is 17, and in what would seem a natural evolution, some members of the band are in relationships, some used to be in relationships, and some are related). They self-released their debut album, The Beginning Stages of… on the Good Records label in February (Tim is one of the owners of Good Records, both the label and its eponymous record store), and it was one of last year’s most surprising records—imagine Vince Guaraldi writing a record of Charlie Brown-esque symphonic pop while on a Flaming Lips-n-gospel binge and combine that with an edge of oddly familiar sadness, the sort of late summer twilight melancholia that you half remember from your childhood, memories filmed in grainy seventies film stock. It was a stunning record to say the least, but they were still simply a glorious oddity all but unknown outside the Dallas area.
But then came their now legendary show in March at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, and after that the floodgates opened dramatically. That rare out of town show was received rapturously by those in attendance, instantly lifting the band from Dallas obscurity to genuine phenomenon. They’ve been over to England three times (once at the behest of David Bowie for the Meltdown festival he curated, and in a tip of the hat to one of their spiritual forefathers, they began including Bowie’s “Five Years” into their set; their titanically heartfelt version of the song has become a highlight of their shows), stormed New York twice and even made it out to Los Angeles. (While they have tour support when they travel to England, the band is proud of the fact that their (limited) touring in the States is one hundred percent self-financed.) Jarvis Cocker of Pulp offered his services and directed a stunningly sumptuous and endearingly goofy video for the band’s second British single, “Hanging Around”. They’ve been remixed. They’ve remixed others. And as of last December, they were hard at work recording the follow-up to their debut record The Beginning Stages of…, preparing for their third annual Christmas revue (Tim promises real reindeer, stilt walkers, Christmas films, two sets by the band, performance art hairdressers and milk and cookies) as well as another British tour. This would be impressive for your average working band, but for a band made up of twenty-four people… whew. That’s dedication. That’s a work ethic. What that is not is your average touring band. And for a lot of folks, that sort of co-operation is suspect. Average people just do not do this sort of thing: they don’t get along, they don’t have a purpose, they don’t pass out two page newsletters out at their shows entreating the audience to join something called “The Happiness Revival.”
If it all seems a bit… spiritual, that’s because it is. Many of the band are, in fact, religious. DeLaughter unabashedly admitted as much in an NME interview, but noted that “the majority of the band don’t go to church,” and when on to say, “Are we preaching about God? No, not really. But we are singing about life and a better way looking about things and an outward look? Yeah, I think so.”
It’s the sort of thing that has caused some earnest and cynical wags to put two and two together and get five, calling the band the “c” word and making snide references about “not drinking the Kool-Aid.” They are, after all, from Texas, a state that has a history of producing more than its fair share of megalomaniacs and acid-damaged psychedelic music messiahs. DeLaughter sighs and explains that Jonestown-style messianic apocalypse is just about the furthest thing from his mind.
“It got a little bit irritating over there [in England] because that’s the first thing they’d say. It’s cheeky journalism at its best. Of course you’re going to play that side of it up. It’s funny. And I’ll go along with it, it’s great. But at the same time I’m starting to think about it like what if I find out ten years on down the line, you know, this is a cult. I don’t know, maybe it is. I don’t think it is, it certainly wasn’t the intent by any stretch of the imagination, but people are really moved by the Polyphonic Spree and our shows really seem to be spirited and I’m completely moved along with everybody else in the group. I’ve never been moved like that before in past musical experiences.
“There’s a certain spirit that’s conveyed and conjured up when this band plays and I’m experiencing it at the same time that everybody else is. When I put this thing together I was not even thinking about the aftermath of the Polyphonic Spree, like what we would do, it was self-centered. I always wanted to create something sonically that was appealing to me for a long time and that was strictly my agenda at that particular time. I had no idea what was going to come after that, you don’t know how the people in your band are going react, because I didn’t know half of them. It’s just one of those things that you don’t know about until you do them, and that’s what’s so exciting about it, it’s because it’s totally evolving in front of us, the people that are doing it, just as much as much as it is the audience.”
