The Polyphonic Spree’s Tim DeLaughter was nice enough to share his thoughts on being called a “fragile army,” the persistence of life, and what it’s like when people expect you to be Mr. Sunshine.
An Interview with Tim DeLaughter of the Polyphonic Spree
Me: During last night’s show you pulled a kid who had made his own Fragile Army outfit up on stage.
Tim DeLaughter: I was just inspired by his willingness to do that. I had to bring him up there.
M: The timing was perfect, because I was just thinking how you were a group of regular people who turned into rock stars. Just then you pulled a kid on stage and gave him the chance to sing in front of a thousand people. Is that communal spirit a key element of what you do? How did that factor in when staring the band?
T: At the genesis of it all, it was just about trying to create a sound. I had no idea that eventually it would become what it is and we would be touring everywhere. The key for me was these instruments to create a sound. After that was done, then it started becoming more than that. It evolved into a communal gathering of people on the same page musically. It’s evolved tremendously from the start. It really wasn’t that romantic at the start.
M: What’s the recording process like? Do you do most of the compositions yourself?
T: I do. We’re putting out a documentary with the CD. It’s like 51 minutes long, it’ll give you some idea how things work. Usually I write the songs on the piano or guitar, then I bounce it off Julie – she and I work on songs, we kind of always have. Then when I feel like it’s ready to take it to the band, I take it to the band.
But the Fragile Army was quite different. Usually we spend time on the road working out new songs before we put them on record. This entire album was done in about a period of two weeks – it was me just kind of locking myself in and trying to get it out, crafting it was some other guys in the band and Julie. It kind of added this exciting element to it, because you never knew what was going to come out of it.
M: The fist thing that struck me about The Fragile Army was that it seemed to be more about complimentary pairs of instruments — a flute and guitar, piano and bass — than a full wall of sound hitting you at once. Was this movement intentional or did it just sort of pop up?
T: These songs are so new that we were flying by the seat of our pants through all of it. A lot of songs were completely different songs at the beginning than how they ended up. A lot of ideas you have going into it… Which I did. I visualized a sonic pallet for the record – but once we got into it, it took kind of a left turn. Which was cool, because I wasn’t really expecting it, but we embraced it.
M: Your albums always feel cohesive – like a record versus a collection of songs. What are your feelings on championing the album over singles culture?
T: I love making albums. We are in a world of singles and more people are interested in picking little jewels off the record. But for me as an artists, to have my creative worth and feel worthy, it’s got to be more of a concept. It’s got to work all together as one unit in one listen. And if people want to pull something off there, they can go ahead and do it; but for me, it’s all about putting together an album.
M: When the album title first came out, I remember everyone was saying this would be your political album; but now that I’ve heard it, I don’t think that’s quite fair. To me it seemed more of a questioning look at the world. How did it feel while writing it?
T: We do touch on issues we’ve never touched on before, but I wouldn’t say political album. It does reek of some disheartening feelings going on now in the political genre – I mean, come on, I’m not the only one. And to be a songwriter and to not think about what’s going on is just… you’d have to have your head in the sand.
But there’s a couple different situations where we were recording the record. I was watching the state of the union and just sort of snapped and went in the studio to record “the Fragile Army.” After years of taking the abuse, it just sort of bubbled up into that song.
But that’s not all that’s going on. It’s also about love and loss and relationships and lives: things that tend to affect your life on a daily basis.
M: I read somewhere that Mike Mills came up with the title?
T: He said we reminded him of a fragile army and I just loved that description of the band. I told him I was going to name the next record that, but little did I know it would take on this kind of literal approach where we really feel like the fragile army. We kind of became what the name was, or just realized that we always were. And it wasn’t just us, it was everybody that can fall under the umbrella of the fragile army.
M: What about the term ‘fragile army’ struck such a chord with you?
