The Polyphonic Spree

The Polyphonic Spree

"When the Polyphonic Spree first appeared in 2000, the Dallas symphonic pop group was as much a band as a "happening," in the 1960s sense of the word. The Spree's two dozen members took the stage in flowing robes of snowy white, an appropriate backdrop for their happy and uplifting blend of pop, orchestral rock, and minimal touches of gospel. The costumes changed over the years, but the Polyphonic Spree's message remained consistent, drawing comparisons to the Flaming Lips and the Beach Boys with a smidgen of lively Godspell-like attitude thrown into the mix.
The Polyphonic Spree were founded by vocalist Tim DeLaughter, who fronted the band Tripping Daisy until 1999, when a drug overdose killed his bandmate Wes Berggren. Tripping Daisy subsequently folded, and DeLaughter pulled together surviving members of the group for the Polyphonic Spree, a massive collective that admitted more than 20 new members into its fold. The group put together a demo entitled The Beginning Stages of...the Polyphonic Spree and distributed it to fans during a holiday performance; a Dallas-based indie label, Good Records, later issued the release. Boasting a ten-member choir, two keyboardists, percussion, bass guitar, flute, trumpets, trombone, violin, French horn, theremin, pedal steel, and an electronic effects wizard, the band had little trouble carving out its own unique niche.
DeLaughter emerged as the group's musical director and lead vocalist, and the Polyphonic Spree hit the road with more than a dozen full-sized vans. Despite the cumbersome nature of touring with an immense lineup, the band drew attention with its cathartic performances, including a gig during 2003's Reading Festival. The single "Follow the Day" was featured in Volkswagen commercials as well as the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind soundtrack, which helped the Polyphonic Spree earn even more exposure. The group's proper debut, Together We're Heavy, was co-released by Good Records and Hollywood Records during the summer of 2004, garnering the Spree additional accolades despite a vicious review by Entertainment Weekly.
Released in 2007, the Wait EP found the band moving in a darker, slightly more atmospheric direction, and the band returned that summer with The Fragile Army, a reprise of the vibrant Technicolor sound of its earlier work. The band now sported black military outfits with red crosses stitched onto the front, signaling a newfound darkness that flecked The Fragile Army with brief flashes of melancholy and textured rock. As before, the Polyphonic Spree took their tent revival-esque show onto the road, and the Live from Austin, TX CD/DVD captured their strength as a live act later that year." - Linda Seida, AllMusicGuide

Harper Simon

"I see the character in the song 'Division Street' as being at a moment where life can go a couple different ways," says Harper Simon of the title track from his narrative-driven new album. "I think these songs tend to be like a snapshot of a character at a pivotal moment. They could go this way or that way on the metaphorical Division Street: up or down, negative or positive, to the light or to self-destruction.



"Or—like in the song '99'— they're looking back at a moment they didn't recognize as pivotal," he says. "Because we rarely do."

A departure from his self-titled first record, Division Street features a sound that's much more driven by electric guitars than his alt country-flavored debut. "The mission was to make the kind of Rock 'n' Roll record I would want to listen to myself," he says. "Which sounds simple but is, in fact, incredibly difficult."


Simon co-produced Division Street with Tom Rothrock, who produced three albums for Elliott Smith (Either/Or, XO and Figure 8) and Beck's first album Mellow Gold, among others. As the team worked, the album's sound grew rougher around the edges. "I felt challenged and inspired by the idea of making a modern psychedelic folk-rock album, a Tom Rothrock production like XO, but then the Velvet Underground and the Stones kept entering in," says Simon. "Elliott Smith was very influenced by the Beatles but my guitar playing is more influenced by Keith Richards. And I kept wanting to emphasize more lo-fi elements."


The striking characters that appear in the LP's songs are sometimes amalgamations of people Simon has known, and at other times they're fictitious—but they're all at a moment of personal watershed. Asked about the track "Eternal Questions," Simon says, "Originally I was imagining this character, this guy who is bolting from rehab. And he's in a car heading back to town. Heading back to get loaded. Because there's something about that moment that is such a crazy energy I thought it would be interesting for a song. And I thought about him wondering who he was gonna call, what girl's house he may crash at. What dealer he would call. Knowing he was fucking up but being beyond turning back."

Simon's first record featured a whole coterie of collaborators and many of its songs were co-written. The new album, however, features Simon himself more prominently, and is personally riskier for that reason. "I wrote all the music and all the lyrics, and it's a guitar-driven record and the guitar is played by me. It's mostly the sound of me and Pete [drummer Pete Thomas, of Elvis Costello and the Attractions] putting it down live, the two of us. Then other players, great ones, came later and overdubbed."


"Maybe I had a lack of confidence on the first record, so I wanted the involvement of more established writers to set the bar high," says Simon. "This time, I felt I should carry it all myself."



Division Street took 18 months to write and record, and finishing it presented some personal challenges. "In the middle of recording, I thought I'd take a few weeks off to work on lyrics, but it turned into three months," says Simon. "It was a very difficult time. I was suffering from deep depression and I was creeping myself out constantly. I had to go on medication eventually, which helped some. It took me three months to finally return to the studio, but by that time I had most of the lyrics."



The album was difficult to complete, yes, but that makes some sense: as a listener, Simon is attracted to singer-songwriters whose difficult processes are evident in their work. "I like when a songwriter really goes down the rabbit hole and digs deep to come up with something powerful," he says. "I tend to be drawn to artists with real problems—misfits and wounded animals."



Division Street features lots of guest musicians—including Nikolai Fraiture from the Strokes on bass, vocals by Inara George, Feist's musical director Brian LeBarton playing synths, as well as Nate Walcott from Bright Eyes and Wilco's Mikael Jorgensen. Later, Benmont Tench (of the Heartbreakers) and celebrated LA-based record producer and composer Jon Brion joined a recording session. "I'm very lucky," says Simon. "Everybody that we asked to come and guest on the record showed up."



Drummer Pete Thomas was deeply involved in the album's construction, from its earliest sessions. "I had the perfect drummer for the job in Pete Thomas," says Simon. "I'd grown up listening to his work with Elvis Costello. Pete is very unique, I think—he has the sophistication of a first-rate session drummer, if needed, but he also has an understanding of primitive, punk drumming. And even this description of him does not do justice to his musicality."



"I admit to having gotten a late start," says Simon, who hopes to follow up Division Street with two more albums in quick succession. "Most people do their Rock 'n' Roll stuff from 25 to 35; I'm going to do it from 35 to 45. For some reason, that's my weird fate."



Simon's tastes are eclectic, which might explain why this album has such a different sound from his first. "As a guitar player, I'm just as comfortable playing honky tonk or fingerpicking folk-y stuff as I am playing a Ramones riff or a Ron Asheton style solo," he says. "I like Little Richard, the Kinks, Big Star, Hank Williams and the Pixies and Television and Muddy Waters and T Rex. I like the Who and I like X. I like it all."

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The Polyphonic Spree with Harper Simon

Friday, June 28 · Doors 7:00 PM / Show 8:00 PM at Varsity Theater