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The Polyphonic Spree Get Happy

Twenty odd questions with a twenty-odd-piece pop group

August 9, 2002 12:00 AM ET

According to leader Tim DeLaughter, the Polyphonic Spree are a twenty-five-piece choral and symphonic pop band, but the numbers change. He created the group -- sort of a Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys meets Godspell (the members wear white robes) -- in his Dallas home, along with his wife Julie, ex-Tripping Daisy bandmate Mark Pirro and friends . . . lots of friends.

The band, unsigned at the moment but with an EP The Beginning Stages of . . . out on their own appropriately titled Good Records, just finished a mini-tour of greater New York, where they spread their sunny pop through smoky clubs. While they were at the Knitting Factory, we interviewed as many of them as we could find.

How did you dream up the Polyphonic Spree?

Tim DeLaughter (founder, lead singer, songwriter): I think it started when I was a little kid. I had my first band in third grade, and I've always been drawn to sunny pop music. The first record I ever bought was a 45, "Beach Baby" by First Class. I'm thirty-six years old now, I spent twelve years in a pop band and I'm at a point in my life where I thought I could do my "be careful what you wish for band." The Polyphonic Spree's music fulfills everything that I need: It's very sunny, it's positive, there's a lot of melody all over it and the texture of the different instruments is layered -- from the smaller sound of the flute to the broader sound of the trombone, to the tympanis to the chimes. And then, of course, the ten-to-twelve-person choir. Actually -- and people in the band would scream if they knew this -- I'm adding a tuba and a classical harp player. Once I get those two I think I'll be completely satisfied.

When did you realize that Tim was really on to something?

Julie Doyle (choir): I remember being in the bedroom -- we have a pretty small house so you can hear pretty easily -- lying on my back with the baby and hearing Tim in the living room with a couple string players and a harpist laying down these real basic chords on the acoustic guitar. He was telling them, "Don't worry about the sheet music, just improv with your ear." I was thinking, 'Oh my god, this is gonna be outstanding!" So we started calling more friends over to our living room.

What's with the robes?

Michael Turner (choir): It's really just to unify the band visually so that you're not distracted. Some people would say that's kind of contradictory: "What do you mean it's not distracting . . . all those robes?" But it's an initial thing: When the music starts, you quit paying attention to them. You're not thinking, "That guy's got a cool belt on" . . . or "I hate that shirt!"

Do people constantly try to join?

Mark McKeever (keyboards): At first we would have half-stalkers bring their instruments to a gig and expect to be in the band. But it's really more of an if-you-know-somebody kind of thing. There was this one guy, a really nice guy, who showed up to a gig and got backstage with his saxophone. He hung out and leached on everybody all night. That would have been cool, but unfortunately there's just no place for a sax.

Did you ever plan on playing trombone in a rock band?

James Reimer (trombone): No, I was one of those band geeks, the "this one time at band camp" nerds. This is completely isolated from anything I've experienced.

Have there been any particularly bad experiences trying to fit the whole band on stage?

Roy Ivy (choir): At Maxwell's [in Hoboken, New Jersey], I had a 200-degree lamp right beside my head the entire time and various things to impale myself with. So it was like an adventure: Dance, don't get killed . . . dance, don't get killed.

Do you run into a lot of sound problems on stage?

Christy Stewart (choir): When the band is loud, we don't hear ourselves at all. You're just going by what you think. You can't match each other -- you know what you're sounding like in your head and hope that everyone else is doing the same. In the beginning, that was really tough, but now we just wear the earplugs and go with it.

Tell me about some of your unusual opening acts?

John Vineyard (choir): We had a ventriloquist that Tim found by picking up his card at a donut shop. He really didn't understand the idea behind being a ventriloquist -- he moved his mouth with the dummy and didn't even try to hide it. We've had some dancing ladies from the senior citizen center, we've had birds flying all over the theater and a bunch of penguins walking around. I think people appreciate something different.

What is your favorite Spree song?

Andrew Tinker (French horn): "2000 Places." To me, that song has everything this band is about: "You gotta be good/You gotta be strong/You gotta be 2000 places at once." People told us that we couldn't do it, and we've done it. We've been 2000 places at once . . . or at least twenty-five.

Give me the rundown of your bag of tricks.

