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Interview: Tim DeLaughter (The Polyphonic Spree)

17 November 2023

It’s been a decade since The Polyphonic Spree, the large ensemble led by former Tripping Daisy frontman Tim DeLaughter, last released a full-length of original material. While the band may not have been in the spotlight, they never fully went away, playing shows in their home state of Texas a few times a year and releasing both a remix album (2014’s Psychphonic) and a covers album (2021’s Afflatus). During the pandemic, DeLaughter used songwriting as a way to battle the depression he was in and began forming the songs that make up the band’s newest release, Salvage Enterprise.

For longtime fans keeping score at home, Salvage Enterprise continues the Spree’s tradition of giving each song on the album a section number. This album contains Section 44 through Section 52 though there are a few tracks on the album that contain multiple parts that, on another album, would be standalone tracks. While the Spree has had success with singles in the past (“Hanging Around,” “Light and Day,” “Soldier Girl,” “Hold Me Now), and there are stand out tracks on the new album, Salvage Enterprise should be listened as a whole body of work, not in snippets here and there.

In this conversation with DeLaughter, the affable singer discusses how he held listening parties for the new album, the ‘70s artists that influence the Spree’s music, and what he would say has been his musical mission statement for the band that he started in 2000.

Is it fair to say, “Welcome back”? It seems like you’ve been gone for a while.

TIM: That’s fair. I mean, yeah, we’ve always been here. But, there’s no wine before it’s time, to borrow an old phrase from my good friend, Orson Welles. It’s been a long time since we put an original full-length record out. We did Afflatus, which was a covers album, in 2021.

You did some listening parties in 2022 and played the album for people. With the album coming out at the end of 2023, to reference Tom Petty, has the wait been the hardest part?

TIM: It has. This record is an extremely important record to me for a lot of different reasons. To be honest, I kind of got in my head about it. I didn’t understand how I wanted to let people hear it. The record’s kind of is rooted in concept. The way people are hearing music today is we basically have a jukebox in our pocket and they just kind of go from song to song and we hardly ever listen to albums.

My conundrum was I have this record that I want people to hear from start to finish so much so that I’m willing to travel around in a van and hold people captive while I set speakers up in a 360-degree circle and play it for them in random locations. That’s how far the insanity went.

It turned out to be a really great experience. People enjoyed it. I enjoyed it, just traveling on a whim and not knowing where I’m going to be. It was completely guerrilla style. I’d done a few of them in Texas. I did a few outside of Austin during South by Southwest where I was having people brought in by a school bus to listen to the record. And then I did it close to my hometown in Dallas where we built a big campfire under the stars and listened to the record.

I just kept doing it. But it was all born out of the idea that I want people to hear this as a whole. So then I’m like, “How can I release a record like that without just putting it as one long track?” I was sharing it like that at one point through SoundCloud and I did share it with the Kickstarter fans from the very beginning, so they all had insight. But as far as everyone else in the public, the world, I just battled with it. It was kind of insane for me, honestly.

I ended up sitting on the record for 13 months before even starting to entertain getting with someone to put it out. Finally, out of the necessity that I’ve got to get it out there because it’s ridiculous to be holding on to this thing, we came to an agreement with Secretly Canadian and Good Records, our own imprint.

Is the album that you were playing in those listening parties the same album that people are now hearing or did you tweak anything based on feedback from the listening parties?

TIM: There’s sequence orders that are different and we did a different mastering. There was a mastering of the record that gave me a chance to kind of sit with it and I realized I wanted to redo that. We went with some different intros that we had before but other than that, it’s basically the same. There’s subtle differences. A huge Spree fan that has dissected the record would notice some things. And, of course, the order is different. The sequence is a little bit different.

We’re putting out a planetarium experience to the album. I’m in the process of making a film, where different artists from all over the world are going to be doing short films to each song. And we’ll put it together to make this one film that people will view in a planetarium’s dome theater experience. The sequence is also in regard to that.

I’m interested in how you came up with the sequence because, dare I say, I think the last three songs might be my favorite. The album continues to build throughout, and I didn’t lose interest. It’s not a case of getting off the highway at the exit on track six. It’s a make-it-all-the-way-to-the-destination type of album. Were the last three songs put together for a reason?

