Shiny Happy People
The power has been off for five minutes, maybe more. It feels like it's been off forever, like it's never coming back. At least not during this show. The amps sit useless at the back of the stage, little more than furniture. The crowd is getting restless. So is the audience.
This was supposed to be The Polyphonic Spree's finest hour. The band hadn't performed outside Texas. They'd only played a few shows outside Dallas. But people were already talking about them. How could they not be? Two dozen band members, all in matching white choir robes, singing joyful songs about the sun and how it makes them shine--it's hard to ignore.
So here they are, onstage at London Royal Festival Hall as part of the prestigious Meltdown Festival, at the behest of no less than David Bowie. It's like winning the lottery the first time you buy a ticket.
Except they're not performing. They're just standing there in the dark, wondering what to do next, wondering if this trip to England was such a great idea after all. People say things that sound too good to be true usually are. Right now this is the dictionary definition of that saying.
Front man Tim DeLaughter stands at the tip of the stage, staring at the audience. The rest of the band stares at DeLaughter. "We were looking at Tim going, 'What the fuck is he gonna do?'" his wife, Julie Doyle, who's also a member of the band's eight-person choir, says later. It's a good question.
DeLaughter starts to sing a song called "Diamonds." It's a new number, one they haven't recorded yet. The choir joins in. Then the symphonic instruments: viola, flute, trombone, trumpet, harp. Music, if no light, fills the space. It sounds good, sounds right, because it's the kind of music meant for this concert hall, which houses the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
They keep singing, creeping closer to the part of the song where they'll need electricity the most, the cathartic moment of "Diamonds" when the music swells and explodes into a shower of sunshine. This type of thing has become The Polyphonic Spree's hallmark. Maybe it won't happen tonight. It's good enough they were able to salvage the show.
Then, one by one, the amps start popping back on. It's just a click and a warm hum, but onstage it sounds like the Mighty Mouse theme--"Here I come to save the day!" Everything comes together just in time for the rest of the band to join in and--BOOM--the song blows a hole in the roof, leaving behind a mushroom cloud with a smiley face.
The funny thing is, everyone in the audience thought The Polyphonic Spree planned it that way.
"And then they started saying we need to do that every night," DeLaughter says. "Like, are you fucking kidding me?"
This show, which took place in June 2002, was The Polyphonic Spree's Big Moment, the band's answer to U2 at Live Aid, Michael Jackson moonwalking across the stage at NBC's 25 Years of Motown, the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. Overseas, at least. Within a week, they were doing more interviews than they could handle, and the orgiastic British press had declared the group to be a better live show than the return of Jesus Christ.
They haven't had that moment in America. Yet. There have been smaller eruptions at Austin's South by Southwest Music Festival and New York's CMJ New Music Marathon. The enthusiastic press that has resulted could paper a three-bedroom house, the group's teenage symphonies to God reducing even the most hard-nosed music critics into giggling schoolgirls. The group caught enough eyes and ears to land a contract with Hollywood Records, which re-released the band's debut, The Beginning Stages of...The Polyphonic Spree, in June and is set to issue its second effort, Together We're Heavy, in May. But it will take more than gushing reviews and glowing word-of-mouth to propel the band beyond the realm of underground heroes. Even Hollywood, with the backing of corporate parent Disney, can't guarantee anything.
What they need is for the power to go out. Again.
"We believe there will be that event that will take place during the life of The Polyphonic Spree that will make everybody go, 'Oh, my God, that's it!'" says Eric Ferris, head of marketing at Hollywood and the ex-manager of Tripping Daisy, DeLaughter's former band. "It's rare that you get to kind of work with something that's really unique and different...When you have the opportunity to work with something that is recognized as that, and you know that is that, then there's an obligation to do whatever we can to make sure that more and more people know about it. We know it's going to take time. That's the one thing we know."
The kid introduces himself to the man in the thrift-store tuxedo and purple bow tie as "Spitz." It's his online handle, and if anyone at the Lakewood Theatre knows him, that's what they know him as. He's gangly and gawky, a year or so away from escaping the clutches of puberty. A bad pair of glasses rests a couple of inches above a worse set of braces. He probably gets picked on at school.
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."
"You see 20-plus people uninhibited onstage, it gives you more of an opportunity," says organ player Evan Hisey. "'Well, if that many people can be doing it...' It makes them feel a bit safer."
"It's a powerful moment when that many people are all together," adds choir member Michael Turner. "It's almost like the audience is automatically included, because it's already a crowd. It's immediately inclusive."
