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Music: The Biggest Rock Band in the World

Tim DeLaughter’s new band, the Dallas-based, 24-member Polyphonic Spree, is playing sold-out shows all over the world. But this time, he won’t let success ruin a good thing.
By Adam McGill |
Tim DeLaughter’s new 24-member Dallas group is playing sold-out shows all over the world. This time, he won’t let success ruin it.

On a cold, rainy saturday in October 1999, friends, family, and fans gathered at the Unity Church of Christianity on Greenville Avenue to remember Wes Berggren, guitarist for local band Tripping Daisy. Berggren and Melissa, his wife of less than a year, had gone to sleep in their apartment on Worth Street around midnight on that Tuesday. At about 5 p.m. the next day, Melissa, then 22, woke up. Wes never did. Toxicology reports indicated the 28-year-old had cocaine, propoxyphene, and benzodiazepine in his system.

At the memorial service, shared anecdotes and pictures were supposed to remind all of those in attendance that the talented and well-liked musician would live on in their hearts. Berggren’s parents handed out copies of a story about Wes camping with friends when he was 14, a parable of boyhood. “Dry those tears, good come out of Dallas, disbanded. “I said, ’I can’t do this anymore without him.’ Wes always said he believed in fate and that everything was always going to play itself out. At the time, it’s hard to believe that. It was so horrible.”

DeLaughter took a break from music, not playing a note for months. If he was ever going to play again professionally, the music would have to be something special, something more than just music.

“I had a lot of great times with Tripping Daisy, I really did,” DeLaughter says slowly, with a slight Southern drawl. His eyes grow big as he talks, and he looks much younger than his 37 years. “Some of the best times of my life were in that band.”

DeLaughter (pronounced de-LAW-der) and Berggren clicked the first time they met, in 1991, when DeLaughter’s girlfriend (now wife) Julie Doyle introduced them. Berggren was a classmate of Doyle’s at the University of North Texas. Bassist Mark Pirro joined on, as did drummer Jeff Bouck, who was soon replaced by Bryan Wakeland, and Tripping Daisy was born.

The music, psychedelic-slash-punk-based rock, was hard and fast and loud and fun. In a matter of months, the band went from an open-mic gig at Club Dada, in Deep Ellum, to selling out 1,000-seat venues. Within a year, Tripping Daisy released their first album, Bill, on a local, independent label, and by 1993, they had signed with Island Records, which re-mastered it and released I Am an Elastic Firecracker, the band’s follow-up.

Firecracker’s first single, “I Got a Girl,” helped sell nearly 300,000 copies of the album and hit No. 7 on Billboard charts. The song was silly but infectious, almost overly so (“I got a girl/ She loves her dog/ I got a girl/ I love her dog too!”). But “Girl” was a huge hit, and the band that had worked so hard to build up grass-roots support was on the brink of becoming a one-hit wonder, a novelty act in the eyes and ears of fickle music fans.

In 1996, Tripping Daisy’s audience was growing for all the wrong reasons. The band made decisions based on money, not art, like when they agreed to open for such shtick metal acts as Tesla and Def Leppard. “We got sucked into that environment where it was all about record sales,” DeLaughter told a reporter before the release of their third album, Jesus Hits Like the Atom Bomb. “We became what we despised.”

Atom Bomb would refocus the band on the music, not the marketing. “That record was going to be the one that was going to transcend everything,” DeLaughter says today. “That record was amazing.”

But soon after Atom Bomb hit the shelves, on July 7, 1998, Island Records decided not to renew the band’s contract. Seagrams, the Canadian liquor company, had purchased Island’s parent company, PolyGram, a couple of months before. In the buyout aftermath, 3,000 people lost their jobs, and a lot of bands, Tripping Daisy included, lost their label.

Without major-label support, not many people heard the critically acclaimed Atom Bomb. The band was evolving musically, but it was forced to return to its independent roots. Tripping Daisy, the band’s rich, symphonic fourth album, was released on Good Record Recordings, an independent label that DeLaughter started and runs with his wife. (They also operate Good Records, an independent music store in Deep Ellum.)

Only a few weeks before Tripping Daisy was supposed to be in music stores, DeLaughter got a phone call from Don Berggren, Wes’ father. The album, the last that the band ever recorded, is dedicated to Wesley Joseph Berggren.

