The Polyphonic Spree
James Reimer explains the beginning of this musical family
by Alexander Laurence
The Polyphonic Spree
The unique Dallas symphonic pop group, the Polyphonic Spree, is less a band than a happening, very much in the 1960s sense of the word. When the group takes to the stage for a live performance, its two dozen members are costumed in flowing robes of snowy white, an appropriate backdrop for their happy and uplifting musical message that's catchy as hell and minimally laced by gospel. They have been compared to everything from The Beach Boys to The Flaming Lips. Some people think they are a weird cult, but Texas has always been the home of outrageous things. The group boasts a ten-member choir, a pair of keyboardists, as well as a percussionist, bassist, guitarist, flautist, trumpeter, trombonist, violist, a French horn player, a theremin player, and an electronic effects wizard. Former Tripping Daisy frontman Tim DeLaughter holds the post of musical director and contributes lead vocals. Their live show is in a word a "spectacle." They have released one album called "The Beginning Stages of... (2001)." I spoke with member James Reimer a few weeks before they go to Coachella, Bonnaroo, and Field Day in Long Island. Catch them this summer.
AL: I may sound out of it. I just went to sleep about three hours ago.
James: My goodness. I just woke up here.
AL: I'll be okay.
AL: I'll just go right back to sleep right after this. (laughter) Have you been in Polyphonic Spree the whole time?
James: Actually I came into it about six months after they started. They were forming at that time. The band started in July 2000. I was a fan of Tripping Daisy and I liked them a lot, but I had never met Tim before. I knew his friends and people around him. How I got in was through a friend of a friend. At that time I didn't even know he was doing music again.
AL: Had you seen Tripping Daisy play before?
James: Yeah. I followed them since 1991. I saw them in the beginning when they played to ten people. I watched their meteoric rise through Dallas. I watched them take off during the early 1990s. That was pretty cool. It was weird. I didn't know that he was doing anything musically again. Then a friend of mine who worked at a local radio station introduced me to his new group. They had just cut what would become "The Beginning Stages of...." He had a disc. He told me that I should listen to it because it was pretty cool. So I did. Then a few months later I wondered if they needed a trombone player. I emailed the manager, Chris Penn. The very next day he wrote back. From then on I was in.
AL: Tim had already written all the songs already?
James: Oh yeah. The band started in July 1st, 2000. They rehearsed. They played their first gig on July 15th. They recorded the album on the last three days of October. So there are a bunch of people in this band now who are not on the record. All that happened really early on. That record was like a demo. The demand for it has turned it into what it is now. There are a few versions of it.
AL: The record and the website all reflect the expanded version of the band.
James: Right. The picture of us on the CD was taken last year at South by Southwest. You'll find that all the pictures are always evolving. The group is whenever you are at, at the time.
AL: The twenty-four members of the band now are a set number? Or can anyone join up?
James: It's revolved around those numbers. We were going for a specific sound. It took that many people and instruments to get that specific sound that Tim was looking for. If that sound ever expands to fifty people, I think he would do it. Right now it fluctuates between twenty-two and twenty-five people.
AL: Do you have honorary members? I know that Jarvis Cocker from Pulp joined you at one show.
James: That happens from time to time. There was a guy who writes for The London Guardian who flew into Dallas to perform with us. He did that so he could write about the experience for his newspaper.
AL: Some of the British newspapers compared your band to a Christian cult, or David Koresh and his followers. You don't all live in a commune together?
James: No. The thing is we are nothing like David Koresh and we don't have a commune. In fact, when we are home in Dallas, we are all spread out over town. We lead separate and various lives when we come back that have nothing to do with the band. It's fun though to read a journalist's imagination run wild. I can see that point of view. You have twenty people in robes who play uplifting music. They seem to happy and euphoric. What is going on?
AL: When did you decide to wear white robes?
James: Back in the early days there was video footage that was shown throughout the show. No one did any maniacal dancing back then. People just played instruments. The robes being white just acted as the background video screen. It was a human video screen. It was a stimulating visual and aural attack. That is how it came about.
AL: Things sort of took off after the South by Southwest shows of 2002. Then you were invited to the Meltdown by David Bowie.
James: Yeah. Things sort of blew up back then. Last year we kept getting invited to the UK festivals. We played T in The Park, Reading, and Leeds. This year we are going back to play those, plus Glastonbury, and more in Europe. We just played an NME tour with The Datsuns, The Thrills, and Interpol. That was really cool. They managed to get four bands who are in four different polar lands from each other. It worked because everyone was nice and everyone had their space to do their thing. You just have to do your best and have a good time because you don't know what to expect. If you have a good time onstage, most of the audience has a good time too. That is our general mantra
AL: Tim has a record store and record label in Dallas?
