Hanging Around With The Polyphonic Spree
Carrboro, N.C. Upon first glance, one could mistake the Polyphonic Spree, gathering for sound-check, for a band class. The Dallas-based choral-symphonic rock group, 23 musicians deep, is crowding the stage at the Cat's Cradle, a club in Carrboro, N.C., preparing for one of their last performances before heading to the UK for a series of high profile festival appearances. While they're just completing their inaugural East Coast mini-tour, the Spree have already broken big in England, where they've traveled at least a half-dozen times over the past year.
When they take the stage again for their headlining performance hours later, unified in matching white robes, it is with some drama and great anticipation by the good-natured capacity crowd. For now, however, on a warm summer day in June, this group of musicians wears its street clothes: T-shirts and shorts, summer dresses, collared shirts (untucked and wrinkled) and jeans. Some sit quietly off stage, waiting for the rest to wander in from the bus, while guitarist Ryan Fitzgerald goes through the motions with the sound technician.
"How does that sound?" he asks, honestly enough.
"It'd sound better if you knew how to play guitar," comes an uninvited response from one of his mates, heckling from the floor.
Like high school, this band has its jokers, its thinkers, its popular kids, others who seem bored and aloof. But most they're just youthful and friendly and impatient to get the show on the road.
The nine-member chorus fills their three-tiered position stage-right and begins harmonizing before segueing into "Hanging Around," one of the songs from their debut album, The Beginning Stages... (Hollywood Records, 2003), which was recorded essentially as a demo to help get the band get booked around Dallas. After an overwhelmingly positive response to the hastily produced record they released it independently, in the U.S., on Good Records; after being noticed by a UK rep at South by Southwest, they signed to 679. Over the summer they announced their major-label signing, with Disney's Hollywood Records, which has reissued The Beginning Stages... and will release the much-anticipated follow-up in early 2004.
As with any class, someone, even if self-appointed, plays the role of authority figure. Or, in this case, ringleader. The Polyphonic Spree are no different. While the chorus sounds great, it's not until founder and frontman Tim DeLaughter enters the scene unkempt but always focused that the other members man the stage and, with DeLaughter watching intently, conducting when necessary, take "Hanging Around" to euphoric heights.
That's the moment when these (mostly) young musicians transform from a motley crew into a tight, amazingly (considering the band's short existence) cohesive unit. There are a lot of great live bands out there, but no one sounds like the Polyphonic Spree.
The Polyphonic Spree, who play glorious, optimistic, celebratory music, are a band born out of tragic loss a band that, in many ways, isn't even supposed to exist. The fact that they do, and that, in their short life span, they've been able to use their lyrically straightforward songs about hope and light to affirm and uplift, makes them a unique presence on the scene. While they haven't toured much, in North America they have been steadily building an extremely passionate, loyal fan base. The band is unapologetically sentimental, and their shows taking place against the backdrop of obviously complicated times leave people moved, their spirits revived.
I had the opportunity, between sound-check and the show, to sit down with eight members of the band that afternoon in June. During their brief reprieve, however, DeLaughter was busy tending to his children who, along with his wife Julie Doyle (also a member of the choir), had joined him on tour. I then spoke at length with DeLaughter, on the telephone, almost two months to the day after I'd spoken to the band.
In the interim, the band finalized their deal with Hollywood Records, played Glastonbury and the European summer festival circuit, as well as Summersonic in Japan, saw their music featured in a VW Beetle/iPod advertisement, and found themselves on several glossy British magazine covers. All without staging a lengthy U.S. tour. That changes this month when they begin a three-month tour of the States at Dallas's Granada Theatre on September 19..
None of this attention and exposure has resonated within the band, according to DeLaughter. "Yeah, we've just kind of been doing what we've been doing for, really, the past year," he said. "We've been just extremely busy."
When the prospect of actually seeing their Beetle ad (now in heavy rotation) has come up with excited family members, DeLaughter's reacted with an exasperated laugh. "Great," he said. "We gotta do another show."