He pauses, chews a mental thumbnail, winds up for his next thought.
“[The love between the band] shows when we play together. I’m a fan, too. You always want that experience of being in the audience, of being able to hear it like an audience member. That’s the biggest dilemma of anybody creating music: they want to experience it like you would. And when this was coming together, I would come in and I had ideas of how it would sound and all, but it was all in the head, I hadn’t heard it yet. So I’m in my living room when we were first getting together, and i was just playing guitar, and we started adding some instruments, and at first I said that we were going to improvise and for the other guys to just play whatever turns you on at that particular point, just play it. I just wanted to hear what it would sound like. We started doing one song, and everybody starts playing, and they were automatically sensitive to where other people were going to interject their part, orchestrating themselves and improvising at the same time, and by the time the song was over I was WEEPING. I had tears running down my cheeks. I felt it, I experienced it. I was like “Oh my God! It’s happening!” I was overwhelmed and the band was looking at me like I was crazy, but they were getting excited because I was getting so excited, and I was like “This is wonderful!” And so I got a glimpse of what people can get from this band. It can be a bit overwhelming. The feedback and response that I get from people when I’m talking to them after a show, if it’s a really on show, or even if it’s a mediocre show, the choice of words that they use to describe the experience of seeing the band… it’s real spirited.”
And spirited it is. But what many seem to overlook about the Spree is the streak of melancholy that runs throughout their music. DeLaughter has acknowledged that his mourning of Berggren was one of the motivating factors for forming the Polyphonic Spree. Happy and uplifting they may be, but there is indeed a sadness about the band–The rousing second track of The Beginning Stages of…, “Sun”, seems to make oblique reference to Berggren’s death when, in-between rapturous choir breaks, DeLaughter sadly sings “Suicide is a shame.” The band’s music can be, at times, majestically bittersweet.
“Yeah, the first record, to me that’s a very somber record,” DeLaughter says. “But at the same time the overtones of it are positive. Lyrically speaking that’s the kind of the stuff I always write about, it’s always about aspiring and wanting more and hope. You can everything you want, you’re capable of everything that you want to do and it’s always like that, in relationships, anything. And I know that, but at the same time it’s still kind of somber to me.”
But he brightens up when asked about the album the band is working on. As yet untitled and due sometime in late summer, it is, by DeLaughter’s reckoning, going to be a sprawling monster of a recording.
“It’s hard for me to end these songs,” he admits. “The Beginning Stages of… seems like one big song to me. That whole record was written on guitar and the majority, 95 percent of this record was written on piano. I’ve got some songs that are thirteen minutes long on here that I just don’t want to end, that I just want to keep going, but that’s where the next song begins, you know? We were talking about [putting out a double CD] the other day. It might turn out to be like that.” He pauses.
“We’ve got a lot of music,” he laughs as he simply sums up.
“I hate being in a band and talking about it because I’m really excited,” he continues. “I think that it’s fantastic. I think people are really going to be, um… it’s just a major contribution to music today and I’m real fortunate and privileged to be a part of it. God, that I’m happy to be part of it because it’s great. It’s going to be amazing. It has everything that the first record has, because it’s the Polyphonic Spree, there’s no changes there, this band doesn’t have to reinvent itself, it is what it is and it’s just more of what was already on there. As you listen to it, it’s more and more like you’re listening to a musical.”
A musical? Is he kidding? Not at all. And he doesn’t mean concept record. He means musical. Whether this would take the form of a Ziggy Stardust-esque conceptual concert or turn into a full-fledged stage review is up in the air. It is, at the moment, simply cloud talk. But it’s still occupying DeLaughter’s mind.
