Mark Pirro is a little fuzzy on the number of people in his band. There are 27 members listed on the Spree’s debut album, while the current band photo includes 25. But Pirro hazards that it’s actually 22. Or is it, he wonders, actually 23?
“You know what?” the Spree’s bass player confessed by phone during a break from recording his group’s sophomore album at a Denton, Texas, studio. “I couldn’t tell you.
“It’s kind of the running joke in the band that nobody knows how many people are in at any given time,” Pirro adds with a laugh.
It’s also a running joke within the band’s hometown Dallas music community that everybody knows someone who’s played at some point with the Spree.
Yet their sprawling ranks rank as only one among sundry quirks concerning The Polyphonic Spree, which is probably still better known in London and Tokyo than it is in Dallas (or, for that matter, across the United States — though a recent Volkswagen/iPod TV ad featuring the band’s “Light & Day/Reach for the Sun” is quickly changing that).
You want odd? For starters, there are Spree members’ matching long, white robes, evoking some Jonestown-style cult. (“We’ve heard the Kool-Aid jokes before,” Pirro admits.)
There’s the full choir of singers, the youngest just 17.
The symphonic instruments paired with a rock ‘n’ roll rhythm section.
But most of all, there’s the relentless emotional uplift in the swollen band’s swelling songs, building and peaking and building and … creating the sense of one continuous musical crescendo.
Crowds ranging from mohawked mosh-nicks to families toting young kids become swaying throngs of smiling converts, stoned on a kind of quasi-religious zeal.
The Spree make God music, but without evoking any particular god — a joyful noise raised in praise of, well, joy itself. Instead of “What a friend we have in Jesus!,” you get “Hey, it’s the sun, and it makes me shine!”
Spree shows are more celebratory event than concert, Pirro notes. And that’s part of what fans are digging so much.
“They’re going, ‘I can come here, and I can be vulnerable,'” he explains. “‘I can smile after a song and feel good. I don’t have to stand there in the shadows with my arms crossed with a frown on my face’ — like people have been doing with a lot of the music that’s been coming out in the last 10 or 15 years.”
Pirro gets a real charge out of watching audience members from the stage as they quit fighting it and finally give in to their emotions — and smile.
“Oh, it’s so beautiful,” he gushes. “That’s the sweet spot.”
Imagine if a giant yellow bubble in one of those psychedelic gel shows from the ’60s suddenly burst, drenching the assembled horde in its happy hue. The Polyphonic Spree is kinda like that.
Mere hyperbole? you say. Then you ain’t read nothin’ yet.
Gooey love letters
A few Spree descriptions from the seemingly endless BBC online message board for fans of the band and its debut CD The Beginning Stages Of … (just re-released stateside on Disney subsidiary Hollywood Records):
“This album makes me so happy it hurts,” confesses Aaron of Austin, Texas.
“A sonic love orgasm,” declares Shrie of Denton.
“A sound that hovers somewhere between the top and bottom of a Double Stuf Oreo cookie,” raves Pete Rosenzweig of Los Angeles.
“I still love Nirvana,” admits Brian Blaycock of Allen, Texas, “but there comes a point when you can’t be angry anymore. You find yourself needing joy. … The Polyphonic Spree are better than drugs.”
The Spree grew out of the ruins of moderately successful, tight-knit ’90s alt-pop band Tripping Daisy (remember “I Got a Girl”?), which broke up in 1999, following the drug-overdose death of guitarist Wes Berggren.
After a couple years’ hiatus, Pirro signed on to fellow ex-Daisy member Tim DeLaughter’s vision for a new style of music — what DeLaughter called “choral symphonic pop,” an outgrowth of his love for lavish Sgt. Pepper’s– and Pet Sounds-era song arrangements.
Spree leader DeLaughter (pronounced de-LAW-ter) has said that he wanted to fashion music suggesting regeneration — a massive, blissful sound raised up against sadness.
The Polyphonic Spree has the sweep and self-conscious grandeur of recent Flaming Lips (DeLaughter’s voice often recalls that of the Lips’ Wayne Coyne), the unironic optimism of old Disney tunes, and a sonic thickness that feels something like Phil “Wall of Sound” Spector getting it on with a chamber orchestra, a brass band and the entire choir from Godspell.