"He's a Renaissance man," an old friend of DeLaughter's said, in June, watching the band warm up. "The thing about Tim is he's the creator of this band, and he can go fix your fucking car. He's a licensed mechanic." His friend laughed and then explained that the two had met while working at the Hard Rock Café together in Dallas in the '80s, when DeLaughter was putting together his first band, Tripping Daisy.
With the death of guitarist Wes Berggren (from a drug overdose in 1999) Tripping Daisy broke up. After leaving music for a while, DeLaughter envisioned a new band and sound and began talking about it, at great length, to both his wife, Julie, and his friend Chris Penn (now the band's road manager).
"I had gotten to the point where I was picking up the guitar and playing again," DeLaughter said. "I took some time off and then I got to the point of like, 'This is what I'm going to do.' I was doing some odd jobs to make money. I was at a point where I had a family and no income and, really, no significant drive to do anything. And I started playing some music and I thought if I'm going to re-approach music I'm going to try this thing I always wanted to do. I really didn't know if it was going to be a vehicle for me to go any further I just thought that was an idea I needed to try.
"I started thinking about it more clearly and really kind of visually putting it together in my head and playing songs, and I really got the confidence that I thought I could do it. Then I got to the point where I was just talking about it too much and my wife and a good friend of mine [Penn] were saying, 'That's it. We're tired of hearing about it. It sounds like you got it all put together in your head, you just need to do it.'
Birth of a New Kind of Band
It wasn't until Penn and Doyle went ahead and booked a gig in July 2000 at a Dallas club for DeLaughter's new "band" that he got things together. "There was no Polyphonic Spree," DeLaughter said. "I had two weeks to put it together. So it was the best thing that ever happened, because they set me into gear and I kinda went for it. I was able to get 13 people, and it went off so well that I literally had people coming up to me asking to be a part of it.
"They could see the direction it was going," he continued. "It was real obvious there was going to be symphonic instrumentation in it and a lot of voices, so people started thinking, 'Hey, I know somebody who plays this and you need this,' and everything I ever wanted, musically, just came up to myself, and through emails, and it's the easiest thing I've ever done in my life as far as putting this band together. Tripping Daisy took me two and a half years to find the right people, and this took two weeks."
"People [who became members of the group] knew each other," guitarist Ryan Fitzgerald said, in Carrboro. "People have been playing with each other for a long time. I was a friend of the theremin player [Toby Halbrooks] and he got me into the band."
"But [Halbrooks] was part of the Tripping Daisy family," Jennie Kelley, a member of the chorus, added. "And I think whenever you talk about this band you have to acknowledge that there is a link to Tripping Daisy. And there was a family unit with that that carried over to this. And most of the people that are a part of this were either part of that family or somehow related to that."
"We're all a couple of degrees away from the Tripping Daisy guys," Fitzgerald said.
While community seems to be a huge part of the band the way they function together, the way the audience is drawn to them DeLaughter recognizes this as a byproduct of their music, not his original intent. "My version is less romantic than how it looks," he said. "I was a lot more linear in my thinking. I was going for specific instrumentations, sounds. I was building a sound, I wasn't building a community, but, inadvertently, I was. I wasn't really thinking about it, and I think the reason why I wasn't putting so much focus on the community is the reason I was able to put it together so quickly and have it flourish on its own.
"It's totally turned into a social experiment," DeLaughter continued. "Unbeknownst to me I was so busy in trying to create a sound and get this music right I wasn't really realizing that I was, basically, building a community. Kind of a functioning property amongst this musical world we're in right now, so it's really strange how it worked out.
"You know, it's not like a four-piece band, like I'd done in the past. It took me two and a half years to put that band [Tripping Daisy] together, and the reason was because I was looking for people like myself. We liked the same music and, philosophically, we were on the same page, and with this it wasn't like that at all. I was asking, 'Can you play this instrument? Can you improvise?' and 'Do you have the spirit to be a part of something like this?' And that was it."
