Posted Aug. 15, 2004.
In a band with more than 20 members, it might be easy to get lost in the shuffle, especially when everyone in the band wears identical robes.
While the Texas troupe fronted by ex-Tripping Daisy lead singer Tim DeLaughter is making waves with its sophomore record, “Together We’re Heavy,” trombonist James Reimer is just happy that people are embracing the Polyphonic Spree’s unique blend of hook-heavy symphonic power.
Reimer and the rest of the band collaborate on the songwriting in the studio, though DeLaughter writes the lyrics.
“We’ll just kind of jam along to it and then we’ll come up with things that work, musically speaking,” Reimer said. “Sometimes that can be a train wreck and sometimes it’s not. It’s really interesting but it’s really the only way we’ve found that’s worked. [Tim] will come in with something, we’ll add to it and he’ll go back and re-work the whole skeleton of the arrangement and we’ll come up with something until everyone’s with it.”
This kind of collaborative environment showcases the Spree’s focus on unity; however, with so many people involved in the process, Reimer admits that sometimes it can be difficult.
“It’s one of those things where someone might have strong opinions and someone will eventually win, but in the end it will come down to if Tim wants to do it that way,” Reimer said. “The good thing about it is that [he will] go with you in those directions if you want to take it [that] way. That’s the cool thing about it, our influences are felt.”
Back in early ‘90s Reimer used to go see Tripping Daisy when they were just starting out, but he didn’t know any of them personally.
“I kind of kept my distance. I was studying music at the time. One of my friends was a DJ in Dallas and he turned me on to what Tim was doing and I listened to it and I was really sort of ‘Oh that’s different.’ It took me a couple listens to realize what was going on,” Reimer said. “Then I realized they didn’t have a trombone player so I was like, ‘Well I wonder if they’re looking for one.’ So I just e-mailed the manager out of the blue and said, ‘Would you happen to be looking for this?’ I’m still around. I guess they liked it.”
For the Polyphonic Spree, camaraderie is a necessity. The band usually takes one bus on tour; however, during their recent dates opening for glam rock legend David Bowie, they took two.
“That’s pretty luxurious for us. You don’t have personal space and you just get used to that fact. When we have time off, everyone scatters to catch up on their personal-space time,” Reimer said. “[Touring with David Bowie] was awesome as you would expect it to be. I can’t really put it in words. It was also a big learning experience for us because we had to go out every night and play to a crowd that wasn’t ours ... you had to go out every night and sell it. Every night was a new night of people like, ‘Who’s this? What’s going on here? Who are all these crazy people?’”
The Polyphonic Spree’s chance to play for more potential fans was cut short earlier this summer after the cancellation of Lollapalooza tour due to poor ticket sales. The Spree was to play along with bands like Morrissey, Modest Mouse, The Flaming Lips and Sonic Youth.
“[With Lollapalooza] they were trying something different. I disagreed with the whole idea of having two-day festivals but no campsite available with it being out of cities. I thought it was kind of strange. A lot of it was during the week ... and I think a lot of the bands probably appealed to an older audience [and] they’d probably be working during the day. There are probably a lot of reasons for it [not working],” Reimer said. “It kind of sucks, but that’s how it goes and you just have to pick up the pieces and do what you can. I think when Lollapalooza fell through it left a lot of bands scrambling. Not only were we doing Lollapalooza, but we were doing a whole bunch of dates in between Lollapalooza dates too. That’s an expensive operation. We had to scrap the entire thing and start over.”
The live show is one of the most important selling points of a band like the Polyphonic Spree, and in order to convert more fans their huge sound and varied instrumentation is a key weapon that Reimer cites as an important way to make the band work.
“We’re doing one date in Washington, D.C.,” Reimer said. “A lot of the other places we’re playing more than one night, and eventually, if this thing continues to work, that’s how it really needs to be ... for us to stay in a city for about a week and then move on to another city and just play shows every night, [and] change it up every night.”
The most noticeable thing about the Polyphonic Spree is their wardrobe. Twenty-five grown adults in robes singing about the sun can seem very odd, but at least it’s not forgettable. Reimer explained that the decision to wear robes was DeLaughter’s idea.
“That was totally a Tim decision,” Reimer said. “Originally the robes were white and people wore them because they used to show video footage on the band. Everybody used to stand really close together and there was like, imagery and the band was the screen basically. In parts it was a unifying factor, and I think Tim had a bit of a Yes infatuation [and] John Anderson from Yes used to wear a robe. No matter what he might tell you about it, I think that’s one of the true reasons.”
Since the sight of a band backed by a choir in unifying robes seems, at first, extremely strange, it has been difficult for the band to shake the perception of them as a cult or a bunch of whackos.
“When people started calling [us] a cult and things, it really caught Tim off guard because he truly hadn’t thought of that. He was truly going for a look and a sound and something to compliment that. Nowadays I laugh at it. It’s really funny. That’s all I can do. There was probably a time where we would get collectively irritated by the whole thing because anyone who’s around us long enough will realize that we’re not ... but people are gonna make up things and they’re gonna believe what they want to believe,” Reimer said. “Along the way we’ve been helped out by some pretty overactive in imagination style journalists who have decided that we are indeed a cult. We did have a meeting where [Tim] said, ‘I didn’t really think of that, that never crossed my mind.’ Maybe it did cross his mind and we’re all suckered in. Maybe we are a cult. Maybe we’re just crazy.”
Whether or not the Polyphonic Spree is or is not a cult, their second record has more depth and is more fleshed-out, according to Reimer.
“I’m to the point now where I want to see how much more of a roller coaster emotionally we can go with it. I thought the second record did a much better job of having ups and downs and I just kinda like to drive that point home,” Reimer said. “We’ve got so many things that we can still do. I don’t think we’ve fully realized where we can go instrumentation-wise yet, and sounds that we can make, and breaking it down even further and doing it so differently. Hopefully the next record will explore one direction and maybe we’ll go in a completely different direction.”
It will be interesting to see where the Polyphonic Spree go from here, but they made a lot of sacrifices to get where they are now.
“Everywhere along the lines there are people who are helping us out that you wouldn’t think would,” Reimer sad. “I can’t explain that for you. I really can’t explain the whole thing. It is what it is.”
The Polyphonic Spree will play at the 9:30 club on Monday, Aug. 16.