The Polyphonic Spree
James Reimer explains the beginning of this musical family
by Alexander Laurence
unique Dallas symphonic pop group, the Polyphonic Spree,
is less a band than a happening, very much in the 1960s
sense of the word. When the group takes to the stage for
a live performance, its two dozen members are costumed in
flowing robes of snowy white, an appropriate backdrop for
their happy and uplifting musical message that's catchy
as hell and minimally laced by gospel. They have been compared
to everything from The Beach Boys to The Flaming Lips. Some
people think they are a weird cult, but Texas has always
been the home of outrageous things. The group boasts a ten-member
choir, a pair of keyboardists, as well as a percussionist,
bassist, guitarist, flautist, trumpeter, trombonist, violist,
a French horn player, a theremin player, and an electronic
effects wizard. Former Tripping Daisy frontman Tim DeLaughter
holds the post of musical director and contributes lead
vocals. Their live show is in a word a "spectacle."
They have released one album called "The Beginning
Stages of... (2001)." I spoke with member James Reimer
a few weeks before they go to Coachella, Bonnaroo, and Field
Day in Long Island. Catch them this summer.
AL: I may sound out
of it. I just went to sleep about three hours ago.
James: My goodness. I just woke up here.
AL: I'll be okay.
James: I can mess with you the whole interview because
of sleep deprivation.
AL: I'll just go right back to sleep right after this.
(laughter) Have you been in Polyphonic Spree the whole time?
James: Actually I came into it about six months after they
started. They were forming at that time. The band started
in July 2000. I was a fan of Tripping Daisy and I liked
them a lot, but I had never met Tim before. I knew his friends
and people around him. How I got in was through a friend
of a friend. At that time I didn't even know he was doing
AL: Had you seen Tripping Daisy play before?
James: Yeah. I followed them since 1991. I saw them in
the beginning when they played to ten people. I watched
their meteoric rise through Dallas. I watched them take
off during the early 1990s. That was pretty cool. It was
weird. I didn't know that he was doing anything musically
again. Then a friend of mine who worked at a local radio
station introduced me to his new group. They had just cut
what would become "The Beginning Stages of...."
He had a disc. He told me that I should listen to it because
it was pretty cool. So I did. Then a few months later I
wondered if they needed a trombone player. I emailed the
manager, Chris Penn. The very next day he wrote back. From
then on I was in.
AL: Tim had already written all the songs already?
James: Oh yeah. The band started in July 1st, 2000. They
rehearsed. They played their first gig on July 15th. They
recorded the album on the last three days of October. So
there are a bunch of people in this band now who are not
on the record. All that happened really early on. That record
was like a demo. The demand for it has turned it into what
it is now. There are a few versions of it.
AL: The record and the website all reflect the expanded
version of the band.
James: Right. The picture of us on the CD was taken last
year at South by Southwest. You'll find that all the pictures
are always evolving. The group is whenever you are at, at
AL: The twenty-four members of the band now are a set number?
Or can anyone join up?
James: It's revolved around those numbers. We were going
for a specific sound. It took that many people and instruments
to get that specific sound that Tim was looking for. If
that sound ever expands to fifty people, I think he would
do it. Right now it fluctuates between twenty-two and twenty-five
AL: Do you have honorary members? I know that Jarvis Cocker
from Pulp joined you at one show.
James: That happens from time to time. There was a guy
who writes for The London Guardian who flew into Dallas
to perform with us. He did that so he could write about
the experience for his newspaper.
AL: Some of the British newspapers compared your band to
a Christian cult, or David Koresh and his followers. You
don't all live in a commune together?
No. The thing is we are nothing like David Koresh and we
don't have a commune. In fact, when we are home in Dallas,
we are all spread out over town. We lead separate and various
lives when we come back that have nothing to do with the
band. It's fun though to read a journalist's imagination
run wild. I can see that point of view. You have twenty
people in robes who play uplifting music. They seem to happy
and euphoric. What is going on?
AL: When did you decide to wear white robes?
James: Back in the early days there was video footage that
was shown throughout the show. No one did any maniacal dancing
back then. People just played instruments. The robes being
white just acted as the background video screen. It was
a human video screen. It was a stimulating visual and aural
attack. That is how it came about.
AL: Things sort of took off after the South by Southwest
shows of 2002. Then you were invited to the Meltdown by
James: Yeah. Things sort of blew up back then. Last year
we kept getting invited to the UK festivals. We played T
in The Park, Reading, and Leeds. This year we are going
back to play those, plus Glastonbury, and more in Europe.
We just played an NME tour with The Datsuns, The Thrills,
and Interpol. That was really cool. They managed to get
four bands who are in four different polar lands from each
other. It worked because everyone was nice and everyone
had their space to do their thing. You just have to do your
best and have a good time because you don't know what to
expect. If you have a good time onstage, most of the audience
has a good time too. That is our general mantra
AL: Tim has a record store and record label in Dallas?
