Electric Acid Test 

The Polyphonic Spree: twee, ambient sugar pop or insidious cult?

The Polyphonic Spree is one of those acts that can leave you tongue-tied as to the question: What are they like? Just look at a recent sampling of comparisons in the press: Brian Wilson and Phil Spector, the Flaming Lips, Godspell, Genesis, Spiritualized, the Beatles' "Penny Lane," the Turtles' "Happy Together," the wholesome song and dance troupe Up with People, and -- adjectival qualifiers unnecessary -- the Manson Family.

Some of these references come from not only the Dallas group's sound, but its massive visual presence. The self-described "choral symphonic pop band" counts 23 members, divided between musicians and choir. The kaleidoscopic instrumentation includes a piccolo, harp, French horn, cello, and theremin. Meanwhile, the choir belts such blissed-out lyrics as "Hey, it's the sun, and it makes me shine" with the buoyancy of the Muppets cast at the peak of an Ecstasy binge. And all members do their thing in matching choral robes, semi-unified in flower-power pop euphoria. If it all sounds like a bad dream, think again. The Spree's brazen, over-the-top sense of innocence and joy is a welcome elixir in a era punctuated by miserable hard rock music and even more miserable current events.

The Spree was born in 2000, the brainchild of Tim DeLaughter (pronounced De-Lotter), former frontman of the mildly successful and mostly forgettable quartet Tripping Daisy. That group came to a sudden end in 1999 with the overdose death of guitarist Wes Berggren, thus opening the door for DeLaughter to consider an idea that had been fermenting in his brain since his youth. According to the band's mythology, it was a sound created from the sensation he felt when singing into a portable fan, a mildly psychedelic experience that gives a voice a vibrato thwack-thwack-thwack and the impression of multiple layers.

DeLaughter is pleased with comparisons to Brian Wilson or the Flaming Lips -- his voice resembles the warble of the Lips' Wayne Coyne -- but says it was a different, more saccharine pop music that most influenced him growing up in the early '70s. "I really feel that I'm pulling more from a time when I was nine years old," says the shaggy-haired singer in a substantial Texas drawl. "A sunny kind of pop has always appealed to me. The first single I ever bought was 'Beach Baby' by the First Class. I listen to that song and it sounds like the Polyphonic Spree to me."

DeLaughter sits on a loading dock outside the Austin Music Hall, where the group is to make an appearance several hours later as part of the South by Southwest music conference. He is joined by his wife, Spree choir singer Julie Doyle, and bassist and drummer, Mark Pirro and Bryan Wakeland, both holdovers from Tripping Daisy. They just came from an antiwar rally that clogged Austin's city center, and are now awaiting the call for a soundcheck in the hangar-like venue -- that is, after the greasy band Nashville Pussy has vacated the premises.

"There's something about the music that was going at that time, the Fifth Dimension, the Association, they have a spirit that was pop music but it had something else," he continues. "It wasn't really religious, it was just spirit, you know?"

The Polyphonic Spree came together only after DeLaughter was booked to open for Grandaddy at a Dallas club in the summer of 2000. With no band and only two weeks to prepare, he called his close friends and a few acquaintances and soon had a thirteen-person test model. He put them in robes, designed by his mother-in-law, to "unify" the group's look. "I thought street clothes would be enormously distracting because in rock music, people are so much just as interested in what you're wearing as what's coming out of the PA," he says. "I just thought, my God, this many people. ... So, I was trying to think of a wonderful, kind of a beautiful image and I thought white robes would be pretty amazing."

Bassist Pirro says it's a relief to not have to worry about his wardrobe, and drummer Wakeland says he wears nothing under his robe anyway.

The first show was a success, and DeLaughter knew he was on to something. Even at early rehearsals, "I'd be sitting there playing and there's just tears rolling down my face," he says.

The Spree's lineup soon expanded to more than twenty members, with more and more approaching DeLaughter with interest. The members' ages range from mid-teens to the late thirties, but they're hardly all best friends; that would be impossible. "Some of us become friends," Doyle says, "but 24 people going to the movies?"

"We're completely different people," DeLaughter admits. "If these people weren't in the band, I probably wouldn't be hanging out with them."

