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Best of What's Next 2009: Passion Pit [Musicians]

August 14, 2009  |  8:00am
Best of What's Next 2009: Passion Pit [Musicians]
As Michael Angelakos emerges from Passion Pit’s standard-issue white touring van, he’s the living embodiment of his band’s song “Sleepyhead.” Groggy and wearing a rumpled white T-shirt, he rouses himself after the nine-hour drive from Baton Rouge to Atlanta, where he and his band load their gear into a tiny Midtown club. The Drunken Unicorn is less than half the size of most venues Passion Pit will play on this tour, and five hours before the band takes the stage, hipsters are already milling about outside in hopes of scoring tickets to the sold-out show. One of them has diamond-shaped tears painted on her face, referencing a line from “I’ve Got Your Number,” from the band’s Chunk of Change EP.

As a student at Boston’s Emerson College, Angelekos wrote that collection of love songs to give to his then-girlfriend on Valentine’s Day 2007. He never imagined it would interest anyone else, much less get a proper release through an established label and lead to the inklings of a career. He hadn’t played anything resembling electro-pop before, but when he tried composing songs on his computer, they came easily. He started building tracks on top of a sampled melody from Irish harpist Mary O’Hara, and two hours later he’d finished the music for “Sleepyhead,” which would eventually become his breakout Internet hit (logging more than 3.7 million listens on MySpace). Angelakos printed up some copies of Chunk of Change, and the songs soon started circulating around Boston. He initially resisted when his friend Ian Hultquist suggested they put together a band to play the songs live, but ultimately the two recruited a few of Hultquist’s fellow Berklee students, including Ayd Al Adhamy, who was playing in thrash and metal bands at the time but had just bought a synthesizer.

They thought it was an odd setup—three guitarists noodling around on keyboards and computers. “This was just a dance project, a side project that became totally blown out of proportion for us,” Angelakos says. “I never thought I’d be playing dance music.” Though they had fun playing together (and eventually added Jeff Apruzzese on bass and Nate Donmoyer on drums), they didn’t have any real plans for the band until Manhattan-based record label Frenchkiss got its hands on the EP. The label re-released it last September, and a month later Passion Pit was the buzziest act at the CMJ Music Marathon in New York. The band began touring nonstop, including some dates in Europe that Al Adhamy describes as “amazing and full of disaster at the same time. We were paying our dues in large amounts. Vans catching on fire. Bass amps blowing, what, twice? Five times?... Getting spare tires stolen. Getting entire tanks of gas siphoned. Getting our luggage shat upon,” he says. “Literally, one day we were loading into this venue and we were like, ‘What smells so bad? It smells like feces.’ And there was feces all over Nate and Ian’s luggage.”

Despite everything, Passion Pit had arrived.

Angelakos was born in Buffalo, N.Y., 22 years ago. His father taught music for two decades before switching to a career in finance, but made sure to start his son early on piano, guitar, trumpet and saxophone. “My parents were kind of inundating me with music when I was young,” Angelakos says. “[I’m] not very good at those things now, but yeah, I come from a pretty musical family.”

By eighth grade, he was playing in ska bands before moving on to slo-core and “really sad, sad music.” As he got older, he quit writing songs for a while, and majored in media studies and art history at Emerson. Eventually, his attention turned back to making music with Passion Pit, and his parents still encourage his music. Even now, his grandmother comes to shows in Buffalo and has started reading blogs to see what people are saying about her grandson’s band. Manners, Passion Pit’s full-length debut, was released in May to mostly positive reviews, but as with every buzz band, detractors can get nasty after the initial high wears off. And it’s not just bloggers: Even New York Times critic Jon Caramanica has bemoaned the band’s “shameless use of disco and electro-pop triggers.” But it doesn’t bother Angelakos. “I don’t mind the negative stuff,” he says. “Really, any kind of engagement or reaction is amazing and means that the music is at least doing something to people. To me, that’s the most you can ask for as an artist of any medium.”

Bolstered by the energy of a full band and the resources of a proper studio, the new album is even more layered and dense with propulsive beats. But while the lyrics were just as syrupy sweet as the candy-pop music of the EP, Angelakos tapped a darker vein this time. “Chunk of Change was mostly about my girlfriend at the time and how sorry I was for not being better to her,” he says. “But the things I was sorry for were really far greater life problems of mine. And that mentality kind of carried over into Manners. The project moved me to completely buy into my overly self-critical psyche. Looking at it now, the album is almost this stern chastising of sorts. I wanted so badly to improve myself, to be a more secure and better person, that it seemed therapeutic to say, ‘This is what I do wrong, here is why I probably do it, and here is what I really mean to do.’”

Though the lyrics are all sung in a falsetto buried under layers of synth, it’s hard to miss the hope peeking out from the exhaustive haze of soul-searching. Song after song catalogs Angelakos’ self-doubt only to resolve in a glimmer of buoyancy. In “Make Light,” he sings, “So I try, and I scream and I beg and I sigh just to prove I’m alive / And it’s alright, ’cause tonight there’s a way I’ll make light of my treacherous life, make light!”
 
“The whole album is, like, fighting through it and overcoming a lot of personal problems and issues that everyone has to deal with,” Angelakos says. “It’s like how I’m trying to remain as optimistic as possible throughout very, very dark periods. And I think the album conveys that pretty well. It’s very exhausting. It’s very energetic. It’s very taxing to listen to, but I think that’s kind of the point. This is a band about excessive sound, excessive force. It’s something we really like—just overwhelming our listener.”
 
Despite the grueling van rides and the disorientation that comes from being in a different city nearly every day, Angelakos also finds hope in getting on stage with his bandmates. “What keeps us optimistic,” he says, “is the fact that we can get together and translate that record live. What makes music really special is that people can get together and share it... When we do it, we have a lot of fun, and by the end of it we want to collapse and go to bed, but that’s what makes it such an emotional thing for us, and that’s what makes it work live.”
   
As Passion Pit takes the stage at The Drunken Unicorn, all Angelakos’ insecurities seem to dissolve as he reaches for the high notes. The lyrics might be full of gloom, but the melodies are making the band—and the crowd—giddy. The mass of kids packed together in the narrow, low-ceilinged room are enjoying the excessiveness of the new songs, tossing aside any pretensions they may have been putting on outside the club, bouncing and shouting the chorus of “Little Secrets”: “No one needs to know we’re feeling higher and higher and higher, higher and higher and higher.” Whether or not they’re paying attention to the darker lyrics beyond the refrain, they’re tapping into that same optimism that keeps Angelakos going. They’re here with friends, inundated with a joyful noise. This band may have been an accident, but it’s certainly a happy one.

Listen to "Make Light" by Passion Pit:



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