Brian Wilson said the Beach Boys' Smile was intended to be a "teenage symphony to God." While that record never officially saw the light of day, the sentiment has surely lived on in the irrepressibly sunny music of The Polyphonic Spree.
The Spree, a 24-plus-member choral pop ensemble headed by former Tripping Daisy frontman Tim DeLaughter, began nearly three years ago, when the death of guitarist Wes Berrgren ended that Dallas band. DeLaughter took about nine months away from music, but was fostering a dream he'd had for years: to create a symphonic ensemble complete with a choir and orchestral instruments in addition to guitars and drums.
"I finally had a point in my life where I felt like I could attempt something like this," DeLaughter (pronounced de-law-ter) told POLLSTAR from outside Portland, Ore.'s Aladdin Theatre. "I got to the point where I was annoying my wife, Julie (Doyle), and Chris (Penn, both partners with DeLaughter in Good Records). So Chris said, 'I'm just going to book you on a show. You have two weeks to put this band together.' So he booked us opening for Grandaddy and Bright Eyes about two and a half years ago."
In short order, the charismatic showman assembled The Polyphonic Spree. The result was a quasi-religious mixture of the carnal and the sublime, with members in white robes flailing in rock fashion onstage and DeLaughter assuming the role of benevolent shepherd.
Over the next year and a half, the Spree played primarily in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. The farthest the band traveled was Austin, but an appearance at last year's South By Southwest caught the attention of an influential Brit.
"We got a phone call from the people at David Bowie's Meltdown Festival saying that David Bowie wanted us to play his event," DeLaughter said. "So, they invited us and paid for us to come to London and play our first show outside of Texas. It was unbelievable because a lot of [band members] had never been out of Texas before that, and a lot of them had never flown before. ... And it just kind of blew up from there."
The appearance caught the attention of the British press and record labels, and the band struck a deal with Warner Bros. imprint 679 Recordings to partner in the U.K. release of The Beginning Stages Of..., which the Spree had recorded as a demo in three days shortly after forming and released independently on Good Records Recordings.
"We basically spent the last year in the U.K. until coming back home and starting this tour. That's how we got our touring legs, over there first, where we toured in two 16-passenger buses and a trailer," DeLaughter said.
So, uh, how exactly does a relatively little-known rock band with 24 members, bulky equipment, and no domestic label undertake a tour of the U.S.? As cheaply as possible.
"There's 26 of us on one bus," he said in the midst of a trek around the States - the band's first. "I think there's only four of these buses in the country that sleep this many people. It's quite interesting. ... All you can do on this bus is sleep. There's only two places to sit, so you're either standing or lying down.
"For the most part, the size of the band really does help it run smoothly, believe it or not, because the people that are in the group are aware of the size, so they act accordingly. This runs smoother than the four-piece band I was in prior to this."
As for expenses, the Spree cuts corners wherever possible. The members all sleep on the bus, so no hotel rooms are needed - except for occasional day rooms for showers.
"It's a major, major production. Instead of one band, we're like five bands in one tour. We just happen to be all in the same group."
Still, given the nature of The Polyphonic Spree, the tour will come in at a loss.
"This tour cost around $80,000 for us to do 16 shows, and we're gone for like 22 days," DeLaughter explained. "We're hoping to make at least half of that. It looks like we're going to make that, but we're shy. I had to borrow the money to be able to make that happen."
DeLaughter said the eventual goal for the touring version of the band is to evolve it into "more of a residential touring operation where we go to a city and stay for a week and go to another city and stay for a week. Financially, it would be a lot easier on us. It seems to make more sense for our production to stay as localized as possible for the time being as long as we can."
Self-described "Robe Master" Chris Penn, who functions both as band and tour manager, said the ideal model may look more like the Great White Way than a rock tour.
"Eventually, this thing's going to be more like a Broadway musical - more theatrical," he said. "Say you get a review the first night, people read it and say, 'Well, they're still playing three more places; we can go there.'"
In the meantime, the Spree is putting the finishing touches on a new album, which DeLaughter hopes to have out by the end of summer in a partnership with Hollywood Records. It finishes its well-received tour of the States with an appearance at Bonnaroo in June before heading off for festivals in Europe and Japan.
Penn - who credits agent Marty Diamond with much of the success of the band's first U.S. tour - summed up the Spree this way:
"If Polyphonic Spree was a boat ... Tim is obviously the captain, and he's rowing the boat, but other people are coming onboard to help the boat go faster and get to bigger places. Sometimes I sit back in awe and say, 'Wow, we're doing this. Who'd have thought we'd be taking this many people out on the road?'"