The Polyphonic Spree

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Music Features The Polyphonic Spree
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OK, so you’ve got a meeting set up—a very important meeting. You’ve been granted an audience with one of rockdom’s most legendary figures, the (still remarkably) Thin White Duke himself, David Bowie. Question: What do you wear? What do you wear?

For campy fashion-plate Texan Tim DeLaughter, the decision was a no-brainer. To rendezvous for an onstage rehearsal with the Zigster one recent afternoon, he chose a lime-green dress shirt, white patent-leather loafers and a blaringly loud hot-pink checkered suit, all complemented by a huge pair of plastic-rimmed sunglasses. Accompanying him to the 5:00 p.m. Berkeley summit is his similarly attired wife, Julie Doyle, who’s sporting hot-pink platform slides and turquoise pedal-pushers, her blonde-and black-streaked tresses framed by an even larger pair of retro shades. Two of their three children scoot happily alongside.

DeLaughter studies his watch. Thirty minutes to go—it’s almost time. He and his missus—who anchor the multi-membered Polyphonic Spree—pause to watch a rather unusual California sight: Their own harpist, strumming his giant lyre in an adjacent park while local hippies interpret the sounds through Dead-school dance. DeLaughter scratches his curly shoulder-length mane and chuckles. In the cult-like world of the Spree—where a 20-plus team of white robed faithful blends the aforementioned harp with flute, guitar, keyboards, theremin, French horn and a 10-voice choir—the harp/hippie juxtaposition makes perfect aesthetic sense. Just like a lime-green shirt and bright pink jacket.

Such quirkiness seems to be catching on. The troupe was recently featured on an episode of the NBC sitcom Scrubs, during which they regaled a hospital-bound member with an impromptu bedside performance. “Light & Day,” a celebratory anthem from their two-year-old debut, The Beginning Stages of the Polyphonic Spree, has weaseled its way into televised commercials for Volkswagen and the Apple iPod, even the film soundtrack for Michel Gondry’s existential Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

After Bowie featured DeLaughter in his U.K. Meltdown Festival over a year ago, he invited him to open a string of his West Coast tour dates, and asked him to rehearse a currently undecided classic catalog number for which the Spree will join him in concert. And when Bowie says jump, only a fool wouldn’t ask, “How high?”

DeLaughter says he first considered the concept of a symphonic/choral ensemble eight years ago, when his Dallas-based alterna-pop combo Tripping Daisy was on the skids. “And it’s just amazing,” he sighs, that his idea has come so far, so fast.

How does an artist land an opening slot with Bowie, let alone a “duet” rehearsal? Doyle—who takes a quick pre-meeting seat in a venue stairwell next to her hubby—maps out the unexpected trajectory. She and DeLaughter never had a chance to pal around with their benefactor at Meltdown, she explains. “We’d been waiting a long time to meet him in person. And when our booking agent mentioned, flippantly, that maybe we should go out with Bowie on this year’s tour, we thought ‘Hey—that’d be perfect for us!’ So we made some calls, and they said the decision had to come down to Bowie himself. But a few days later they called us and said he was ecstatic, totally excited to have us on the bill. And after the first show, he went to Tim and said he’d enjoyed it so much, he wanted to have us on more dates.”

Bowie helped with more than marquee positioning, adds DeLaughter, removing his sunglasses to reveal spooky, almost hypnotic blue eyes. Along the road, he says, “I’ve had quite a few conversations with him, and I’m kinda going through some issues with the U.K., a business situation, and I talked to him about it, went to him for some advice. And he gave me some really good advice that’s helped me out.” Bowie didn’t just drag the Spree along because they have a new record to promote, their sophomore Hollywood outing Together We’re Heavy. “He really likes the band,” DeLaughter marvels. “And he’s expressed that many times to the band and to myself. And the other night, Bowie mentioned that he’d like to write a song with me, something more on the theatrical side. So we may actually be collaborating on a song. We’ve done a lot of tours and things, but this one has gone really well. Plus, Bowie’s just been fantastic to watch every night.”

The Polyphonic Spree  makes the most of its 40-minute set time. Based on DeLaughter’s theory that “you can’t be all show and no go,” the ensemble typically crowds onstage in their matching embroidered white robes (soon to be replaced by vibrant Technicolor versions), musicians down front, vocalists filling a tiered set of risers in the back. At the main microphone, DeLaughter acts as combination emcee, lead singer and orchestra conductor, prodding his compatriots to the appropriately inspirational heights each track requires. Because Beginning Stages was conceived as a single flowing piece, its songs were numbered like movements. The Eric Drew Feldman-produced Together We’re Heavy furthers this theme. More keyboard-heavy (thanks to DeLaughter’s sudden acquisition of a piano, which he quickly taught himself to play), the newer numbers still radiate the same sing-along sunniness. See the Spree once, and you’ll be hooked. Any audience that doesn’t leave smiling just didn’t get the transparent have-a-nice-day message.

Naturally, fans have zeroed in on other Spree-isms, like those nifty robes; the band’s merchandise booth sells an entire line of them. To date, Doyle reports, they’ve moved over 1,000. And yes, sometimes the garments do present problems. As DeLaughter politely puts it, “Those robes can get pretty smelly, especially when you’re playing repeated dates and there are only a couple days in there when you can sometimes get ’em washed. And we’ve had some people get tripped up and fall in ’em—our bassist fell on his back one night.” Even worse, he scowls, “I had my robe stolen, which was a real downer. It was in Britain, in Northhampton—the robe was in our dressing room, and somebody got it. I had a whole list of shows to do, so I had to wear a merchandise robe instead.” To solve the crime, DeLaughter pleaded over BBC airwaves for the garment’s return; it worked. “A week later, a fan returned it, with a note saying ‘Sorry we took it,’ and they’d washed it and included a little stuffed bear.”

Is there a sacrificial rite, some religious ritual the Spree performs when those robes finally kick their threadbare last? Doyle giggles. “I wish I could say there was, but there’s not,” she shrugs. “When they’re done, they’re done. And I’m sure our people conveniently leave ’em behind in dressing rooms, just so they can get a new one from the merch booth. Once we started selling ’em, it seems like we’ve had a lot of members lose theirs.”

Are new Spree songs like “Suitcase Calling,” “Ensure Your Reservation,” and “Everything Starts at the Seam” subliminal references to robes and roadwork? Rising to straighten his rumpled suit before rubbing elbows with Bowie, DeLaughter can’t stifle an ironic guffaw. “Could be, could be,” he grins. Naysayers once told him he was tilting at windmills with the Polyphonic Spree. As with the group’s lofty concept, so with song titles, “Once you say ’em out loud, it definitely makes ’em more literal. I improvise lyrics, music, everything, and I’m constantly singing imagery that I see in my head—I just kinda belt it out.

“And nowadays, that imagery is far clearer. These songs are almost feeling like an opera, or maybe a musical.” The listener, DeLaughter concludes, “will just have to use their imagination.” Robe, of course, optional.

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