The Polyphonic Spree: Searching for the Sound

Music Features The Polyphonic Spree
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Despite the supposedly perpetual sunny disposition of the guy who leads a robe-laden choir through soaring, psychedelic, symphonic pop music with messianic enthusiasm, The Polyphonic Spree bandleader Tim DeLaughter is miffed. A little misunderstood and maybe maligned.

“Normally I despise interviews,” DeLaughter confesses via phone from his home in Dallas. “I hate talking about my stuff and saying the wrong things and getting tripped up and sometimes you come off as a buffoon.”

That he doesn’t want to be misunderstood is understandable; that he’s getting agitated is more surprising.

“But this one is actually going okay,” he assures. “I’m enjoying it.”

When his band burst on the scene back in 2002, the concept of a 20-plus-member band with choir vocals and various symphonic instrumentation was not the mainstay that it is today.

“We came out 13 years ago and created a sound that basically changed the landscape in my opinion,” says DeLaughter. “Gang vocals, other than guitar bass and drum instrumentation in your music. We came out and nothing like that was going on. All of a sudden you started hearing bands that were just totally borrowing sounds from Polyphonic Spree and going out there. But nobody said it; sometimes someone might say Polyphonic Spree-esque or something.”

He won’t name names, citing that doing so would be “crass” but surveying the success and impact of bands like Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene, I’m From Barcelona and even Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros during the time in question, one can surmise that his accusation might have some merit, even though some of them came about concurrently. Then he adds, “It’s all good. I’m semi-joking.”

It’s the “semi” part of the joke that seems to stick in his craw. But as usual, he addresses aggravations with hopefulness on the band’s fourth studio album, Yes, It’s True. It’s a record full of grand enthusiasm, even if the cheerfulness serves to manage these frustrations.

During the intervening 13 years since they splashed on the scene, the Spree have not been quiet. They followed their 2002 debut, The Beginning Stages of… with 2004’s Together We’re Heavy. Then they hit a studio dry spell after 2007’s The Fragile Army. They did release a collection of Christmas tunes called Holidaydream just last year as a companion piece to their now-traditional Christmas concerts in Dallas. But Yes, It’s True markes their first collection of original songs in six years.

Part of that dry spell was due to the arrival of a fourth child to DeLaughter and wife/bandmate Julie Doyle’s family. But part may have been that frustration with the perception of the Spree.

Public discussion of the band seemed to center more around their attire than their music during the release of their first two albums and subsequent tours. So with The Fragile Army the band spurned the much-talked-about choir robes for a faux-military uniform, and still all anyone wanted to talk about was their clothing. It was an instance of mistaken intentions.

“At the beginning those robes were meant to not cause distraction on stage,” says DeLaughter. “I thought with so many people up on that stage wearing street clothes, people are going to be trying to sum people up and figure out what kind of person they are and I hate how fashion dictates this false sense of judging people, summing people up simply by the clothes they wear.”

There was a mini-backlash, even as they gained success. Casual observers surmised that the robes, and then the uniforms, must mean they were some kind of cult.

“I thought the robes would unify the group and basically be a beautiful image,” explains DeLaughter. “Then all of a sudden, I’d created the biggest distraction because people thought it was a cult. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”

All of this public dissonance obscured the fact that the band had produced three very good albums and their live show was being heralded around the globe.

But they took a break. They continued to perform of course, being a mainstay at festivals in the U.S. and Europe. Last year, their UK booking agent coaxed them into a Halloween performance of The Rocky Horror Picture Show that went so well the band performed it several more times, including back home stateside at Bonnaroo.

The period was not without new material; it just got channeled into different outlets.

One of those outlets, and another distraction leading to the “dry spell,” was Preteen Zenith, DeLaughter’s new band with former Tripping Daisy bandmate and Secret Machines member, guitarist Phil Karnats.

In 2009, DeLaughter was spending the summer in a friend’s New York apartment with the intention of writing material for a new Polyphonic Spree album. But as the songs came, they seemed too personal and somehow ill-fitting for Polyphonic Spree. He considered recording them for a solo album. When he hooked up with Karnats to help him in the studio, the focus changed.

“It really didn’t feel like it was a solo record anymore,” says DeLaughter. Rounded out with some members of Polyphonic Spree, the sessions became a band, and the band produced an album—the obscure and under-heralded Rubble Guts & BB Eye. Indeed, the result was less swathed in sound than the Spree’s work, a grittier, angular rock that not surprisingly bridges the gap between Tripping Daisy and The Polyphonic Spree. The band performed only one show, at the 2011 Gorilla vs. Bear festival in Dallas.

Soon, it was back to the Spree.

“It’s weird,” says DeLaughter. “We’ve been the most prolific we’ve ever been in that period but we weren’t putting out records. There was a lot of jamming and late-night woodshedding at our rehearsal space for almost three years, and I think that was paramount to all these songs coming aboard.”

