Beginner's Luck

Free to do what he wants, Tim DeLaughter leads his new band on The Polyphonic Spree

There comes a time in the life of most artists when what they want to do is much more than what they're allowed to do. When the artist no longer feels satisfied with the traditional instruments of design--the paint, the brush, even the canvas itself. When paint starts spilling over the edges and newfound objects replace the tried and tired equipment. Out of this frustration with the established process comes a new creation, something original, fresh. Such is the case with former Tripping Daisy front man Tim DeLaughter and his latest project, The Beginning Stages of The Polyphonic Spree. As the title implies, The Polyphonic Spree is an ongoing experiment with one man's vision and the talent of more than a dozen accomplished musicians propelling the venture. But even the name doesn't help after you've seen and heard The Polyphonic Spree in action. Is The Polyphonic Spree a 20-piece orchestra masquerading as a pop band, or is it a pop band with eccentric instruments erasing the borders between pop and classical? Or is it both?

"You're kind of limited on guitar, bass, and drums," DeLaughter begins. "When you go into this world and improvise, it just opens up this fountain of other ways to look at and play music."

The Polyphonic Spree was conceived this summer and performed for the first time on July 15, opening for Grandaddy and Bright Eyes at Gypsy Tea Room. It wouldn't be wrong to say that it was as good a debut as anyone could have hoped for: Grandaddy became instant fans of this brand-new sound, and DeLaughter's beaming face and the crowd's spirited reception branded the evening a success. The Polyphonic Spree was born.

“Sometimes I have to leave the room,” says The Polyphonic Spree’s Tim DeLaughter, eighth from the right, “because I’m literally crying.”
“Sometimes I have to leave the room,” says The Polyphonic Spree’s Tim DeLaughter, eighth from the right, “because I’m literally crying.”

The concept, however, originated long before the fruition. While still in Tripping Daisy, DeLaughter had an itch to try something of this magnitude, but didn't have the outlet since he was fully devoted to the band in which he had invested energies since 1991. Shortly after the untimely death of Tripping Daisy lead guitarist Wes Berggren, the group disbanded.

"There was an element in me of some music that I wanted to get into that I wasn't able to do with Tripping Daisy," DeLaughter says. "I put all my energy into that, and it deserved it."

DeLaughter's yearning to experiment was manifest even when he was in Tripping Daisy. The band's posthumous, self-titled release signaled a transition from quick-and-easy pop band to deliberate-and-resourceful experimental pop band. You can hear the maturity on Tripping Daisy in the band's remake of their own song, "One Through Four," which originally appeared on Tripping Daisy's full-length debut, Bill. While the initial performance is a perfect pop-punk romp, the remake is denser, with richer layers, and seems a more premeditated song.

"I think I would have pushed Tripping Daisy as far as it could go in this direction," DeLaughter says. "Wes was just getting ready to dive into the side that nobody knew about him on the piano, the classical side. I was pushing him more in that direction. He was classically trained at 5 years old, and his father discovered that Wes had perfect pitch at 3. There's no telling what musically, with those five people, it would have turned out to be. But things were shaky at that time. This band had some blows."

It was evident during Tripping Daisy's live shows that DeLaughter was born to conduct. Arms waving, eyes brilliant, and head swaying, DeLaughter seemed to guide his bandmates much as an orchestra conductor would. So it's no surprise that he's a complete natural directing The Polyphonic Spree. While DeLaughter does still play guitar (a dry electric-acoustic, no effects), it's merely a means of conducting the 20-plus musicians in The Polyphonic Spree.

"Now the idea is to transpose the guitar parts, to write the songs, and put them to other instruments," DeLaughter says, explaining his newfound approach to making music. "In some weird way, my playing guitar helps conduct these people. Later on I'd like to get where I'm not even singing," adds the bright-eyed, blue-haired singer. "I know that sounds absurd, but I like the idea of just having these people together and watching. To tell you the truth, I would like to be a spectator, just to experience this thing."

DeLaughter is quick to credit his fellow musicians, whose ages range from 14 to 35 and who play everything from car tailpipes to French horn. The group's members are occupied in even more diverse careers outside the band--from orchestra teacher to high-school band student to newspaper editor to macrobiotic chef--and this mix seems only to enhance its output. Familiar faces show up too: Ex-Tripping Daisy drummers Jeff Bouck and Bryan Wakeland, along with former Tripping Daisy bassist Mark Pirro, are in the group.

