Tim DeLaughter talks Barry Manilow, Tripping Daisy and his big band’s latest LP Afflatus
Tim DeLaughter, frontman for psychedelic rock collective The Polyphonic Spree, freely admits that their latest album, Afflatus – a diverse array of cover songs released in April – was not created with the intention of ever putting it out into the world.
“We just stumbled into thinking that this could even be a release,” DeLaughter says, calling from his Dallas home. Last spring, the band had been scheduled to do a hometown show of eclectic cover songs, for which they’d already intensively rehearsed for a month before the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to cancel the performance. As the lockdown deadline loomed, they made a crucial decision.
“Let’s record these as a lifeline to remember these songs when we have to go back and play the scheduled show,” DeLaughter explains. “It was just a documentation so everyone can remember their parts.”
The band – which includes about two dozen members, playing typical rock instruments as well as incorporating choral and orchestral elements – convened in their Dallas rehearsal space, recording ten songs in ten hours. Then, DeLaughter says, “When we went back and mixed it, we were like, ‘Wow, this is pretty great. Maybe we’ll just put this out for our fans.’”
That quick recording, DeLaughter says, gives Afflatus a special vibe: “There’s something that happens when you do it really fast like that. You have to live with some things that otherwise you would scrutinize,” he says. “This record is a prime example: there’s little flaws in there, but it’s kind of charming.”
Another part of the album’s charm lies in the decidedly diverse song selections. While the Spree put in a song by rock mainstays The Rolling Stones, they also included esoteric tracks originally done by INXS, Daniel Johnston, The Bee Gees, The Monkees, ABBA, Wings, The Association, Rush and even Barry Manilow.
DeLaughter knows that certain songs seem like an unlikely match for The Polyphonic Spree, but he says that all of them have sentimental value for him. For example, Rush’s “The Spirit of Radio” is one that he started covering with his first bands in junior high. “I thought it would be fun to see if I can hit those same notes this many years later,” he says with a laugh.
VIDEO: Barry Manilow performs “Could It Be Magic” on The Midnight Special
Covering Barry Manilow’s melodramatic “Could It Be Magic” is another one that DeLaughter knows will probably surprise listeners, but he is unabashed in his appreciation for that crooner’s material: “As a kid, I used to wear out The Greatest Hits of Barry Manilow. I’d listen to that cassette over and over again. I love those far-reaching pop songs that he would do.”
DeLaughter is The Polyphonic Spree’s visionary, founding the band in 2000, but he says that he welcomes his bandmates’ input, as well. “I instigate a lot of the stuff, and then we all collaborate. It’s definitely my group – I guess I’m the essence of it – but it’s definitely a collective.”
The Polyphonic Spree’s uniquely expansive lineup was a concept that DeLaughter began formulating while he was still in his previous band, Tripping Daisy, who became best-known for their 1995 modern rock hit “I Got a Girl.”
With Tripping Daisy, DeLaughter says, “We would go in and record, and we would try to make our instruments be more than what they were really built to sound like – putting effects on them or really messing with the tuning. It was all experimental.”
Tripping Daisy became defunct when guitarist Wes Berggren died of a drug overdose in 1999. After a year of grieving, DeLaughter began putting together The Polyphonic Spree. With this new band, he decided, “I’m going to do the thing that I was yearning for in Tripping Daisy. Instead of one person singing, how about ten people singing? And how about a horn section, strings, guitar, bass, and drums? And flute? How about a harp? Just put this perfect scenario of all these people together and create a sound that was covering all of the bases.”
VIDEO: Tripping Daisy “I Got A Girl”
DeLaughter’s ambitious idea was initially met with skepticism. “People would say, ‘This is great and all, Tim, but you’re never going to take this anywhere because it’s ridiculous. You’ve got too many people,” he says.
Undeterred, DeLaughter persisted – and was vindicated when the band’s 2002 debut, The Beginning Stages of…, earned glowing reviews. Fans included David Bowie, who was so impressed with the Spree that he invited them to open for him for several tour dates in 2004.
The band have gone on to release five more studio albums and several EPs, and they have remained critically acclaimed. It is a track record that seems to astonish even DeLaughter himself. “Here we are twenty years later – I can’t believe it when I say that, that it’s been that long,” he says.
DeLaughter is a seasoned frontman now, but he recalls that his music career almost didn’t happen. Although he began playing in bands while he was in junior high in Dallas, nothing seemed to click. After high school, he drifted around the country for a few years, taking various odd jobs. Eventually, he ended up in Colorado, where fate seemed to bring him back to music.
“A friend I was living with played guitar. He would play things and I would improvise, make up lyrics and sing off the top of my head,” DeLaughter says. One day, his roommate suggested that they play an open mic show at a community center. They didn’t have a particular plan in mind for their set, though, so when his friend began strumming the guitar, DeLaughter says, “I just closed my eyes and started singing, and I’m just totally lost in the music and what’s going on. I opened my eyes after it was done, and the place flipped out – they loved it! I was like, ‘Holy shit!’”
That experience gave DeLaughter an epiphany: “It was like, ‘Damn it, this is what I’m supposed to be doing! This is it. This is pure.’” He promptly moved back to Dallas and formed Tripping Daisy. “I was on a mission at that point. Started having visions of how it would all unfold and what I wanted to do and how to navigate it. And it just happened,” he says of that band’s achievements.
DeLaughter seems to have manifested that same kind of success with The Polyphonic Spree. This band, he believes, earned such a loyal following because “There’s a portion of optimism that comes across in the music that resonates with a lot of people,” he says. Starting with their first album, “I would sing about overcoming hardships, trying to inspire myself to keep going and it’s all going to be okay – these little mantras in songs that would help me out, not realizing that it also helps other people out, too. I realized it about ten years ago because people would write letters and come up after shows and say what the Spree means to them.”
VIDEO: The Polyphonic Spree “Don’t Change”
This resilience is still a recurring theme in the songs DeLaughter is currently writing for the Spree’s next album, which they’ll begin recording in June. “I’ll write about a flower growing up in the middle of the street with all the cars running over it daily,” he says. “To me, that’s poetic, and I can draw a lot of parallels from that with my own life. It’s in the worst possible position and conditions are just the worst, but yet it still thrives. There’s little reminders like that everywhere.”
Given his determination and drive, it seems likely that DeLaughter will successfully lead The Polyphonic Spree through at least another twenty years.