It's not just the usual suspects, the indie-rock kids in ironic T-shirts and scuffed Chuck Taylors. They're there, of course, but they're bouncing around next to dads in Cosby sweaters, moms cuddling toddlers, buttoned-up businessmen and all points in between. It makes sense The Polyphonic Spree is on a label backed by Disney, because the band is fun for the whole family. Geoffrey Weiss, who signed the group to Hollywood, concurs. Sort of.
"I wouldn't deign to say what's Disney, but certainly, they're a group that the label's very proud to have and, I think, the corporation will be very glad to have, mostly because they do represent this sort of positive, uplifting point of view, which is so nonexistent in contemporary culture," Weiss says. "But I'm a music guy. I didn't sign them up because they fit the corporate culture. I signed them because I think they're musically visionary and brilliant."
That's not always an easy sell. For every band like the White Stripes, a group that succeeded at radio and retail because it was different, there are dozens more that have failed for exactly the same reason. You want to stick out, but not too much. The Polyphonic Spree is two dozen sore thumbs. The band knows this. And they know they can overcome it.
"I understand why people can be skeptical," Turner says. "I mean, when I first heard about the band, I thought it sounded like a mess. 'There's all these people, the songs are about this and they jump around like this.' And I was just like, 'There's nothing about that that sounds like it would work at all.' But I came because they were opening for Grandaddy, and just that first moment when I walked in, that was it. You see it, and you experience it. It's like anything that's real to you."
They also are aware that, for certain people in the audience, The Polyphonic Spree is not real. It's the latest fad, a novelty, something to occupy their time until the next big thing comes along. Here today, gone today. But they couldn't care less. They are a living, breathing Bobby McFerrin song.
"That's the thing about this band: We don't worry," Doyle says. "If we worried, we wouldn't exist. We just do it."
"This band wasn't supposed to make it," DeLaughter says. "This band wasn't supposed to leave Dallas. This band was always gonna be around here--if it lasted that long."
They need more than confidence to stay out there.
The commercial was beautiful. The sleek white lines of the Apple iPod perfectly complementing the soft curves of the Volkswagen Beetle, the height of corporate synergy, the kind of slam dunk that makes ad execs clear space on their shelves for trophies. They'd picked the perfect bow to tie up the package: The Polyphonic Spree's "Light and Day." For 30 seconds, all three products gave each other a piggyback ride until there was no other choice but to own them all.
This could have been the event Hollywood Records was craving, because this was one spot that didn't leave the audience wondering who was behind the song it just heard. The band and the song were clearly listed on the iPod's faceplate, making it a music video you didn't have to turn on MTV to see. Ideally, people would see the commercial, see the name of the band and head straight to Apple's iTunes online music store and buy a copy of the song, maybe the entire album.
There was just one tiny snag in that plan: The Polyphonic Spree was not on iTunes. Not until the commercial had already run its course.
"Literally, right when that commercial stopped was when it was on iTunes," DeLaughter says. "The timing was perfect."
Yet the commercial, titled "Pods Unite," still succeeded in getting the band's name out there, along with its music, which is the main goal for Hollywood right now. A big hit at radio, a gold or even platinum album--these things will come eventually. Everyone at Hollywood believes this. But they realize it's a unique situation, not just another rock band they can plug into the usual formula.
"You know, sometimes it takes awhile for people to be able to comprehend what this is, because it doesn't fit into any, like, specific format," Ferris says. "Which is why I think critics like that, because they're always looking for something that's different and original, something that just maybe isn't for the normal consumer--which is why they've been so supportive, because of its greatness.
"But at the same time, the thing we're perplexed with is that just because it's great, that doesn't mean that people are going to be able to understand it right away."
Or maybe ever. The Polyphonic Spree is ultimately a live experience, "somewhere in the middle of a theatrical production, with a soundtrack to the theatrical production, if you will, like a Les Mis or whatever and a rock band," Ferris says. Even though the band's video for "Light and Day"--a clip of the band in the full throes of a gig--is in heavy rotation on MTV2, it doesn't capture the range of emotion at a Polyphonic Spree show. Perhaps nothing does.
"Somehow playing in this band and doing what we're doing, you overwhelm yourself. You can kind of feel the sting in your eyes," says bassist Mark Pirro, who also played with DeLaughter in Tripping Daisy, along with Spree drummer Bryan Wakeland. "Almost like you're gonna cry, and you don't know why, but it feels good. I see that happen to people in the audience. They're trying to hide behind their girlfriend's shoulder. And then you see them with tears streaming down. It's crazy."
