Michael Angelakos explains how his voice got so high. He speaks like an ordinary guy.
Few new bands have unexpectedly clicked like Passion Pit. After selling out the Congress earlier this month, the Boston band has returned for another giddy go-round. What started as a bedroom project of college student Michael Angelakos has now been hovering near the top of iTunes charts for months. We spoke with the 22-year-old after that first Congress gig and found him to be refreshingly frank and thoughtful, by turns both self-deprecating and confident.
So I was thinking about that Pavement song, “Stereo.” “What about the voice of Geddy Lee / How did it get so high?” It’s a common question people have regarding Passion Pit, too.
Ha, yeah. We’ve actually had long conversations about that song.
So how did your voice get so high?
Out of necessity, really. I had to sing that way, to sing above the noise. There’s layers and layers of keyboards and guitars and drums, so it was my only option. I’ve lost a good amount of my hearing over the last year. When we finally got a professional monitor crew, they came in and said, “How can you hear any of this?!”
Well, it certainly makes you stand out.
Right. I feel like with all good pop music there needs to be something divisive or abrasive. That was the idea behind this project.
Why do you refer to it as a project?
I thought this was going to be a kind of record-every-year sort of deal. Which excited me. I thought, hey, I’m going to write something like Manners, [something] very particular to a certain point of my life. Then I’d move on and write a completely different record and change it up. That’s how I had wanted it. Then we did the whole Columbia thing and they really wanted to build a career. I just never imagined sitting on a record for so long. It’s the most unbelievable therapy you could ever imagine as an artist. If you’re someone who gets tired of something very quickly and moves on to another project, this is not the avenue to be in. At this rate, I think… I used to never be able to remember my lyrics. And now it’s never ending. I write for a lot of other artists. That’s my outlet. If you stop working you may lose that momentum. It’s not like you can write on the road. It’s so grueling. And we don’t have any time off. Even when it looks like we have time off, we’re probably playing radio shows. It’s pretty far off, but when we have time off to record the album, we’re going to take a lot of time. I wouldn’t like to compare us to MGMT, but…
That comparison always infuriated me. I never heard it.
No! How could you? Of course you didn’t hear it.
Well, after Congratulations people will no longer make the comparison.
I guess I heard Congratulations in their first record. I never heard Manners. The only reason I bring that up is because we’re not just going to, you know… The label isn’t going to bring out some singles we wrote years ago and say, “This is what were going to do for X amount of years and then you’re going to pull this career suicide trick and everyone’s going to go, “Whoa! They didn’t sell out!” I don’t think it’s going to go that far. I think Congratulations is a good record. It’s just… I have a more focused concept. This started as a project and will always be a project. It’s not like my all-encompassing work. That’s why the vocals are the way they are, that’s why the sound is the way it is. If people heard what I was making about a month before [2008’s] Chunk of Change [EP], they’d be… It’d be impossible to trace any kind of connection.
Why? What were you making?
Things like folk, slo-core, poppier film scoring and TV scoring. A lot of the stuff before it was ambient noise. And then, I had really, I stopped playing with some kids and realized I had nobody else to really record with, so I decided I would just make dance pop. Because my girlfriend at the time likes to dance.
I’m glad you brought that up, as I was reluctant to. Because every single story written about your band talks up how the songs were originally written as a Valentine’s Day gift.
It sounds so lame. I didn’t intend for this to really work out.
The songs kick-started your career, but did the recordings work as a Valentine’s Day gift? Did she like it?
Oh, yeah! Of course. Because, at the time… It essentially put into words and music… It was feel-good. “Hey, things have been kind of, haven’t been working out the way we would have liked.” It’s when you hit that wall in a relationship when you try everything you can possibly do to make it work. I just happened to write an album. I felt so dirty about it when it was all people talked about, because it sounded so fabricated. Or it did to me. It sounded like everyone was trying to find that story.
Of course. That’s what we do.
If it works. But, God. The girl I wrote it for, we’re still friends. We talked about it at length. We thought it was really funny how everyone grabbed ahold of it. We didn’t think anyone would really care, or would think it’s ridiculous or didn’t believe it. It’s funny how people take Manners to be the second Valentine’s Day gift, as this romantic album.
You can never release an album in February again.
Oh, I can’t even… It’s like I can’t release an album! Period. [Manners] was released in May. People were still talking about it like it was some Valentine’s Day gift. I read some reviews going song by song—most of it really positive—and they still were equating it to saying I’m sorry to someone. It had nothing to do with anyone but myself. It’s just funny to try and break that mold. This project has taken… It hasn’t taken very long to get to this point. It’s almost infuriating trying to… It’s like, chill out, we’re still just a few months into it.
Music trends move so quickly in the blog age.
People just expect us to be this super high-caliber band. But we still think of ourselves as a basement indie band. At least we play that way and approach our music that way. Everyone else takes us pretty seriously. Or don’t.
There seems to be a lot of theory or at least thought put into what you’re doing.
Yeah. My father was a music teacher and opera singer. He can sight read. He tried so hard to… I played guitar for about 14 years. I was dead set on going to Berkelee. My parents just told me, based on my inabilities to focus on anything for more than 5 minutes, there no way I’d be able to go to music school and see it through. Without dropping out and joining a band. Lo and behold, I go to Emerson for media studies, and I ended up dropping out and joining a band. It didn’t matter where I went.
