It’s been a heavily documented 10 months for American indie pop act Passion Pit since the release of their second album Gossamer. In truth, the heightened media exposure began shortly before Gossamer came out, when frontman, songwriter and co-producer Michael Angelakos cancelled a handful of Passion Pit tour dates due to undisclosed health problems.
Only days after news of the cancelled dates circulated a Pitchfork cover story saw a candid Angelakos disclose many personal details, including his struggles and ongoing treatment for bipolar disorder. Since then Angelakos has been hounded to divulge more private details of his life while Gossamer was scrutinised for hidden insights.
Some have reached out to Angelakos in a genuine attempt to better understand bipolar, or to share their own similar experiences. Others have seen his personal affairs as fair game for attention-grabbing headlines, with the 26-year-old singer recently telling The Huffington Post the media has turned him into a “caricature of mental illness, for better or worse”.
In the midst of all this, Passion Pit has grown from the little band that could, behind peppy upstart singles Little Secrets and Sleephead, to selling out Madison Square Garden and being one of the main drawcards at Coachella 2013 with the thumping pop triumph Take A Walk and more recently Carried Away.
With Passion Pit soon to return to Australia for Splendour In The Grass 2013, Spin Off Festival, and their own national headlining tour, Music Feeds sent a few questions off to Angelakos to find out about Passion Pit’s place among pop music, dealing with a prying media, expanding the band’s musical parameters, and receiving the Beatrice Stern Media Award for helping erase the stigma of mental illness.
Music Feeds: One of the keys to completing Gossamer was accepting the parameters of Passion Pit’s sound. As the band has experimented with various arrangements on tour, have those parameters, and the possibilities of Passion Pit’s music, expanded?
Michael Angelakos: We actually began touring on the record being a lot more flexible about the arrangements. When I started finalizing the recording process, I tried really hard to imagine how we would manage to play it. Needless to say, it was a long and arduous process and we’ve come a long way.
The parameters that you speak of are basically just structural and musical aesthetic elements – the stuff that leads to the basic pleasure principles involved with pop music. For Passion Pit, that’s a loaded issue to confront because I’m constantly looking to make instrumentation that is very difficult to replicate and most of the best pop music is very simple. Thus, live performances can be difficult, a giant summation of sorts.
In the end, that’s what makes the band unique. We come together and work it out as a band but the music is fresh for the majority of the guys; they have a different type of excitement in regards to it. I oversee the arrangements alongside everyone but the guys kind of just know what works too. That’s where we really reform and become a band. The music is presented as a finished product for these guys that I really trust and that trust me as the writer and producer. It’s a relationship that didn’t develop overnight – I will say that – but it’s really fun now.
MF: You’ve spoken of infiltrating pop music and making the genre more interesting and dynamic. Was that the original intent behind Passion Pit, did it become the intent during the making of Gossamer, or is it just a positive, unexpected outcome?
MA: I regret the way I phrased it because it insinuates that I believe what I am delivering now is truly interesting and dynamic, which I’m not sure about now after a year of sitting on it. I’m more excited about what’s to come. So, let’s just get that out of the way.
So, only after we started realizing that people cared about what was happening, when we realized there was an audience, did we think about the world of pop. We’re in this amazing place where we don’t really live or die by radio, but we have pretty nice access to it. And not to give Passion Pit music more credit than it necessarily deserves, but so much of what’s on the radio is basically what our labels were pushing for radio a year or two before it became acceptable on commercial formats. We’re talking five years ago. Little Secrets and Sleepyhead never really hit radio, and yet everyone knows those songs as though they did. So, it’s really awkward for me to say that we are ahead of our time, because we’re not really, we just are in the commercial sense.
Something clicked with Take a Walk and I’m not quite sure what. It’s still has that layer-cake feel to it which means we can “infiltrate” in a sense, but I think it’s yet to be seen if we really truly achieve that. Overall, we’re pleased that we can play shows all over and not have to have radio, but the power of radio is very real and very hard to control once the wheels start turning. We’ll see. Carried Away could do amazing things if the timing is right. Either way, yes, I’m pretty excited about it.
MF: Which pop artists, past or present, serve as inspiration for Passion Pit to bring a questioning nature to their pop music?
MA: Immediately, Leonard Cohen comes to mind, but in his thoroughly insightful and reflexive sense, his sense of self. Currently, it’s fair to say that Fun. is doing it. There are lots of bands doing it, it’s just how theatrical you are about it, how much you exaggerate particular elements. So many artists are obsessed with confirming their sense of security which is usually false. Most people know that but it becomes this mantra: “Everything is fine, we’re all having a good time.” That type of mentality is borderline psychotic to me, because we definitely aren’t. Then again, we don’t need to be drowning in our sorrows, do we? So, the proper balance usually leads to some of the most compelling pieces of pop music in regards to the message and the cultural context.
