By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
Sure, that exposure has helped the group build both a critical and cult following, but their major-label debut, Together We're Heavy, hasn't sold incredibly well, and the band can't be found on a radio station anywhere. Lead singer Tim DeLaughter has to wonder--with so many high-profile fans and opportunities, why hasn't the Spree become an outright success?
"My wife and I ask ourselves that question pretty much every day," DeLaughter says. "It's an enormous task to keep this group together. It's a feat in itself to be able to do what we do. We've had a lot of 'almosts.' A lot of wonderful things have come our way, and thank God. It does help sustain it, and I'm totally appreciative. But, yeah. I would like to...have something kinda click!"
Next week, the Spree gets their most interesting shot yet at such a "click" in the form of Thumbsucker. The feature-length film, written and directed by album cover artist and documentarian Mike Mills (read: not the guy from REM), has been receiving buzz from the film and music world alike, thanks to ties with the Sundance Film Festival and the late Elliott Smith, respectively. And as composers of the movie's score, DeLaughter and the Spree see the film as the first step in the band's inevitable next direction.
"By design, this band is capable of anything musically," DeLaughter says. "We now have an opportunity to showcase this in a film. It shows another side of the group and is a testament to what we're capable of."
As far as Mills is concerned, the band is capable of anything--even saving lives. His liner notes for the soundtrack album, due in stores September 13, are actually titled, "How Tim DeLaughter and the Polyphonic Spree saved me." In his essay, Mills explains that the soundtrack was supposed to be full of cover songs performed by famed '90s songwriter Elliott Smith. In fact, plans for this were agreed upon by Smith and Mills shortly before Smith's suicide in October 2003.
Mills admits that he entered a deep depression for months afterward and struggled with the making of Thumbsucker. Things looked grim. And then he saw the Polyphonic Spree in concert. "It just changed me," Mills writes. "I felt like Tim and the band were saying to me, 'Why not be happy?' I realized as I walked out that this was the feeling I hoped people would have as they walked out of the theater. A willingness to be positive and to be a little more vulnerable."
A meeting with DeLaughter was quickly arranged, and Mills soon learned that his life-saving experience with the Spree had a parallel--after all, DeLaughter began writing Polyphonic Spree songs to deal with the loss of Tripping Daisy guitarist Wes Berggren. The duo bonded musically and agreed that a rough and curious sound would best fit the story Mills wanted to tell, based on a Walter Kirn novel, about a high school teen that was having as much trouble figuring out his identity as the adults around him were. They talked about artists like Neil Young, Cat Stevens and the Langley Schools Music Project who expressed the same vulnerability and honesty that Mills loved about the Spree.
"It's not about being perfect-sounding or in time," Mills says. "Are the emotions there? Is it alive?"
DeLaughter, who was impressed with the script and rough edits of the film (calling a dream sequence "one of the coolest images I'd ever seen"), went right to work, writing songs on the spot after watching scenes in Thumbsucker. One day, Mills asked if DeLaughter could pound out a "60-second punk-rock Spree song" by the end of the day for a particular scene. DeLaughter and crew holed up in a church and had the song recorded, mixed and e-mailed to Mills within hours.
The result, "Call of the Wild," like the rest of the one- and two-minute songs on the soundtrack, is not only terribly fitting for the strange images and storytelling of Thumbsucker, whose lead actor Lou Pucci won the best actor award at this year's Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals, but it also fits naturally with the three Elliott Smith songs that remain in the film.
"Tim's a real genius about finding emotions in the pictures," Mills says. "This is the guy's first score, and he just intuitively did one that well. He really got what the score was about on the very one. It's almost huger than the [band's other accomplishments]. It's another format. That gets a lot of my respect."
DeLaughter takes this praise in stride. "I write music visually, anyway," he says. "To me, it's a natural step. I just had no idea how comfortable it was going to be; it was right up my alley."