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Like anyone suspicious of the extraordinary, those who haven't seen a Polyphonic Spree show might initially dismiss the experience. Between the symphonic beauty of a tabernacle choir with a serious psych-rock jones and the crowd-enveloping energy of a circus-tent gospel revival, the 24-member band, clad in flowing white robes, deliver a performance so disarmingly genuine and uplifting that to simply describe it is to invite skepticism. Have you ever witnessed a room of slack-jawed, alienated indie-rock fans shedding their cool to bob their heads and jump up and down like schoolgirls before the latest Tiger Beat sensation? You have if you've ever been to a Polyphonic Spree show. Chances are, you've also seen ecstatic band members bouncing around the stage like Richard Simmons in a hypoglycemic fit, their lead singer pouring himself into the mic like a reborn Janis Joplin, and everyone onstage harmonizing to epic lyrics celebrating life, love, and the wonder of the world. Even the most jaded observer would find it difficult to resist the joy that floods the room.
The group is led by Tim DeLaughter, whose story is as quixotic as building a baseball diamond in a cornfield: A young musician, despondent over the drug-overdose death of his guitarist and the loss of his band's major-label contract, gives up on music. Three years elapse before, driven by the music in his head, he embarks on a romantic endeavor to join two dozen performers together in a sort of psychedelic liturgy. He defies his friends' and family's suggestions to put together something less grandiose, only to succeed beyond anyone's expectations--including his own. It's a story about an insular idea that grows into something much more spectacular. Call it Theatre of Dreams.
Unabashedly upbeat, the music on the band's debut, The Beginning Stages of... the Polyphonic Spree (Good Records) soars with the rich symphonic swell of Sgt. Pepper's. The melody takes over, and listeners' smiles spread like a communicable disease. When the backing choir intones, "You're fooling yourself with blame and taking it all to a future site," or "Just follow the seasons, and find the time, reach for the bright side," resistance feels like a pointless exercise.
"It's like in theater, how the energy goes back and forth," says DeLaughter about Polyphonic Spree's live shows, speaking from his home in Dallas. "The audience gives and the performers get more into it, and then you add the fact that it's 24 people exhausting that amount of energy onstage. The enthusiasm people put out for this band is over the top. It gets going, and before you know it, you're just watching this huge celebration for an hour and 15 minutes."
"It wasn't meant to be a band that's going out to facilitate the happy parts of people's lives," DeLaughter insists. "I had no intention for it to turn into what it is today. It's kinda done that on its own. That's what's wonderful about it."
DeLaughter hadn't played a note since the dissolution of his prior band, Tripping Daisy, which broke up not long after the release of the group's breakthrough album, Jesus Hits Like the Atom Bomb, a quirky intersection of punk-pop and art-rock. "It was really disheartening, the whole experience," he confides. But he recalls that, after a long hiatus from songwriting, "I started thinking about creating a sound so that I could re-interest myself in music again."
As the wreckage of Tripping Daisy receded into the rearview mirror of his mind, the sound of Polyphonic Spree grew louder. DeLaughter could imagine the robes and the instruments, and even how the musicians would sound together. Their first show was held in Dallas two years ago when DeLaughter's friend Chris Penn, who was tired of hearing him describe the music playing in his head, challenged him to make it a reality by booking him as the opening act for Bright Eyes and Grandaddy. DeLaughter pulled the band together in just a few weeks: It originally featured 13 members, including a French horn player, trumpeter, and violist. In the months that followed, more instruments fell into place--harp, gong, kettle drums, Farfisa, tuba, trombone--almost like magic: DeLaughter found musicians by word of mouth, through friends of friends, or even through out-of-the-blue calls from strangers offering to fly themselves to Dallas just for an audition.
"My friends and family thought this was the worst fucking idea I could ever have. Especially as I was in dire straits anyway. I had two kids and one on the way, and financially I couldn't be in any worse situation," he recalls. "My family and everybody else is telling me, 'This is great and all, but why don't you put a four-piece band together and get back out there, you know? Generate some income.' But it just wasn't about that, it was just really, really self-indulgent. And now it's working out."
Journalists profess to feeling a certain trepidation toward the buoyant sincerity of Polyphonic Spree's music--such hesitance prompted NME to call them the Hare Krishna Jackson Twenty-Five. Maybe that's not surprising in an age where indifference and irony let us keep a safe distance from others and from involvement in the world. "It's taken this group to really show me the fear people have of holding on to hope and believing that you can basically do anything that you want to do," says DeLaughter. "Everyone said, 'You're not going to be able to put this band together, it's not going to happen.' [But] it's 24 people, and man, this band is thriving. If you can't grasp hope and inspiration from that, then God help you."