“I’ve been thinking about that seriously for quite some time, because that’s what I was getting from it, as this thing was evolving an unfolding, I was like “Oh my God, this thing now is like a musical.” There again, that wasn’t the intention, but when you leave something alone and let it do what it’s going to do, you get to be surprised about what its going to be. So yeah, I’ve been getting hints of that and it’s starting to make sense to me, because how I write songs, and how I was writing these new songs and why did they have this musical feel, especially this new record as well. I’m not really one who sits down and writes lyrics. I evolve the lyrics out of listening to music, I’ll sit there and hear the music I’m playing and all of a sudden it spawns this mental picture and then as I’m playing it’s constantly unfolding, I’m singing what I’m seeing in my head. and it kind of plays this little role out, just like a musical would. If you could visualize everything that I’m singing about, it would totally play itself out. But at the same time, just the aspect of the band, forming together and getting out there and doing what we do and the crowd interacting and the stories that are being told, it’s just… wow. It’s turning into that.”
If it all seems like a bit much to the average person, DeLaughter insists that he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Our plate is full and we’re really, really busy. We’ve always overloaded our plates so to speak, it’s a pattern we’ve always been into. My wife and I have been together for twenty years and we like it like that. It’s stressful sometimes but it’s also exhilarating and it keeps you on your toes. You get the most out of it. We’re kind of used to it. It freaks some people out when we tell ‘em what we’ve got going on. When they find out they’re like “How the hell are you balancing all of this?” and it’s just years of practice. We’re just doing it and we really wouldn’t have it any other way. We kind of get bored unless we’ve got a lot of things going on.”
DeLaughter has that tone in his voice by now, the one that indicates that even though he’d love to be talking, he does need to get back to work. After all, his plate is full; the man does have a possible double album to fill with epic songs of gladness and sadness, a massive family of musicians to marshall and a brood of kids at home who are waiting on their pop. As we say our goodbyes, I mention that part of my intention in interviewing him and writing this article is an attempt to delineate for myself exactly what it is about the Polyphonic Spree is so affecting and special. He offers no easy answers, but commiserates with the difficulty (and possible utter futility) of putting your finger on something so ineffable.
“If you find out, well, help me out, cause I’m with you. It certainly wasn’t the agenda to go and make a band that was going to spread happiness and give people a reason to feel uplifted. It wasn’t about that at all and it’s turned out that it was something that I had no control over. And that’s the beauty of it. I’m going to find out years on down the line what the Polyphonic Spree was.”
Lift Every Voice and Sing
Much like Walt Whitman, the Polyphonic Spree contains multitudes, and Arthur wanted to give them the opportunity to put in their collective two cents by asking them all three boilerplate questions:
1: Recommend a book
2: Tell us how you got mixed up with the Polyphonic Spree?
3: What is you ultimate ambition?
This is what they had to say…
Roy Ivy, “Choir Muppet”
1: Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole
2: Dumb luck and a little drunken bravado.
3: To be able to support myself, a wife, and kids by making good music. To never work a day job again.
Jessica Jordan, Choir
1: Love You Forever, Sheila McGraw
2: The first Polyphonic show I went to was the first annual Christmas show. This also was the day I knew I was pregnant. Mix those two for a bizarre emotional experience. Fell in love with the band. A little over a year later, asked to audition for an opening there was in the choir.
3: To live happily ever after
James Reimer, Trombone
1: The Way Of Zen, Alan Watts
2: If anything, I have become a lot less mixed up…
3: To absolve myself of ultimate ambitions.
Toby “Little Bean” Halbrooks, theremin, synth, tambo, rock moves
1: Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor
2: I smashed a drum set, broke guitars, ripped up a feather pillow, and inadvertently impressed some people in The Polyphonic Spree.
3: To be as awesome as possible all the time.
