The Polyphonic Spree are just a regular band, apart from the fact that there's 25 of them and they all wear robes and sing about the sun.
At first I don't recognise Tim DeLaughter. This is strange, because he's the only person in this weekend's crowd of 60,000 at the Voodoo Fest in City Park, New Orleans who is standing around in 83 degree October heat, wearing a long sleeved shirt, a tie, a tight waistcoat, and mustard-coloured baggy pants. But, you see, he's not wearing a robe. And with DeLaughter, the robe definitely makes the man.
The 38-year-old from Dallas, Texas, is the leader of the Polyphonic Spree, a group of 25 men and women who play symphonic, choral pop songs about hope, joy, life and the sun. And they all wear robes.
"I came up with that idea because I thought it would be enormously distracting with 25 people wearing street clothes on stage," says DeLaughter, chatting amiably in a backstage area despite the fact that he has just half an hour before he's meant to be performing. "I knew I had to unify this group somehow, and the first thing that came into my head was robes. They cover everybody from head to toe, no one has to worry about any perceived imperfections of their bodies, and it just makes a beautiful, simple image."
DeLaughter says all this with a gentle, musical twang in his voice. His pale blue eyes are unblinking, and he perpetually has a slight grin on his face, framed by a mass of auburn curly hair. There's something of the cult leader about him, and the air of a former hippy. He's neither. In fact, he was in alt-rock group Tripping Daisy, who released three albums and had a cult hit with the song "I Got A Girl" in 1995. Then in 1999, Delaughter's good friend Wes Berggren, who was the band's guitarist, died from a heroin overdose. A distraught DeLaughter broke up the group soon afterwards, and didn't play any music for the next year. A talented artist, he took up freelance jobs painting sets for advertising catalogues, and then opened a record store with his friend Chris Penn, in the hip former warehouse district of Deep Ellum in Dallas.
But the idea of the Polyphonic Spree had been hanging around in his head for some time. Even while recording with Tripping Daisy, he would think "I wish we had a flute in this part instead of a guitar" or "Instead of just me singing this part, I wish there were ten people singing." He imagined that in his later years he would be like Percy Faith, standing in front of a mass of people, orchestrating a huge, joyful sound. But was it all just wishful thinking?
At the age of six, the first two records DeLaughter owned were a Grand Funk Railroad album, and the single "Beach Baby" by First Class. He remembers being enchanted by the big, sunny pop of the latter, and recalls with fondness the AM radio stations of his 1970s childhood, when The Fifth Dimension, The Association, and songs penned by Burt Bacharach and Hal David ruled the airwaves. He kept talking about wanting to create a similar sound with a large group, and his wife Julie Duncanville and buddy Penn encouraged him to make it a reality. It was Penn (now the band's manager) who provided the final impetus, by actually booking a gig in July 2000, supporting California indie favourites Grandaddy. He informed DeLaughter of this two weeks before the show.
"I had no songs, no band, and I hadn't talked to anyone else about it," says DeLaughter, smiling at the memory.
He immediately picked up the guitar and out came "It's the Sun", a celebratory song that was quickly followed by many others. He rang friends and musical acquaintances and started building up a group of like-minded people who wanted to join. The ranks swelled, and they eventually recorded a demo to help them get more work. They pressed it onto CD, called it The Beginning Stages of the Polyphonic Spree, and it shifted a respectable 20,000 copies independently, before being picked up by Hollywood Records and selling five times that number.
Since then their songs have accompanied advertising campaigns for iPod and VW, the group has appeared in an episode of TV show Scrubs, and David Bowie loved them so much that he handpicked them as his support band in the US earlier this year.
"He's been so great," says DeLaughter. "He and I totally hit it off and we're going to write a song together in the near future. On the last date of the tour, he told us, 'You know, this group is going to take on a new shape. Don't be surprised if you morph into something else, something even more interesting.' That was real enlightening."
