The Polyphonic Spree: TAS In Session
Not many groups claim nearly two dozen active members — all ambling onstage in flowing white robes — or cite David Bowie as an early champion, but The Polyphonic Spree is no ordinary band.
Tapped to do a wide range of gigs over its 13-year history, from the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Concert to 2007's Lollapalooza to a spot on Showtime's "The United States of Tara," the quirky Texan collective has forged its own unique niche of trippy, motivational, mod chamber pop.
Following a seven-year hiatus and a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to record a new album, The Polyphonic Spree is back with that crowd-sourced release, called Yes It's True, out this week on Good Records. They will livestream their London show from the Village Underground on August 6 at 9:30 p.m. BST (4:30 p.m. EDT), celebrating the record's release, and then make a beeline back to North America this month for a West Coast tour.
Resplendent in bold paisley tunics and alabaster lace frocks, The Polyphonic Spree recently paid an inspiring visit to WFUV and The Alternate Side. Below, watch videos of The Polyphonic Spree taking over Studio A and read highlights of Alisa Ali's conversation with founder and Tripping Daisy alumnus Tim DeLaughter.
Alisa Ali: Generally, The Polyphonic Spree is anything from 13 to 25 [people]?
Tim DeLaughter: I’d say about 18 to 23.
Alisa: That sounds about how old you need to be to get into a Polyphonic Spree show.
Tim: We do all ages!
Alisa: But obviously, The Polyphonic Spree is your brainchild. Did it just start with you and [your wife] Julie [Doyle]?
Tim: I’d done Tripping Daisy for quite some time and I’d always thought of doing something like this, even back in that band. But I thought it would be something I’d try later on. Some unforeseen circumstances happened and Tripping Daisy was no more. I took a little break from music and decided to go for this. It was an experiment. I had no idea that it was going to be a band, like it is now, 13 years later.
Alisa: I read in your bio that one of the seeds was planted when you were a child and you had an affinity for singing into the fan.
Tim: I did! I still do it to this day. The way my voice sounded, and resonated, in the fan. I like the way my voice would glide. That’s the number one reason why I started to use effects on my vocals back in the day. I’d double and triple track. It got to the point when I thought, what would it sound like if I had ten people singing as one instead of me and a fan, me and effects, me and myself? It all started from the fan.
Alisa: You must have always known you wanted to live the life of a musician.
Tim: I’ve always done it since I was a kid. When I was in elementary school I remember my music teacher walked into class one day and she had coal black hair, tight bun, horn-rimmed glasses and a suit. She was very stern. Red lipstick, pinched face, not a fun lady at all. But she takes this album and she props it up on the bulletin board and says, “We’re just going to listen to this record today.” She puts it on and it was Emerson, Lake and Palmer, the Trilogy album. We heard the whole record and I’d never heard music like that before and I was in the third grade.
That day, I told my friend, “Let’s start a band.” I didn’t have any drums so I went to the nearest ice cream place — a Baskin Robbins — and got some ice cream buckets and bolted them together, made my drums. My friend’s dad had a Les Paul. We went to his house, wrote a song and then came back to school and played it for the class. The way the class reacted to it … I was like, “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.” So I’ve been doing it ever since.
Alisa: Did you title the album, Yes, It’s True, just to make interviews easier?
Tim: I don’t know. My wife [Julie] came up with that and it became a recurring theme of things that were going on with us at the time. It just seemed like the right thing to do. We were using it as a term and we just started throwing it around.
Alisa: The song “You Don’t Know Me” is very positive, but it also addresses some skepticism that your band has faced since its inception.
Tim: Yes, we have. It was troublesome from the very beginning. We were having a difficult time just getting places to place since the band was so large and people couldn’t get their head round it. Club promoters thought it would be a nightmare having [that] many people. It was tough. The irony is that the band actually broke outside the States, in the UK and Europe, compliments of David Bowie. He’s the one who brought us out. He saw what that potential was and he believed in it. He brought us over and the rest is history.
Alisa: So any person you talk to about the band has a whole slew of questions about the logistics of managing this band. Does that get frustrating that you have to address this constantly?
