Around the year 2000, singer-songwriter Tim DeLaughter had an idea for a kind of music, a sound that popped into his head, and like many moments of inspiration, it created an opportunity and a problem. On the one hand the music was, essentially, the idea that would give birth to The Polyphonic Spree, DeLaughter’s robe-clad, symphonic pop outfit that, shortly after forming, road a jubilant wave of sugary anthems to popular and critical success. For a moment they were everywhere: gigging around the clock at South by Southwest, being invited by David Bowie to play his musical festival in England, blaring in iPad and Volkswagen commercials, scoring movie soundtracks. Locally, they even tapped into that real mark of musical immortality: holiday tradition. This is the tenth year the band will put on its holiday music showcase (and the first time they will tour it), a popular Christmas-themed concert that, in true Spree fashion, resembles more of a variety show (complete with live animals) than a caroling circle.
But as the band reaches its 12th birthday, it has never been clearer that for all the success, Tim DeLaughter’s epiphany-like conception of a 21-piece band blending pop sensibility, symphonic orchestration, and exuberant melodies has created more than its fair share of difficulties.
“We’ve kind of exhausted our resources at this point,” DeLaughter says by phone, speaking the day of the release of the Spree’s holiday album, Holidaydream, the first full-length LP the band has put out since 2007’s The Fragile Army. It’s not typical that a band that once played Conan O’Brien and Jools Holland’s late-night shows and rubbed elbows with the likes of Bowie would break a half-decade recording silence with a Christmas record. But that speaks to the peculiar beast that is The Polyphonic Spree, a rock and roll band seriously flirting with a “Christmas Spectacular” business model.
The problem, DeLaughter readily admits, is that the band really shouldn’t have worked in the first place. It took a lot of egging-on from friends to get DeLaughter to follow through with his idea for The Spree. A slapdash show at the Gypsy Tea Room was followed up with an equally slapdash recording, a demo that would become the band’s popular first record, The Beginning Stages of … . That record came together merely because DeLaughter was looking to find gigs for his new project, and he couldn’t translate his vision into convincing-enough marketing.
“Promoters couldn’t get their head around it,” DeLaughter says.
The frontman eventually proved them wrong. But after a wild rise to success (there was a time when four British record labels combined their resources to fly the band to tour England just so the execs could have a look at them) things flattened out.
“My wife” –Polyphonic Spree choir member Julie Doyle – “and I have laid in bed and said, ‘How much longer can we do this?’” he says. “It’s a beast; it is very expensive.”
Even from the beginning, DeLaughter knew that there was something self-defeating about a rock band comprised of 21 or so musicians. Bands, now more than ever, earn their money touring. It’s hard to turn a profit hauling two dozen musicians around the world. There is the travel, food, lodging, and gear, and even when you divvy up money earned from a big gig, spitting it 21 ways is a surefire way to make it feel like a small one. During the height of the band’s success, when endorsements, licensing, and other revenue streams were coming in, DeLaughter said they had no choice but to take the cash and invest it right back into the band.
“We always put all of our money back into the band,” he says. “We’ve been on and off about seven labels, signed and dropped. It has all come down to the financing of the touring. We would still fund our band even while we were on a major label. It got to be ridiculous. We were actually paying when [the labels] couldn’t pay anymore just so we can tour. And when we didn’t have the money, we even got a second mortgage on our house and funded the band.”
Second mortgages and upside business models. These are the kinds of things that keep DeLaugher and Doyle up at night. Yet perhaps despite his best judgment, DeLaughter is back in the studio working on a new Polyphonic Spree record. To make it work this time, the band has turned to the social fundraising platform Kickstarter, with a goal to raise $100,000 to fund the completion of the album, the 2013 tour, and everything else that goes into the making of rock and roll. The Kickstarter campaign is not merely a way of padding the budget. If the group doesn’t raise the funds, there might not be a group.
“We’re throwing caution into the wind because we are in the studio right now,” DeLaughter says. “But if we don’t make the amount, it would definitely hinder completing the album. It would definitely hinder the touring. Yeah, we’re putting all of our eggs in one basket with this.”
In a way, Kickstarter is a natural fit for the group that itself is a microcosm of crowd-sourced music making. But the decision to turn to it wasn’t an easy one for DLaughter.
“It took a while for me to even entertain the idea,” he says. “What helps you get your head around it is that you run out of money and you have nowhere else to go. But then the people in the band come back to it, and the fans come back to it. And it is kind of out of our control at this point.”
The demand for The Spree from legions of fans and legions of band members is one thing. But, truth be told, there’s another force driving DeLaughter back into the studio. It’s that sound, the same sound he heard in his head more than a decade ago.
“It has never happened,” he says of his original ambition for the music. “Just when I think we are getting close to it, it never happens. And maybe that is part of the reason why it keeps going on.”
Photo Credit: Steve Wrubel