The first question Tim DeLaughter, leader of the Polyphonic Spree, is asked when people see his 25-member group wearing flowing choir robes in pastel colors, and singing unabashedly positive Up With People-ish songs: Is this some kind of a cult?
The second question: Is there room for one more?
“Every show, somebody comes up to us with this look in their eyes, and you just know they want to be in it,” DeLaughter said on the day the Dallas-based band’s long-awaited new album, “Together We’re Heavy” (Hollywood), arrived in stores.
“I mean, they’re really serious. They’re prepared to relocate. I’ve got enough people to start three more Polyphonic Sprees right now.”
There’s a novelty aspect at work, but the appeal of this mammoth chamber-pop group goes deeper. The 10 singers interpret DeLaughter’s earnest songs of faith and devotion like sacred texts, singing in powerful youth-choir unison or simple two-part harmony.
The instrumental accompaniment tends toward the florid, with flutes and trombones and multiple keyboards offsetting electric guitars and a traditional rock rhythm section. And the songs are big, epic creations – sometimes exhibiting a touch of Brian Wilson, or the grandeur of Electric Light Orchestra.
DeLaughter’s original idea was simple: “I wanted to create a sound that was appealing to me.”
The 38-year-old former rocker and father of three, whose band Tripping Daisy put out several acclaimed records in the early ’90s, said he grew bored with the highly formatted songwriting that is the status quo in rock, and the monotony of its instrumental sounds.
“It’s not like I was thinking I needed to have this many singers or anything,” he said.
“It was more about experimenting with something that would never be confused with whatever else was going on. We’re so out of the musical climate, I don’t think people know what to make of this band.”
The songs of “Together We’re Heavy” came about through improvisation. DeLaughter would bring in a skeletal idea, and strum the chords while singing what he hears as the melody. The musicians, many of whom are classically trained, would fall in around him; they are encouraged to add counter lines or whatever else they hear.
“Most of these people grew up reading sheet music. At first they’d ask what key and what the chords were, and I had to get them to let go of inhibitions. Now, when we work on material, it’s ‘Let’s all just play and see where we go with it.'”
DeLaughter said he purposely leaned in the direction of the idealistic – if not the celestial – when writing the Spree’s lyrics. “From when I first started in music to today, the general tone of hope has always been my subject matter. I didn’t change my lyrics for the group.”
However, he acknowledges that the themes do resonate differently when sung by such a large ensemble: “It works out, conveniently, that having so many people sing gives the lyrics extra weight.
“It’s sort of uncharted waters, this very innocent way of talking about being human in these times. Some people see it as almost borderline hokey. But to us it’s key, because some sort of spirit is there when we perform.”
DeLaughter said that despite all the spirit talk, the Polyphonic Spree is not a cult. “I haven’t adopted a specific religion in the songs. There’s no clear-cut agenda.”
As for the robes, DeLaughter said they’re just another way to differentiate his group.
“I was thinking a lot about the way people look at someone’s clothes, and they made judgments about what kind of a person they’re looking at,” DeLaughter said.
“That’s annoying to me. I wanted something to unify the group, and the first image was white robes, so I went to my mother-in-law, and boom – right away we made the robes.
“At first the idea was to project images on the (white robes), but as we’ve gone along, we’re so much more of a band and a family, we’ve realized there’s a lot of vividness, a lot of color. So now each of us wears our own color – we’re like pixels on a TV screen.”