It's not a cult, it's a rock band

The Polyphonic Spree: 25 members and a sunny outlook

Reuters/September 15, 2004

New York -- The Polyphonic Spree may look like a New Age gospel choir, with all those young white Texans in multicoloured robes hopping, swaying and beaming beatifically as they sing and play blissed-out mantras, but bandleader Tim DeLaughter says it's just pop music.

"I tell people we're not a cult," he says.

DeLaughter knows that even with the endorsement of David Bowie, his orchestral pop band of 25 members can make people nervous, especially in the rock 'n' roll world he comes from.

Maybe it's the harp, the horns and the choir of nine along with the traditional electric-guitar-centred rock band.

Or it could be DeLaughter's dramatic onstage style, sometimes messianic and sometimes just goofy.

But also, it is his relentlessly sunny lyrics, and an attitude that carries over into a cheery, sincere, positive conversational style.

That makes it all the more surprising when he speaks out against President George W. Bush, slams a phony evangelist he met long ago and decries corporate control of American radio.

"I can't really speak on behalf of the band, that's really not fair for them, but my personal opinion is that, yeah, we need a different president," he says in a calm, light Texas drawl after a packed Manhattan concert.

"Print it: I'm voting for Kerry," adds the 38-year-old Dallas-based singer, songwriter and producer.

Far from being a covert Christian evangelist, as some have suspected, he was disillusioned at an early age at a revival meeting, which he enjoyed at first for the music and spectacle. But then he and his mother went down front to be saved, only to be taken to a back room and urged to "speak in tongues."

"I felt pressured a little bit," he says. "To get out of it I started to mimic the people that were doing it in the room and when I started mimicking it, he [a minister] started translating what I was saying.

"And from that moment on I thought this whole thing was a put-on, a joke. I remember I was crushed. I was thinking 'My mom is buying into this.' I carried this a long time."

'Anything is possible'

But he says he is totally sincere preaching his message of hope: "Anything is possible and we're totally capable of doing anything that we kind of visualize and possess as humans."

DeLaughter has played in bands since school. His previous band, the neopsychedelic Tripping Daisies, ended when a guitarist died. After a period of mourning, four years ago his wife and a friend booked a gig that left him just two weeks to write the songs and assemble a group.

"The hardest part -- it wasn't really that hard because I put it together in a couple weeks -- was to find people who played symphonic instruments, because I came from a rock experimental world," he says.

"I just put the word out," he says. "I was able to get 13 people, choir and instrumentation.

"After we played the first show, literally, I get done, I'm no sooner getting off the stage than people start rushing the stage -- 'Do you need this, do you need that?' "

He adds, laughing: "Basically, whoever asked to be in the band, if they could improvise -- yes."

He didn't ask many questions. "The fact I didn't scrutinize personality was the best thing that ever happened," he says.

"It totally works itself out. It socially lubricates itself by creating its own subgroups, similar to a classroom. You don't pick the kids in your class, you just deal with it."

On the road as they tour nearly non-stop, hitting Japan, Europe and the United States this year, DeLaughter spends most of his time not with the band but with his three young children and his wife, Julie -- "basically the backbone of this establishment." She is in the choir and manages the group.

The band is just getting by financially, he says, but the members get paid, and are even in an end-of-year bonus pool.

'Radio, they're not behind us'

The latest album, "Together We're Heavy," was released in July, and its florid homilies of hope have gained a lot of fans, but DeLaughter is frustrated it can't break through to commercial radio like the music that inspired him -- the Fifth Dimension, the Beach Boys, the Association, Dionne Warwick.

"It seems like everybody else in the industry wants this band to happen. We get a lot of press, TV's behind us, but radio, they're not behind us," he says.

One or two corporations control the music that gets played on American radio, he complains. "The majority of the airplay that I get is public radio."

Touring with Bowie was a big break. "He's been a big supporter of our band for a long time. He was responsible for breaking the band in the U.K. and Europe," says DeLaughter.

But why the robes?

DeLaughter feels too many people judge musicians by their clothes. "It annoys me," he says. "I thought if this band gets on stage in street clothes, they're going to miss the point. They're going to try to sum the band up, and miss the music."

His mother-in-law made the first robes for the band, when it was half the current number. "Not any more," says DeLaughter. "It became a nightmare."

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