There are so, so many things out there that remind you: this is all good.
Tim DeLaughter, leader and lyricist of Dallas-based The Polyphonic Spree, reflects on the underlying philosophy of his music: “I want to facilitate a little beacon of hope…” he pauses and gestures toward the stage, where the 21-person group will soon perform. In huge white-on-black letters the backdrop reads HOPE. Having made his point, he smiles: “okay, a BIG beacon of hope! I’m channeling the struggle with life — because it can be a struggle at times, with its ups and downs — because there are so, so many things out there that remind you: this is all good.”
DeLaughter comes by his outlook honestly. The Polyphonic Spree was created in the wake of birth and death. Wes Berggren, Tim’s band mate in psych-pop group Tripping Daisy, died of a drug overdose, effectively ending that group. Not long after, Tim and wife Julie saw the birth of their first child. Inspired by these events, DeLaughter (pronounced dee-LAW-ter) laid plans for an orchestral rock/pop group modeled on vocal groups like the 5th Dimension.
“No matter how hard it gets,” Tim observes, “we keep persevering. There’s something wonderful about life.” That belief shines through all of the group’s music, though a darker vibe inevitably pokes through at times. It’s a mischaracterization to peg the group as the 21st century answer to Up With People. DeLaughter says that some people “tend to sum us up as some sort of happy, clappy band …no one’s happy all the time, man. We’re all just average human beings.” He points out that the even the first album (2003’s The Beginning Stages of…The Polyphonic Spree, originally recorded as a demo) was melancholy. And the newest disc (The Fragile Army, released in June on TVT) deals obliquely with themes of war, global politics and a certain irresponsible fellow Texan. Still, DeLaughter and his group — both on disc and onstage — convey a heroic glass-half-full approach to life.
The group is nothing short of exhilarating, transcendent onstage. Audiences are swept up in the feel-good vibe, buoyed by a sweeping music onslaught that washes over the crowd. The night of our interview, The Polyphonic Spree played one of a select few pre-release dates, this one at Asheville NC’s Orange Peel (now world famous as the site of Smashing Pumpkins’ week-long 2007 residency). The crowded stage featured DeLaughter on lead vocals, a six-woman vocal ensemble, keyboards, a horn section, a flautist, and a harpist. All that plus the standard rock lineup of guitar/bass/drums. And that list is just from memory.
Financial pressures delayed the finish of The Fragile Army for more than a year, so the group put out the aptly-named Wait EP in the spring as a stopgap release. The EP offered a tease of the new album, plus Spree reinterpretations of songs by Nirvana, The Psychedelic Furs and even Tripping Daisy. Last year the group also recorded a track for Yoko Ono’s Yes, I’m a Witch project; theirs is among that disc’s most musically effective moments.
With a vision as grand (and a group as large) as Polyphonic Spree, commercial pressures are great. The group was dropped from its labels after each of its first two releases, and in fact (unbeknownst at the time to the rest of the group) Tim and his wife financed the recording of The Fragile Army out of their own pockets. So how does the group manage to stay afloat financially? “It’s tough,” DeLaughter admits. “We work on a shoestring budget. A lot of things we do…don’t generate money.” However what does bring in revenue is “licensing for songs on commercials, in films. That money is put right back into the band; that’s how we’re able to facilitate paying everybody, and getting this tour bus out here.” Speaking of which, the group rents a special bus — designed for hockey teams — to transport the whole lot of them from gig to gig. Tim’s wife (and vocalist/co-composer) Julie Doyle filmed a 51-minute documentary about the group (copies were included with initial releases of The Fragile Army). Says Tim, “it’s just a glimpse of our world. It’s a pretty interesting world, how this whole thing really does work, you know?”
“I had no idea we were going to end up the way that we are now. That’s what’s so fascinating about art,” DeLaughter observes with his ever-present sense of wonderment, “it evolves into something. You don’t quite know that it’s there, but it’s part of your being.”