Two-fifths of Boston buzz band Passion Pit talk porn, stagefright and why they want to fuck up arch-rivals Vampire Weekend.
Does the world really need another lo-fi experimental pop sensation from America? Probably not. But the cyber-din generated over Massachusetts quintet Passion Pit is fast becoming real-world acclaim. Founder-frontman Michael Angelakos wrote the band’s debut EP Chunk of Change alone in his bedroom as a belated Valentine gift for a (now ex) girlfriend. Classmates at Emerson College clamoured for copies, inspiring Angelakos to flesh out the band with four like-minded souls to play live sets. Since then, they’ve set the US indie circuit on fire with their blissed-out tunes that combine hand-claps, gooey lyrics, synths and Angelakos’ bizarrely appealing falsetto. He now counts Columbia Records’ Rick Rubin, the most influential man in music, as a mate; and Columbia just signed them in the UK. Not bad for a group that are just a year old and have yet to finish their first album.
When I arrive at the allotted time at the Tribeca studio where Passion Pit are recording, there’s no sign of the band. There is however a ridiculously big black leather sofa and a producer, Chris Zane, beavering away at a computer. Zane saves the day by tracking down Angelakos to his bed – he has completely forgotten our meeting – and rousing him from a deep sleep. The 21-year-old prodigy finally arrives wearing an electric blue woolly hat that he has no intention of taking off and looking a bit confused.
Wonderland: You’ve got a much lower voice than I expected.
Michael Angelakos: Well I just woke up. [Laughs] I do have a pretty normal voice. I used to sing mid-range. I started singing high on Chunk of Change because it just sounded right.
W: Why do you need so many band members?
MA: We didn’t want to be an i-Pod band. We’re all musicians and we don’t consider ourselves DJs; so we were pretty adamant about arranging the music so that we could play it live. A lot of electronic-based bands tend to use backing tracks; they can go onstage and it’s almost like karaoke. And we really had no interest in that.
W: Who does what?
MA: I sing lead and play keyboards; Ian Hultquist plays keyboards and sings and plays guitar; Ayad Al Adhamy plays synthesizers, early 80s Moog synthezisers; Jeff Apruzzese plays bass and Nate Donmoyer plays drums and samples.
W: How does it all work out in terms of egos?
MA: I think the live shows help make it more collaborative. We all do the arrangements. That makes it’s easier for when we go into the studio. There’s just less of the banal minutiae that gets over-examined and over-analysed to the point where bands break up.
W: But you did Chunk of Change by yourself?
MA: Completely. It wasn’t mixed by anyone, it was mixed by me, which is why it sounds horrible. I did it in my bedroom. I did it on my laptop.
W: And it was a Valentine’s Day present for your girlfriend?
MA: Valentine’s Day 2007. I didn’t do much for Christmas and I didn’t really do much for her birthday. I was a bad boyfriend. So I was like, ‘Oh man, how funny would it be if I wrote her an album for Valentine’s Day?’ So I did.
W: How long did it take?
MA: Not long. It doesn’t take me very long to write songs. I can write a song in a couple of hours. I just know how it’s supposed to sound so it comes out pretty quickly.
W: How long after Valentine’s did you deliver it?
MA: In true fashion it was late. But she didn’t care, she was totally in love with it. Every time I finished a song, I’d go over to her house and we’d listen to it. She’s the only one that really got it. Because it was so ‘me’, it repeated the same kind of parts that I like, it had these childish vocals. I wrote it to capture that feeling when something feels //too// good.
W. So. Did you name the band after the John Holmes porn movie?
MA: No. I was taking this class in American fashion and in the 50s they used to call the drive-in movie theatres ‘passion pits’, because people would go there and just neck. And I thought it was kind of cute! I mean we’re not like a sexual band.
W: I’m glad to hear it.
MA: Ayad broke the news. He was like, ‘Traci Lords was in that film, she was underage…’ and he just went on and on, because he knows quite a bit about porn.
W. Have you now seen it?
MA: I haven’t seen it. Actually that’s not true, I’ve seen clips of it on Youtube. I’ve seen the non-sexual parts. It’s one of the most famous pornos ever made. When I found that out, I was like, ‘Really? That really //had// to happen to me?’
W: What’s been your best gig so far?
MA: I think we rose to the occasion and became very comfortable with ourselves at The Bowery show last year. It was when we were dealing with all the labels. I kind of started feeling comfortable in my own skin at that show. I started getting very active on stage. I used to just hide behind my keyboards. Because I was scared; I had a lot of stagefright. But that show, there were just so many important people there, we’re just like, ‘Holy shit we really need to make this happen.’ And we just did. And ever since then it’s just been like we know how to be Passion Pit.
W: Were there competing labels there that night?
MA: Yeah, there were a number of labels there. Like any other buzz band. I’m sure there are a hundred different bands right now that have like a hundred labels coming out to their shows.
W: Is it not exciting?
MA: It’s exciting, but it’s also nerve-racking.
W: You seem quite laidback about the buzz thing. Is that because it’s been happening for a while?
MA: Yeah, I’m not interested in the buzz thing. I just wanted to get signed to a label that I really liked, and put out a really awesome record. That’s about it. Now if we drop off the face of the earth, I could not care less. I’m just so sick of all these bands being so competitive and trying to dominate the world. You’re missing the point! Do you really love making music or are you just in it for the perks, to get your ego stroked? Most people just get really vain. They just love the adoration.
