Fri April 18 (late show, 10 pm) and Sat April 19 (9:30 pm), Graceland, $15 adv.
For anyone who's experimented with psychedelic drugs, there's usually one moment of pure euphoria during your trip--when you smile stupidly and mumble something like, "Yeah, cool, everything's gonna work out," before you go and laugh so hard your face starts melting like Play-Doh on a hot stovetop. Before your brain turns to neon goo, though, that temporary sense of giddy peace and bliss feels like a lifetime.
Dallas, Texas' Polyphonic Spree create music that lives and breathes in that gospel moment--and I'm convinced that they are one of the happiest-sounding bands on the planet because of it. They're a 24-piece "choral symphonic pop band": In addition to ringleader Tim DeLaughter's dancing and jumping, there's a full choir and orchestra, all dressed in white robes like they're singing for The 700 Club--except they're not trying to swindle money for God. Instead, they're passing along simple messages like, "A love like this keeps us warm," and, "You've gotta be strong." The ensemble includes a cello, a harp, a French horn, a theremin, trumpets, violins, a piccolo, two drummers, and a nine-member backing chorus that sways like a group of Muppets on strings. Together, their harmonious pop lands somewhere between the Flaming Lips and a grandiose update of '70s AM radio.
Speaking to me from his Dallas home, DeLaughter explains the connection between the three-year-old Spree and the stuff he listened to when he was young. "I was a kid in the early '70s, when orchestral pop was really happening," he says. "You can listen to some of these oldies stations--and that's pretty much all I listen to--and they play those same bands [the Association, the Fifth Dimension, the Millennium] that have these fantastic pop songs and arrangements. They just incorporated rock and symphonics at the same time to create this spirited orchestral pop--where it wasn't really religious, but there was a spirit that was cultivated. And I think that we've tapped into that feeling."
DeLaughter adds that his melody-drenched pop sensibility has been with him for most of his life, and entered into '90s alt-pop act Tripping Daisy, his previous (much smaller) band. "In Tripping Daisy, this was just something I kind of wished for," he says. "Like when I was laying down vocals, I'd go, 'God, I wish I had 10 people singing one line.' I also knew there were more textures to play with, and I was basically running out of options with guitar, bass, and keyboards."
When Daisy guitarist Wes Berggren died of a drug overdose in 1999, though, it curtailed DeLaughter's inspiration for a couple years. "It was one of the hardest things I've been through in my life," he says. "[After a few years], I was like, 'Fuck, if I'm going to approach music again, I'm just going to do exactly what I want to do.'"
That desire still took a little push, though, from a friend who, tired of hearing DeLaughter simply talk about his ideas, booked the band on concept alone to open for Granddaddy and Bright Eyes. In 14 days, DeLaughter pieced together 13 band members, looking for musicians from the symphonic world who could improvise. The Spree continued to expand, and now DeLaughter says the 24 members--ranging in age from 16 to 37--have finally hit their limit. (It will cost the band $80,000 to go on their first U.S. tour, and they only expect to make half that money back.)
"We don't have the money because we're not on a label here," he says. "We're leaving in less than a week, and I still don't know what the hell we're going to do." They'll have to sell a lot of white robes (which became part of their merch load, due to popular demand) and copies of their debut, The Beginning Stages of..., to break even.
But DeLaughter doesn't seem too stressed about going in the red. With two successful SXSW performances under his robe, a UK tour that was met with rave reviews, and a stack of national press, the band will hopefully float to the top on the strength of their unique talent. Besides, who needs to worry about earthly matters when you're making music that's moving pop audiences around the globe?
"You don't know what you're really getting into until you get deep into it," DeLaughter laughs. "How do you know how the music is going to affect 24 human beings? I was just thinking about sonic qualities [when I started the band]. I wasn't thinking about how [the musicians] were going to react to it. [The music] caught me off guard--I remember rehearsing here in my house and literally getting overwhelmed, getting emotional about it, and going, 'Oh my god, this is just wonderful.'"