James: Yeah. It's called Good Records. In England, we have a partnership with a label called 679. It's a small label but it's also a subsidiary of Warner Brothers. It's run like an indie label but it has the backing of a major label.
AL: Your show right now is songs from the first album?
James: No. We have been incorporating songs from our next upcoming album into the set. The new album will come out around Christmas I believe. We just finished recording it. We will be mixing it soon, in between tours. We have been playing songs from the new album for over a year. People have been asking us when the new album is coming out. It's on the shelf and ready to go.
AL: It must have been a different recording process?
James: The first one was recorded in three days. This time we took two months to record the album. We'll take another month to mix it. This will be a proper record. The first one was done live. They did the normal things where they cut and pasted things. The whole idea was that was the original set. This new record was recorded like a regular band going into the studio, but we have twenty-five people. We worked with a producer, Eric Drew Feldman, who was in Captain Beefheart. He also produced a Tripping Daisy record, "Jesus Hits Like The Atom Bomb." He did an amazing job on that record. It was a shame that no one got a chance to hear that record. It was a good feeling in the studio the whole two months.
AL: When you have all those people and voices onstage or in a room together, it can get quite emotional?
James: It can. Music is for the most part an emotional experience. When something that you wrote comes to life in that manner, it has to be an amazing feeling. It is an amazing feeling when our songs comes alive on their own. It has caused everyone to get emotional at times because it evokes that.
AL: Besides Tripping Daisy and Captain Beefheart that we have already mentioned, are there any bands that you like?
James: I like so many bands it's not funny. I have played with so many cool bands already. I used to have a list of people who I wanted to meet, and now I have met them all. It's like all right. The last SXSW we played with Supergrass. We have played with them a few times now. It seems like a mismatch but I don't think it is. It becomes very vibrant. We will come on and lift everyone up and they will torch the place down. It's awesome. We played with them at Wembley, in London. I like them and I had never seen them play. When I saw them, it was like WOW!
AL: Do you read a lot of books?
James: Yeah. When I am on tour it's always my goal to read a book. I like to keep mentally sharp. I just finished The Demon Hearted World by Carl Sagan. It was pretty good. He tends to ramble on. It was about science and the culture that is backwards. Culture stifles the progress of science. I don't agree with all of it.
AL: Does the band Polyphonic Spree have a shared philosophy?
James: It matters on what you mean. There's an overtone to our shows. It's for people to come and have fun and enjoy themselves. That is what we do. When we are playing onstage, we enjoy ourselves. We hope that happens in the audience too. I don't think people will pay good money to go to a show and not have a good time. Other than that I don't think we have a shared philosophy.
AL: Do you do shows where people are standing there in shock, or are quiet because they are silently deciding whether it's cool to like you or not?
James: I have two answers. The first show we played in London was the Meltdown Festival that was curated by David Bowie. It was at the Royal Albert Hall. It's the mother of all live venues, mainly for orchestral things. It's absolutely beautiful. We were opening for The Divine Comedy which are the epitome of that European class music. It's reserved and it's perfect basically. I enjoy them. I thought it was incredible to open for that band. We were jet lagged. We hadn't slept. We walk into the venue. We were getting ready to play. We noticed that everyone was sitting down in chairs. We hadn't experienced that before. We played our entire show and everyone was sitting down. We didn't realize at the time that was the kind of venue it was. It was weird. We are used to playing clubs with people dancing. This was a lecture at a college. People were sitting there maybe thinking "What is going on?" We were having enough problems with being jet lagged and playing our songs, when the power gets cut off. We blew a fuse. We are just standing there not knowing what to do. So Tim just starts one of our newer songs. He just starts singing it. We have enough acoustic instruments in the band to play that certain song. Right where there's a really big crescendo, where it really goes for the power moment, the electric cuts back in, and the whole place just loses it. It was an unbelievable moment. Because the electricity cut in exactly at the right moment, everyone accuses us of staging it. We would never do that. We were scared out of our minds. It's fun to go to new places, to watch people's faces. For the first minutes, if they haven't seen us before, they think "Oh, what a joke." You can read their faces. It just seems like halfway through the show, things change, and they are singing along and having a good time. They realize that it is not a joke.
AL: Can you play acoustic shows?
James: It would be difficult for the singers. We have electric guitars and two drummers and that is too loud with the vocals. Don't be surprised if we do acoustically things in the future though.
AL: How should people come prepared to see these shows in the summer?
James: I don't know if words can prepare you. It depends on were you are coming from. Just be prepared to have a good time. Enjoy yourself and your surroundings. If you are worried about if it is cool, you are worrying about the wrong things.