DeLaughter's the man behind the band, in the end. Back in 2000, his previous band, Tripping Daisy, had folded with the tragic death of guitarist Wes Berggren, but he still had these ideas for a "sound" bouncing around in his head, with no real concept of how to get them out. He wanted to create the sound, but couldn't do it in a traditional band setting like he'd been in before. Then, in July of 2000, friend Chris Penn booked him a gig in Dallas opening for Grandaddy, and suddenly DeLaughter had two weeks to get a group together, write songs, and rehearse those songs until they could play them in front of an audience. The Polyphonic Spree was born.
"What happened was that that first gig," Frieman says, "I think there were about thirteen people in the band, and it was basically he had just written some songs, they had rehearsed a little bit, and just went out there and did it. And that was the start, and then pretty soon people found their way into the band; people would just offer their services, or people would know someone who played this or that. Everyone seemed willing to help, y'know, either musically or to find someone musically to help the sound, because it was that different and that crazy."
After the first show, the newly-formed Polyphonic Spree swelled to around twenty-five members, and the number of musicians has gone up and down since. "I always like to say twenty-four," Frieman offers, when pressed for a current headcount, "whether that's correct or not. It's a nice round number."
Although bassist Mark Pirro and drummer Bryan Wakeland were in Tripping Daisy with DeLaughter, and a lot of other members had been in other bands or had played music in some form, they avoid the "Dallas supergroup" tag. "I know all the horn players and the violin player and the harp player were all classically-trained," Frieman says, "and so were some of the singers. So, we've got the most eclectic background collection I've ever seen."
Despite the group's daunting size, it turns out that the songwriting is somewhat of a collaborative effort. "I kind of liken it to sort of a coloring book," he says, "Tim sort of writes the song, the basis for the song. He does the lyrics, but he does the basic structures and that sort of thing, and everyone else kind of has their own crayons and comes in and colors parts of it. And that's the real fun part, because with so many people -- and that's also what makes it so challenging -- it can always turn into a real big mess if you're not careful."
With their lineup relatively solidified, the Spree went into the studio to record a demo of the songs they'd played at their first show, and those nine songs became their debut album, The Beginning Stages of the Polyphonic Spree (song #10 on the CD is a thirty-six-and-a-half-minute ambient opus that was meant to be played as they left the stage). When it was released, it was a strange affair, with pictures of the band members standing in a field and dressed in flowing robes, song titles like "Section 1 (Have A Day/Celebratory)" and "Section 5 (Middle of the Day)," and swirling, magnificent, orchestral pop songs so bright and sunshiny they feel like they radiate warmth through the stereo speakers. The effect is something like a gospel choir on Ecstasy.
The Spree played shows in Dallas, and then in Austin, hitting South by Southwest, and then somehow word of the band got to the Thin White Duke himself, David Bowie, who was "curating" the 2002 Meltdown festival in London. He invited an awestruck Spree to play, and the twenty-four-person group piled onto the plane and flew over to play at the Royal Festival Hall on the Thames, opening for The Divine Comedy.
"That was our first gig outside of either Dallas or Austin," Frieman recalls, "which at the time were the only two places we could afford to play."
He points out the difficulties inherent in traveling with a big group, which he says adds up to nearly forty people, including crew and entourage, and likens the band to a theater group in that sense. The UK trip was their first real experience with touring, and the band has since been back to England "I don't know how many times," Frieman confesses. He also says that it's difficult to come to a consensus on what music everybody listens to on the tour bus.
"There's only a few select groups...that can get played, because the tastes, y'know, are so different, and nobody agrees on wanting to hear things -- and what volume, that's a different issue. There are a lot of headphones going on.
"But what's strange about the whole thing," he says, "is that all these backgrounds come together and do something that, when you look at it on paper, it looks like a nightmare. An absolute nightmare." Nevertheless, the band somehow pulls it off. "The logistics of the whole thing have become a science over the last four years."
The Spree continued to tour through 2003, hitting Europe, Japan, and various parts of the U.S. before wrapping things up with a couple of final holiday gigs at the end of the year. The plan was to take a break at the start of 2004 so they could regroup, and then down get to recording.