Jeff Bouck (percussion)

: Two tympani, sleigh bells, chimes, triangles, tambourines, tabla, concert toms, wind gong, concert bass drum. There's a lot of instruments that I want to build out of scrap metal. Hopefully, when the size of the stages we play allow for that, I'll add those to the mix.

Do all the members get to give input on the songs?

Jessie Hester (choir): Tim always comes up with the basic framework. He walks into practice, sits down at piano and starts playing the song, and people just join in. He says, "OK, I like that." Or "I don't like this -- we need to change this here." Then we experiment during shows and make alterations along the way.

Do you write out your parts?

Todd Berridge (viola): There's not a single note written down. Everybody here is classically trained or trained through jazz studies, and eventually some of the stuff will be written down. Tim is just a natural musical genius who didn't have the training, and he relies on us to bring in the musical terminology.

How much do you improvise live?

Chris Curiel (trumpet): We have core units of the songs, but they're different every time we play them. I don't think I would be here -- or most of us would be here -- if we played the same way all the time. We thrive off the smiling faces in the crowd, and it's a very spiritual experience.

Talk about your rock & roll journey with a flute.

Audrey Easley (flute): I'm a really huge fan of rock music, and Jimi Hendrix is one of my favorites. I heard the sound of his guitar and was pissed off about playing flute for a while because it's so "la la la" -- like I had to wear dresses with flowers on them or something. But once you're amplified, the flute is almost limitless.

A lot of bands with three or four members can't get along -- what is it like with twenty-some members?

Jennie Kelley (choir): There's always somebody around to do stuff with. And if you get sick of people, there are always other little groups to hang out with . . . it's kind of like junior high.

Is there a strong bond among choir members?

Mike Melendi (choir): Being in the choir is kind of like being stuck in a van with ten of your best friends. Everyone goes wild together, singing and hugging each other and having a party. And Jessie Hester smells so good. That's my favorite part of the choir -- that Jessie smells so good.

You get to sing some solos -- how did you get that role?

Jennifer Jobe (choir): Yeah, I'll bust a rhyme here and there. I was going to Oklahoma U., and I saw a poster that Tripping Daisy were playing. I went and it blew my mind. I used to dodge classes just to go see them. One day Tim and I were talking and I told him that I was majoring in vocal performance. He was like, "Can you do that high shit that'll bust glasses?" And I was like, "Yeah, I can that." He said, "You're in."

How tough is it to keep time for twenty-five people?

Bryan Wakeland (drums): We have certain cues -- starts and stops -- and everyone knows when they're coming. Sometimes we'll mess up, and I'll have to get it back on track, but that's part of a drummer's job.

How did you come to play the theramin?

Toby Halbrooks (theramin, synthesizers): I started off in the choir. I asked Tim if I could play an instrument, and he was like, "What do ya got?" I told him that I had a theramin -- I really didn't, but that didn't seem to matter. He was like, "Great, bring it to the next practice and you can start playing." I searched around and my friend happened to have one. I had never played it and he showed me how it basically worked, and then I faked it from there. Two years later, I'm not proficient or anything, but I can play.

Tripping Daisy listeners never could have anticipated the Polyphonic Spree. Describe the evolution.

Mark Pirro (bass): Daisy was a good snapshot of what Tim's songwriting was like when he started writing songs. But now he has ten years of songwriting experience. And there's a lot more people in this band. You just can't deny twenty-five people coming together creatively to do something. The impact is four or five times more than a four- or five-piece band.

Talk about "The Sun" song.

Evan Hisey (keyboards): That's my favorite song on the album, and it's the biggest song on the album. It's just huge. The choir just shines through and it has the good dynamic working where either Tim or just the girls are singing with no instrumentation and then, a split second later, it'll be everything in, and turned up all the way. That song is the epitome of what the band is about: one big smile.

Is managing the Polyphonic Spree tour like running a circus? And, with so many people, how does anybody make money?

Chris Penn (manager): It's a huge task managing twenty-four people and a crew, and there's always a million and one conversations you can get involved in, but it's really rewarding. Financially, we're real frugal. We tour in two fifteen-passenger vans. We get four hotel rooms, six people per room, and everyone crams an air mattress in there. Overall, we just make it work. But we get paid pretty well in Dallas.

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