A Joyful Noise

Clubland gets religion, thanks to Polyphonic Spree.

All smiles: The Polyphonic Spree's buoyant pop is - infectious and uplifting.
All smiles: The Polyphonic Spree's buoyant pop is infectious and uplifting.
The distasteful connotation that accompanies the term "Christian rock" can clear the room quicker than a Limp Bizkit concert at a nursing home. Musically, however, there are few differences between the Jesus-leaning charge of Creed, P.O.D., and MxPx, and their secular brethren. For starters, it's almost impossible to discern a band's Sunday-morning habits (who talks to God, who prays to the porcelain god) just from listening to some slamming chords.

Besides, many people miss the spiritual element common to all rock lyrics. One group's creed might involve celebrating babes, booze, and being dumped, while others reflect their faith with metaphors that espouse Christian beliefs. Their messages differ, but their aims are the same -- to move audiences and make them feel good.

Symphonic upstarts the Polyphonic Spree are certainly in the business of being an all-natural mood-elevator. Their independently released 2001 debut, The Beginning Stages of . . . the Polyphonic Spree, is like a double dose of Prozac washed down with a chaser of rainbows. "It's the Sun" frolics in a meadow of flute chirps and psychedelic harmonies, while the marching "Soldier Girl" rejoices at finding the object of its title with Flaming Lips-like pop bliss.

Though often as joyful as an evangelical camp meeting, the Dallas band's uplifting outlook has everything to do with the secular world. The 20-some member group invokes trumpets, organs, percussion, strings, harp, and a soaring choir to form hymns to sunshine, beautiful days, and just being alive. Its wide-eyed wonder at the most basic earthly delights makes the music feel childlike and guileless -- in other words, it's a faithful reflection of the group's founder, vocalist Tim DeLaughter, who beams like a proud father when talking about his band.

"I think we're making a fantastic contribution to music today," he says. "That really wasn't my agenda, either. It's so weird, how it's just kind of playing out. That's the great thing about it. There was never anything put on the band, like it needed to perform this or that, or jump through this hurdle. I'm giddy about it; I love talking about the Polyphonic Spree. I'm pretty stoked about what's happening."

What's happening with the Spree is a fervent outpouring of good vibes that's spreading around the globe like an outbreak of SARS. After its very first gig in Dallas, opening for Grandaddy, musicians in the audience approached DeLaughter, asking to join the group ("[It] took me two weeks to form this band," he says. "It's the easiest thing I've ever done. Everything just basically came to me.") A buzz-worthy set at 2002's SXSW eventually led to David Bowie inviting them to England to play his Meltdown Festival, as well as fawning accolades from the U.K. press. North America finally caught on to the troupe's infectious nature this year, in the form of a record deal with Hollywood Records, which reissued their debut in June and will release their second album next year.

DeLaughter's pride in his group, when viewed in the context of this meteoric rise, might be mistakenly construed by some as arrogance. (A recent Rolling Stone review described him as "Joe Cocker doing Jesus Christ Superstar," a description with more than a few messianic overtones.) Nevertheless, he says that instances of denigration toward the Spree have been few -- a fact that has "thoroughly surprised" him. His reaction to the absence of skepticism indicates his humility; while DeLaughter calls himself the "instigator" of the group, he is as awed by the direction his music has taken as outsiders are.

"You can't get in front of the Polyphonic Spree," he explains. "You have to let it do its own thing and be there to help it stay on track. I've got wonderful people around -- my wife manages the group -- and so, with that kind of guidance and then the people that are around helping it . . . you just let it go. We're starting to feel we're like a family every day."

Indeed, there's a certain sense of community cultivated at Spree shows. Members cavort onstage wearing angelic white robes, skipping and hopping to their lushly orchestrated tunes, like preschoolers on a sugar high. This communal elation in turn inspires concertgoers, who cheer, clap, dance, and raise their arms to the heavens with as much gusto as that of the band members themselves, from the moment the group first appears.

"Well, I mean it's pretty contagious -- that's the great thing about having this many people," DeLaughter says. "I had these same kind of euphoric moments in my other band, but with this many people, it just takes it to a whole new level. And then with such diversity in personality, it takes it even to another level, [so] that you get a lot of wonderful energy that happens up there."

The former band to which he refers is the alt-rock outfit Tripping Daisy, which had a few minor hits ("I Got a Girl," "My Umbrella") during the 1990s. Sharing the Spree's irrepressible demeanor and trippy soundscapes, the band also sprinkled its psychedelic optimism with power pop and edgy rock overtones that embodied the post-grunge boom. However, right before Tripping Daisy was set to release its fourth album, in the fall of 1999, guitarist Wes Berggren died of an accidental drug overdose. The loss of Berggren, a kindred musical soul to DeLaughter, whom the Dallas Observer described posthumously as someone who "did what he loved, whenever and wherever he wanted to," suddenly brought the band to a halt. The Spree eventually sprang from this misfortune, assuaging the grief connected with Tripping Daisy's tragic ending.

"I always heard that; people were trying to tell me that at the time," DeLaughter says, slipping into a somber tone. "But you can't really see outside that area you're in, when it's nice and dark and kind of comforting, in a really sad way.

"Looking back and lyrically looking at things that I've said and sung, [the way Tripping Daisy ended] definitely had an impact on me. It was tough, and it still is tough. Wes was one of my best friends and was an extraordinary human being. I've never known anybody like that guy . . . wow. Talk about the sun, he was part of it, an amazing individual. And then to lose the band I cared so much about as well. It was tough."

In fact, it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to see his devotion to the Spree as DeLaughter's way to heal from this loss and keep the memory of Wes alive. And maybe that's why the Spree has resonated with so many people and provoked so little cynical backlash. Its brand of religion celebrates inspiration and the beauty of human nature, a simple but powerful spirituality that's difficult to deny.

"It definitely has an overtone of spirit, and I think that that can be considered religious at times," DeLaughter says. "There's not a religion that I'm out there exploiting or exploring in front of people. But there's definitely some sort of a hopeful theme that is embraced and engrossed throughout the Polyphonic Spree. Everything is lending itself to making a wonderful cake; all the ingredients are right. And it's great, and it's getting better all of the time."