Shiny Happy People

The Polyphonic Spree is one Big Moment away from stardom. Right?

Maybe it doesn't matter. Who will tease him when he's onstage, on the radio, on MTV, on the front page of The New York Times, on the tip of everyone's tongue? Only the jealous and jaded, and they don't count. He doesn't care about any of that. Spitz just wants to be a part of it all, faceless and fearless in his white choir robe. He wants to be a member of The Polyphonic Spree, and he's finally gotten up the nerve to pop the question.

There's just one problem: "My voice hasn't matured yet."

"Well, we'll see if we can mature it out on the road," DeLaughter says, in a gentle twang that drops g's like a character in a 2Pac rap. If it were anyone else, it would be easy to assume he's just telling the kid what he wants to hear, giving him a good story to impress his friends in the church choir. Most musicians wouldn't even go that far. It's difficult to imagine a member of, say, the Strokes letting a fan entertain the notion of joining his band.

But that's pretty much how DeLaughter formed his plus-size group, which numbers somewhere in the mid-20s, depending on what week it is. (Not even the band is always sure. They usually just say 24.) The Polyphonic Spree is built on conversations like this one and people like Spitz, born-again musicians approaching DeLaughter after a show, offering their services. They had instruments they hadn't used since high school orchestra, voices they used only in the shower, energy for which they'd found no outlet.

They might not have fit into another band, but they fit into this one, the group DeLaughter knew he would lead eventually, even while he was fronting Tripping Daisy throughout the 1990s. He didn't think it would happen so soon.

"Because I always thought of Tripping Daisy going forever, kind of," DeLaughter says. "That's the way I always kind of looked at it. I thought, 'One day I'll do something like this, but it'll be when I'm an older man.'"

The sound in his head had already started to leak onto Tripping Daisy albums, beginning with 1998's Jesus Hits Like the Atom Bomb--a title that more or less sums up the aesthetic of The Polyphonic Spree. It was even more evident on 2000's self-titled disc, with its bright harmonies and unabashedly happy melodies. But when it was released in April, there was no more band: Guitarist Wes Berggren, DeLaughter's best friend, died of an overdose in 1999, taking Tripping Daisy with him.

Less than a year later, like the final act of a made-for-TV movie, triumph was born of tragedy. DeLaughter had a new band, one that had previously taken the stage only in his head, and it was destined to be bigger than Tripping Daisy ever was. Literally and figuratively.

When The Polyphonic Spree played its first gig, opening for Grandaddy at Gypsy Tea Room on July 15, 2000, there were only--which is a strange word to use--11 members. By the time they recorded The Beginning Stages... over three days in October later that year, the number had grown to 25, and it has fluctuated since.

"You just had to be able to improv," Doyle says, "and have good taste."

"And you had to be able to live after you drank the Kool-Aid," DeLaughter adds, which gets a laugh from everyone. "Cult" is the most common dig at the band, though "Klan rally" has been used on occasion. "If you lived, you got to stay in the band."

There's always room for one more willing drinker, even though there are already 22 people onstage with DeLaughter. In fact, on any given night, there is room for hundreds more. More than any other band, The Polyphonic Spree considers the audience part of the lineup, a vehicle to turn an eight-person choir into a wall of sound 500 voices strong. Spitz doesn't need to join the band. He's already in it.

It certainly feels that way tonight, December 19, the first show of The Polyphonic Spree's two-night Holiday Extravaganza at the Lakewood Theatre. A couple of hours after DeLaughter's chat with Spitz, the band takes the stage, DeLaughter coming out last with a silly grin on his face, like a kid who just learned how to tie his shoes. He jumps onto a monitor at the foot of the stage, spreading his arms wide in a Christ-like pose. It's not too far off from how the audience and his band view him.

The band launches into its first song, "It's the Sun," and the theater shudders. Everyone sings along as though they wrote the words themselves. For the better part of two hours, the Lakewood becomes a tent revival, band members jumping around onstage and fans doing the same off it. A dozen or so in the audience have purchased robes from the band's merchandise booth for $40.

"I think this band just kind of provokes that attitude," DeLaughter says. "It's really comfortable for people. I don't really know why it does what it does, but it's really cool to be a part of it and watch it, because it really helps us do what we're doing. It seems like they come in there with the attitude that they're gonna let go and go for it."

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