TIM: Those three songs were actually one song. And so, inadvertently, they kind of just went together. “Morning Sun” and “I Built the Stairs” are basically one song. “Winds of Summer,” during pre-production, we were playing that right before those two songs. When we were in the studio, it was like, “Do we separate this? Do we keep it as one song?” That sequence never changed. It can’t change. It’s so specific and then folds and the ending is epic and basically it is a synopsis of what you’ve been through the whole record.

The Polyphonic Spree · Section 52 (Morning Sun, I Built The Stairs)

The previous version that I had out for the fans, their album was ending with “Got Down to the Soul” and there was really no thought in the sequence. It was what it was. I was just trying to get it to them and let them hear it. But after sitting with it and piecing together how we’re telling a story; it made sense to go and finalize a sequence and that’s the one you’ll hear.

The Polyphonic Spree · Section 47 (Got Down To The Soul)

I don’t know how influences work their way into your music, whether it’s conscious or unconscious, but “Winds of Summer” awakened a memory for me of being a kid and listening to the song “Sing” by The Carpenters.

TIM: Totally. I was totally influenced by that. I’m a total ’70s junkie. I’m a 70s kid and I can’t help but be affected by those songs. It’s an homage if you will, it wasn’t conscious, it was something I discovered after. It’s like, “Oh, wow, there’s an air about that that takes me to that particular song.”

I’ve ingested a lot of music in my life. When I’ve talked to people about what influenced The Polyphonic Spree, I’ll often go back to the very first music I heard as a kid and I pretty much find that those songs, that music, was what was responsible for the music that I’m making today. It laid the groundwork of how I looked at music and how I looked at orchestration from the storybook records of Walt Disney to sunny pop songs and how that made me feel at that time. It made an impression as far as how I wanted to approach The Polyphonic Spree and having orchestral instruments and not just staying with my previous group, Tripping Daisy, and doing guitar, bass, drums and keyboards.

I can safely say that most of my influences came from being a kid of that era of music.

The Polyphonic Spree · Section 51 (Winds Of Summer)

On the Smartless podcast, Paul Simon was a guest and he said that between the ages of 12 and 16, the music that you hear is the music that is going to stick with you forever. I’d say for me it is more like the stuff I listened to between the ages of 9 and 13, but I get what he’s saying. If I turn on a ’80s radio station, I can still sing along with just about every song, even those I haven’t listened to in 30 or 40 years.

TIM: I know. I agree with you on the ages. I’d say from around second grade, however old you are in second grade, it was probably right when it started to really click for me. It wasn’t just this background thing that was going on. It was something that was, “Wow, I kind of like this. I kind of identify with this. This is good. This makes me feel something.” So, I think you’re right about that. He’s spot on. When I look at this music that I’m doing today and the storytelling of how I use instrumentation and the pop sensibility, melody, it’s all from that era.

Do you remember the first artist that made you go from listening to singles to buying a full album and listening to it front to back?

TIM: The first records I bought were Walt Disney Storybook records and that would be Robin Hood, 101 Dalmatians, Aristocats, movies that I was seeing as a kid. Every time I got sick, we’d go to the pharmacy, and I’d buy a Walt Disney record and that would keep me company and be my babysitter that day while my mom was at work. I think it all started with that.

My first seeking out and buying a song that I heard on the radio was “Beach Baby” by The First Class. That was my first record ever bought, a 45 of music that was on the radio. I was so young; I was in the second grade when I bought it. I didn’t really identify music as something tangible that you’re like, “I’m going to start doing this and buying this record and this record.” It didn’t really hit me like that because I was getting everything I needed from the radio, the radio was playing all those great songs and it was free and it was there, but I think it was something like maybe I saw that song in the pharmacy on the 45 rack and bought it.

But my real interest in buying records didn’t happen until I was probably in the seventh grade. I had a neighbor behind me that was older that was really into Yes and I basically I ingested the entire Yes catalog as a 12-year-old kid. They were a huge band. I liked Jon Anderson’s voice. I liked how long and epic and storytelling their songs were. There was something borderline mystical about it that maybe identified with my Walt Disney records. It was prog music, but it was expansive, and it was interesting to me.