To record the songs that had built up from all that woodshedding, the band turned to the familiar crowd-sourcing platform Kickstarter for funding. Though they had demoed many of the songs in DeLaughter’s home studio, the sheer scope of a sound as large as The Polyphonic Spree required significant studio space and capabilities.

With the nearly $140,000 they raised, they brought in producer Eric Feldman and engineer Tim Palmer to help.

“You want to work with certain people—to record with, to produce with, like Eric Feldman,” says DeLaughter. “But you have to be able to pay him. Then we wanted Tim Palmer to mix it. He’s a badass mixer but he costs money. So we were able to do that. Sure, we could’ve made a record. Bands do it all the time. I’m not dissing anybody that does it. But for us to get the optimum fidelity of what we do with our orchestration and all the instrumentation of what we do, it’s just better for us to be in a big studio.”

“You Don’t Know Me,” the opening track to Yes, It’s True, seems to address the previous misconceptions about the band head-on: “There’s always someone there to bring you down again/ There’s always more to you than there are of them” sings DeLaughter to a sprightly sonic wash bathed in French horn punctuations and looping guitar effects that reveal that they got their money’s worth in the studio.

It’s the kind of uplifting jaunt that put them on the map in the first place and the pace continues through the next couple of tunes, but soon it’s clear this go-round is different. The songs don’t segue as much as in the past, and though the unending optimism is there, it’s not quite as relentless and insistent. There’s more subtlety and nuance.

“Let Them Be” features a minimalistic approach driven mostly by percussive embellishments, muted vocals and flourishes of flute. “You’re Golden” is a sweetly melodic, wispy wish of a song, buoyed by piano and strings. And “Carefully Try” is a plaintive plea of, yes, unbounded positivity that works due to and not in spite of its earnestness.

Many of these songs were conceived as singles that DeLaughter intended to release as part of his new singles series on his own Good Records, and that may contribute to the variety. But it’s also due to the songs being written over a long period of time, rather than as a batch.

“I was just going in and writing songs,” says DeLaughter. “I just started collecting songs. When we went to go put it together, Julie said ‘Wow! This is a really good record and you could sequence it like this.’ She took it away and sequenced it and got it where it’s at and it was like ‘wow, this feels like an album.’”

Indeed, whereas previous albums contained movements of a singular piece by design (even to the extent that every track listing on every record has been designated with a “section number”), the collection here comes across more as a collection of songs that stand on their own, though still bound together with connective tissue.

“They’re kind of snapshots of different periods through that window,” DeLaughter says.

This diversity is not to say they don’t still do big. On the grandiose “Heart Talk,” DeLaughter’s vocals channel early supporter and mentor David Bowie. “Blurry Up The Lines” comes replete with militaristic drumming that builds tension before breaking into a soaring and glorious refrain awash with flute frills, towering horns and that inevitable uplifting chorus inducing you to “sway with delight.”

“What Would You Do?” proves to be the most ecstatic of the bunch. It’s the kind of rousing fare that has drawn both praise and ire since their inception. It’s a song of hope and perseverance, of examining the possibilities of idealism in the face of adversity. After extolling that “we’re tragic, we’re human, we’re beautiful don’t ever forget!” we’re in full-on orgiastic mode, reveling in the rapturous euphoria of positivity. And when they get to the climax and DeLaughter belts the refrain “We’re singing this song for ourselves, I know this helps!” he cuts to the core of what all this frenzy is all about.

It’s a genuine effort to uplift not just himself, but the listener too, and especially the crowds. It’s positivity as a struggle, frustration expressed as optimism.

“Every time I sing that,” DeLaughter says, “I’m picturing all these people helping this thing out together as one, this huge group of people. I lift through my songs. People think I’m this big happy optimistic dude all the time, and it’s not true. I’m living through these songs. I write about these things that I want. That’s why my songs are always hopeful and positive. I’m searching like everybody else.”

When The Polyphonic Spree first formed, DeLaughter said he created the band to try to match a sound he heard in his head.

“The whole thing was an experiment,” he says, “to try and create a sound. Instead of having just guitar bass and drums, why not strings, horns and other instruments, symphonic ones, to make a sound—just an epic, hitting-all-cylinders sound. And that sound is called the Polyphonic Spree.”

Now, he’s still not so sure he’s found it. But the struggle continues.

“I don’t think you ever find it, is what I’m realizing now,” he says. “We’re 13 years into it and I think you get glimpses of it, moments of it on songs and recordings that I love. Maybe those are the moments I’m talking about.”

But DeLaughter insists that hope in the face of adversity isn’t just positivity for the sake of smiles; it’s hard work.

“I find my songs a lot more melancholy than people do,” he says. “But I would sure love to try and reach for something. That’s one thing that’s kind of frustrating going through this for the past 13 years is people have kind of missed the point. ‘Oh it’s just happy-clappy!’ Dude, you have no fucking idea. Happy? This is a struggle, man. This is punk rock at its deepest.”