Interview: Passion Pit
"I'm alive and I'm talking to you on the phone, I didn't end up killing myself."
Passion Pit shot to fame with 2009's Manners, and now the US band are back with a new album, Gossamer. Released just a few days ago, the band's second studio album was made with the blood sweat and tears of its founding member Michael Angelakos. He spoke to us about his experiences with manic depression and alcoholism and how all of it affected the album. As expected of a band who produced one of the most feel-good electro-pop anthems of a couple of summers ago ('Sleepyhead', as if you had forgotten!), the heavy story behind the record has a happy ending, and Michael was only too happy to share it with us.
Jerico Mandybur: Why the name Gossamer? Did you just like the sound of it, or do you really like spiders?
Michael Angelakos: The former, actually, it just kind of stuck. I wanted to have a working title for the record and originally, it was named after this park I saw, Gossamer Park. It was something I fought against for months and months, and then finally I settled on it because it just worked. It's very applicable now, but it's funny how that works out.
It's the kind of word that makes you think of something delicate and tenuous; are those good connotations?
Yeah. There's also the translucent imagery, and the fact that with gossamer webs you can see them in certain kinds of light, then the light moves on them at a different angle and they're gone. There's a lot of little things you can apply to the lyrics and the thematic content of it, but I certainly didn't think of that back when I came up with it.
How much does this record stray from what audiences might think of as the Passion Pit 'sound'?
It seems like a really natural next step to me. All my friends that heard the record said that it sounded exactly like what they would expect the next record to sound like. Something about it feels like I did the right thing. I didn't stray too much from any certain sound, though I explored new ones, but not new ones that would alienate a fan.
Of course, some fans won't like it as much and others will like it. Frankly, I like this record more. I think it's more reflective of who I am and what I can do as a writer, producer and performer. I can only say that this is the best I can do right now, and if people don't respond well to it, then that's that — I can’t do anything about it.
I have a feeling they'll respond very well.
Well, I don’t know [laughs]. It's not an alienating record. It broadens the horizons and hones in on sounds that are very distinct and so apart from other contemporary bands that are in our realm. We don't sound like MGMT, we don't sound like these other bands. So there's always something that's going to set as apart, and I didn't do that deliberately, but I'm happy that I can say that it doesn't sound like too much right now. I'm proud of it.
When you finish recording, do you ever wish you could go back and work on songs more? How do you know when a song is finished?
You never really know, and because I like to play around a lot, I can always do more. The best songwriters know when to stop, and I'm trying to learn when to stop and just finalise it. With this record, I made some tough decisions. I'd go through several renditions of a certain song and then have to go, "Alright, this is it." Sometimes I felt like I was settling, but then I'd listen to it and go 'Shit, this is really good.' At a certain point, you have to trust your gut because that's ultimately where the best stuff comes from. I have a bazillion demos — I wrote over 200 songs for this record, so there was a lot of content there and good ideas. But you have to place some restraints. Over the course of a few years, the way I've written songs has changed drastically. I used to sit down, and just write a song, finish the fucking song. The whole process of Passion Pit kind of destroyed the way that I used to write songs, and I’m only just finally coming full circle.
In terms of placing restraints on yourself when you're song writing?
Yeah. Like, if I was to sit down and explain to you how Passion Pit works in the studio, it would take so long. It's so stupid and complex! It's like Iron Chef. You have no fucking idea what's happening, and then all of a sudden you present them a little platter of food, and it's done. It's beautiful, it's pretty, everyone eats it, they like it, they rate it and that's it. That's exactly what Passion Pit's like.
And then critics say things like "It heralds the arrival of spring".
Or they continually talk about how it has something to do with the Farmer's Almanac when I was joking! There's all these funny things where people say stuff about the music like "It's a summer anthem." Like, what the fuck? 'Take a Walk' is a summer anthem? It's like the most depressing song I've ever written! But hey, whatever. It's very telling of the public though, very telling.
Speaking of the darker lyrical tone, you told Pitchfork that you had to "vilify" yourself on this album; can you explain that more?
It's an autobiographical record. It's a record about my relationships in and around the making of a record — the strain of the record on the relationship, and manic depression, alcohol. There's a lot of things that meshed with the creation of the record and my life but those aren’t foreign topics. They're pretty normal things to talk about on a record actually. It's just that not as many people apply it to their life as honestly as I did.
