Passion Pit

Music Features Passion Pit
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When I speak to Michael Angelakos on July 12, the Passion Pit frontman appears to be in good spirits, rambling through genuinely heartfelt tirades about his gorgeous, dynamic sophomore album, Gossamer. Though his new material is sonically inventive, as bright and infectious as anything on Manners, his overnight-sensation debut, Gossamer was inspired by a myriad of dark sources: Angelakos’ bouts with alcoholism, personal and creative turmoil, and his struggles with bipolar syndrome and manic-depression. But Angelakos speaks of these problems with honesty and clarity, like a man awoken from a year-long emotional hangover, now suddenly thrust into the sunlight, squinting in the wake of troubles. He speaks of this turbulent time in hindsight, often with a boyish giggle trailing every confession.

The 25-year-old musical auteur sounds creatively fulfilled, as he very well should be. Angelakos is proud of what he’s accomplished musically on Gossamer: blown away by the layered, speaker-blowing bass tones he recorded with engineer Alex Aldi and producer Chris Zane, mesmerized by the angelic harmonies created by him and Swedish a capella group Erato, smugly satisfied by the enveloping synthesizers piled in every nook and cranny. But he also seems to be in a good place personally. At the time of our conversation, he’s just wrapped up a music video shoot for the R&B-inspired slow-jam “Constant Conversations,” based on a treatment envisioned by Angelakos himself and featuring the talents actor-director Peter Bodganovich. “It was kind of the most incredible experience I’ve ever had,” he laughs.

Four days later, Angelakos will post a brief, saddening message on his band’s website, canceling a string of upcoming tour dates in order to focus on “improving [his] mental health.”

On the day of our chat, when I first ask Angelakos what he’s been up to lately, he responds, “Lots and lots and lots of interesting, strange, odd, uncomfortable, fun, exciting things.” He isn’t kidding. Over the past couple years, Michael’s life has been a direct reflection of his bipolar syndrome, filled with extreme highs and debilitating lows: getting engaged, getting hospitalized, contemplating suicide, and—oh yeah—writing and recording Gossamer, one of the young decade’s most vibrant and densely layered pop albums.

Angelakos is a people pleaser. And like most people pleasers, he hates letting people down. That mentality can be a major problem when you’re a manic-depressive indie-pop icon with a huge fanbase—one that has certain expectations for what your music should sound like.

“There’s an anxiety involved with that,” Angelakos says. “You want to make everyone happy. I’m terrible about that—I just want to make everyone happy, say the right thing, do the right thing. If someone’s unhappy with me or somebody thinks I’ve done a bad job, I just feel utterly terrible.”

On Gossamer, Angelakos faced that classic dilemma that plagues every popular artist writing a sophomore album: whether to write for yourself or write for your now hugely-growing audience. Ultimately, with the help of Aldi and Zane, Angelakos was able to do both. Left to his own devices, the music Angelakos would’ve made probably wouldn’t resemble Passion Pit whatsoever.

Angelakos has suffered from Bi-Polar 1 disorder since the age of 18. He’s been hospitalized on several occasions throughout his adult life, including a now-infamous stint after his breakout performance at the 2009 South by Southwest Festival. But last year, Angelakos suffered an “episode” that nearly proved inescapable—one that nearly derailed him from ever finishing another song.

“I don’t know…something triggered the episode, and I started drinking,” Angelakos says. “And drinking exacerbates the effects of mania. And I think at the time, I was taking medication to get out of the depressive episode, and that launched me into the manic episode. What happened is I cut myself off from everyone, which is pretty standard. You become very…you just…you’re insane! You’re just not yourself. And I don’t really know how to explain it. I’ve obviously seen people in close quarters, but it’s different for each person, I guess. What happened for me is that I was drinking so heavily because it was acting as a compressor to help being me down from the insane overwhelming high of the mania. So I would have to drink extraordinary amounts of alcohol to combat this feeling. Mania is not fun. Mania is not fun at all. People think that it’s like when you’re creative—no. You’re creative when you’re maybe a little hypo-manic. That’s the best state ever—that’s amazing. But mania is completely debilitating, and I did literally nothing for about a month-and-a-half. I was verbally abusive to my friends and my fiancee. I didn’t know I was being this way, but it’s the truth.”

“This went on and on,” he continues, “and I was pushing people away and slowly filing through all my friends until they slowly started realizing I had a problem. And once they realized I had a problem, I would move on to the next person. So the alcoholism was just a way of dealing with and self-medicating the manic episode.”

When Angelakos eventually met up with Zane over dinner, these problems became magnified.

“Chris and I had agreed to work together again, and he understood how hard of a year I had preceding it. He was kind of hurt because I hadn’t really talked to him in a while. And then we went out to dinner, and he said, ‘You have to stop drinking; you can’t record like this.’ So I was like, ‘OK,’ and the next day, I stopped drinking. But you have to understand: I was drinking every day. I’m not going to tell you how much, but when you drink that much every day and then you just stop, you’re going to have some side-effects. And then with the mania…And then to say, ‘Go record an album…’” He laughs.