I think, as a listener, I love vulnerable artists, songwriters that are quicker to point out their own flaws and wrongdoings. That’s been the key to the best American pop songwriting since the golden age of musical theater, really. But instead of songwriters projecting it onto characters, singer-songwriters in the ’60s owned it and took it upon themselves. Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Randy Newman are great examples, too, but not as “relevant” or however you’d like to put it.
MF: Last year there was talk of Passion Pit releasing a new EP for Record Store Day 2013. Did that eventuate or is the EP still in the works?
MA: The amount of material I have to work with is a bit overwhelming. It’s when I come to a really good place where I’m able to just be alone and finish something. I have so much that I want to do that I stretch myself too thin, but I really do want to eventually release more as Passion Pit when the time is right.
MF: Are there any artists outside of Passion Pit that you are currently working with or have plans to help produce?
MA: Many, but we’ll see what works out. Luckily, this particular project is working out pretty well, so I’m trying to enjoy it while it lasts.
MF: Although Passion Pit are presently enjoying touring more so than in the past, since the release of Gossamer the band and yourself have dealt with a great deal of media exposure, that often pries far beyond the music. Are you looking forward to finishing up tour commitments behind Gossamer and regaining some privacy?
MA: Yes, the exposure will subside. People know quite a bit now and I think maybe I could have held in more. It felt right at the time and I stand by being honest. I’m a huge extrovert when it comes to certain things, but it’s usually where I end up over-compensating for some insecurity. But on the other hand, I am a terribly introverted, self-involved person. The whole first few months of promo on this record were so unbelievably confusing I don’t even really remember a lot of it.
But, yes, the whole prying will eventually subside. I think the story has been told. Now it’s time for the music to just tell the rest of the story, which sounds kind of corny, but it’s true. The proof is in sustenance without gimmicks and whoring yourself out. We staunchly oppose the idea of celebrity and when we are confronted with anything that makes us feel like we even might be we get really anxious. If we are looked at in any way as celebrities, it’s rubbish to us. We don’t see ourselves that way at all, honestly. We’re happy to have jobs.
MF: Passion Pit was in Australia recently for Parklife 2012. How has the onstage show and your understanding of crowd interaction evolved in that short time?
MA: That wasn’t the perfect festival but we were happy to have a reason to go to Australia. It was fun, but not totally our element, which is fine. But in regards to the crowd, that’s one element that hasn’t changed. Passion Pit’s vocal quality was always meant to replicate a crowd of people singing in a way, and that’s something we’re blessed with in terms of crowds. Our audience sings along with us, they perform with us. And in Australia, we feel like the crowd just gets us, like we’re back in the States. It’s a wonderful feeling. Australia was one of the first countries to really “get it” in that sense where we went on stage and were blown away by how on point the crowd was with how we wanted the music to be perceived.
MF: You were recently awarded the Beatrice Stern Media Award. By all accounts you made your bipolar disorder public to honestly explain to fans why Passion Pit cancelled some tour dates last year, as opposed to deliberately becoming a spokesperson for mental illness.
MA: That’s correct.
MF: With that in mind what was the more humbling honour – receiving the award itself or being given the platform to publicly and directly acknowledge and thank those who have supported you?
MA: Both. I am so lucky to be alive. I just turned 26 years old. I have love and optimism surrounding me on all ends. I still have many difficult times, I still go through life like anyone else with my illness. But when I began reading literature on bipolar and found a certain solace in relating to people with it, becoming vocal about my issues became both therapeutic and unbelievably crucial in terms of my own recovery. It’s not about misery loving company, it’s about hope breeding from stories of success on many different levels.
I want to get better for other people now as much as I want to get better for my wife, my friends, and, of course, myself. I am proud of myself but I also recognize that I still have a long way to go. But, above all, between general cultural stigmas, insurance companies, big pharmaceutical corporations, and mass media in general, I think we need a lot more people speaking up. I would never wish what I, my wife, and my friends have gone through on my worst enemies. Now is the time for everyone to speak up, and I’m honored to be a part of it.
Passion Pit are touring Australia this July with a string of headlining shows alongside their appearances at Splendour In The Grass and Spin Off festival.
Passion Pit – Australian Tour Dates
Thursday, 25th July
The Powerstation, Auckland
Saturday, 27th July
The Enmore, Sydney
Tuesday, 30th July
The Palace, Melbourne
Wednesday, 31st July – UNDER 18’S SHOW
Sunday, 4th August
Tickets on sale at now via www.bigdayout.com
Gallery: Passion Pit – Parklife 2012, Sydney, 30/09/2012