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A musical group hug

Polyphonic Spree has 22 members in white robes singing upbeat songs. Are they really this sunny?

August 02, 2003|Steve Hochman | Special to The Times

A few minutes after the Polyphonic Spree's concert at the El Rey Theatre on Wednesday, group leader Tim DeLaughter stood in the balcony chatting with fans, his curly hair and his Denver Broncos T-shirt dripping in sweat, a blissful smile on his face.

A woman with an eager manner approached, and DeLaughter seemed to sense what was coming. She didn't want to know when the group was playing next. She didn't want an autograph.

"Can I join the band?" said the woman, Diane Witter, completely serious.

With a typical band, Witter would be told to write to a manager and then be sent away into the night. DeLaughter, though, earnestly said he'd be happy to take her name and number.

The Polyphonic Spree is anything but a typical band.

On stage at the El Rey, the Dallas-based aggregation was 22 members strong, ranging in age from 37 (DeLaughter) to 16 (his niece, Kelly Repka), all clad in white robes, singing and playing an ecstatic symphonic pop. It's a sort of Brian Wilson Glee Club, or the Pepperland Marching Band, with some "Godspell" and "Hair" mixed in.

At the front of this joyful noise was DeLaughter, looking something like John Belushi doing Joe Cocker doing Marjoe Gortner. With hippie evangelical zeal, he led the band, and often the audience, in songs in praise of the sun, of personal fortitude and the goodness of life.

At one point balloons were dropped from the ceiling and popped by band members and fans to serve as bubbly percussion in a circus-like instrumental interlude. (The group's instruments include French horn, harp, flute and even an electronic theremin as well as more standard rock gear.)

Who wouldn't want to join?

"I never turn anyone away," DeLaughter explained before the show, sitting at the sidewalk cafe outside the theater. "I take names and numbers. I've got enough to start a whole other group."

Having one Polyphonic Spree is plenty for DeLaughter at the moment. The group's rise from casual and humble beginnings to a hipster pick with a deal at Disney-owned Hollywood Records has been dramatic.

DeLaughter had no real game plan for the band when he started it from the ashes of his previous outfit, the psychedelic-tinged rock band Tripping Daisy, after the overdose death of guitarist Wes Berggren in 1999. Wanting to tap into good feelings from his childhood, he used the symphonic pop of the 5th Dimension and Disney storybook recordings as starting points.

Working with the two other surviving Daisy members, musician acquaintances and family and friends (including DeLaughter's wife, Julie Boyle) for the vocal choir, the Spree started to take shape. But it was just a diversion for DeLaughter, who was settling into life as a family man (he and Boyle have three children) and the operator of an indie CD store.

Performances around Dallas built interest, and a booking at the annual South by Southwest music conference in Austin in March 2002 spread the word beyond Texas' borders -- far enough that David Bowie invited the group to London to play on the Meltdown festival he was curating that summer.

By the time the Spree returned home, it had become a cause celebre in the U.K., and U.S. record labels started to show interest. After an L.A. show last fall, fierce competition developed between Hollywood and Warner Bros. Records, with Hollywood getting the edge. The label has just picked up the band's self-released 2002 debut, "The Beginning Stages of the Polyphonic Spree," and will issue a new album in early 2004.

"I never thought of this band being signed to a major label," DeLaughter says. "We're a major's nightmare. I don't write radio songs, for one thing."

Hollywood's senior vice president and general manager, Abbey Konowitch, says the unorthodoxy of the group is a big part of the appeal for the label.

"There is such magic in the experience of seeing the Polyphonic Spree," Konowitch says. "It would be a mistake to try to break them in a traditional way. Our plan has to be as original and organic as the group is."

The numbers alone dictate some creative thinking, for the expense if nothing else. It's more like traveling as a theater road company than as a rock band. And in fact, there are sketchy plans of developing a more theatrical show around the group.

It certainly looks like a musical theater company as the musicians kill time at the El Rey before the show -- some reading, some listening to CDs, four of them engaged in a fierce game of Scrabble.

To some observers, the robes and blissful smiles suggest something more sinister. References to its cult-like appearance routinely turn up in press coverage, sometimes jokingly, sometimes not. DeLaughter is likely the only person ever publicly compared to both a Muppet and to Jim Jones.

"The Kool-Aid stuff," he says, his smile still bright. "The U.K. press had a field day with that."

His be-robed associates laugh that off.

"If you spent 10 minutes with us, the whole cult thing would be dispensed with," says trombonist James Reimer, 29. "It's like school trips. We're friends on the road, but not necessarily that close at home."

But DeLaughter acknowledges an unspecific spiritual intent.

"I have a background as being up and optimistic and hopeful," he says. "It's not new for me, but there is a spiritual side, which is new. The 5th Dimension had songs like that -- not religious, but spiritual, hopeful."

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