I was in a band with my other neighbor. I played drums, and it was a Rolling Stones cover band. I was all about the Stones. I wasn’t a huge Stones fan, I just appreciated the beat and the music because I played the drums. And then it was rock and roll. Right on the heels of that was Black Sabbath. My youthful age started coming in and I’m in the heat of Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Ozzy, when he comes out with Blizzard of Ozz, Pink Floyd. The first album I bought I think was Pink Floyd’s The Wall but I’m not sure. It might have been Highway to Hell by AC/DC. I can’t remember, but I do remember the experience of The Wall, of buying that record and coming home with my friend, coming to his house and putting the record on, turning the lights out and listening to it and just having that experience.

I think that is what drew me to Salvage Enterprise. I always thought about how when we’d buy records back then, it was a big deal. You’d go to the record store, buy the record, come back home, make everything right, get in your room, play the record and you’d listen from start to finish. It was an experience. The way Pink Floyd was, you couldn’t help but be drawn into their story and their muse of how they handled things. It was an adventure.

I thought about that experience in relation to Salvage Enterprise and that’s kind of what prompted the listening experiences. I wanted to kind of create that environment.

It’s nice that you were able to create that experience in a controlled environment. There are so many ways to listen to music that you, as the artist, have lost control of the listening experience. It’s no longer just listening to a record on your stereo at home.

TIM: What I learned is that people inherently needed that experience just to unplug from the world. There were no cell phones allowed. You’re forced to lay down, look at the stars and just listen and just check out. There’s something therapeutic about that that I really didn’t think about. Here I am trying to get people to listen to a record from start to finish but really there was something else that came that was outside of that. Every experience was different, the way people reacted. Some people would stand up and start doing yoga. Some people are standing on their head or they’re moving or dancing or they’re laying there, their eyes are closed and they’re just relaxing.

What was cool about that is how each thing was different. Each experience was different. At the end, everyone was like, “God, I needed that. I needed to do that.” I don’t think it had anything to do with the music, although it did help. I think people were ready to unplug and take a break. I never knew where I was going to do it. It was two to four hours before I’d let the people know on social media where I was going to be and it’s because I didn’t even know where I was going to do it.

Having that communal experience was something we took for granted before Covid. I imagine that, while we had sort of cleared the worst of it by March 2022, it was still a great experience for people to feel part of a community again when they came to the listening parties.

TIM: It was great. I did it all through the summer. I did it in August and September on the West Coast. I hit Arizona, New Mexico. I’d love to keep doing it because it was just awesome.

Do you dream of the day that you can play at the Sphere in Las Vegas and see your visions come to full fruition?

TIM: I knew the Sphere was going to be epic and it is epic. Tripping Daisy, we did visuals back in the day. When I first started our first show, it was just as important about the visuals as it was the music. My friend, Scott Berman, who I grew up with, was an art major and I was doing the band. I said, “Man, I want to do visuals. I want to have a visual show similar to the Fillmore days in the ’60s – full-on light shows with oil and water and overhead projectors, 16-millimeter projectors, slide projectors.”

We started building content. He was doing, I think, bleach and 16-millimeter film. He was coloring it, he was doing everything he could. At our very first show, we had a huge screen, it took up the whole place. I went into the philosophy of “This is going to be my room tonight so I can do what I want. It’s my stage. I can create any kind of environment I want and I’m going to do it through visuals.”

Scott was on the same page, and we literally did it. He would have this huge scaffolding in the middle of the floor that would take up probably 20 people’s spots. The clubs hated it because we’re taking tickets away when we sell things out. They go, “We can get more in there if you take that scaffolding out.” It’s like, “Dude, that’s just as important as we are.”

What I’m getting at is the visual aspect of music, the element of having that combination has been important to me from the beginning. Even when the Spree was going, the white robes were initially going to be a canvas for projections. In our first show, we projected on our robes. Inadvertently, the band was the visual because who has 27 people on stage playing a rock show? The visuals filtered away because it was already taxing to have a band that large and take it on tour. You can imagine a tour of a band like that is just incredibly expensive.

I’ll never forget the story I had with Chris Blackwell, who owned Island Records. He’s signed Tripping Daisy along with James Dowdall and Rose Noone. We were mixing I Am An Elastic Firecracker in South Beach at his studio. We’re spending some time with him and he’s like, “So what do you think the future is? What’s the next record going to be like?” And I was like “Honestly, I think it’s going to be all about cinema, it’s going to be about film where, when you come to see Tripping Daisy, it’s just going to be a screen and the band will be playing behind it. We’ll be scoring that film, playing to it.” And he’s like, “Oh Tim, that’s not gonna work. We need to see the band.” I’m naive. I’m in a power-pop radio band, psychedelic rock band where he’s like, “What the hell is this guy talking about? We need to sell this band, not some kids doing stuff behind a screen.” That gives you an idea of where I’ve been.