DeLaughter likens it to the classroom as well. "You know, you show up for the first day and you go in the class and you don't really know everybody in there, but sub-groups are formed within that classroom to be able to make it operate and lubricate itself for the rest of the year. And that's what happened with this band."
Within that dynamic, DeLaughter, central to the Polyphonic Spree's goings-on, is pretty sure what role he plays. "Mr. Kotter," he laughed.
In person, the group is easy with one another, not afraid to disagree, casual, but also, most notably in choir member Jennie Kelley and flutist Audrey Easley, determined to realize the ascent they've begun.
That's not to say they take themselves too seriously. "None of us are cool," Easley said, at one point, with a smile.
The group's first album was initially made so they'd have something to give club bookers. "I was having a hard time getting gigs with this many people," DeLaughter explained. "They were going, 'Are you crazy?! No, I'm not going to do anything like this.' And I was like, 'Well, shit, we need to go record something so these guys can hear what we're like.' And we only had enough money to record for three days. And then we had that thing and then, all of a sudden, the band started gaining momentum and then people started asking us for music to buy at our shows and we're like, 'We need money, so let's just put this thing out.' And it ended up becoming our first record."
They played six shows in three days at the 2002 South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, and then got an offer to play a show in England. "There were several different people that were, like, 'We've got to get you guys over to England,'" Kelley said in June. "And there was a festival called 'Meltdown' that David Bowie was the curator of, this past year, and we got to go over and do that, and that was actually our first time playing outside of Texas, which is really special."
A Unique Sound
With flute, trombone, French horn, violin, trumpet, theremin and classical harp (among others), as well as the chorus, alongside the more traditional guitar, bass and drum setup, the Spree have carved out a place, at least for now, all their own. Their songs are grand explorations of melody and voice and of orchestration that doesn't just stay in one place, swallowing everything in its largess. Their music, which can take on gigantic proportions, moves. When you see it described on paper, it's difficult to imagine how such an operation, on stage, wouldn't seem bloated. It isn't. Each individual and instrument plays a vital role bringing this exuberant ensemble to life.
"Tim will come in with a germ of an idea," bassist Mark Pirro said, about the band's process. "A real basic structure. And I just like to look at it like it's being passed around the table, and by the time it gets all the way back around, everybody's put their two cents in. It's usually a lot different or a lot better."
"It's like music written by Tim DeLaughter, composed by the Polyphonic Spree," Fitzgerald agreed.
"We all have a pretty heavy hand in the arrangement and orchestration and things like that," Audrey Easley elaborated. "He'll write a song and we'll just kind of take it from there. It's a real natural process."
Asked from where the idea of such a grand sound arose, DeLaughter is eager to look back at the music he heard as a kid. "I had really been thinking about it for quite some time," DeLaughter said. "And even during Tripping Daisy it was something that I, being inspired by orchestral pop as a kid, think is where I kind of got my pop sensibility. Why I was attracted to that music.
"In the '70s," DeLaughter continued, "when I was growing up, you had [artists like] the 5th Dimension, The Association and Burt Bacharach [on the radio].
"I listened to a lot of Walt Disney story-book records. The stories were told by orchestral music, and it made an impact on me back then. I didn't realize how much until [I was older] and wanting to expand my kind of musical taste," he continued. "And through Tripping Daisy I was finding myself as a songwriter, and when we'd be in the studio recording I went, 'You know it would be really nice, instead of just having this guitar here, it'd be really cool I wish I had a flute playing this line.' Or, 'instead of my vocal here, I wish we had a choir.' You know, it was just kind of wishful thinking. But I think it was all inspired by the bands I was inspired by as a kid. And that's basically how it all started with this kind of wishful thinking.
