Quite frankly, the Polyphonic Spree is supposed to be famous. David Bowie and Brian Wilson would agree--they've championed the band's pop symphonies and given Dallas' robed warriors lucrative festival and concert gigs. After iPod commercials got the single "Light and Day" stuck in America's head, NBC's Scrubs and MTV's Video Music Awards each gave the Spree mighty promotional shoves toward a national audience.
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!"
The Polyphonic Spree performs at the Granada Theater on Sunday, September 11, with Day of the Double Agent and Pilotdrift.
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."
The resulting album is, for the most part, a change of pace for the Spree, as the shorter, atmospheric songs are stripped down in comparison to the 8-minute, 24-member blasts of Together We're Heavy. DeLaughter credits the versatility of his band for the ability to shift its sound so naturally--"they can be as epic as a volcano and then as sensitive as a rain drop"--and the way he talks, future projects might make the band's departure in Thumbsucker seem tame in comparison.
Though he didn't divulge many specifics, he says the Spree is working on the script and songs for a possible musical, and DeLaughter also off-handedly mentioned the hope for a scripted film starring the band someday.
"Our French horn player, Louis Schwadron, is a playwright, and [hopes for a Polyphonic musical] haven't been that big of a secret," DeLaughter says. "I've been talking about it for a while because our band, in a live setting, already feels like you're watching this epic musical that seems to crescendo every scene."
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For these reasons, the progression at least seems logical. Of course, whether these projects will come to fruition is anyone's guess, but while that gets sorted out, one thing remains certain--the band is getting even better.
Hidden at the end of the Thumbsucker disc, after a 30-minute long loop with acoustic guitars and piano, is an alternate version of the movie's single, "Move Away and Shine." Honestly, it's a crime for the band to hide a potential candidate for single of the year like this. With the help of hometown musical engineer and pAper chAse member John Congleton, the Spree pull off their most rocking, balls-out song ever, complete with Who-style drums, amped-up guitars and jilted synthesizers.
DeLaughter promises that the band's next proper album will be full of material in this style. Does that mean the Spree will finally deliver the album that delights critics and radio stations alike? Or will the robes escape to more movie soundtracks, or even Broadway? Even if fame continues to elude them, the band doesn't sound like they'll be done changing lives anytime soon.
"The Polyphonic Spree changed my life the day I decided to go for it and do it," DeLaughter says. "It's been changing ever since. When Wes left, that changed my life. I needed the Spree to help me, to self-medicate me out of a major depression. From what I've heard people say about the group, I guess it just comes around. It wasn't my intent to create that, but I'm glad it happened. Music just heals."