And then something happened. All at once, The Polyphonic Spree were everywhere. Car ads on TV, movie soundtracks, guest appearances on Scrubs, you name it -- heck, just this summer elementary school students in Menlo Park, California, performed one of the band's songs for their spring school concert. First "Light & Day" was in a commercial that married the new VW Bug and the iPod, and then it turned up in the trailer for Jim Carrey's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Sunshine director Michel Gondry shot a video for the song, and the Polyphonic Spree stumbled onto the screen on MTV and VH-1. To top it all off, David Bowie (who incidentally is one of the few artists everyone in the band can agree on) called the band up and invited them on tour with him, traveling all over the U.S. and Canada [Ed. Note: The band finished the tour back in April, after talking to SCR.] Stages was a hit. The Spree had arrived, nearly two years after their one album was released...and they were at home when it happened, just taking it easy.
Now, just as the hoopla is beginning to die down, the band is back, having just released Together We're Heavy, the culmination of the last two-plus years.
"We've basically been working on different aspects of it since November of 2002," Frieman confirms, "so it's a lot more of a proper recording. It's not quite as... It's more 'experimental' than the first, and it's probably a lot more epic than the first."
"Experimental" it may be, but Heavy also manages to be more of a true "band" recording, with DeLaughter now acting more as a real frontman/lead singer and less as a choir director or orchestra conductor. "Epic," however, is definitely the right word; the album is a stunning wall of sound that envelops the listener like a brightly-colored, warm blanket. Hints of pop icons past abound, ranging from Roxy Music, the Beatles, and Harry Nilsson to Abba, Papas Fritas, and the Flaming Lips, and weirder stuff, to boot, like Tangerine Dream, Sigur Ros, or Spiritualized. Heck, one track ("Ensure Your Reservation") almost sounds like an instrumental movement from an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. It's not all sweetness and light this time, either -- "One Man Show," for example, is a lot more complex, more "nuanced" than most of Stages, and even gets a little dark when the crazed piano breakdown comes in.
There's some continuity from the first album, of course -- the song titles follow the "Sections [X]" structure, for starters, something that Frieman insists wasn't the original idea -- including whole lines swiped from The Beginning Stages of..., calling back "Hey, it's the sun..." at the start of the album as if from a distance. Thankfully, the lyrics this time around cover more varied ground and generally seem to be better-thought-out than before, although they're still pretty oblique. I have no idea what the hell "Two Thousand Places" is about, or the beautiful, Beatles-esque "Hold Me Now," but really, I could care less, because they're incredible all the same.
The greatest thing about this CD is that it's far more stylistically "mature" than the band's previous efforts -- which makes sense, considering that the Beginning Stages songs were written in two weeks nearly four years ago, while the band was able to put a lot more time and effort into Together We're Heavy. Over the years, the Spree has definitely found itself, taking what started as a long-shot "can they pull off one show?" project and transforming it into a bona fide band (or, er, something, at any rate). There's none of the empty-smiling-people vibe here, but rather a sense of the Spree-ers as real live people who have fun doing what they're doing and never want to see it to end. Perhaps tellingly, the Spree also appear to have abandoned the all-white robes of the first album in favor of a rainbow assortment of colors (displayed up there on the right). As I mentioned above, there's darkness here, yes, and emotion, but there's also light and hope. Together We're Heavy plays like a rock opera written for a new generation of optimists.
The album swells to a crescendo with the album's "magnum opus" of sorts, "When The Fool Becomes A King," which is nearly a musical theater piece with dangerous-sounding guitars. Instruments weave in and out, movements come and go (including one with a carnival barker, of all things), and then, just as suddenly as the whole thing began started, it's headed back out, calling back again to Stages to complete the line: "...And it makes me smile." The final title track is a coda, an "outro" of distant noise that rises but never coalesces and then fades off into the distance, like a circus train pulling off down the tracks or a flight of angels winging it on up to heaven. Which one of the two is the Polyphonic Spree? Take your pick -- either one is pretty appropriate. END
[The Polyphonic Spree will be playing in Houston on Saturday, August 14th, at the Hobby Center, along with String Cheese Incident and Gomez.]