I remember meeting Phil Anselmo from Pantera after a concert once in the early ’90s and he said his dream was to play arenas where Pantera wouldn’t be on a stage, just on the floor, and there would be a bunch of skate ramps for people to ride their bikes on. He said that he didn’t want people to be there to watch Pantera but he just wanted Pantera to provide the soundtrack to people going crazy on the floor.

TIM: I love that! It’s so weird because people maybe have a misconception of how the artist views their own work being explored and exposed. I guess it’s all about the artist these days and the marketing of the artist. It’s just kind of what we’ve grown up in. But the artist and musician have their own interpretation of how they’d like to enjoy their music.

At the beginning, I wasn’t even going to be in The Polyphonic Spree. My idea was to create it, put it together, conduct it, but not be in it. In order to explain the music – I was playing guitar at the time – I had to be a part of it and then I just kind of grew into it. I became one with the music and explored it and expressed it physically because the music did that for me. I just couldn’t picture it any other way.

It’s so weird how you go in with one agenda and then it just takes shape and form. And it’s basically going to do what it’s supposed to do and you just kind of hold on and go with it.

Do you get as much from the audience as they get from you?

TIM: Most definitely. I can’t help but treat it like it’s this tangible ball of energy that we can explore back and forth together. I want them to be with me on this journey and I’m really trying to get them over the finish line so to speak. That’s on me to try to get people to feel what’s really going on. I get caught up in it and I just kind of lose myself. It helps when everyone else gets on it too because you can see it, it’s real. It becomes this thing and then we realize that we’re on it together and at the end it’s like this massive applause and an expression of gratitude that, “Yeah, we did this. We made it. It was awesome. I hope you had a good time.”

Having listened to The Polyphonic Spree, the music has a positive spin but it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. It’s more like an examination of life. I know you started the band out of a tragedy and dealing with losing not only a band member, but a friend. Do you ever feel like you’re wearing a happy mask, like you have to show that positive spirit for everyone else when maybe, inside, things aren’t going great?

TIM: I think that it’s kind of a dichotomy, isn’t it? If you listen to the lyrics, they’re quite melancholy, kind of even sad, but at the same time the music is not sad and the progress of the song ends up positively for the listener and for me because it’s always an attempt to make it through that situation and, I wouldn’t say triumph, but to live through something and to live in a spot that you know you can aspire to, to end up there, is a really good feeling.

I feel that my songs have kind of done that, I’ve kind of always done it, it was immaturely done when I was younger and did it in Tripping Daisy, but there’s a common thread of always aspiring to do something and positive you can do it. It’s always been for me and inadvertently it’s been for other people.

Is it difficult to put on a face to sing those lyrics? It is when I’m not feeling it in the moment but, fortunately, I’m doing Polyphonic Spree songs that are made to help me get through that. It’s kind of like I’m using my own music to help me navigate any situation and to be a part of that and to be such an integral core of that and with having all these other people around you and on stage and that are all doing the same thing, it’s kind of like impossible not to get there.

I’ve never had any problems. I’ve worked through them live and maybe some of the songs I’ve sang with a certain melancholy that I was feeling at the time but ultimately through the process and the progression of the evening, I ended up with a smile on my face.

Did you know that you were going to be making this record or were you working on something and saying, “I’ve got one song finished, maybe I should make a second one, maybe I should make a third”?

TIM: I was coming out of a deep depression for quite some time, and I was forcing myself and my wife, Julie, was forcing me to do something. I have a place called the Triplex which is a place we rehearse in. I’ve got some equipment over there that I could do some recording. I’m not an engineer by any stretch of the imagination. I know some basics but I’ve usually had Mark Pirro in the band. He was kind of an engineer and he would record stuff. I use him as far as the technical aspect and I would just record. I just don’t really have a mind for it, but I decided to buy some equipment and force myself during Covid to kind of learn how to get through that, learn this technology and record some stuff.