Tim: No, I’d want them to know what a gift it is for us to be even performing. It is a gift. We are like five bands in one band and when people come to the show they need to feel the gravity of that. It takes a lot of compromising and a lot of money for us to orchestrate this band. To be able to navigate is 24/7. It’s the only thing that’s been on my mind and my wife’s mind for the past 13 years. We put everything into this band. The people who are playing wth us … we have two people for a 20-piece band because we’re all our own crew. We can’t really afford to have a light person. I’m running lights onstage myself. We run our own merch. We do what we have to do. It’s a lot of money to work the band.
Alisa: This record, Yes, It’s True, was crowd funded through Kickstarter. You did a little video explaining how all of this works. There were bullet points on what you needed the money for and how you would use it. It was comprehensive — there’s even a special tour bus to accommodate that many people.
Tim: Yes, there’s two in the country and that’s the only one we’ve ever used. It can sleep 27 people. It’s the largest sleeper bus that it is. In the UK they don’t have a bus that large so we have to rent two buses which is doubling the cost every time. It’s a lot of work and planning. You think about a four or five piece band and you’re thinking about everyone’s schedule. Well, you do that with 20 people and them trying to make it work because it might not be their only gig and it’s hard to commit … well, it’s always worth it. And the people in the band feel the same way or we wouldn’t be able to continue to do this.
Alisa: I imagine that a sense of enthusiasm surrounds [The Polyphonic Spree]. Your music has such a joyful, positive outlook.
Tim: I think [the people] has a lot to do with what it takes for us to be able to do this. The songs really come to life when you have this collective around you. They’re all sharing the same energy and you’re feeding off of each other. It’s pretty amazing to have that many people onstage musically, to exchange that energy. When you bring in the crowd … I implore them to join in and be a part of the band that night. The room just raises for that evening. It’s pretty cool.
Alisa: You’re the main songwriter and do the arrangements as well. Solitary? You and Julie?
Tim: I write the songs on my own. They’re just stripped-down versions, nothing special. They’re done on piano or acoustic guitar. Julie’s right there with me the whole time as a soundboard. When I bring it into the band … the only prerequisite [for people in this band] is that they’re able to improvise on their instrument. I wasn’t going to be writing out charts; I didn’t go to school for music. The thing I knew that I could do was if I found people who can improvise, I could sing parts, they could play it, and we could get in there and write our parts together. Then we go in and record and it just comes to life.
Alisa: Do you sing the cello part?
Tim: It may be something like that, but a lot of times they come up with their own parts that work really well. But if I have something in my mind, I’ll sing it to them and they’ll play it. Especially in the studio; that’s when it really happens. You have to make a lot of calls right then and maybe there’s not much time to do pre-production. A lot of it is really on the fly, but in order to expedite it quickly, I’ll sing it.
Alisa: Do you enjoy the recording process? Or do you have anxiety about it because there are so many moving parts?
Tim: I have some of my best time and some of my worst times in the studio. I get really wound up and overwhelmed sometimes. It’s so weird [because] you have this idea of the sound and this thing that you want to come across on a record.
When you’re put in there on the spot, it’s time for it to happen and you’re doing these little steps along the way, it’s not fulfilling where you want it to be. So you’re constantly trying to get there and it’s not ever quite getting there. When it is, it actually is. But in my brain, it’s not. So I’m constantly working myself up and they’re always trying to talk me out of a tree. I’ve ended up on the floor many times, curled up in the corner, in the bathroom (laughs). There’s been some crazy stories. But Julie’s really good about keeping me grounded and keeping it all together. The people I’ve been working with for years understand that about me, so they know how to deal with it.
Alisa: It must be really great to have it done now and know you can just play these songs.
Tim: Yeah, it’s awesome. Especially with this record. This was such a huge surprise. We took the record and we gave it to Tim Palmer, who is a mixer. I’d never really given [an album] to a mixer — we’re usually hands on with it all the way through. When he came back with some of these songs, I was like, “Oh my gosh!” It was way more than I could have ever expected.
This record is really special. I love a lot of elements about it. It keeps on giving.