After Tripping Daisy’s demise, DeLaughter took jobs here and there, scraping together money as a set designer for catalog shoots and the like. He often talked about his next band as something he’d get around to eventually, like people who say they one day plan to write a book or run a marathon. For years, DeLaughter had the idea of a band in his head. He even had a name picked out: Polyphonic Spree. The group might have remained a figment had it not been for Chris Penn.

Penn, 32, was a fan of Tripping Daisy and eventually became DeLaughter’s friend. An employee of Good Records, Penn was plugged in to the local music scene, and a friend of his at the Gypsy Tea Room told him about a vacant opening slot for an upcoming concert in July 2000. He figured it was an ideal time to take Polyphonic from talked-about concept to music-making reality.

Penn saw it as the perfect way to motivate DeLaughter. The concert wasn’t a headlining gig, there wouldn’t be too many expectations, and a good crowd was assured. Penn pestered him with phone calls and e-mails, and DeLaughter finally acquiesced.

“To be honest,” Penn says sheepishly, “I had already told the club we’d play.” Penn, now a manager of the band, sang in the choir.

Polyphonic Spree took the stage in front of a packed, enthusiastic, and expectant crowd. The masses were not disappointed, and even DeLaughter was surprised. “Isn’t this great?” he said between songs.

The original band wasn’t as big as DeLaughter wanted, but it was still a production. He sang lead vocals and played guitar, Pirro and Wakeland from the Tripping Daisy days played bass and drums, and they were joined by about 10 other musicians, including a French horn player, trumpet player, percussionist, and a four-member choir. They all wore white robes for practical purposes—all those people in street garb would distract the audience from the music. Plus, as choir member Jennifer Jobe says, “It saved me from frantically trying to find something to wear before the show, so it was perfect.”

“After the show, people came up to me saying, ’Hey do you need this, do you need that?’” DeLaughter says. “And then everything started coming my way. Before I knew it, three months later I basically had the band I wanted. And I didn’t have to do anything!”

By the time the band recorded its first album in the fall of 2000, The Beginning Stages Of …, it had doubled in size, the choir tripled to 12. Recorded in just three days and a mere three months after the band’s inception, the songs are big, bold, and triumphant, symphonic yet catchy, sunny but with substance.

But the album does nothing to capture the visual, almost visceral, experience of the live shows. Polyphonic members jump and twirl, swinging instruments and bouncing off each other. The choir hand-jives and shimmies, smiling as they sing and singing as they smile. DeLaughter waves his arms as though they were on fire, occasionally stopping to pose proudly, like a 7-year-old on a diving board.

Polyphonic’s growing popularity and acclaim have been just as impressive as Tripping Daisy’s, if not more so. After the group wowed the music critics at Austin’s South by Southwest Music Festival, Chris Penn’s cell phone rang constantly with invitations to play gigs all over. They finally toured outside of Texas, hitting New York for a week of shows and jetting overseas for festivals and tours in the United Kingdom.

“It gets a little cramped [on the tour buses] sometimes and lifestyles sometimes clash,” Jobe says. “But that’s to be expected. It’s just kind of like a big family.”

DeLaughter continues to play the role of patient father. Music label 679 Recordings, a subsidiary of Warner Brothers, has options on the band’s as-yet-untitled follow-up album, which DeLaughter was putting the finishing touches on as recently as January at Dallas’ Luminous Studios. If 679 doesn’t pick up the album, DeLaughter isn’t worried. “I’ve got labels all over the world that want to sign this band,” he says. “I’m just taking my time.”

He’s taking his time because he’s learned from his own mistakes. And he’s taking his time because he can afford to, confident that everything will fall into place eventually, as things have in the past. Whether it’s finding a trombone player or needing someone for the choir, things always seem to work out for this group.

Two years ago, at the band’s first-ever show in London, an audience that was ready to dismiss the two dozen robe-wearing Texans as a novelty act witnessed music magic. In the middle of the show, the electricity went out. Penn sat by the sound board, wondering what to do. A few choir members nervously made jokes, but an awkward silence soon filled London’s Festival Hall. DeLaughter stood calmly with his hands behind his back as he started an a cappella version of a song called “Diamonds,” and the choir followed his lead. The instruments joined in acoustically. They were making do with what they had. And right as the song reached its crescendo, the power came back on. The crowd was floored.

It was something much more than music.

Photo Courtesy of Polyphonic Spree