The Weekly Interview: Tim DeLaughter, leader of The Polyphonic Spree

Somehow, the Polyphonic Spree is going to fit inside the Sayers Club at SLS on November 18.
Annie Zaleski

The Polyphonic Spree is known for crafting cathartic orchestral-pop music tinted with hints of psychedelia. Live, the Dallas-based band need nearly 20 people onstage to re-create its elaborate compositions, which makes its longevity—in 2015, the group celebrates 15 years together—that much more impressive.

Band mastermind Tim DeLaughter called from Niagara Falls to discuss the financial and organizational logistics of touring with so many people, performing debut album The Beginning Stages of… in full on this tour and what’s coming next for the Spree. DeLaughter also notes he’s turning 50 the night of the Las Vegas show. “That’ll be memorable.”

I imagine crossing the border with as many people as you have is not fun. The Canadian border is the worst in the world. We have problems every time we go across there. It’s a nightmare.

How many of you are there on this current tour? (Pauses) Twenty of us? Twenty-one of us out here? There’s 18 onstage, 19. God, I can’t remember exactly—18 or 19. (laughs)

How do you manage touring with so many people? How do you organize all that? It starts with the people you cultivate, and the people that you bring with you. These people, they’re awesome. They’re incredible musicians, they’re professional [and] they understand carrying their weight and doing what they’ve got to do. At the end of the day, if you’ve got that many people and you don’t have everybody on the same page, that’s when it can be a nightmare. The bulk of the band has always been pulling its weight. When new people come in, they feel the gravity of that and they march to the same beat, so to speak. And it works.

You know, I was in bands that had five people, and that was a freaking nightmare at times. This band moves way more graciously than that did, and it’s a much heavier footprint. The biggest logistical problem obviously is finances. That’s just a giveaway, but everything else seems to run really smoothly.

It does seem like the band has its own internal momentum. Beside the quality of the musicians, to what do you attribute that? I like to think it’s coming from the core: good people—my wife and I, and my friends when we started this group. We want the same quality of people that come in. It’s that simple. We’ve been really, really fortunate. For doing this as many years as we’ve been doing this, and to have as many different people in the Polyphonic Spree, I can only think of two episodes in 15 years that didn’t work with certain people. You usually figure it out pretty quick. Some people aren’t cut out for this. It’s a demanding role. There’s nothing romantic about being in the Polyphonic Spree, other than getting to celebrate the moment of playing the music together. It’s hard out here. We’re on a big submarine, and we’re all living together on this thing. There is no personal space. We have a bus that’s simply nothing but bunks. We don’t have crews; we don’t have production. We handle our own production; we handle our own gear. It’s a workout, for sure.

As you’ve been performing The Beginning Stages of... in full on this tour. Have you gleaned any more insights about the record and music? That record’s a very melancholy record. It’s a very low-light-toned record. I think our energy onstage projected this image of, “These are such happy and upbeat songs, and this band is so euphorically happy,” though that record really isn’t like that at all. If you listen to that record, and you take the image of The Polyphonic Spree, it doesn’t match like that.

And we took those songs from the get-go, and the tempo started to speed up because we became such a live, energetic bunch. That was an experiment in itself, like, “What’s it going to be like having that many people onstage, playing these songs? How are they going to engage? What kind of energy is going to come up?” Well, what happened is, it came like a freaking punk rock band, and we amped up all our songs to this point of, like, complete night and day compared to The Beginning Stages of.... That record never, ever was played with the intention of the actual recording. It’s just kind of what happened with this band, and how quick everything happened for us.

I wanted to go back and, kind of like an exercise, restrain ourselves on this. Marry ourselves to the tempos of the exact record, how it was performed, and to play that live and experience such a beautiful side of this band, instead of this other side. There’s nothing wrong with the other side, but it’s an element that was never represented by this group. But it was this group, from the beginning.

That’s an interesting juxtaposition. It really speaks to how once you release music, what happens next can be unexpected. You have some bands, they’ll put records out, and they pride themselves on marrying themselves to the records. And you come to the show, you want to hear that song just like it is on the record. And I get that. Well, what happens with Polyphonic Spree—what happened in the very beginning—is people got caught up within the show itself, and the energy of the show. They kind of blurred the lines of what they’re wanting to hear from what they had been listening to, and bought into the moment and spirit of what was going on onstage. I don’t think it was a disappointment for them. I think they were [like] ‘This is freaking amazing! The energy and spirit!’ and all that. And the lines were blurry. We just kept going. It happened with pretty much all the songs that ever came out. They were always bumped up. We got better keeping the integrity of some of the recordings, but it was kind of lie, you’re in the moment of these songs, and something takes over you.

But when you get older and reflect on these beautiful records and these things that you’ve made, there’s an element there that was never displayed. That was the purpose of doing this. I’m so thankful that we did it, because we can do it. We’re capable of anything musically, but we’ve never really showcased that before. It was our beginning; it just kind of got pushed to the side a little bit. People are going to be in for a surprise: It’s very restrained, and it’s the first part of the set. But it’s really beautiful. And then we take a little break and come back out, and throw on the big Polyphonic Spree rock show with all these other songs that we’ve had through the years.

