The Polyphonic Spree’s Fragile Army
The Polyphonic Spree aren’t a jamband, but like the scene’s best improvisational acts, the choir-size collective is dedicated to making each of their live shows a unique spectacle. While it is difficult to tell exactly when the group’s name first entered the jamband lexicon, there is no question that The Polyphonic Spree’s appearance at Bonnaroo 2003 exposed the group to thousands of new fans. Since then the band has supported the String Cheese Incident on the road, performed at jam-centric festivals around the country and, at one point, even counted percussionist Mike Dillon among its members. From October 12-14 the group will perform at Atlanta’s first annual Echo Project, sharing a bill with a diverse mix of bands like Phil Lesh, the Killers, Les Claypool, moe., the Flaming Lips and Cypress Hill. Below, the 20-plus person group’s visionary, Tim DeLaughter, discusses the difficult creation of The Fragile Army, touring with David Bowie and why has a great deal of sympathy for The National.
MG- The Fragile Army feels much darker than previous Polyphonic Spree records. Do you feel the album’s tone is reflective of the label problems you encountered while working on this project?
TD- Well, we had this deadline we put on ourselves for the record. We were with another label at the time [Hollywood] and were cruising along and wanted to work with this one particular producer and they weren’t really into it. We turned in the basic tracks and they ended up dropping us. I couldn’t end up finding anyone to finance the record, so my wife and I did, which put a tremendous amount of financial strain on us. It affects everything when money is involved.
MG- How did the rest of the band react to the news?
TD- We didn’t let the band know that we had been dropped, so they thought everything was on. Everyone around us thought it was on. The only people who knew were my wife and I. So to know that is going on when you are trying to make a record puts a huge strain on you, but we persevered on and made the record. I just kept telling myself that we will find a home and TVT came out of the blue and now we are with them.
The making of The Fragile Army was a tough experience. My wife made a documentary on the making of the record which came out with the record. It is 51 minutes and offers a glimpse into what we were thinking when we were making the record, like “this is what is going on.”
MG- The Polyphonic Spree was once known for its colorful costumes and bright songs. Now you wear army dark uniforms onstage. Was it a conscious decision to darken the tone for The Fragile Army and its live show?
TD- Yeah. There is a general theme that has always been in the Polyphonic Spree’s records and I think it is something I’ve noticed about myself. It is this constant striving to live life in the midst of the down times and to try to hold onto some sort of optimism to try to catapult it to the next day. This record has that theme in it and also has a tone which recalls the political climate which is going on right now. I watched Bush’s State of the Union Address while we were making the record and went in and wrote the song “The Fragile Army,” which is the album’s title track. To me, the song “The Fragile Army” is the genesis of the record. It kind of struck a chord. I really like this song .
So it kind of has a little bit of this, a little bit of that, but it is definitely the most urgent record we have made to date. I think it is a little reminiscent of my previous time in the group Tripping Daisy. I think the album has elements of that group incorporated into it.
MG- Which elements of The Fragile Army would you say specifically recall Tripping Daisy?
TD- It is much more electric and urgent. I feel it is a rock record, while our other albums were much more symphonic and not as aggressive. This is much more urgent. We went into the studio wanting to make a record like this. That’s another thing, the band didn’t really even know the songs before entering the studio to play their parts. I had kind of written them on my own with my wife and John Congleton who produced this with us. So it was really spontaneous for them. They kind of showed up and boom had to learn the parts right there.
“Light to Follow” started off because I have this old Hammond drum machine from the 1960s and I just love this drum beat. I was messing around with my keyboard and kind of wrote this song, which is kind of different for us but I really like it.
MG- The Polyphonic Spree is known for both its live show and its studio albums. When working on The Fragile Army, did you put any thought into how these songs would translate live?
TD- Well you think about that sometimes, but you are mostly just thinking about the making of the record. Sometimes an idea will pop up, but we try to focus on those ideas later.
MG- In May, the Polyphonic Spree played the David Bowie-curated High Line Festival and you opened his amphitheater tour in 2004. Can you talk a bit about how your relationship has developed?
TD- It was a phenomenal experience and one I like to relive in my head over and over again. David is responsible for basically breaking my group and taking us out of Texas. He invited us to come to London and play Royal Festival Hall. He was curating a festival called the Meltdown Festival and after that things just started happing for us over in the UK and throughout Europe. Then, when we came back home and were getting ready to put a record out, he called us and said, “Do you want to come on the road be our opening act?” I was like, “Well, hmm let me think about that [laughs].”
After the first few shows he was like, “I want you to come onstage and play a song with me, so you will come down and walk back here and then join me here to sing.” Then he invited us to New York to play the High Line Festival, so it has been such an amazing experience.
MG- Did he personally invite you to play High Line?
TD- It wasn’t like that at all actually. I didn’t actually talk to him directly, we found out through our manager that he wanted us to play, so it wasn’t this romantic story. But we try to make it a special evening. Anything that is touched by him and playing under that umbrella is just great.
MG- The Polyphonic Spree has played a number of major festivals, from Bonnaroo to Coachella to Lollapalooza. In October you are playing the Echo Project. Do you have a favorite festival memory?
TD- I really enjoyed Coachella. I had done something to my knee, so I was out there hopping on one foot, but it was still a great show. I saw the National open for Arcade Fire during the High Line Festival and their lead singer hurt his knee. I was totally feeling for him because that was me! We also played Glastonbury three years ago and playing to 80,000 people is a pretty fantastic thing to do.
MG- The Polyphonic Spree is an American band that first found fame found overseas in Europe. Why do you think that’s the case for so many musicians?
TD- They are a bit more open to things which might be a bit more left of center. Obviously it worked for us because it happened for us out there before it happened over here. I just feel they are bit more open to what is happening. Radio over here is being choked. But over there you will hear an Elton John song and the next song will be a Beach Boys song and then the next song will be a current band like the Darkness. They play everything and anything, which is so different than the crazy formatting which goes on over here. I have a record store in Dallas, Good Records, which is an independent record store and I know the radio scene is out of bounds and has been. It is getting worse and worse. There is amazing music being made over here and great bands happening, but people driving in their cars have no idea what is going on. Over in the UK they do. Some bands get more TV airplay then radio airplay over here.