Polyphonic Spree: Does my band look big in this?

The 23-strong, robe-clad Polyphonic Spree are a 'choral symphonic pop band'. Fiona Sturges hears why size really is everything
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The Independent Culture

It's a wet afternoon in Camden and there's a commotion going on by the canal. Twenty three Texans in brightly-coloured, biblical robes are assembled on a bridge overlooking the lock waiting to have their picture taken. They are, it must be said, one hell of a sight. Dog-walkers stand slack-jawed in disbelief, toddlers in pushchairs point in wonder, and office workers lean out of windows, jostling with one another to get a better look. To the casual observer, it must look as if the Moonies are out on a recruitment drive. The truth is no less ordinary: The Polyphonic Spree, Dallas's self-styled "choral symphonic pop band", are back in town.

Ever since their much talked-about British debut two years ago at David Bowie's Meltdown festival, opinion has been divided on the Spree. The band have become renowned for their live shows, where members perform with such joyous intensity that gigs have more in common with revivalist meetings than with regular concerts. While their fans - of which there are now many - regard them as a breath of fresh air in a pop landscape dominated by sour-faced indie bands, cynics have suggested The Polyphonic Spree are a novelty act wearing quasi-religious fancy dress in order to stand out from the crowd.

Formed from the ashes of the Nineties psychedelic quartet Tripping Daisy, this sprawling ensemble, incorporating a string and brass section, a harpist, a theremin player and an 11-strong choir alongside the usual rock staples of drummer and guitarist, has been operational for nearly four years under the supervision of the charismatic lead singer, 38-year-old Tim DeLaughter (pronounced to rhyme with "slaughter" rather than "laughter").

Tripping Daisy's career came to an abrupt end in 1999 when the guitarist, Wes Berggren, died of a drugs overdose. "When Wes died, I thought I was never going to make music again," reflects DeLaughter in his gentle Texan drawl. "But in the end I found it was the only way I was able to express how I felt. But then my first child was born, so suddenly I was witnessing new life as well as death. It was a lot to deal with at one time. I was careering between these feelings of grief and pure joy. I think you can hear that in the first songs we recorded."

The Polyphonic Spree start- ed out with DeLaughter and the remaining two members of Tripping Daisy, Mark Pirro and Mitch Marine, plus a core of their friends from Dallas. But as the band strove to achieve the symphonic sound of which DeLaughter dreamt, more friends and acquaintances were invited to join. Word spread about their shows at Austin's South by Southwest music festival. There they signed up with a British management company which helped organise their first UK tour, three months later.

"Sometimes I'm surprised that we made it this far," he confides. "When we first came over to Britain we had only been together for a year, and we had played together six or seven times."

The Polyphonic Spree's first album, The Beginning Stages Of..., combined sunny, Beach Boys melodies with gospel harmonies and relentlessly upbeat lyrics that entreated listeners to reach for the sun. Next week sees the release of their second record, Together We're Heavy, an album that is, by the Spree's standards, a slightly darker affair. Full of roaring crescendos and immense choruses, it comes with a more polished, panoramic sound.

After parting company with their former record company, 679, DeLaughter held talks with several major labels before deciding to put the album out on his own Good Records imprint. "Rather than go with someone who wasn't fully embracing the group, we decided to do it ourselves," DeLaughter explains. "You could say we're biting off a whole lot with this. But there are challenges that we must face every day. I've had them from the very beginning, when I had people coming up and telling me this group was the worst idea I'd ever had. But we're going to continue to find a way. All those people who told me it couldn't work at the start, I'm sure they've eaten their hat a couple of times."

The fact remains, however, that playing live is an arduous, not to say very expensive, business for The Polyphonic Spree. The band require a dozen vans to get themselves from one venue to another on tour. As for air travel, the costs don't even bear thinking about.

De Laughter operates an easy-going, open-door, policy with the band: "Certain people have jobs to go back to, courses to finish and are having families. Doing this job you have to understand that people's lives don't remain static."

Though dismissive of the band's detractors, DeLaughter is the first to acknowledge that the spectacle of The Polyphonic Spree can be overwhelming. "I know it sounds absurd, but looking like a religious cult was never on the agenda. The only thing I was focused on when we started was the sound, and I knew I needed these people and instruments to create that."

So why the robes? "I thought it was going to be more distracting with 23 people wearing street clothes," he replies. "What I know from being in bands for years is that the clothes are as important as the music. People seem to think they can sum you up by what you are wearing. I thought the one thing we had to do was unify the group. I thought robes would be a beautiful image. No one really commented on it and it wasn't until we came to Britain that we encountered this suspicion. I was surprised, but then it hit me that all I'd done was create a distraction. Now I fully embrace the robes. They're us and they're beautiful."

Along with steering the course of one of the most extraordinary acts in recent pop history and running a record label, De Laughter runs a record store in Dallas called Good Records. He's also in the process of scoring a film, called Thumbsucker.

"I got the business savvy from my father, who was a self-made man, and got the artistic side from my mother," he comments. "We're all just about scratching a living in this band, which is some miracle when you consider the numbers. But we need to keep a hand in other projects. It keeps life interesting and brings extra income as well. I don't think any of us are in The Polyphonic Spree to get rich."

The band may have been born out of DeLaughter's single-minded desire to create a vast, symphonic sound, but he notes that he has no control over its evolution. "If you had seen the first show in Dallas, it was very subdued, very focused, real quiet, tempos really down, and very concentrated on the music. That was the initial idea. But then I didn't know how 23 people were going to react together. I would say I instigated The Polyphonic Spree, but the band created itself. The sonic journey, the ideas and the self-expression came through everyone else. It's been an amazing experience for me to see a process happening, an idea that was dreamt up and executed but taken so much further than I ever imagined."

Whatever their future, be it world domination or penury, DeLaughter insists he will never be tempted to scale the operation down. "That would be like tearing limbs off us," he says. "If there's no way of carrying on in these numbers, then The Polyphonic Spree's done. It's all or nothing as far as I'm concerned."

'Together We're Heavy' (Good) is out on Monday