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Passion Pit has a singer you either love or loathe. Just the way he wants it.
Pavement sang that fantastic line about dorky Canadian prog trio Rush: “What about the voice of Geddy Lee? / How did it get so high? / I wonder if he speaks like an ordinary guy.” The same valid question is often raised with regard to Passion Pit, the overnight synth-pop sensation of Michael Angelakos and his glass-shattering, squirrel-scaring falsetto. “I’ve had long conversations about that Pavement song,” the easy-going Angelakos admits—in a deep, ordinary guy voice.
The “giddy shrieking,” to use his words, is not the 22-year-old’s normal singing voice (that’s “chestier”) nor how he ever intended to belt out songs night after night. “Manners started as a project and will always be a project. It’s not my all-encompassing work,” the Buffalo native says of the debut album that’s been hanging near the top of iTunes charts for months. The curly haired frontman consistently refers to his band and record as a “project.” He uses the term a dozen times, which underlines how the self-proclaimed scatterbrain saw last year’s Manners as a temporary diversion, an experiment.
“I thought I’d be making a completely different record every year,” he explains. “I never imagined sitting on a record for so long. I used to never even be able to remember the lyrics.”
Passion Pit’s hyperactive rushes of emotion were born in the dorm rooms of Boston’s Emerson College. In an American-studies text, Angelakos discovered the band’s name: outdated slang for drive-in theaters as teens’ heavy-petting spots. The media-studies major had been fiddling with folk, slo-core, TV scores and ambient noise. “I stopped playing with some kids and realized I had nobody else to record with,” he tells us. “So I decided to make dance pop because my girlfriend at the time liked to dance.”
Much has been made and mythologized of that initial, spur-of-the-moment 2008 Passion Pit EP, Chunk of Change. The first four tracks were given as a Valentine’s Day gift in hopes of patching a failing relationship, before the EP found its way to bloggers’ hearts and blowing up. “The girl I wrote it for, we’re still friends,” Angelakos says. “We thought it was funny how everyone grabbed hold of the story. Critics were still equating the second release with me saying I’m sorry. We figured people would find it ridiculous or unbelievable.”
Originally, Angelakos had his heart set on attending the renowned Berklee College of Music. But his parents wouldn’t let him. Angelakos’s father was an opera singer and, for 14 years, a music teacher—until he realized he couldn’t pay the bills and raise a family. So he went into the financial world. “They told me, based on my inability to focus on anything for more than five minutes, there’s no way I’d be able to see it through,” Angelakos says, laughing. “Lo and behold, I go to Emerson and drop out to form a band anyway.” Ironically, the other four Passion Pit members are Berklee alums.
Angelakos may leave most sentences unfinished before jumping into another thought, but he’s contemplative and sharp. He says Passion Pit’s music needed “something divisive or abrasive” to stand out among the sea of kids with keyboards, citing bands like the Flaming Lips that both enchant and repulse. The shrill castrato singer you hear in Manners is a “character,” one he dreads being typecast as. Pragmatically, it was the only way to be heard over the simple-pleasures indie band’s electronics and drums. (Angelakos claims he’s lost a good amount of his hearing over the last year.) “Imagine if everyone expected Billy Bob Thornton to talk like Sling Blade in every movie,” he says. So don’t expect Manners 2.0. Honestly, Angelakos sees himself more in the mold of one of his favorite songwriters, Randy Newman. “Though I hate the way he sings.”
Passion Pit plays Congress Theater Thursday 22.