catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 9 :: 2003.04.25 — 2003.05.08


What's going on?

Judging from U2's return to sincerity in All That You Can't Leave Behind, the optimism of Nas' God's Son, the popularity of Bruce Springsteen's inspirational The Rising, the gospel music tendencies of Billy Corgan in his new band Zwan, the recent buzz surrounding Austin, Texas' Polyphonic Spree, one might agree with Beck that the pop music world is undergoing a Sea Change.

Both Beck and U2 spent much of their time in the nineties dwelling in irony, sarcasm and mockery, but have taken a decidedly more straight-forward approach in recent work. Pearl Jam has gone from saying "this is not for you" on 1994's Vitalogy to "you are a tower of strength to me" in 2002's Riot Act, a transition as striking as Trent Reznor's of NIN, who went from feelings of self-destruction in the nineties to feelings of wanting to start a family five years later. PJ Harvey angrily screamed "man-size!" in protest against men on 1993's Rid of Me only to sing the praises of being in love with one on 2000's Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea. The Red Hot Chili Peppers offered a dark and menacing view of sexuality and drug addiction in Blood Sugar Sex Magik, but their newest album, By The Way, is full of remorse and beauty. Mick Jagger lent his voice to numerous Rolling Stones songs that stole the jubilation of Black Gospel music and turned it into the euphoria of sexual license in the sixties and seventies, but on his recent solo record, Goddess in the Doorway, Jagger seems to give joy back to its rightful owner on songs like "God Gave Me Everything" and "Joy." Is this a sign of the times, evidence of a spiritual re-awakening in our culture, or mere coincidence?

There are many reasons artists have a change of heart or become more positive in spirit. Sometimes those reasons are quite concrete. For both Zwan and The Polyphonic Spree, bands whose sound, performance style and lyrical content tempt some Christians to count them among "the believers," the positivity and good-will of their music can be attributed to a common experience.

The Polyphonic Spree and Zwan owe their origin to the front-men, Tim DeLaughter and BillyCorgan, who started new bands after being in difficult experiences with groups they began in the nineties, DeLaughter with Tripping Daisy and Corgan with the Smashing Pumpkins. DeLaughter wanted to do more with Tripping Daisy but his musical vision could not be realized until the unexpected break-up of his band and a series of events leading to The Polyphonic Spree. Corgan felt stifled in a band that had become so well-defined that he couldn't make the music he was feeling without leaving the Pumpkins behind. Now DeLaughter, visionary and self-professed instigator of the Polyphonic Spree, a 27 (and counting?) piece band of classical musicians and singers, sings songs of celebration in performances that bear a striking resemblance to Godspell while Corgan declares himself "of faith" on Mary, Star of the Sea.

In an interview at, DeLaughter tells how The Polyphonic Spree came to be, revealing the actual factors contributing to the sense of jubilation in the music. The beginnings of this positivity can be seen already in Tripping Daisy, DeLaughter says, because that experience made him realize he could do anything musically that he could imagine in his head.

Tripping Daisy gave me an opportunity to explore inner music ideas and then rejoice in the fact, "Oh wow, I can do that," or, "You can go that way with it," and that gave me the confidence to embrace music in every way: get in it, twist it around and not be afraid of it, and not be afraid to try all sorts of things. I think that's a very valid point in that Tripping Daisy gave me the right and the passage to explore music, and to revel in that, or give me the confidence to go for The Polyphonic Spree."

DeLaughter's belief that he could do anything he set his mind to was challenged when Wes Berggren, DeLaughter's bandmate, died of a drug overdose and Tripping Daisy ceased to exist. But the experience of putting together The Polyphonic Spree has been an affirmation of his positive outlook on life.

Two years off, slowly getting myself back together again? You can persevere—this is life: life is fragile, and it has changes, twists, it has turns, and we apply ourselves to these situations; if there's a bump in the road, we go around it, or if we want to experience it, then—what the hell—we go for it, and we bump! I slowly but surely started coming out of this thing with the help of my family and my friends and the people that cared about me—they offered me this incentive.

Once DeLaughter decided to put The Polyphonic Spree together, he was amazed at how easily everything else fell into place. DeLaughter did not have to do much searching for instrumentalists. The musicians came to him. The ease with which everything came together was all part of the experience that could eventually be detected in the music itself.


The Polyphonic Spree became the very embodiment of the things DeLaughter had come to realize through his experience of putting the band together.