One of the songs you guys are most known for is “Light and Day/Reach for the Sun.” And when you look at the song’s history, it’s amazing how many places it’s appeared over the past 15 years. Is there a place or context it’s been used in that’s been most gratifying for you? That song is amazing. People always use the song appropriately, and I love every time and any time it’s been used. It was great in Murderball; it was great in Eternal Sunshine [of the Spotless Mind]. It’s been in so many different things. The irony is, I almost didn’t put that song on the record. I was really going back and forth with myself, because that’s the most upbeat tempo song on that whole record. I thought, back then, “This is too fast, it doesn’t fit. It’s not working, there’s something about this.” And my wife said, “That song is going on the record. It’s done, it’s happening, stop talking about it!” She mixed the record, and it’s on there, and it’s the most popular song we’ve ever had.

After you do this tour, what else do you have on tap? I’ve got six or seven songs we’re about to start getting into. We have a huge holiday show we do every year; this will be our 14th year [of doing that], so when we get back, we’re going to be gearing up for that, and then we’re going to start on a new record. Playing Beginning Stages is bringing an element of, “Okay, this band can play in this world, in this slow, low-light palette. We can hang in this world, we can do this.”

There’s another song I really love playing—“Porpoise Song” by The Monkees. There’s a section in there that we built in the song. We added our own kind of song, connected to it, that we’ve been doing for a while now. And there’s areas in that where this band learned to breathe and expand musically, dynamically, in and out. It’s allowing for our musical landscape to broaden a little bit more and think about things differently. I do like to make each record different from the last record, and I think this one’s going to be kind of a big leap from the last one, inspired a lot by this tour and playing the songs this way.

Speaking of covers, you’ve got a cover of Nirvana’s “Lithium” in the new Brad Pitt movie, The Big Short. How’d that come about? They’re supposedly using a montage of us playing that song live at one of our shows, and it’s part of this video montage sequence within the film. I haven’t seen it. We agreed to be a part of it, and we’ll see how it goes. But I’m thrilled it’s going to be in it.

Any there any other songs you’d love to give the Polyphonic Spree treatment to, cover-wise? Gosh, we’ve done so many. We honestly need to do a covers record. It’s been so obvious for so long. We have so many under our belt, everything from the Bee Gees to Supertramp to INXS to Wings to The Monkees. The list goes on and on and on.

Each time we do them, they’re just so freaking great, because we’re a very large band with a lot of instruments, but we move like a four- or five-piece band. We articulate really well as a very large band. Usually, when we take on a cover and go for it, we just kick ass at it. (laughs) And it’s really fun to do, and we can whip these things out pretty easily, because everyone is so talented. The musicality in this group is over-the-top.

The Polyphonic Spree started 15 years ago. Are you surprised the band is still going so strong? If you had [told me] 15 years ago I’d be in Niagara Falls talking to you about being around for 15 years, I would’ve thought, “You’re insane.” The whole idea at the beginning was just an experiment. I had no intentions of starting a band. I thought, “If I’m going to get back in music again, I want to do something I’ve always wanted.” I wasn’t even going to be in the band—I just wanted to put it together, and I wanted to hear what it would sound like. To me, it’s been like, “This would be the most perfect band: Have 10 people instead of one person singing. Have symphonic and electric, [a] hybrid married together. And then all of us doing this together as one band.” You could have a harp, a flute, a horn section, a percussionist with tubular bells, timpani, glock[enspiel], and then guitar, bass and drums and a synthesizer. I mean, to me, it’s like, “Wow, that’s the perfect band.”

That’s what it was, but we opened for Granddaddy and Bright Eyes, and people kind of went nuts on it. I had my friends come up to me and said, “You know, Tim, this is really beautiful and really cool, but you know you can’t take this on the road. Tear all this down, and get back out there and get a four-piece band together, and get back on the road.” When they said that, and I tasted what my perfect band sound would be, I thought, “Well, sh*t, I can do this! I mean, I just did this. There’s going to be some learning curves, like anything, but we can do this.” I took this in and demanded it to happen, and [it] just kept going. The band kind of blew up. David Bowie brings us to the U.K. and Europe. We spent three, almost four years over there, touring non-stop. It’s just been going ever since.

It’s a snowball effect. You just keep going, and it keeps moving. It’s had its highs and lows, and I’m definitely dealing with that. It’s not like Polyphonic Spree’s a household name on people’s iPhones. Our music is not all over the place, in the sense of modern mainstream music, we never hit that. Our name and our image of the band is pretty huge, but the music has yet to really capture a huge audience, to facilitate what it takes for us to do what we do. In that sense, it’s kind of always been a struggle.

I wouldn’t say it was easier back when things were really, really rolling, because we were just crazy-busy, and I had my kids out there. My wife and I had a 9-month-old, a 2-year-old, 3-year-old, out on the road in the midst of doing this. My wife was in the choir. We were humming, and we were playing to huge crowds. But it was a ton of work to navigate that as a parent and have your kids out there, and lack of sleep. Today, it’s still equally hard, but you just don’t have the connection with the audiences like it used to be. In that sense, you feel the financial burden of that a lot more than I used to.

How do you navigate those financial obstacles? You get really creative. You have to be extremely frugal. You barely make it. And you get a second [mortgage] on your house. I don’t know. Each time we get back, we’re like, “I don’t know if we can keep doing this.” Financially, it doesn’t make sense. If you look at it on paper, it just doesn’t make sense. But at the end of the day, I’m at my best when I’m doing what I’m doing up there. I’m the best me. When you feel like you’re the best of yourself, it’s hard to let go of that part. It’s a little bit of denial mixed with nourishment. I have to have it. (laughs)

The Polyphonic Spree November 18, 9 p.m., $22. The Sayers Club, 702-761-7618.

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