"And I thought, 'One day I'm going to put together a band like that, where I can exhaust those instruments and try all those things out' and, I'd go, 'I may be an old man, but I'll definitely get to it.' And I just kind of left it at that. I just thought this will be something later on in my years that I'll attempt to do and, fortunately, it kind of happened, sooner than what I expected."
Finding the Right Name
DeLaughter said he wouldn't have pulled the band together without a name the right name. "I really couldn't go forward this is what I was telling Julie I was going, 'I cannot go forward unless I name this sound.' I'd go, 'I have to be able to have a name for this sound and then I'll have a complete picture.'
"I already knew there was going to be a lot of people in it," DeLaughter continued, "so I had the idea of the robes, because I thought it'd just be ridiculous for all of us to be in street clothes, and it'd be distracting, in my opinion. So I had a visual picture, a beautiful image, of us wearing robes, but I didn't have the name of the sound.
"So I'm standing in my bedroom and I hadn't come up with any names at all. Usually you have some really silly names that come up as your first, but nothing really crossed my mind. But it was when I was in my bedroom I collect these 'Wacky Packages,' they're stickers from the early '70s that used to mock consumer products, like, instead of Tide Detergent it was 'Toad Detergent' and had a big frog on there. And I've got 'em all, and had this uncut sheet and there was this one particular sticker making fun of Polident denture adhesive. And [I] just kind of glazed over that, 'cause I'd just had it framed, and I saw the word, 'Poly,' and, right when I saw it I just go, 'The Polyphonic Spree.'
"It just kind of came out. And I said it again, and all of a sudden go, 'Oh my God,' and Julie was online in there and I go, 'Julie, "The Polyphonic Spree,"' and she's kind of quiet for a minute and she goes, 'I like it,' and I go, 'Oh my God, that's it!' And I just started screaming and running around and she goes, 'I love it!' and it just got really warm and it was just like one of these moments. I just knew that was it. And I was so excited and she was online and she immediately checked the domain name and bought it right there on the spot. And once that happened it was completed, and I was like, 'This is it, let's go.'"
An Organic Sound
When told how some of the band members described the collaborative nature of the Polyphonic Spree's compositions, DeLaughter concurred. "The prerequisite to be in the group was you had to be able to improvise," he said. "The reason why, for me, it's so much more organic, and the result is so much quicker for everybody in the room, if you can play on the spot by improvising.
"So I bring in a structured song with breathing room and the arrangement and I play it through a couple times and, literally, everyone just kind of joins in. And it's just kind of common sense as far as the quiet parts being with the quieter instruments and the bigger parts are going to be devoted to the loud and robust instruments. It comes together rather quickly. I'd say in about an hour and a half a song's done.
"Just the fact you can improvise, the results are so much quicker that there's an enthusiasm that kind of rings around the room that inspires everybody to try something. For me it's the only way to do it. Rather than me sitting there, dictating each part to everybody and putting this noose around the song. This way, everybody gets inspired by their own part."
Lyrically, the band's songs are structured with an inspirational refrain, repeated often, and, more than likely, a call to action: "Have a day/ Celebrate/ Soon you'll find the answer...," are lyrics from "Have a Day/Celebratory." "Follow the day/ Reach for the Sun...," are two lines from "Light and Day." And during "2000 Places" they sing, "You gotta be good/ You gotta be strong/ You gotta be 2000 places at once..." The first two songs are on their debut while "2000 Places," a newer song, will appear on the follow-up.
"Lyrics are so weird to me," DeLaughter said. "The only way I can really write lyrics is out of improvising. I'm not really one who sits down and thinks about what I'm going to write a song about. I have to be moved by the music, and usually I write the music and the lyrics at the same time.
"Whatever's on my mind or [a] particular chord inspires a thought and I just start singing about an idea that I've got in my head at that particular time. And I don't know where it comes from. It's usually all about the day. Ever since I can remember, the majority of my songs are during the daytime.