And the rest of your band went to Berkelee.
Ha, yeah. I think pretty much everyone graduated. I think Berkelee always considers you an alumni even if only you take one class there. John Mayer went there for a month or something. In fact, during the making of the record, Ed didn’t come down to do it because he was finishing school. He had missed so many classes because of shows. You go to school to learn a trade and make a living doing that and here you are in real time, at school, doing it.
Going back a bit: Your dad was an opera singer?
He went to school for conducting. He was a high-school music teacher for 13, 14 years. Then he realized he couldn’t pay the bills and raise a family. He went into the financial world.
Was that part of why he talked you out of going to Berkelee?
Absolutely. Though, I think it was mostly based on the point that he didn’t think I was going to be able to focus. In high school, I had so many projects going on; I was doing everything, not just music. When I told people I was going to Emerson, they thought I was going for theater. I never really knew what I was into. They knew music was my first love. My teachers just yelled at me all the time because I never did my homework, but I’d be able to play [music] by ear. I was cursed with a really good ear, which has made me the worst serious musician. I don’t even consider myself a musician… When was the last time you saw us by the way?
Oh, okay. That was okay. Well, the crowd was amazing.
So you’re admitting some of your shows have been less than “okay”?
Ha, how could you have guessed? You know, we’ve got to the point where we have our nights. Every time someone sees us they’re shocked at how much we’ve grown. I just sit there and go, “Well, obviously! You saw us on our first tour. I hope we’ve grown!” People will say, “I can’t believe how much better you’ve gotten!” I mean, that’s why the label is so interested. We’re not a band that looks like we’re going to plateau. We knew where we were going wrong.
It’s fitting that you’re touring with Mayer Hawthorne. He’s coming to this point from a similar path. He made a record that was never intended to be so big, and it’s not fully representative of him as a musician.
He’s an MC and DJ. He started singing for this project. In a sense he didn’t know what he was doing with it. I think that’s why… That’s this new phenomenon. A lot of these bands that are getting a lot of recognition are plucked. We were plucked. We didn’t send press kits. We didn’t try and get attention. Mayer gave his record to someone at Stones Throw and they were like, “Uh…I love that.” I can always say that we never overdid it or pushed really hard. I just did what I felt like doing and people deemed it commercially viable. That’s a nice way to go about this type of thing. I used to be really bothered when people would criticize my voice. But I can’t take it to heart, because it’s so particular to the project. People are just mistakenly thinking, “That’s just the way Michael sings. He’s trying really hard.”
You can sing for me right now and I can post it to the website.
When I play solo, I sing in my chest voice, which is about an octave down. It’s in a different key. People are completely thrown off by it. You see people on YouTube asking, “Why doesn’t he just sing in his regular voice? I find it really grating.” Think about that for a second. How in God’s name would that work? It’s funny going through the growing pains of having this very specific project take off. Mayer is a good example of that, too.
It’s good and bad when bands get plucked. Yes, they are doing something honest. But it does put an often amateur band in high-stress situations, especially when it comes to making a follow-up. It takes the bravery of…
Haha. That was poor choice of words. Okay, no definite article. It just takes bravery to confound expectations.
I’m not scared of the next record. A lot of bands are. Everyone is speculating whether Owl City will be able to come out with another “Fireflies.”
Let me answer that. No.
He probably won’t. Who are we to say? My point is that, it’s never been… I don’t really care. I don’t see it as being an issue. I was able to come up with Manners. “Sleepyhead” just rolled off the tongue. It very easy. It wasn’t like I worked and slaved and threw stuff at the wall and saw what sticked. If that’s the case, I don’t think… This isn’t a confidence or ego thing. There’s going to be major sonic difference, but there’s not going to be a reinventing of the wheel with this project. I’m not trying to be anything that I’m not. I’m just going to make a solid album. I don’t see what the big deal is. “Are you going to live up to the hype of Manners?” Well, I don’t think Manners was what I wanted it to be anyway. It’s a really confusing world as a songwriter. You just try to be yourself. But you have people spelling things out for you in a way you should never ever have them spelled out. I’m over the record. It was liked by pretty much everyone I wanted it to be liked by. Save for a few people, whose comments were actually pretty valid. You should just be living life. Instead of doing interviews or reading a transcript of everything you ever said.
With the Internet, it’s not criticism that’s hard to deal with, it’s the level of the criticism.
That’s really refreshing to hear from a journalist. Becomes sometimes as an artist you pit yourself against the journalist. Say you get a bad review for a show that clearly was pretty amazing. And you can just tell they didn’t like the band or don’t like the music.
Or more often the writer doesn’t like the environment, or the fans.
Oh, I could totally see that the environment turns people off more than the music. We’re selling out the Congress Theater. If we’re playing the Congress, we’re attracting a mainstream audience. I guarantee that plays into it. It rubs people the wrong way, seeing people drinking Tall Boys and screaming along to “Sleepyhead.” I get it. I totally get it. But don’t take it out on me, because I totally didn’t ask for that.
Passion Pit plays Congress Theater on Thursday 22.