"I think I knew this was going to happen even more than Tim did," says Duncanville when I catch up with her soon afterwards. She's a perky blonde woman in a yellow robe (she sings in the Spree choir) and has been with DeLaughter since high school -- they have three children, Stella (five), Oscar (four) and Julius (three), who travel with them most of the time on the tour bus, nicknamed the Submarine.
"It was an idea that started with baby steps, and he had to figure out how he could even begin to get into it. But it has its own momentum and slowly makes believers out of non-believers. It's a pretty universal group, visually and musically. It represents everybody. I think you can find yourself somewhere in the Polyphonic Spree."
But right now it's time for the Polyphonic Spree to find the stage. And that's quite an operation. We join the rest of the group, DeLaughter quickly robes up, and then all 25 of them trek around a service road, entering the field at the back of the assembled crowd, picking their way through the festival go-ers. I take up the rear with flautist Audrey Easley, the shortest member of the group, who is trying to catch up.
"Is it always this crazy?" I ask her.
"Always," she says, as we break into a jog. "Although we don't usually have quite this far to go before we actually get to start playing."
Unsurprisingly, heads turn as the group makes its way through the crowd. They look like a bunch of disciples who got lost on the way to the promised land. But as we get closer to the stage, some of their fans react with glee, flashing cameras, patting different members on the back, and then joining them as they continue their long walk. It's like a twisted take on The Pied Piper. A teenage black guy sees my tape recorder and grabs it, speaking into the microphone. "The Polyphonic Spree make me so happy," he exclaims, beaming. "They're like a seratonin pump to my brain every morning."
After being helped over a security fence by a burly bouncer, all 25 band members stand on stage in position, with heads bowed, as the backing tape swells behind them. Then after a full minute, DeLaughter raises his left arm, and the choir comes to life, hands punching the air in unison, heads shaking left and right, and voices raised in rousing harmony, as the band -- two drummers, a horn section, bassist, guitarist, harpist, theremin player, a couple of keyboard players -- burst into action. And a wave of euphoria washes over the crowd. The rest of the performance is a cross between a staging of Godspell, a 1970s Coke commercial, and an evangelical church service. New songs such as "Hold Me Now" and "Two Thousand Places" from their latest album, the excellent Together We're Heavy, stand out as more complex and fully realised than much of their debut, but older material like "It's the Sun" and "Light & Day" maintain a bold simplicity that hits you in the chest.
At points DeLaughter literally jumps up and down on the spot like an overexcited five-year-old, unable to contain his glee. I look at his face and I swear I see the look of a man who is hearing the sound that he had in his head for all these years. Why wouldn't he be jumping for joy?
Playing early on a bill that is headlined by The Beastie Boys, Green Day and the reformed Pixies later in the evening, this is one of the very few bands that actually makes perfect sense with a blue sky and blinding sunlight. When it's all over I realise that my face is hurting. I've been smiling for an hour.
"What did you think?" DeLaughter asks me afterwards.
"Well, I'm normally a glass half empty kind of guy," I tell him. "But during your show I was definitely a glass half full kind of guy. "
He grins widely. "Wait until you hear the next album. It's going to be unbelievable."
I wish I had $10 for every time a musician told me this. But for some reason, I really want to believe DeLaughter. In fact, I feel like getting my mum to whip me up a robe on her sewing machine, and then hitching a ride on the Submarine and touring with the Polyphonic Spree. Suddenly I understand how people get convinced to join cults. I would drink the Kool-Aid for Tim DeLaughter, singing happily about hope, joy and the sun between grateful gulps, waiting for the spaceships to pick us up and take us to our home planet.
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Barry Divola is a senior writer for Rolling Stone, and regularly contributes features and interviews to Sunday Life, The Bulletin and The Sydney Morning Herald. His latest book, Searching For Kingly Critter (ABC Books), is about obsession, nostalgia, childhood, and the bizarre world of collecting, focusing on the grown men who are recapturing their past through seeking the plastic toys that used to come in breakfast cereal boxes during the 1960s and 1970s. The book is available at www.abcshop.com.au.