The Polyphonic Spree Get Happy - Rolling Stone
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The Polyphonic Spree Get Happy

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

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,
: 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

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

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

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

Do you run into a lot of sound problems on

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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