Michael Turner, choir
1: Franny and Zooey, J.D. Salinger
2: The Polyphonic Spree had already performed about five shows before the first time I saw them and they instantly became my favorite band. There was a very strong, familiar feeling in the air in that room that night. The Spree immediately seemed like the band I had waited my whole life to see, without even knowing it. Not long after, my good friend Charlie introduced me to Jennifer Jobe (lead chorister), who soon became a good friend as well and learned of my love for The Polyphonic Spree (I was now going to every show). She asked if I could sing, received a shy demonstration, talked to Tim, invited me to a rehearsal, and the next night I performed in my first show with The Spree. I was so nervous; my friends all later told me I looked like I was going to pass out or be sick, but I was so excited. I’m still excited!
3: Well, I guess my primary goal is to SHARE LOVE—to collaborate and create positive, hopeful, strong, encouraging, honest, beautiful things, energies, systems, works of art, maybe even children, that might survive for future generations, in whatever form makes sense in the moment. I want to be challenged to understand and accept differences, just as I want to be understood and accepted.
Evan Anthony Hisey, organ/synth
1: In Watermelon Sugar, Richard Brautigan. I’ve read it 3 times, but each time it fills me with a wonderful sadness of the beauty of life, the relationships that we have, and how fleeting they can unfortunately be.
2: I used to buy ‘shrooms off Tim back in the ’50s. whenever we would start peaking, we would talk about how cool it would be to play in a band together. Kind of a free jazz/Beatles thing in mind with a little Mozart thrown in so the parents wouldn’t cut off our trust funds.
3: Seriously: happiness, in a nutshell. but i’m trying to learn the value of complete honesty with my friends, and with myself foremost.
Mark Pirro, bass
1: The Bible Code. A number one best seller investigating a ‘hidden’ code within the original hebrew text of the bible. supposedly, predictions are revealed regarding modern day events. [Editor’s note: This book is absolute bullocks.]
2: Tim and I played nine years together in a previous band called Tripping Daisy. A year and half after Tripping Daisy broke up, Tim asked me if I would be interested in playing bass in a new project he had been planning to put together called the Polyphonic Spree. I, of course, said, “yes.”
3: To be the first to own and operate a full recording studio on the moon once human beings functionally colonize it.
Audrey Easley, flutes
1: The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho
2: Tim called me after hearing about me from a cello player.
3: To have David Lee Roth wear a maid’s uniform while he cleans my house and while we’re listening to the soundtrack to Blue Velvet.
Mike Melendi, percussion
1: The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
2: Toby said I could sing. He lied.
3: To do whatever I want for the rest of MY life.
Stephen Shelton Kirkham, backup yeller
1: Wendel, His Cat, and the Progress of Man by V. Campunodi
2: By being mixed up with Toby Halbrooks.
3: To always improve as a musician and a man, so it’s really more of a perpetual ambition than an ultimate one. Ultimately, one day I will die. That is the only ultimate I know in my life.
Chris Curiel, “My role is to learn, which I have, and in return, to give what I have learned. I also happily play the trumpet in the band.”
1: The Stand, Stephen King
2: Mark McKeever, our keyboardist, invited me to a rehearsal and I jumped in, did my thing, Tim digged it, and said “You’re in.”
3: To have meaning, to be fulfilled, to expect more out of myself than others expect out of me, and to be a genuine friend to everyone that I meet.
Kelly Repka, Choir
1: Red Dragon, Thomas Harris
2: I’ve sang all my life and one day my aunt called and said “Would you like to sing on a CD for us?” of course I said yes and the rest is history.
3: To make music, and spread our music around the world.
Jennie Kelley, Choir member
1: Immortality, Milan Kundera.
2: I sang back up vocals with Julie on a Tripping Daisy demo – quite childlike in sound. At the time I was in a relationship with Mark Pirro when Tim asked me if I would like to sing in the choir in his new project.
3: Live and love – is that vague enough?
Christy Stewart, Choir
1: Job, Robert Heinlein. Vaguely based on the book Job in the Bible and if you are familiar with that book it’s full of craziness. The overall feel of the book is that love is ultimately all you need.