It's difficult to convey this through the rigid constraints of a television screen or a stereo speaker. So Hollywood hopes that the live show will drive sales of the album and spins on the radio, instead of the other way around. It's working so far: The band has sold about 75,000 copies of The Beginning Stages of... since signing with Hollywood (about 100,000 overall), all without a real hit, even though the label is doing its best.
"Radio is so niche-oriented right now that it's been difficult to get some of these guys to believe that it could work for them," says Geordie Gillespie, vice president of promotion at Hollywood. The label has instead focused on alternative means of promotion: the Apple/VW ad, late-night talk show appearances (they made their first, on Jimmy Kimmel Live, last April), film soundtracks ("Light and Day" will figure prominently in the latest Jim Carrey vehicle, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Whatever, whenever.
One day in the near future, the thinking goes, so many people will know about The Polyphonic Spree that radio stations will have no choice. They'll have to play them. It was already heading in that direction before the contracts were finalized. The Polyphonic Spree was playing sold-out shows, running out of records as fast as it could press new ones. With the right muscle, the right moves, who knows where it could go from there?
"A few times in your life, you see something so extraordinary that the world will change to accommodate it, and that's the feeling I had," Weiss says. "And I'm 41, I'm cynical, I've been doing this for a long time, so I'm not naïve enough to believe that, you know, you can break the rules at will. I just saw hundreds of people trying to get into this show by this band that had basically never been on the radio, TV--and the record was hardly available at all.
"I think this band could be important to the culture in a way that few bands are."
The Polyphonic Spree's future is coming out of a blown speaker in DeLaughter and Doyle's Volkswagen van, a movable playpen littered with the debris of three young children. It's appropriate that they should unveil Together We're Heavy here, because their kids (Stella, 5, Oscar, 3 and Julius, 2) are as much a part of the band as anyone else. They've been on every tour. Oscar, an aspiring drummer, has even been onstage, performing on Wakeland's kit during soundcheck.
"It's cool to have them around," Pirro says. "Except at 8:30 in the morning."
"They bring sanity to it all," says manager Chris Penn.
More important than that, the presence of Stella, Oscar and Julius in DeLaughter's life has more than a little to do with the childlike quality of his songs, The Polyphonic Spree almost could be considered the house band for a day-care program. On The Beginning Stages of... , at any rate.
As Together We're Heavy unfurls on the car stereo, it becomes clear it's a much moodier effort, the "Light and Day" of the first album beginning to give way to a darker night. It's a grandiose, sprawling album, Fantasia compared with the first disc's crude Mickey Mouse shorts. Or, to put it another way: "It's like the earth giving birth, and it's more epic than Death Valley," DeLaughter says.
If The Beginning Stages of... got them noticed, Together We're Heavy could indeed make them important. The band has the ambition to go beyond even that. DeLaughter hints that the next step in the band's evolution will be staging a full-blown musical. "It's kinda headed that direction," he says.
Pirro talks about The Polyphonic Spree becoming a cultural event, descending on one city after the next, something along the lines of Blue Man Group or Cirque du Soleil. It might happen. The band is scheduled to tour with David Bowie later this year, but the plan for its next solo tour is a series of residencies, going to a new city and playing a week's worth of shows there, maybe more.
"Logistically, it's the easiest thing for us to do with a band this size," DeLaughter says, "rather than doing a traditional rock-band tour, playing these little towns along the way. Those will kill us financially. The residency will make it a lot more possible and positive on all fronts."
"And the show warrants it," Doyle says. "I mean, it's different every night. It's very live. And that's a big part of our band."
Maybe the Big Moment that Hollywood is searching for will come at one of those residencies. Or maybe those shows will produce a series of them, smaller pieces that add up to a greater whole. They've come so far in the past year. Who knows where they'll be a year from now? DeLaughter is just happy to be where he is right now, spreading the love until it comes all the way back to him.
"As far as religion, I think the people in this group are all over the map," DeLaughter says. "There's nothing we've embraced. What we do embrace is the band. When we play a show together, we all kind of express and absorb that same jubilant feeling. I think that's the one thing we've all got in common. A lot of us are the same, and some of us are completely different, but yet, we all get together. We all get to celebrate that same feeling. For an hour and a half, we're pretty much on the same page. That's pretty amazing. I've never experienced that before."
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