W: Speaking of which – your hat is cute. It’s because the top of it is folding over forwards, like a smurf’s. Just don’t grow a big white beard, that’s my advice. Because that might be a bridge too far, high-pitched singing voice and all.
MA: Yeah. I’m friends with Rick Rubin, and I should, next time I see him, put this on him. Because he’s a walking Garden Gnome and so I can just imagine in him in this hat.
W: Have you had any totally shambolic gigs?
MA: So many. When we signed with Frenchkiss Records we started getting better. But holy shit were we bad before that. I’m hard on myself, but I fucking hated the way we sounded. We used to have two different members, that we asked to leave. The worst gig was probably at a Vice Party at Le Royale. Both skins of Nate’s bass drum broke through. Ayad’s synthesizer just got zapped, gone. My keyboards were all out of tune. It was just a comedy of errors.
W: What do you argue about? [Nate comes in]
MA: What do we argue about Nate?
Nate Donmoyer: Covers you want to do.
MA: Wait, you //still// want to cover that Annie Lennox song?
W: Which one?
MA: The More I Love You. You don’t want to do Sweet Dreams?
W: Could you describe your music?
ND: It’s a lot of synthesizers, but we try to make them not sound like synthesizers, by making them sound like synthesizers.
W: That is brilliant. Thanks, Nate.
M: We like to think that we’re a pop band. We’re just looking at pop from different angles. You know that electro-pop style was something we did. But I think the new album is a little more organic, or is that a really lame word to use?
ND: We use real instruments, which is the same thing as organic. We use real drums, real piano instead of Reason samples.
MA: I never used Reason, dude.
MA: Abelton… We think of this as a danceable record.
ND: But it’s like brisk walking.
MA: Brisk-ish. We want it to be a very groove record. But without being like, ‘Oh this is a dance-pop record by another MGMT or Friendly Fires.’
W: Who else have you been compared to?
MA: Hot Chip.
ND: Postal Service.
MA: Which are just the laziest comparisons in the fucking world. I like Hot Chip, but, I mean do you //know// how many bands use synthesizers?
ND: Since the 70s?
MA: Since sometime around then, Nate.
ND: I’d say it’s been thousands.
MA: Maybe more than that, right?
ND: Tens of thousands.
MA: I would say so. So it’s irresponsible for a music journalist to describe us as a crossover between MGMT and the Postal Service. It’s like, ‘Dudes, get the fuck over it.’ It’s literally some of the most amazing highly revered journalists…
W: Is there anyone you don’t mind being compared to? I think someone said Kate Bush.
MA: If you compare me to Kate Bush I’ll give you five dollars. Lets make it ten. I love Kate Bush. Peter Gabriel, any of those like bigger 80s, 90s power pop –
ND: We love Tears For Fears.
MA: Really? I didn’t know you were a Tears For Fears fan.
ND: For like a year when I was 17 all I used to listen to was Tears For Fears, every day on my way to school.
W: Which band is your nemesis?
ND: We’re not going to say that.
MA: Yeah we’re not going to fall into that trap.
W: Do I look like I’m trying to get you into trouble?
ND: We’re kinda looking to get into trouble.
MA: Vampire Weekend. We want to fuck them up.
ND: There’s a good reason for that –
MA: They took a cover from us…
ND: … without asking for permission.
MA: It came down to two labels: XL, the label that had Vampire Weekend, or Columbia: the label that had MGMT. We’re much happier being on the same label as MGMT because even though I’m not a fan of their music, I think they’re artistically more open-minded. Anyway the bottom line is that –
ND: Vampire Weekend suck.
MA: I don’t think anyone will be very happy with this!
ND: They suck. Fuck those motherfuckers.
MA: [Laughing] We don’t love everyone. We’re very selective.
W: Describe your fans.
ND: Nice. Thoughtful.
MA: Scenesters. The official answer is it’s a pretty wide range of people. For example, we’ll play to a frat party and there’ll be a lot of pretty hammered kids there that want to have fun with us, and those are sometimes the best people to play to.
W: How old are they?
MA: Young, but you see a lot of older people too. It goes up to I’d say 35.
W: Wow, that old?
MA: Yeah. Real old.
W: Which song do you wish you’d written?
MA: Wuthering Heights by Kate Bush. What do you wish you’d written, Nate?
ND: Everything In Its Right Place, Radiohead.
MA: Oh, well Kid A. Everyone wishes they did Kid A. That’s like, ‘Let’s write an album that is going to piss off every single musician.’ There’s that point where you listen to that record and go, ‘Fuck! I’m useless.’
ND: I never thought to put myself on the same plane as them.
MA: Yeah, but you’re still playing music.
ND: Yeah, but they’re Radiohead.
MA: They’re still human.
W: How have you found recording in New York City?
MA: To be completely frank, doing a record here is really hard. It’s very stressful: I just want to be in the studio, and everyone’s talking saying, ‘Oh we’ve got to go out’. And I just want to be a hermit.
W: How would you describe the new album?
MA: It’s an antidote to misery. It’s a really pretty record. We’re just trying to make people feel better. This is my way of making myself happy. It’s euphoric stuff.
ND: And not cheap, like drugs.
MA: Not cheap like that, because that shit doesn’t last.
ND: Like Myspace relationships.
Photographer: Andreas Laszlo Konrath
Words: Louise Brealey
A full version of this article first appeared in Wonderland #17, Feb/Mar 2009