2: I became mixed up with the Spree originally when Mark [McKeever] joined. After the first show Tim was talking to Mark about needing another female choir member and Mark let Tim know that I could sing. Tim asked me to join the choir that day.
3: My ultimate ambition is for Mark and I to have a wonderful life together and for us to raise wonderful children when we have them and to be able to both stay home and watch them grow.
Jesse “PoDunk” Hester, Choir member
1: Howl, Allen Ginsberg.
2: When I was ten or eleven, I met Tim and Julie around the corner from my house and we became well acquainted. I played my music for Tim as I grew, and at the age of seventeen he called me and asked me if I wanted to help him, and I said, “YES. I still want to help you.”
3: My ultimate ambition is to use my own band, Sweet Lee Morrow (named for Tim’s grandfather William Lee Morrow, A.K.A. Bill), to spread a good message throughout our world in a huge way.
Mark McKeever, “Been known to: tinkle the plastic and genuine ivories, fiddle with the Moog Rogue, sample some mad sounds yo, blow on a trumpet, and has also been caught synthin’ it.”
1: The Bible
2: Tim asked me nicely
3: To live a happy, peaceful and productive life making music and lovin’.
Andrew Tinker, “French Horn and French Kissing extraordinaire”
1: Siddhartha, Herman Hesse
2: Thousands of years worth of karma.
3: To clear all that karma, realize God, and transcend into pure spirit when I die.
Julie Doyle, choir
1: Tales of the Fourth Grade Nothing, Judy Blume
2: I was just supposed to, I guess.
3: To do a documentary on blue collar America, in particular, the day in and day out world of the Shell gas station located in Oak Cliff, Texas on Kiest Blvd.
Ricky Rasura, Harpist
1: The F Word, a dictionary of every recorded version of “fuck.”
2: An old college roommate told the TPS manager about me, and I auditioned for the gig.
3: To become president of Antarctica
Jennifer Jobe, “Lead Female Tambourine Player”
1: Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Judy Blume
2: Tim came to me in a dream and said, “Hey, ya wanna be in a band?”
3: To have my own secretary who does the interviews for me.
Bryan Wakeland, “Drum Pounder”
1: The Artist’s Way, Julia Childs
2: Old timey Friends
3: Keep on making great music.
Ryan Fitzgerald, “Guitarist and international luvmeister”
1: The Giving Tree, Shel Silverstein
2: Toby recruited me into the choir.
3: Rock stardom.
Christopher Todd Penn, Robemaster/Den Mother
1. Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography, Jimmy McDonough. This book has a lot of merit. Initially for me it was finding out where Neil’s head was at when he made some of the most influential albums of all time. Neil Young can write THE saddest songs. I dare you to listen to “Birds” off After the Goldrush and not get teary eyed. What wound up being the most appealing about the book was the interaction between Neil and his manager for life Elliot Roberts. They have a very interesting relationship to say the least.
2. I worked with Tim in Tripping Daisy playing various roles. I started out as a fan, did merchandise, tour managed, and did jack of all trades type jobs. I am not afraid to get my hands dirty or stay up late when needed. Red Bull is my friend. After Tripping Daisy disbanded Tim when through a bit of a funk, understandably. I booked him (without even one member of the band) with Grandaddy and Bright Eyes in the opening slot in Dallas. He had a few songs written and got together 13 or 14 people in the week before pretty much. Tim and Julie basically told me I was going to manage this monstrosity. Since then Julie has stepped forward to help out and we have brought other people on as we have grown. The rest as they say is history. The wonderful snowball rolls down the hill picking up speed.
3. My ultimate ambition… picture me scratching my head right now to such a question. I don’t think I specifically know that right now but I think before I know it that my ultimate ambition will be right in front of me. Opportunity presents itself; you do have to have vision but you also have to make the “right” decisions. Sometimes I feel like Lloyd Dobler in every way.