After DeLaughter: Polyphonic Spree Frontman Talks About the Band’s Humble Beginnings as an ‘Experiment’

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When Tim DeLaughter originally put together the choral rock group the Polyphonic Spree in Dallas in 2000, he wasn’t sure it would last. After all, the group featured a choir, flute, trumpet, French horn, trombone, violin and viola in addition to guitars, bass and drums. And DeLaughter had no intentions of playing classical music concert halls. He wanted to take the group to the same grunge-y clubs he used to play with the indie rock act Tripping Daisy. Of course, that’s assuming they would have him and his motley crew who wore gowns that made them look like some kind of cult.

“At the very beginning, it was never intended to be a band,” he says. “It was just an experiment. I wanted to do something like that and I wanted to be a part of something like that and have options with all these different instruments. It was like a wish list.”

He booked a show to just “get me off my ass and make it happen.” He threw the concert together in a matter of a few weeks. And yet it went off without a hitch.

“We booked another show but we had 28 people in the band,” he says. “We were such a large group. It was difficult to get shows because promoters couldn’t get their head around it. I didn’t let anyone know I was in Tripping Daisy at the time because I wanted to let it stand on its own. Some friends and colleagues said it was a great idea, but I could never take it on the road. I started thinking, ‘Bullshit. We can do it. It’s going to be hard but we can do it.’”

Some 14 years and five full-lengths later, and the band is still going strong. For its current tour, it’s playing in support of Psychphonic, a terrific new album of remixes of songs from its most recent album, 2013’s Yes, It’s True. To hear DeLaughter tell it, they just loaned the songs to a select group of DJs and let them have at it.

“You occasionally get remixes and you’ll do a couple of songs on your record if someone reaches out,” he says. “A DJ said he wanted to remix one of our songs. We thought it was cool. He said he had DJ friends who would want to do the same thing. We said, ‘Shoot. Why don’t we do each one of them?’ We got 10 different DJs from all over the country. We really liked them and wanted to put them out. Usually people do one or two songs, but they all came back so good. We wanted to go for it. We had zero input. That was the beauty of the thing. You let them go with it and re-imagine the record and you get something back that’s completely different. We just sent them the tracks and let them have a field day and do whatever they wanted to do. We got lucky.”

Highlights include the Set In Sand cover of “Let Them Be” that adds some funky beats and a remix of “Battlefield” that, with its gibberish lyrics, makes the song sound like something by Sigur Rós.

“It’s me singing it backwards,” DeLaughter explains when asked about the tune. “They flipped the vocals and they bring it back at the end. That’s also one of my favorites. I really love that. I just thought, ‘How interesting.’ I didn’t care what the person was saying. It just fit and works.”

One thing that’s enabled DeLaughter to take a large ensemble on the road — he’ll be traveling with a 19-piece band for the current tour – has been the licensing deals the band’s been able to secure. Early on, he Apple/Volkswagen use the song “Light and Day/Reach for the Sun” for an joint iPad/Volkswagen commercial.

“By the grace of God, getting those licensing deals have helped out tremendously,” he says. “Everything we get we put back into the band. It’s a labor of love. But I have a family. I have four kids. I make my living from this and I’ve been lucky to have those opportunities from the get go. It was a big leap for me. I had turned that stuff down in my previous band, but I had a label at the time and I had support. With this band, I didn’t have a label. I had to justify this. I drive a Volkswagen and I used Apple products. Why not? I started looking at things like that from a financial reality and it opened the door.”

DeLaughter says he’s started thinking about a new studio album and thinks that it will push the boundaries of the band’s choral pop sound.

“This band can do anything it wants to do,” he says. “We run the gamut. We can do any cover that’s out there. That’s why I do covers. I can play my favorite songs and nail them. It’s not all sampled loop stuff. It’s the real deal. I think we stepped out on this record into the electronic world that we only dabbled in before on [2007’s] The Fragile Army. I think we really embraced it on this record. That was one area where we hadn’t ventured. Now that we’ve done it, we feel we can go there. There is another side I want to do that’s a psychedelic journey record. I want to go into that world. It’s liberating to do anything you want and you’re not hammered into this one world. [The new album] is coming around. It might throw people on their heads. It’s something we’ve never done before but I think I’m going to do it.”

The Polyphonic Spree, 8 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 23, Music Box Supper Club, 1148 Main Ave., 216-242-1250. Tickets: $28,

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Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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