T: I don’t know. I thought it was an awesome complement. It was so massive to me that it seemed like more of a race of people being the fragile army. It was such a broad statement that could apply to everybody. That was appealing to me. It was flattering. And it’s something that everyone can identify with. At the end of the day, we’re all just trying to make it from A to B. We’re all fragile.
M: Tell me a little about the new uniforms and the insignia. What made you decide on them?
T: [The heart and red cross] are just universal symbols for peace, basically. We just wanted to be able to adorn our new outfits with these symbols. It goes with the attire of the fragile army. It’s so you’ll know us from the bad guys. We’re the good guys.
M: You started the Polyphonic Spree after a death and a birth… and also a Disney movie about dinosaurs?
T: Yeah. (Laughs)
M: Which one?
T: It was Dinosaur. Maybe Dinosaurs? It was a horrible movie. The movie didn’t have anything to do with it, because it was just a bad movie. But it sort of cleared me up to start the band.
M: So with all that at the genesis, what things keep you going?
T: I get inspired by the littlest things. I walk down the street and see a blade of grass growing in the concrete and that inspires me. I get inspired by people coming up with descriptions of us like ‘the fragile army.’ I kind of always have tried to embrace life as much as possible and to accept its ups and downs no matter how far it goes. I think it’s an awesome ride. It can be a bitch sometimes, but when it works it’s really, really good and inspires me to keep going.
You can’t be inspired all the time, but you have to find it in other ways, you know? Maybe the way this tree can’t handle this fence there so it just envelops the fence and keeps on growing. These little things that are around you can take as huge reminders that no matter what obstacles are there, you an always flourish and grow. It’s become a pattern to me, so maybe that’s why I sing about that. We’ve got all these little things around us all the time that are telling us to keep going and keep growing.
M: That’s one thing I’ve always gotten from your lyrics: the persistence of life.
T: Yeah. I love it, man. But at the same time, I get down. I had a breakdown during the making of this record. I didn’t think I’d be able to come out of it. I do it every time. That’s what Julie says: “it’s nothing new, you go through this every time.” And she’s right, but it sucks man. Lord, I mean it sucks when you get down there… and everyone goes through it. But when you come out of it and you get that overwhelming feeling when you’re just beside yourself with excitement, it just wipes away the things you were feeling before. It reminds you that goddamn, this is a good life I’m living.
M: Writing about such uplifting stuff as you do, do people expect you to be Mr. Sunshine all day?
T: Yeah, they do. It’s a big misconception and that’s what sucks about it. They kind of got the wrong impression of our group from the beginning. And it was nothing that we put out, it was just people’s interpretation of our music: “they’re just a happy band.” And not that happiness isn’t good, but it’s just a bit shallow to think that twenty four people are happy all the time. We’re all people with the same dynamics that everyone has in their emotional pattern.
That was annoying to me, because it wasn’t really a fair description. Especially with that first record, The Beginning Stages Of… To me that’s a really melancholy record, it’s a really dark record. I got glimpses of zeal, but I didn’t even take that record like everybody else took it when we recorded it. I was coming out of some serious situations that weren’t happy at all – they were very depressing. That record’s more a cry for help for me than for anybody else. It was to remind myself that “hey, it’s not that bad. Keep on moving.”
I never even thought that record was going to go anywhere, that’s the weird thing. It was just a demo that we did in three days. I mean, it was never intended to be a record. It was just for myself, an idea that I had. I had no idea that it was going to come out as the first record for the band. And most people have spent a long time together as a group and they know they’re going to be a band so they work towards that. This wasn’t really like that. This was my therapy of trying to heal myself of a rough time. Then it ended up becoming a record and then people started summing up the band because we were excited about playing our music. Which we were! You think, a lot of these people were just average people playing symphonic music in their bedrooms and special situations and at school and never in a million years thought they could be in a rock band. And it’s exciting! It’s a dream come true for some people. The audience can feel that. It’s weird how the description of us was so shallow in my opinion, but it’s changing.
M: I’m sure the live shows are helping people’s opinion.
T: It’s always going to be a spirited live show, or I’m out.