Yet the bandmates are drawn in by something wholly different. It helps when you have someone at the center like DeLaughter, a sweet, disarming fellow or, as one journalist suggested, a guy with so much warmth that you feel like you should give him a big hug after the interview's finished. He's the visionary, the arm-waving, reaching-for-the-sky frontman who calls the Spree a "levitating" experience, and who has succeeded in having 22 others don robes and follow his lead with over-the-top enthusiasm.

Cultish? You bet. The press has devoured this concept, with one UK writer even suggesting a physical likeness between DeLaughter and infamous Branch Davidian leader David Koresh. The group seems bored with the idea, but the Spree's official Web site (www.thepolyphonicspree.com) only fans the fire with a panoramic spread that captures the ensemble on a hilltop, in a forest, releasing balloons to the sky, and knee-deep in baptismal creek water.

The Beginning Stages of..., the Spree's first effort, was simply supposed to be a demo to get gigs. But the quality and originality of the recording led to it becoming the group's first commercial release. It's actually more of a collection of movements -- they're not really songs in the typical, structured sense -- that suggest the overture to the Who's Tommy, Yes, and perhaps a Krishna jam session. There's something a bit shallow about the whole experience, due in great part to the predominant, sugarcoated lyrical references to the sun and day and light. But at its best, as on the track "Light and Day/Reach for the Sun," the music swirls with a delirium that points toward the heavens.

The album got the band signed to the UK arm of Warner Bros., and prompted extensive touring there, including appearances at the Reading and Leeds festivals and David Bowie's Meltdown festival in London. The music press fawned, and the band sold eighty thousand albums there. "People in the UK are a bit bored with watching bands who run through the motions live," says Matt Allen, feature editor for UK music magazine Q. "To see a full choir and orchestra in robes is more of an occasion than seeing a bunch of surly students in secondhand suits. Plus there's an incredible feel-good factor to their live show -- you come away with a grin on your face after one of their gigs."

The Spree now hopes to generate that same excitement stateside. The Northern California appearances mark the band's debut in the region, coming at the tail end of its first-ever American tour.

But the UK experience also exposed one of the group's biggest immediate tests: financial solvency. It reportedly cost $28,000 just to get the Spree to England, and that's not counting more than two dozen mouths to feed and, gee, a small income would be nice too. On its American tour, the group has packed into a bus that sleeps 22. DeLaughter and Doyle are doubling up, as are others. The band's manager is relegated to the floor.

Hurdle number two has been finding a US home for the Spree's next album. There has been major-label interest, an encouraging sign amid the directionless state of the industry, but it remains unclear if that is the best move for the group. Another option: keeping it on DeLaughter's own label, Good Records, which has moved 17,000 copies of the first album domestically.

The third problem is the durability of the goods themselves, both onstage and on disc. What happens after the curious have seen them for the first time and the threat looms of the group being seen as a "novelty act"? Witnessing the Spree in a small club in Los Angeles last fall was great. But catching the group again in March at the Austin Music Hall, after the Roller Derby, was less so. The real thrill was in enjoying the reaction of those witnessing the spectacle for the first time.

DeLaughter recognizes this challenge. "The music is the core of the whole thing. I know I'm in the band, but the music is wonderful. ... If that wasn't there we'd be over."

He says the next album, with a real commitment to studio time, will deliver the goods. "This one sonically represents the band exactly where we're at right now, two and a half years later," he says. "We've got a proper recording. ... The songs are extremely broad. It's like you're listening to a rock opera or something."

Such optimism abounds while the group talks about what could be next. An upcoming show will be preceded by a matinee for children, to include face painting and a petting zoo. Pirro also likes the idea of concert after-parties that would keep both fans and bandmembers riding the buzz into the wee hours. Doyle dreams of their "own Lollapalooza," while DeLaughter wonders if it's all headed toward Broadway.

And even further down the road? "Who knows? We may be a cult ten years from now; we'll find out," DeLaughter says. "I'm not aware of it, but I think all great cult leaders aren't really aware that they're a leader of a cult."

Really? Upon the completion of the interview on the loading dock, DeLaughter, with a twinkle in his eye, stands up and says, "I have some Kool-Aid for you."

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