"Even back in Tripping Daisy. I always see things during the day when I'm picturing things and from the very beginning I've been writing optimistic songs with hope threaded throughout all of them. So it's something that's always been close to me and that theme appeals to me. It's weird, I'm not really one who labors over lyrics. If they're there, great, if they're not than I just have to wait a while."
One particularly powerful song, "It's the Sun," begins, lyrically, on an almost tragic note: "Son/ Take some time/ Get away/ Son/ Suicide is a shame..." But then, in a later verse, the "Son" the song's being sung to becomes the "Sun" and the song's meaning changes from one of loss to that of hope and, like so much of the Spree's music, it becomes uplifting. "Son/ Hope has come/ You are saved/ And it makes me cry/ Because I'm on my way.../ Hey, It's the sun/ And it makes me shine..."
"A lot of that being sensitive to how fragile life is, I'm sure, has to do with what happened with Wes," DeLaughter said. "I had never experienced anything like that. Not just me, but my wife and family, and my close friends. At that point I kind of realized how fragile we were as humans, and I had never experienced it before. I just thought, 'Yeah, we're rough and tough and we can just go for it,' but we're not. We're extremely sensitive humans. So that was probably a reaction out of that."
"I also had kids at that time, too," DeLaughter continued. "I'm experiencing life in a whole new way through the birth of my kids. I'm watching life begin when I watched a life end. Just going through a lot emotionally at the same time of the forming of this group. It's quite an experience. "
The East Coast dates the band played in June were shortened so they'd have time to mix the follow-up to The Beginning Stages.... Asked to describe the differences between the first one, recorded and mixed in three days, and the new one, band members are blunt. "The new album is going to kick the old album's butt," Ryan Fitzgerald said, before the show in North Carolina. "It was made to be like a little EP to get the clubs and get us gigs, and it turned out being an album, and we've been magically riding the wave of it but, in my opinion, the recording is horrible compared to the new one."
"It's very charming," Easley said. "It has this real innocent quality to it. We didn't know each other. I didn't know everybody's name at that point."
"The new album, I think, not only will kick the other album's butt," Kelley said, "but all the songs have been worked on for a while and for the most part, they've really been fine-tuned during the live performance. Whereas when we recorded the first album it was just like, 'Let's just do the set, just play what we have right now and put it down,' these [new] songs have all been really worked on and evolved, and they were songs when we went into the studio."
"The first record gives you a taste of what we're about to get into," DeLaughter explained. "The next record is a band that's been together for two and a half years. It kind of realized where it is and where it's going and what it's about, and we captured it all on tape. It's a very emotional record. It's extremely dramatic. It has lots of highs and lows. It's very rewarding at the end. It's full of hope and it's the most hair-raising musical experience I've done. I'm really, really happy with it and I can't wait to get it out there."
In speaking of their new work only half the album was complete at the time of our conversation DeLaughter begins to hint at unusual directions the band may go. "It really feels more like a musical to me, and that's why I've been starting to think, 'My God, is this band becoming an unorthodox musical?' The songs are really turning into more of a dramatic journey that has a soundtrack to it kind of along the same lines that the band began as."
The Spree's shows with musicians so passionately involved in the music they play are loaded with drama. "I would like to bring the rock concert audience to the theater," DeLaughter said. "This is something I wanted to do early on. I wanted to make Polyphonic Spree more of a residential [band] where we'd go and we'd spend a week in a city and play every single night and then go to another major city and do the same thing. And, eventually, that's what's going to happen.
"Polyphonic Spree becoming a musical," DeLaughter continued, speculating, "is only something I've been thinking about the last year because it's really starting to feel that way to me. And it's not something I've dictated to the group but it's definitely unfolding like that with the philosophy of wanting to do residency tours and having this 'musical' vibe anyway, it seems like it might want to take that berth.
"Once again," DeLaughter, said, speaking to the forces he feels have been carrying the band forward from its inception, "I'm gonna see what it wants to do and I'm gonna oblige it. You never know."