I just started recording and I improvised like I always do. My writing starts with improvisation. I write the lyrics, the melody and the music at the same time. And I did that with the recording. I think the first song I wrote was “Give Me Everything.” The three songs I recorded there were “Give Me Everything,” “Wishful, Brave, and True” and “Open the Shores.” What you hear on the record is what I recorded. The irony is this guy that’s never been an engineer or recorded anything now has three songs on this record!

The Polyphonic Spree · Section 46 (Give Me Everything)

Tell me a little bit about the membership to Polyphonic Spree. Is it a membership card, you’re a lifelong member, or is it people come and go as they please?

TIM: At first it was like, “Do you play this instrument? Can you improvise?” That was really the only prerequisite at the beginning because I came from a rock and roll world. I didn’t know anybody in the symphonic world so I’m just trying to get anybody. I didn’t know theory, I didn’t know how to tell them what to play. So, they had to be able to improvise. That’s how I built the band. I went to family members. My niece was in the band. She was 14, she was in the choir. She quit high school and joined the Spree and for the next five years she was on the road and toured all over the world. That’s how it was. Then you would lose certain people. They would either go do different bands or some of them got married or just life changes and they move on and then somebody else would come in, still built in the same philosophy, “Do you improvise on your instrument? Are you up for this?”

There’s been members that have come back through the years. Annie Clark (St. Vincent) was with us. Annie had never played through guitar effects before when she was with the Spree and I was like, “You got to get a pedal board, you got to get these effects because you’re going to be playing these songs that have this going on.” She got them and she learned how to use them. She was such a force, incredible guitar player, extremely smart. And she just kind of took it like a duck to water. She owned it. But it’s like,

You get these people, these transients, that come in and come out and maybe they come back and maybe they don’t. It’s always an open membership. I think there’s been maybe over 150 people that have been in the Spree. I don’t know. I think I looked at Wikipedia one time and I was looking at the different members that were on there. There were a lot of these people I don’t ever remember their names being in the band.

The band broke in the UK and Europe and we had people join in the choir. Jarvis Cocker was in the choir and Noel Gallagher was in the choir and it was just different people that would join.

I don’t know the exact number, but it’s been a lot of people, but the door is always open.

Is there still an alternative rock, power-pop guy in you? Do you ever miss just four people on a stage rocking out?

TIM: You know, I definitely miss that. Tripping Daisy has done some reunion shows here and there that have been wildly successful. There’s a lot of people that love Tripping Daisy, they’re not Polyphonic Spree fans. When I started Polyphonic Spree, I didn’t let anybody know I was in Tripping Daisy. I kept it completely separate on purpose. I wanted Polyphonic Spree to be on its own. I didn’t take the fans with me with Polyphonic Spree. I basically alienated them. I didn’t do it on purpose to be mean. I did it because I wanted Polyphonic Spree to have its own identity untethered to me. By doing that, it left a lot of the Tripping Daisy fans away, that was the end for them.

So when I do these reunion shows, they love it. Seeing that enthusiasm and playing those shows again was just amazing for me. And yes, to answer your question, the plan is to get the band back together and do Tripping Daisy in 2024, end of 2024, somewhere in there, make a record and go.

If Tripping Daisy tours, it’ll be a lot more affordable than taking 27 people on the road.

TIM: Right. I’m trying to find sponsorship as we speak if you know anybody out there that wants to sponsor the Spree. It’s a hefty load, but we’re worth it.

I work in corporate America for a company that has a mission statement. You probably didn’t have a mission statement with the Polyphonic Spree started, but would you say that your mission has changed since you started in 2000?

TIM: That’s a good question. I’ve never thought of myself as having a mission statement or even an agenda. But, I think that, inadvertently, it’s been done to spread hope out of wanting that for myself and believing in that in myself and wanting that journey to end on a high note. I think that, after over 30 years of doing this, that’s what my music is all about.

And it’s nothing I put on the band and it’s something that kind of find out on their own. I think the music kind of says what we’re doing. I never thought of that. It’s a good question.

Salvage Enterprise is a great album. I appreciate listening to it start to finish and I think it makes a lot of sense in that context.

TIM: Thank you very much. Please tell people. I want people to hear this record. You know, we’re not really popular. We’ve been around for a long time and the name, the size of the band has been used on shows. We’ve been in movies and stuff, but the band’s not a name that comes around in music today. It’s on the outskirts. It’s very important to me. And I think it will be important to a lot of people.


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