A musical `Army'

The 22 members of the Polyphonic Spree have earned a reputation for their upbeat music

November 15, 2007|By Katy O'Donnell | Katy O'Donnell,Sun reporter

Wellbutrin rock. Manic. Euphoric. Hippie-dippy. Unwieldy Dallas ensemble. Beatific cult. Novelty act. The Hare Krishnas of the rock world.

The Polyphonic Spree, the 22-member, self-described "choral symphonic rock group" from Texas, has been called a lot of things. Just don't ask group leader Tim DeLaughter if the band members really are "shiny happy people," as more than one writer has put it.

"That remark really insults my intelligence and [the writers']. ... People come out and see our show and say, `Oh, these shiny happy people,' and it's just so shallow," he says of the band, which performs Saturday night at Rams Head Live. "On the average, of [22] people, I'm sure five of us are suicidal behind closed doors."

Well, they've done a good job fooling people. It's easy to see why the group has gotten a reputation as a musical happy pill; with an upbeat blend of eclectic instruments (think harp, french horn and, at one point, a theremin), and typically sugary lyrics like, "Hey it's the sun, and it makes me shine," they're hardly downers.

Ranging in age from 21 to 41 years old, the unusual band, which grew to 28 members at one point, has a choir, a brass and string section, and a revolving door of musicians. Nine of the current 22 performers (20 of whom hail from Texas) have been with the Spree since its organic start in 2000, when the band drew more members from the audiences of its first shows. Since then, the group, which still entertains random musicians' requests to join, has put out three albums, performed in locations as varied as Japan and Australia and guest-starred in an episode of NBC's sitcom Scrubs.

But DeLaughter says their success story is hardly a rags-to-riches one; he and his wife, who is in the band but is taking a break from touring to stay home with their children, have taken out a second mortgage to help finance the Spree.

"It's a pain in the [rear] to do this band -- it's extremely financially exhausting," he says. "You give up all your privacy, because you're all together all the time, females and males. It's tough. It's a tough life. But the payoff is the live show, the performance."

Touring puts him in the red more often than the black, he says, because the Spree charges the same performance fees as standard four- or five-person rock bands. He immediately dismisses the question of scaling down the band, though.

"No," he says. "Emphatic no. Underscore."

Instead, he's taken corporate offers, and the Spree's music has been featured in commercials for Volkswagen, Apple's iPod and Hewlett-Packard computers. "If I don't have a problem with a particular promotional thing or products, then I'll do it in a heartbeat, I'll write songs for them or whatever," he says. "I'll do whatever I can to keep this thing going because I believe in it. You have to believe in something like this."

DeLaughter often gets lyrical about the band, especially its live performances, which he says give audiences "a moment."

"The crowd can't help but be affected by what we do. ... These people are moved at the end of the night," he says. "It's the same feeling people feel at church, this connection to God. ... [The show] can be something that transcends to a whole other world."

Such descriptions of the Spree's performances, combined with the image of nearly two dozen Texans dancing and singing on stage in white robes, have given skeptics reason to regard the group with suspicion. Some have dubbed the band an evangelical cult, and its Texas origins have drawn plenty of references to Waco.

But the band has no religious aims, insists DeLaughter, who says the spirituality he often equates with Spree performances merely refers to the "common-ground feeling of when people can connect together, especially in a creative environment."

"Except, when you're dealing with so many people," he continues, referring to the large band's stage presence, "it can be overwhelming. Overwhelming in a good way. ... It's awesome having that moment with this many people -- it's just that much more intense."

The group has ditched its most cultish attribute -- the white robes -- to don black fatigues for the tour of the Spree's third, darker album, The Fragile Army, which was released in July.

"The attire that we're wearing is really kind of mocking where we're at right now," DeLaughter says. "We are a major war country, and we have been awhile, and it looks like we're going to do it again. And I don't know about you, but a lot of people are fed up."

The black fatigues aren't permanent though, and DeLaughter even tosses around the idea of dropping performance uniforms altogether.

"Maybe our next record we'll come out in street clothes; maybe we're unified by diversity." He pauses. "`Unified by diversity' -- that's pretty great. ... That might be the title of our record, and we'll come out with no clothes; I'll share that with you right now. Woo!"

The Polyphonic Spree performs at Rams Head Live on Saturday. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $20 in advance and $23 the day of the show. Call 410-244-1131 or go to ramsheadlive.com for tickets.

katy.o'donnell@baltsun.com

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