The Healing Power of the Polyphonic Spree
by Jonathan Valania
How I learned to stop worrying and love the Polyphonic Spree: My Uncle Edward is a sweetheart of a guy who is, sad to say, not long for this world. A lifelong smoker, he was diagnosed with lung cancer six months ago. When he went into the hospital to have part of a lung removed, the doctors discovered the cancer had advanced farther than previously thought. On top of that, he had also suffered a series of strokes after the surgery that robbed him of what little he had left.
When I went to the hospital to visit him, he had a lot of tubes sticking in and out of him and a wheezing respirator covering much of his face. His body was grotesquely bloated. He was barely conscious and completely disoriented. A heart monitor blipped faintly. The family gathered 'round his bed, everyone gamely trying to be positive. But it was clear this was much worse than the worst we had feared. Oddly, I felt ... nothing.
As I trudged to the parking deck I felt numb, not even feeling, what Kurt Cobain used to call "the comfort of being sad." I got in my car and turned the key in the ignition. On the radio was "Have a Day," by the Polyphonic Spree.
The song was sad and beautiful, the way I remember AM radio sounded coming out of the dashboard speaker of my mom's car in the early '70s. Sad like "Seasons in the Sun," or "Hey Jude"--a good sad, the kind of sad that reminds you you're alive and eternally grateful for it. There were sleigh bells and mournful horns and a fluttering flute. There was a chorus of voices, full of hope and pity, and magic and loss, like the hippie kids that wanted to teach the world to sing in that old Coca-Cola commercial had finally gotten back together.
It was like somebody had mainlined a speedball of joy and sorrow right into my veins. I completely lost it. I sat idling in the parking garage until the song finished, tears streaming down my face. This is good, I thought. This is the comfort of being sad.
"Good Lord, wowwww!" says Polyphonic Spree main man Tim DeLaughter with what sounds like genuine awe when I relay the story to him. "Nobody ever told me a story like that!"
I somehow doubt that. I bet he's heard dozens of these sob stories. The music he makes is a magnet for them. That's why people flock to his band, why so many who saw early performances felt compelled to join the choir, why so many went from standing in the crowd to standing onstage, donning a white robe and lending a voice to that great big communal note of happy-sad bliss the Polyphonic Spree hits with perfect pitch. Which, in part, explains why there are so many people in the Polyphonic Spree.
DeLaughter has his own sob story, and it's a good one. Three years ago his reasonably successful Nirvana-esque alt-rock band Tripping Daisy lay in ruins in the wake of the overdose death of guitarist and longtime friend Wes Berggren. DeLaughter had recently become a father and money was tight. All he had was a record store, which he co-owned with a friend in Dallas.
He talked often of putting together a new band, a big orchestral group that summoned up that king-of-kings-lord-of-lords moment in Handel's Hallelujah Chorus, not just once or twice but all the time. Not a religious group, but a spiritual one, a gospel group composed of young white kids who had cut their teeth on rock music and grown tired of angst and noise and pissing off their parents.
The blueprint was rather grandiose: a rock band wedded to a small symphony orchestra with strings, brass and varied percussion. There would be a choir of voices and everyone would wear white robes onto which movies would be projected when they performed live. But he never really got far with the idea. Looking back now, he thinks he was probably clinically depressed and suffering from lethargy.
And so his partner at the record store lit a fire under his ass. He booked DeLaughter in the opening slot for a Grandaddy show that was happening in three weeks. DeLaughter responded by pulling together the surviving members of Tripping Daisy and some friends and musicians he'd been telling about his new idea for a band. They rehearsed, um, religiously.
Things came together so quickly that it seemed, dare I say it, like a miracle. And on the third day, the rock was rolled away from the tomb and behold: A vision--a kernel of an idea--had become a living, breathing, singing symphonic pop band.
Inspired by a framed sheet of Wacky Packs--the Mad magazine-esque trading cards that spoofed well-known consumer goods, a beloved totem from his early '70s youth that now held a place of pride above his bed--DeLaughter decided to call his new band the Polyphonic Spree.
The gig was a hit, and the Polyphonic Spree was a go. But DeLaughter had a hard time convincing club owners that the concept would work.
"They were just like, 'You better send me a tape 'cause that just sounds like a mess,'" he recalls. So he took his embryonic band into the studio and recorded what would become The Beginning Stages of the Polyphonic Spree.
Fast-forward a year and a half. The Polyphonic Spree are scheduled to appear at South by Southwest, the music conference held in nearby Austin, during Robbie Robertson's keynote speech at the very un-rock hour of 10:30 in the morning. The crowd turned out to include most every music critic of note in the country. By the time they were done with their brief set, the Polyphonic Spree had made believers of them all.
"The crowd went nuts, and this guy comes up to me and says, 'I'm John Pareles from The New York Times. This is amazing. I've never seen anything like it.' Everyone was standing up and cheering, and like, this was 10:30 in the morning! He goes, 'Do you realize what you just did? Every rock critic in the nation is in this room and they are going nuts.'"
Soon David Bowie came calling. He wanted them to play the Meltdown Festival he was guest-curating. England loved them at first sight, and an extensive tour of the U.K. soon followed. The notoriously pun-happy British music press made them a fixture in their pages, calling them the craziest cult to come out of Texas since David Koresh and the Branch Davidians.
"The cult talk was humorous at the beginning, and then it was annoying," DeLaughter recalls.
And then at an early gig in New York City, Paul Simon showed up. He pulled DeLaughter aside, said he loved the record but then offered a cryptic warning.
"He said, 'I knew something like this was coming, I just didn't know when,'" says DeLaughter. "Then he said, 'This joy is great and all, but be careful. It's dangerous--people will try to tear you down.'"
The band's touring continued, but the cost of putting two dozen people on the road far exceeded the modest concert revenues. After one early tour, the Polyphonic Spree came home $40,000 in debt. Thankfully, Macintosh came knocking with an offer to use one of their songs in an iPod commercial. A major label deal soon followed, and a new album is in the can and set for release early next year.
Eyewitnesses breathlessly describe the band's live shows as bliss rallies, as sonic Ecstasy hits. All this sunshine and goodwill and tidings of comfort and joy--not to mention the robes--raises the inevitable question: Is the Polyphonic Spree a Christian band?
"Naw," says DeLaughter in his laid-back Texas drawl. "We are a very spirited group of individuals, and the music is a celebratory event and can be religious at times, but no, we have not adopted a specific religion at this time."
The Polyphonic Spree have canceled their Philadelphia show as of press time. Please see www.r5productions.com for more details.