July 8, 2009

Working Through the Hype: Passion Pit

Words by Jay D'Errico
Photos by Chrissy Piper

At the corner of Commonwealth and Harvard, just steps from the tracks that bring the T squealing into downtown Boston, is Allston’s Great Scott. It’s a tiny venue – a bar with a stage, really – and it attracts a decent following on Friday nights for its weekly dance party, The Pill. Tickets are usually cheap. The music: anything with a beat. On an uncharacteristically hot Friday this past May, however, whispers and online chatter had people lining up around the block, hours before the doors opened. Many never made it in to see the secret show; the line was still there when it all ended. The headliner? Passion Pit.

Imagine! Oracular Spectacular with V-necked tennis sweaters from an Ivy League school! Wow, the surreal sounds that could come out of that … it’d probably be a lot better than that Nietzsche-misquoting, Thriller-biting, Yellow Submarine on PCP and Joanna Newsom-sans-the-harp schlockfest video for “Kids” that those boys from Wesleyan are trying to shill on us a WHOLE YEAR after I got used to the fan made video on YouTube. It sounds like 2008, anyway.

Nobody’s really sure what causes music blogs with these kind of posts to circle the wagons around a new band of the moment, nor can anyone identify the tipping point when a backlash begins. One thing is certain though, the push and pull is always happening. At the time of this writing, it’s happening to Passion Pit, a band that formed in Boston with a Cinderella back story, a band that recently released their debut LP, Manners, to much fanfare. It’s this organic, burbling, pop monster that’s actually a bunch of sad-sack songs dressed up in dance music; an album that won’t have any problems on the house-party speakers, or peeking out the little window of your iPod Nano armband you wear on the treadmill. The remarkable thing about Passion Pit, aside from the accolades already showered upon the group, is how the band came to be.

Michael Angelakos remembers telling his parents, ever since he was in kindergarten, that hewanted to be a musician. It was something he’d been working on his whole life, and as a student of media arts at Emerson College in Boston, he’d create music to make his roommates dance. He was always falling behind in commitments to his girlfriend; things were either left undone or weeks late. Angelakos wrote her an apology/Valentine in the form of a collection of songs. They were beautifully lo-fi, earnestly poppy, and remarkably catchy. The songs were passed around Angelakos’ friends, and they soon made their way around Emerson.

After an impromptu, one-off solo performance of the material, Angelakos was approached by Ian Hultquist, who asked if he wanted to flesh the ideas out with a live band. Angelakos deferred at first, as it wasn’t something he was interested in. Then he came around to the idea and formed the band, very simply, because he didn’t have anything else going on. “I was more or less talked into it,” he says. “The whole band thing came about because I had nothing else to do.”

In addition to Hultquist, Angelakos surrounded himself with a group culled from the Berklee College of Music: Ayad al Adhamy, Jeff Apruzzese and Nate Donmoyer (an electronica producer under the name Shuttle); all self-proclaimed “guitar guys.” They began to translate the songs into a live show. Angelakos wasn’t interested in playing with a laptop, but he wanted to recreate it without guitars.

“We were interested in the idea of being guitarists who play keyboards,” he says. “Because we don’t have any training in that particular instrument, perhaps that allows us to play the instrument differently, naturally. So we use that to our advantage.”

Angelakos’ original collection of songs was subsequently released on Frenchkiss Records as the Chunk of Change EP in September 2008, and Frenchkiss up-streamed their contract with Passion Pit to major label Columbia Records in November of that same year. In shopping around for a label, Angelakos says, “[we] wanted one that would be less of a really good label, and one that’s more of a really good mentor.” He dispels the horror stories often associated with signing to a major, saying it couldn’t be any farther from the truth.

Passion Pit began working on songs for their first full length at the end of 2008, and Angelakos began recording them in New York City with producer Chris Zane (Harlem Shakes, The Walkmen, Les Savy Fav). According to Angelakos, Zane was the perfect fit as a young, talented producer because he didn’t simply put his stamp on the music. He was into exploring the studio every bit as much as the band. “The bottom line, he realized his true love for pop, and so did we,” explains Angelakos. “So we basically got to be on the same page like a quarter or halfway through the recording, and that made everything so much more exciting.” 
Angelakos did most of the songwriting and performing on the new album, but left the percussion duties to his ace programmer and drummer, Nate Donmoyer, who spent quite a bit of time in the studio as well.

Manners was released May 19, and one thing that’s immediately apparent is the depth of sound on the record. While Chunk of Change reveled in thin ribbons of melody, Manners is an exercise in breadth. The combination of live and programmed drums (with a heavy dose of hand percussion) with actual synthesizers makes the album burst out of the speakers. The true coup de grace is Angelakos’ use of the children’s chorus of PS22 on Staten Island: he fired dozens of kids up with sodas and pizza, and had them belt out melodies on several tracks. Angelakos’ go-to synth is a Yamaha SK-30 (it shows up on everything), and he used a Minimoog Voyager for a bunch of lead lines, as well as a few Roland Junos to round out the mix. The sum of these analog polysynths is a much thicker and vibrant-sounding record.

Passion Pit seems to be doing everything right, and their story reads like one stroke of luck after another. To go from forming the band on a whim, to creating a record on a major label that does not make concessions is a wonderful thing, and they’re more than satisfied with their current situation – but Angelakos warns against the belief there’s a formula to follow for success.

“When you’re thinking about your sound,” he says with conviction, “and you’re thinking about your project and the way you’re being perceived as an artist, you can’t try, you can’t sound a certain way, you can’t work to look a certain way, because people can smell those who are genuine. Of all the projects I worked on or developed myself, this one came to be somewhat recognized because I just sat down and started making music and that’s what seemed to resonate with people. Because I wasn’t trying to be anything but myself. To me now, that’s most shocking thing that’s ever happened. I can try hard, and try to make and play all these different kinds of music, try to look cool, or try to do things that aren’t exactly fitting how I’m feeling at the time, and then the one project that actually gets recognized is the project that I put the least amount of work in because I really just did it from my heart.” These sentiments might read like the same hackneyed “just be yourself” you’ve heard ever since you were a kid, but Angelakos’ voice was both emphatic and sincere in his delivery.

In this age of home recording and laptop production, it’s easy to forget there’s a bigger sea to swim in – albeit with “this should be the lead single” and “brighten up the mix” decisions made by men looking for that Successor To Berry Gordy plaque to hang on the wall of the corner office. But big label recording studios can also be the historic world of Yamaha CS-80s, Royer ribbon mics, and oh my God those are the Coke Cans they used on Pet Sounds! mysticism. Some bands don’t realize until the confetti is being swept up that it’s been a while since they made a decision about their own music, but Passion Pit is not one of these casualties: they’ve made a record they’re proud of, with more resources than they had ever expected. They’ve been invited to a party bigger than they ever dreamed of, and they’re just happy to be there.

Listen to Passion Pit: myspace.com/passionpitjams

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