The Polyphonic Spree May Never Get Rich. Does It Matter?
The Polyphonic Spree's album release show at Granada Theater starts in seven minutes, and there is no water in the refrigerator backstage. A couple members of the choir ask band manager Chris Penn where the water bottles are. Penn asks Granada backstage manager Wes McIntyre. McIntyre says he just filled the thing up.
The choir members grab some warm ones and head onstage through an opening in a black curtain. Penn starts putting water bottles in the fridge, and McIntyre says, "That thing was full 10 minutes ago."
The Polyphonic Spree, at somewhere around 20 members, depending on the show, consume water bottles faster than nearly any other band on the planet. Same for plane tickets and hotel beds and food and paisley-patterned cotton robes. The Spree's magnitude has formed much of the band's identity over its 13-year existence. Tim DeLaughter has often said industry types didn't know what to do with such a beast. That's debatable, given the world tours and precious metal certifications and appearances on late-night talk shows and medical sitcoms and car commercials.
But all that stuff pays exactly the same whether you're a solo artist or a 20-piece mini-orchestra, a point DeLaughter has also made frequently. The profit margins for being a midsize indie-rock band have never been great and they're getting worse.
In a video for a Kickstarter campaign in October of last year, he presented the issue as a binary: We need more money or we'll have to shut down the band. But there is actually a third option, which is to tour with a core group — something less than six — and hire the mini-orchestra and choir in each city. That's how every other band using this instrumentation does it.
The Spree could do it. It's Tim DeLaughter's band — his idea, his songs, his vision. It's been that way since the beginning. And members have come and gone — it's not like this exact group of people has been the band forever. Parts come and go, people come and go. It's probably true that they'd sell the same number of tickets in Prague with DeLaughter, four people he's touring with and a bunch of gun-for-hire locals as they do with 17 people they carted all the way from Dallas. But that's not how they do it. It's not how they'll ever do it. "Why not?" asks trumpet player Matt Bricker incredulously. "It's the one and only Polyphonic Spree."
"At the beginning, it was an experiment," DeLaughter says. "I really thought this was something I could pull together. But what I figured out was that the beauty of this band was that it became something I couldn't predict. It is un-owned."
One minute to showtime. DeLaughter himself walks through the back door of the Granada to the green room area. He's been outside, talking to people. If you are in a place and you know Tim DeLaughter is there somewhere but you can't find him, look for the largest group of people. That's where he seems most comfortable, which is maybe one reason his band is so large. When fans come up for autographs, he instead talks sincerely to them about their lives. When friends come up to say hi, he could go on forever. But he finally tears himself away and comes through the doors. He picks up a cup on top of the refrigerator full of warm water bottles and takes a pull, immediately grimacing. "I thought that was water," he says. "It was not."
He steps through the curtain and puts his hand on the shoulders of a couple members of the choir. "Good luck," he says, and picks up his Sharpie, his spray paint and his scissors.
He needs the scissors to cut through the cloth stretched across the front of the stage, some six feet high. He needs the Sharpie to write on it first. That's how Spree shows have started forever. Maybe it's a gimmick, but it's a valuable one. It keeps the mystery alive. You don't see the 20 humans walk through the curtain and tune their stringed instruments and roll their necks and bullshit with each other. It's just a blank sheet and maybe you see some motion behind it.
There are many things you could expect at a Polyphonic Spree show six years ago that you can still expect today: Robes, spinning lights, exuberant dancing. DeLaughter will spend a lot of time standing on the monitors. They'll probably play that "Lithium" cover you either love or hate.
Tonight we're all here because there's a new album out — Yes, It's True. It's different from the other records in important ways: The songs are shorter and tighter. But they are still unmistakably Polyphonic Spree songs — DeLaughter's ageless, genderless voice backed by the full choir and the horns and strings and all. They'll probably win some new fans with this album and its accompanying back-breaking tour (Europe on Wednesday, the Granada on Friday, Colorado on Saturday). But they won't win enough to change the economic reality of the band. So the important question for DeLaughter and his expansive Spree, going into a new record cycle for the first time in six years, is whether it's worth the hassle and strain right now, because this is probably as good as it gets.
But maybe that's plenty. Over the next two and a half hours, The Polyphonic Spree play, in DeLaughter's estimate, the best show they have ever played in Dallas. "I've never felt that spirit here," he says, sweaty and smiling at the afterparty. The crowd knows the old stuff. They know the new stuff. They sing along to everything.
At the start of the show, facing a blank sheet, they buzz cheerfully. DeLaughter takes his Sharpie and starts writing in big, active, scribbling text on the sheet. He goes back over it backward in spray paint, and finally it reads, "WE GO BACK A LONG TIME!"
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