Inadvertently, our lyrical-content is leaking out the fact that I've realised all this, and that's why you may get life-connotations, and spiritual connotations about the group through what we do. I think that's where people from the outside see what we're doing and ask, "Why is it so full of life, and joyful?" and it's advertently from what our music is about?

DeLaughter's description of The Beginning of Stages of, in RollingStone Magazine further reveals the extent to which his own experience of putting together The Polyphonic Spree is evident in the music itself. "Sonically it's the best thing I've ever been a part of, it's pretty much hair-raising and it's a really wonderful representation of The Polyphonic Spree two-and-a-half-years later. There's a story and theme that's cohesive through the whole record, a lot of hope and aspirations of reaching more and making it through." DeLaughter says the sense many people have at their shows, the feeling of euphoria and joy, comes from the musicians in Polyphonic Spree who are glad to be involved with the music and from DeLaughter's own feelings of self-fulfillment.


Corgan's own testimony concerning the making of Zwan resembles that of DeLaughter in many respects. In an interview with Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot on Chicago's 93 XRT radio, both Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlain, former drummer for the Smashing Pumpkins, admit that the biggest difference between Zwan and The Pumpkins is that Zwan does not seem like as much work and it is more fun to play in.

The forming of the band attests to the ease with which the members slid into Zwan. In an interview with Talia Soghomolian of, Corgan explains how the band came about.

I was going to work in Salt Lake City just to do some writing with Matt Sweeney. He sort of wanted to come out, hang out and maybe write some songs together. And then Jimmy got word that we were going to do that. So he goes, "Oh, can I come out too?" So we just sort of started playing. Within two weeks, we were like, "Holy shit, we've got a band." But before that, there was really no planning it. It just all fell together.

Getting a bass player and another guitarist came just as easily.

Dave Pajo was a friend of Matt's and we were chillin'. And then we decided to do some shows and we didn't have a bass player. So we asked Dave to play bass and bring him to the show. And after we'd practiced a while—we'd had such a good time—we asked Dave to join the band. But then we moved him over to guitar; so we still didn't have a bass player. And Paz sort of… somebody suggested her playing and we asked her to join. It was two or three days after.

With this experience as a starting point, Zwan began writing music together, and what came out is a testament to that positive experience (see Jason VandeBrake?s review on Zwan).


When Soghomalian pushes Corgan to explain the Christian terminology on the album, Corgan initially insists that it's more about faith than theology. "I think faith is everything. Faith is the will to get out of bed, to write songs," Corgan says. Soghomalian points out that this general faith Corgan refers to seems to be pointed rather specifically toward a certain Mary, star of the sea. Corgan 'fesses up and says "I just wanted to give a—what do you call it, a shout-out? I just wanted to give a shout-out (laughs) to the Creator, the Mother of the Universe. It's pretty Christian. It's Christian theology."

Corgan's admission speaks to the emotional thrust of Zwan's first album, but he is quick to point out that this is not a sign the band is part of some large-scale movement of musicians who are all starting to look on the bright side of life. When Soghomalian says "Your music has gone from rage to mellow. It's less gloom and more bloom. Is it a sign of the times? How reflective is it of you?", Corgan responds: "I think it's more reflective in that it's probably closer to who I am as a person. Zwan is probably closer to me. Pumpkins was more something we did, that the band made. Zwan's probably more like how I feel, and I probably didn't feel this way then."

The question as to why it seems many artists are feeling more and more like Corgan and DeLaughter is an interesting one. U2 had a conversation with Wim Wenders that made them think too much irony is not good for a society. Nas was affected by the death of his mother. Bruce Springsteen was encouraged to get back into the ring when a man yelled "We need you, Bruce" a few days after the attack on New York. Beck broke up with his girlfriend and probably just exhausted his mocking attitude during Midnite Vultures. Pearl Jam was affected by September 11 and its aftermath. Trent Reznor got older and busier. PJ Harvey found a great guy. The Chili Peppers have kids and became more reflective. Mick Jagger wanted to do his own record his way.

Whatever the reasons for this apparent spiritual movement in music, it is important that we see it, that we recognize something's going on here. There does seem to be a trend toward renewing a sense of unbridled positivity in society and restoring euphoria to its rightful place as an acceptable emotion. As with all cultural changes, there is a temptation to immediately jump on board with the new. But in these times, as much as any other time, it is still our task to separate the wheat from the chaff, to distinguish between that which promotes life and that which leads to death. But in order to make such a judgment, it's first necessary to recognize that something new is here, something to keep watch over with eyes open wide and lamps burning bright, so we don't miss what's going on.

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