But they did record an album. After botched sessions with a variety of unnamed pop producers, the trio eventually “just got down to it,” flipping the couch in the studio control room, piling up mountains of synthesizers. “When they understood where I was, Chris and Alex coached me through it. They made it very comfortable for me.” But to say these sessions were “comfortable” is a tad misleading. The physical studio environment may have been conducive to creativity, but the mood was often heated.

“We were so meticulous about making sure everything locked into place,” Angelakos says. “The amount of attention to detail on this record…it’s almost maddening. I drove those guys crazy, but they also drove themselves crazy because we felt something really special was happening. I was doing so much, and so much was still lingering, and I was basically piecing together my past because people had to tell me what I was doing. And it was horrifying, so trying to be creative was really hard.”

“Chris would actually bully me with the writing,” Angelakos continues. “He would say, ‘I don’t know if you can even write today; you should just stop.’ At one point, he threatened to quit the record because he just didn’t really think it was going to work. But I basically said, ‘No, it’s going to work. Sit the fuck down.’ [laughs] And I walked over the table and started looking at the computer, and I programmed ‘I’ll Be Alright.’ It took me eight hours—everyone left the room, and they came back, and there was the intro to ‘I’ll Be Alright.’ It’s things like that that I love about this record. It was such a brotherly situation, and it made it so comforting, and it was very hospitable. Alex and Chris really took care of me.”

Gossamer is a “completely autobiographical” album, filled with lyrical references to all of the heartbreak and madness and excess and depression that inspired it. On the orchestral-electro show-stopper “On My Way,” Angelakos proposes to his now-fiancee, Kristy, over a descending, Beach Boys-inspired piano chord progression and tumbling percussion (“I’ll buy a ring, and we’ll consecrate this messy love”). Over pitch-shifted soul samples and x-ray synths on the absolutely joyous-sounding “I’ll Be Alright,” Angelakos sings some of the most depressing lyrics you’ll hear all year: “I’m so self-loathing that it’s hard for me to see / Reality from what I dream,” he sings, elsewhere noting, “I drink a gin and take a couple of my pills / And my parade would give you chills.” Angelakos’ naked honesty is spine-chilling, and it’s at direct odds with the the neon-glow serotonin injection that is his music.

That contrast is fascinating, but without the focus and discipline enforced by Aldi and Zane, it wouldn’t have existed.

“I’ve been writing songs for so long,” Angelakos reflects. “I would throw songs out there, and they would be like, ‘That’s too much. That’s too crazy for Passion Pit—certain sounds or chord progressions or BPMs. All the demos when I started out were soooo slow. This record was like a Low album or something. [laughs] And it kind of concerned some people, and it was just part of the process of figuring out what worked.”

Though it’s subtle in its eclecticism, Gossamer does cover a lot more stylistic ground than Manners, which Angelakos now views as a “punk album,” at least in its forward thrust and linear approach. There are hints of hip-hop, classic pop, even a “Greek chorus” on the a capella interlude “Two Veils To Hide My Face.”

“We went through so many different phases,” Angelakos continues, “because I was writing all these different kinds of songs. But I always have. I’ve always been able to write all kinds of different songs—I’ve scored films, I’ve written theme songs and stuff like that. I’ve always been able to. And if I could find a way to utilize these changes in Passion Pit-sounding songs, that’s a coup. That’s really interesting. But Passion Pit has certain perimeters. The key to a successful record today is that you don’t forget your fans, the people who got you where you are in the first place. But I didn’t want to abandon any sound as much as I would have loved to have just gone off the deep end, but I felt a certain sort of debt. I felt I owed something to the fans who made us pretty successful. So it was some kind of compromise between being Passion Pit—the one everyone knows—and working within the perimeters of that well-known Passion Pit, and creating new shapes and moving around as much as possibly can within that. That was an incredibly interesting challenge. It wasn’t an obstruction—it wasn’t something I found to be an obstacle in any way.”

“But at the same time, I’ve done that. I’ve made that compromise. I’ve made a record that successfully bridged the gap, you know? I’ve created the bridge—it’s just a matter of when I want to cross it. But I think the bridge is the most amazing part of about it. The bridge basically represents that there was a mindfulness. I saw it as being respectful. It wasn’t about restraint. And Chris was adamant about this, too—’You can’t turn your back on these people. People want this, and you’re good at it. This is what you do.’ But I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m good at it, but I don’t think that’s really me right now.’ He was like, ‘It is you. Shut the fuck up, and play that synthesizer over there, and I guarantee you it will sound awesome.’

“And he was usually right. And I had fun. And then after a while, all the ideas I wanted to bring into it were brought in and it was just very natural. But later on, I don’t think it’s going to be an issue because at this point, all I want to do is make sure the record is received at least respectfully—that people see there’s so much hard work put into it and so much thought put into it, and it’s an extraordinarily honest record. It’s completely autobiographical—everything is true. That’s important to me, and now that I’ve done that, I think I’ve earned myself the right to experiment later on. You can’t get everything right away—you’ve gotta work for it. I don’t think I almost even deserve to make that kind of record. It isn’t a free-for-all, but you also have to pay your dues.”