Tim DeLaughter has been hearing voices in his head for years.
Not the psychotic kind you normally think of, but beautiful voices. Singing. Pop music. With a symphony.
DeLaughter first heard the voices in the mid-'90s, around the time his band, Tripping Daisy, was crashing grunge parties with the quirky single "I Got a Girl." They continued on through 1999, when the group separated after guitarist Wes Berggren died of a drug overdose.
Grieving from the loss of his friend, DeLaughter's voices got louder and he began talking to his wife and friends about them. Finally, his manager booked a show for him opening for Grandaddy and Bright Eyes in his Dallas neighborhood, and encouraged him to let the voices be heard.
Within weeks, DeLaughter had put together a new band, all 23 members, most of whom are still with the Polyphonic Spree two and a half years later. There's a nine-member choir, several symphonic percussionists, a harpist, trumpet players, violin players, a piccolo player, and Mark Pirro and Bryan Wakeland, the bassist and drummer from Tripping Daisy.
"It's definitely a band, it's just a very large band," DeLaughter explained recently over the phone, as he watched his son Julius at soccer practice. "We've never done a show without everyone being there. After doing this, I could never go back to anything else but this. Sonically, I'm completely fulfilled as a human being."
DeLaughter has since traced his voices, which shape the euphoric sound of the Polyphonic Spree, to his childhood, growing up listening to the 5th Dimension and the Association, which were described then as sunshine pop.
"The first record I ever bought was by a band called First Class, 'Beach Baby,' and it sounds like a Polyphonic Spree song," the singer/guitarist said in his Texas drawl. "So I guess I'm trying to get back to that time of music."
Looking back now, DeLaughter sees the orchestral influences in the music he made with Tripping Daisy, which includes Jesus Hits Like the Atom Bomb, one of the most acclaimed albums of 1998.
"If I look at why I liked effects on my vocals, it's because I always wanted to sound like there was more than just myself singing," DeLaughter said. "I could glide on the melody a lot better. So when I was going through that at the time, I wished there were 10 of me, 10 voices singing as one. I thought, 'Wouldn't it be great to have a band like that?' "
Now he does, and the band has grown more popular than DeLaughter ever expected. After garnering rave reviews for their South by Southwest performance last year, the Polyphonic Spree released a demo the group recorded in just two days, aptly titled The Beginning Stages Of ...
DeLaughter then took the group on the road, mostly in Europe, where the buzz was so loud the group was booked on several of the massive summer concert festivals. Recently, the Polyphonic Spree, who all wear white robes when performing, won the "F--- Me!" Award for Innovation at the NME Awards in London.
"Their enthusiasm resonates for things more left-of-center there," DeLaughter said. "Over here it seems to have to fit some sort of format before the powers that be get behind it."
In February, the Polyphonic Spree gathered in Dallas with producer Eric Drew Feldman (Frank Black, Sparklehorse) to record a proper as-yet-untitled album, due in the fall. DeLaughter wrote the beginnings of each of the songs on piano or guitar, and then took them to his 22 bandmates.
"The whole writing process is done on improvisation, that's kind of a prerequisite to be in the group, you have to be able to improvise thoroughly," he said. "This recording is a band that has realized who they are. The songwriting is feeling more like a rock opera, if I could give any kind of insight. It's pretty fantastic. It's the best thing I've ever been a part of."
With more refined material to draw from, the Polyphonic Spree are making their first attempt to break into America. They are on a national tour now that includes a performance Sunday at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, California.
DeLaughter is confident his group will win over concertgoers, but he has no idea how big things will get Stateside.
"I don't know if radio is ready for the Polyphonic Spree," he said. "We are extremely unconventional in every way. People who work with this group have to work with it in an extremely open mind and out-of-the-box thinking. I'm waiting for the one program director to step up to the plate."
He's not a program director exactly, but one media figure has signed on. The Polyphonic Spree will play ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live" on Tuesday.
The Polyphonic Spree tour dates, according to the group's spokesperson:
- 4/25 - San Francisco, CA @ Slim's
- 4/27 - Indio, CA @ Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival
- 4/30 - Tempe, AZ @ Nita's Hideaway
- 5/31 - Austin, TX @ Stubb's Bar-B-Q
- 6/2 - New Orleans, LA @ Howlin' Wolf
- 6/3 - Atlanta, GA @ Variety Playhouse
- 6/5 - Philadelphia, PA @ First Unitarian Church Sanctuary
- 6/6 - Boston, MA @ Paradise Rock Club
- 6/7 - Boston, MA @ Paradise Rock Club
- 6/8 - Calverton, NY @ Field Day Music Festival
- 6/10 - Washington, DC @ 9:30 Club
- 6/11 - Washington, DC @ 9:30 Club
- 6/12 - Carrboro, NC @ Cat's Cradle
- 6/14 - Manchester, TN @ Bonnaroo Music Festival