Beginner's Luck

There comes a time in the life of most artists when what they want to do is much more than what they're allowed to do. When the artist no longer feels satisfied with the traditional instruments of design--the paint, the brush, even the canvas itself. When paint starts spilling over the edges and newfound objects replace the tried and tired equipment. Out of this frustration with the established process comes a new creation, something original, fresh. Such is the case with former Tripping Daisy front man Tim DeLaughter and his latest project, The Beginning Stages of The Polyphonic Spree. As the title implies, The Polyphonic Spree is an ongoing experiment with one man's vision and the talent of more than a dozen accomplished musicians propelling the venture. But even the name doesn't help after you've seen and heard The Polyphonic Spree in action. Is The Polyphonic Spree a 20-piece orchestra masquerading as a pop band, or is it a pop band with eccentric instruments erasing the borders between pop and classical? Or is it both?

"You're kind of limited on guitar, bass, and drums," DeLaughter begins. "When you go into this world and improvise, it just opens up this fountain of other ways to look at and play music."

The Polyphonic Spree was conceived this summer and performed for the first time on July 15, opening for Grandaddy and Bright Eyes at Gypsy Tea Room. It wouldn't be wrong to say that it was as good a debut as anyone could have hoped for: Grandaddy became instant fans of this brand-new sound, and DeLaughter's beaming face and the crowd's spirited reception branded the evening a success. The Polyphonic Spree was born.

The concept, however, originated long before the fruition. While still in Tripping Daisy, DeLaughter had an itch to try something of this magnitude, but didn't have the outlet since he was fully devoted to the band in which he had invested energies since 1991. Shortly after the untimely death of Tripping Daisy lead guitarist Wes Berggren, the group disbanded.

"There was an element in me of some music that I wanted to get into that I wasn't able to do with Tripping Daisy," DeLaughter says. "I put all my energy into that, and it deserved it."

DeLaughter's yearning to experiment was manifest even when he was in Tripping Daisy. The band's posthumous, self-titled release signaled a transition from quick-and-easy pop band to deliberate-and-resourceful experimental pop band. You can hear the maturity on Tripping Daisy in the band's remake of their own song, "One Through Four," which originally appeared on Tripping Daisy's full-length debut, Bill. While the initial performance is a perfect pop-punk romp, the remake is denser, with richer layers, and seems a more premeditated song.

"I think I would have pushed Tripping Daisy as far as it could go in this direction," DeLaughter says. "Wes was just getting ready to dive into the side that nobody knew about him on the piano, the classical side. I was pushing him more in that direction. He was classically trained at 5 years old, and his father discovered that Wes had perfect pitch at 3. There's no telling what musically, with those five people, it would have turned out to be. But things were shaky at that time. This band had some blows."

It was evident during Tripping Daisy's live shows that DeLaughter was born to conduct. Arms waving, eyes brilliant, and head swaying, DeLaughter seemed to guide his bandmates much as an orchestra conductor would. So it's no surprise that he's a complete natural directing The Polyphonic Spree. While DeLaughter does still play guitar (a dry electric-acoustic, no effects), it's merely a means of conducting the 20-plus musicians in The Polyphonic Spree.

"Now the idea is to transpose the guitar parts, to write the songs, and put them to other instruments," DeLaughter says, explaining his newfound approach to making music. "In some weird way, my playing guitar helps conduct these people. Later on I'd like to get where I'm not even singing," adds the bright-eyed, blue-haired singer. "I know that sounds absurd, but I like the idea of just having these people together and watching. To tell you the truth, I would like to be a spectator, just to experience this thing."

DeLaughter is quick to credit his fellow musicians, whose ages range from 14 to 35 and who play everything from car tailpipes to French horn. The group's members are occupied in even more diverse careers outside the band--from orchestra teacher to high-school band student to newspaper editor to macrobiotic chef--and this mix seems only to enhance its output. Familiar faces show up too: Ex-Tripping Daisy drummers Jeff Bouck and Bryan Wakeland, along with former Tripping Daisy bassist Mark Pirro, are in the group.