"I never put this together for a certain genre by any stretch of the imagination. It was for everybody when I first did it at home. It wasn't just for people who were fans of Tripping Daisy. It was for everybody that would want to appreciate this kind of music, and I still feel that way today. I feel it's for everyone.
"It's weird because a lot of people, all ages, come to these shows. We have 65-year-old people in the audience that come not knowing we rock out as much as we do, and they have to find earplugs, but nevertheless they stay and enjoy it.
With over 20 members, all with their own sensibility, the group has many, many influences. "Everybody has a past in this band," Easley said. "Everybody has a musical past that shapes what kind of musicians they are now, and I think that's what they're bringing to the table."
"We did a compilation where everybody got to pick one song, and it's just all across the map," Pirro said with a big laugh.
"Two CDs and it's 'The Polyphonic Spree Compilation,'" Kelley said.
"It's the kitchen-sink compilation," someone in the group added.
Asked for a sampling of what's on the two discs, they go around and list their picks: Bob Seger, Steely Dan, Bee Gees, John Coltrane, Wilco, Buzzcocks, Frankie Valli....
Aside from their numbers, the band's most notable visual cue is their robes.. "There's definitely a ritual to it," Easley said, "and I'm not talking about anything weird. There's something that happens. You put that robe on and your mind changes a little bit... you're going to be a unit. Whatever you've been dealing with, with all the other people and all the dynamics, all that just goes away."
And what's left is a group of immensely talented individuals working together, in cramped quarters, on tiny club stages, making transcendent music night after night.
A Man Possessed
That evening in Carrboro is no different. In fact, after having seen the two previous shows in Washington, D.C., it appears, to this observer, that the band's taken it to another place at the Cat's Cradle.
On stage, DeLaughter seems almost a man possessed. He looks wide-eyed to the rafters and, gesticulating wildly, thrusts his hands the audience's way. Often, the group plays to DeLaughter's sense of drama, but sometimes, when a pause lasts a few beats too long, the showman overreaching his music, you can see him encouraged either through a laugh or sigh to get on with it.
"I've been doing this a long time," DeLaughter said of performing. "I've always felt really comfortable playing music... I've always been really moved by it and, literally, it kind of moves me. I get really excited and a bit overzealous, and I get really unaware of myself, which is really nice, and it seems to be a really comfortable position for me to be in.
"Once you get all these humans together and then we start interacting as one, playing this music, that's a lot of energy that's been exhausted on stage. You can talk to anybody and they tend to have the same response. There's something about it that's real addicting and overwhelming and it's just an exhaustion of human energy on stage with a soundtrack that's really cool. There's a lot of elements there that tend to get me going, but I really feel like I'm at home when I'm in that bubble."
Back at the Cat's Cradle, finishing their encore with David Bowie's "Five Years," Theremin player Toby Halbrooks writhes on the floor and Andrew Tinker drops his French horn and leaps into the audience's arms. DeLaughter is poised on the monitor serenading the crowd and Easley thrusts her fists in the air.
"Yeah, it's a total experience for both of us," DeLaughter said, about band and fans coming together when the Spree performs. "And, at the end, I really think, 'God, we went through this together and it was really cool and let's do it again next time.'
That night in Carrboro, as in D.C., as at Coachella before, the audience sings along boisterously, drenched in sweat and smiles, encouraging the Polyphonic Spree to carry the last chorus further, louder, longer, no one wanting it to end.
[Personal note: The journey that took me east to meet the Polyphonic Spree in June was itself loaded with promise of a different kind. As it concluded, I proposed to the woman I hope to "hang around" with for the rest of my days. Every morning, on the road, my travelling companions and I listened to a collection of live Spree recordings. Their music carried us on what was truly the most important trip of my life. A thanks to the band, for the soundtrack, and to Michelle, for saying yes.] Jesse Zeifman [Thursday, Sept. 4, 2003]