James: Yeah. It's called Good Records. In England, we have
a partnership with a label called 679. It's a small label
but it's also a subsidiary of Warner Brothers. It's run
like an indie label but it has the backing of a major label.
AL: Your show right now is songs from the first album?
James: No. We have been incorporating songs from our next
upcoming album into the set. The new album will come out
around Christmas I believe. We just finished recording it.
We will be mixing it soon, in between tours. We have been
playing songs from the new album for over a year. People
have been asking us when the new album is coming out. It's
on the shelf and ready to go.
AL: It must have been a different recording process?
James: The first one was recorded in three days. This time
we took two months to record the album. We'll take another
month to mix it. This will be a proper record. The first
one was done live. They did the normal things where they
cut and pasted things. The whole idea was that was the original
set. This new record was recorded like a regular band going
into the studio, but we have twenty-five people. We worked
with a producer, Eric Drew Feldman, who was in Captain Beefheart.
He also produced a Tripping Daisy record, "Jesus Hits
Like The Atom Bomb." He did an amazing job on that
record. It was a shame that no one got a chance to hear
that record. It was a good feeling in the studio the whole
AL: When you have all those people and voices onstage or
in a room together, it can get quite emotional?
James: It can. Music is for the most part an emotional
experience. When something that you wrote comes to life
in that manner, it has to be an amazing feeling. It is an
amazing feeling when our songs comes alive on their own.
It has caused everyone to get emotional at times because
it evokes that.
AL: Besides Tripping Daisy and Captain Beefheart that we
have already mentioned, are there any bands that you like?
James: I like so many bands it's not funny. I have played
with so many cool bands already. I used to have a list of
people who I wanted to meet, and now I have met them all.
It's like all right. The last SXSW we played with Supergrass.
We have played with them a few times now. It seems like
a mismatch but I don't think it is. It becomes very vibrant.
We will come on and lift everyone up and they will torch
the place down. It's awesome. We played with them at Wembley,
in London. I like them and I had never seen them play. When
I saw them, it was like WOW!
AL: Do you read a lot of books?
James: Yeah. When I am on tour it's always my goal to read
a book. I like to keep mentally sharp. I just finished The
Demon Hearted World by Carl Sagan. It was pretty good. He
tends to ramble on. It was about science and the culture
that is backwards. Culture stifles the progress of science.
I don't agree with all of it.
AL: Does the band Polyphonic Spree have a shared philosophy?
James: It matters on what you mean. There's an overtone
to our shows. It's for people to come and have fun and enjoy
themselves. That is what we do. When we are playing onstage,
we enjoy ourselves. We hope that happens in the audience
too. I don't think people will pay good money to go to a
show and not have a good time. Other than that I don't think
we have a shared philosophy.
AL: Do you do shows where people are standing there in
shock, or are quiet because they are silently deciding whether
it's cool to like you or not?
James: I have two answers. The first show we played in
London was the Meltdown Festival that was curated by David
Bowie. It was at the Royal Albert Hall. It's the mother
of all live venues, mainly for orchestral things. It's absolutely
beautiful. We were opening for The Divine Comedy which are
the epitome of that European class music. It's reserved
and it's perfect basically. I enjoy them. I thought it was
incredible to open for that band. We were jet lagged. We
hadn't slept. We walk into the venue. We were getting ready
to play. We noticed that everyone was sitting down in chairs.
We hadn't experienced that before. We played our entire
show and everyone was sitting down. We didn't realize at
the time that was the kind of venue it was. It was weird.
We are used to playing clubs with people dancing. This was
a lecture at a college. People were sitting there maybe
thinking "What is going on?" We were having enough
problems with being jet lagged and playing our songs, when
the power gets cut off. We blew a fuse. We are just standing
there not knowing what to do. So Tim just starts one of
our newer songs. He just starts singing it. We have enough
acoustic instruments in the band to play that certain song.
Right where there's a really big crescendo, where it really
goes for the power moment, the electric cuts back in, and
the whole place just loses it. It was an unbelievable moment.
Because the electricity cut in exactly at the right moment,
everyone accuses us of staging it. We would never do that.
We were scared out of our minds. It's fun to go to new places,
to watch people's faces. For the first minutes, if they
haven't seen us before, they think "Oh, what a joke."
You can read their faces. It just seems like halfway through
the show, things change, and they are singing along and
having a good time. They realize that it is not a joke.
AL: Can you play acoustic shows?
James: It would be difficult for the singers. We have electric
guitars and two drummers and that is too loud with the vocals.
Don't be surprised if we do acoustically things in the future
AL: How should people come prepared to see these shows
in the summer?
James: I don't know if words can prepare you. It depends
on were you are coming from. Just be prepared to have a
good time. Enjoy yourself and your surroundings. If you
are worried about if it is cool, you are worrying about
the wrong things.