"These people make me cry," DeLaughter says. "Literally, I'm sitting there playing the song and tears are just running down my face because I'm so overwhelmed at what these people put out. Sometimes I have to leave the room, because I'm literally crying. That's what this band does to me. Tripping Daisy did that to me a couple of times, special moments early on, but with this band it happens a lot. It just provokes this emotion in me. What these people do that I haven't known before is so beautiful that it gets a bit overwhelming sometimes."

During October, in just three days, the band recorded a 10-track demo with Andy Baker, who traveled from London to engineer the recording; DeLaughter had worked with Baker previously on Tripping Daisy albums. The Polyphonic Spree may release this initial album on Good Records, a label co-owned by DeLaughter's wife Julie Doyle and close friends Chris Penn and Erik Courson. (Good Records is also the eclectic music shop DeLaughter and company opened this year outside of Deep Ellum.) However, he emphasizes that this is merely a steppingstone for a near-future full-length project with Andy Baker and Eric Drew Feldman.

Titled simply The Beginning Stages, the demo is divided into 10 untitled "sections" rather than songs. From the stately opening chord, it is clear that DeLaughter's new project is a considerable departure from Tripping Daisy. Section one gives the first taste of flute intertwining with horns with bells with cello and a full-fledged chorus intoning, "Holiday, celebrate, soon you'll find the answer." This song, like the rest, is DeLaughter's answer to his creative thirst for something outside the realm of guitar-bass-drums, but also just that: a celebration. The entire demo has a celebratory sound, as if DeLaughter were proclaiming good news from the rooftops. If the word "inspirational" weren't so cringe-worthy, one might describe it as such. "Days like this keep me warm...and love like this means more," DeLaughter and choir harmonize on section three. Audrey Easley plays the enchanting flute that guides this soft and fuzzy lullaby, making it the most beautiful of the collection. Still, the following track--a cathartic, vibrant romp led by robust horns and a chorus of la-la-la's--demonstrates that DeLaughter and his fine instrumentalists can still rock.

Explaining the concept behind the assembly of a choir, DeLaughter says, "I've always enjoyed thick vocals, doubled up. Why would you have one voice when you could have 10 voices singing the same line? It's kind of like harnessing this vocal...it's like a fiber-optic cable. You have all these wires representing something, but it's this one sound. It was a lot more of a sensitive idea musically. I didn't want guitars and stuff like that. I was more interested in taking what those instruments did and incorporating other instruments, more on a symphonic level, which I had never done but I had always wanted to do."

DeLaughter hopes that The Polyphonic Spree will find a venue to complement its unconventional personality.

"Playing in the clubs really doesn't work for me," he says. "Ultimately I'd like to have a building that facilitates that. It would become a show with performance art, whatever the music spawns. You would actually build the show around a piece of music."

Despite the fact that the tracks are unnamed, each section is a real song--meaning no noodling, 20-minute snooze-alongs. The only feat of strength is the final section, 35 minutes of fluctuating, mutating, electronically treated vocals. A project of this scope and size has potential for disaster. The very word experimental scares many a pop-music listener, but DeLaughter's grand ambition is tempered by a keen sense of melody and sing-along vocals. Instead of being an experimental misfire or some test of improv endurance, the Polyphonic sound is structured, bright, and melodic. In light of this, the band's name is rather appropriate.

"We were trying to describe the climax of the sound once you have all the elements together and it's reaching that climax where you're hearing everything running on all eight cylinders," the bandleader explains. "And I was like, What is the name of that sound? What is that feeling? It just described everything that music does--a spree of melody and harmony."

Despite the ease with which the band plays together, the challenge of assembling such a group was by no means lost on DeLaughter.

"It was hard to imagine translating music to a different form and pulling people together that were invisible, that were nonexistent, that weren't from our world. We didn't know them, but when it happened, Julie was like, 'You did it!'" DeLaughter recalls with delight. "I don't want to steal any thunder from these people, because this would not be what it is without them. Hands down. They're the guys that are making it happen."

As it turns out, the talent of Polyphonic's members shines through, giving evidence of DeLaughter's claim. This is music best experienced live: 20 people, clothed in white robes, playing French horn, viola, trumpet, flute, cello, and being conducted by the animated DeLaughter is a true, wholehearted performance. Such a diverse palette could lead to a messy canvas, but DeLaughter has anchored his players around the simple harmony of voice (in this case many) and guitar (just one, played by DeLaughter). Juxtaposing the simplicity of pop harmony and the refined dynamics of some of Dallas' brightest classically trained musicians, The Polyphonic Spree is breaking the mold with sweet success.

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