I think about it as being from the [author] John Cheever camp. He writes these short stories that just desecrate and take apart a character. They involve watching families fall apart and watching relationships fall apart due to these singular antagonists. Basically, I went through a really hard time and I wanted to take responsibility for it. Because a lot of the problems were caused by things that I did, and I didn't mean to do them. I was manic or depressed or I was kind of drunk. Well not 'kind of', I was drunk. I was messed up on... I was out of my mind for most of it, and I still had to vilify myself. Because in the world today, I can't sit and say to you 'Oh I was just manic.' You can't say to someone that you've hurt really badly 'I was manic' or 'I was drunk.' Like there's no way you can make some excuse for it, because there’s no excuse you can make for a lot of things. For a lot of things that were happening in my life, regardless of how real the issues are, or how honestly out of it I was, I was essentially possessed. I had to take responsibility for it ... I was sitting there thinking to myself, "I don't even remember doing this." But there I was, apparently doing it. So that was me, vilifying myself. It was very hard to do, but it was a very therapeutic and cathartic thing to do — to say I was wrong and what I did was terrible, and what I did was not me and that I’m this person, begging for love and for forgiveness. And ultimately I do get it. That's one thing about the record; it's ultimately a happy ending.
I'm alive and I'm talking to you on the phone, I didn't end up killing myself. I was saved several times, and also I'm still in my relationship, I still have all my friends and the record's done! So it's a happy ending, and that's the way I had to look at it. Until I put myself out there and really opened up about a lot of these issues and told it in a film–like way — I think about it in terms of film captions or short stories — that's helped me deal with the whole episode and I find it very interesting now.
It seems like Passion Pit is your form of therapy. If you weren't a musician, what would you be doing to get that same experience?
Either dialectic or cognitive behavioural therapy! I think about it as like a modular synthesiser, where you have to re-route the patching, and then you go to this filter, and then you go to that sequencing, then you get this effect. You can re-route your brain and re-route the way of think about things and this record has helped me re-route the way I think about my life.
What kind of music were you making before Passion Pit?
Oh god, it was all over the place [from] crazy indie-pop bands to slow-core drone. I was scoring a lot of films, and I was scoring theatre. Some classical guitar stuff as well, just acoustic solo folk stuff. I don't subscribe to any specific genre.
What about working with the Swedish group Erato? How did they come to work on Gossamer?
I saw a video of them on YouTube, and I struck a deal with Columbia. I was like 'Please, please, please send them over!' and they did. It was for a three day period and it was the most fun ever. I would kind of go through shit with them, like the harmonies that I wanted, and the parts, and let them work stuff out between the three of them. We'd just pump it out. And they were so in love with New York, they were like eating all this pizza and trying out all this stuff. It was adorable and they were such lovely girls, so we had a really fun time with them. Chris Zane, my co-producer and I, we just had a blast. So things like that are really crazy; like working them, working with Nico Muhly — we just had so many fun people play on the record and I'm really lucky to have had that experience.
What was it like to have Rick Rubin give you advice on your songs? Was he an unofficial mentor to you?
Yeah, he's an unofficial mentor to a lot of people actually. He's just a really good person. If he's your friend, he's your friend; that's it.
What's the best advice he's given you?
I don't think he says anything that isn't advice. At a certain point, when I was going through this whole identity crisis, where I wasn't sure who I wanted to work with and everything, he said I needed to go back and be myself. I needed to go and do it on my own — I didn't really need a producer, I just needed people to help me finish it and execute it. He's the one that knew that everything was there, ready to go. I just needed the right situation. He's helped a lot of really good people. I would have a question for him about a song, and I would call him and he'd be like, "Oh you gotta try this, I'm surfing in a canoe, with a paddle" or something [laughs]. He's a totally normally guy.
I heard the anecdote about how you were working with a producer and he brought a bunch of girls into the studio, and if they started dancing to the tracks, you knew it was a good song.
That wasn't for Passion Pit at all! That's an anecdote about working with another producer on writing other songs for other artists. So the target audience for the songs was girls, because it's pop music. So he would turn on a song, and we'd look back and if they were nodding and getting into it, then the songs happened to be taken by the artists. I found that absolutely brilliant.
I know you've said that many people thought Passion Pit's singer was a girl and that's something you enjoy. Can you talk about the androgyny in your singing?
I went to school for media criticism and theory, and I was in love with New Wave French film. All the children in François Truffaut films, or in L'Enfant Sauvage, where there's a bunch of kids screaming — I remember seeing them and thinking, "That is such a good sound." Like a terrible, freakish, good sound. So I went back and layered my vocals, overdriving them and saturating them, and trying to emulate that bit. I started off singing in falsetto, but it wasn't like that; it was very soft and pretty. It had nothing to do with that yelping sound. It has to be effected to be properly recorded because it's a very specific tonality. But now, it's easier for me to sing high than it is to sing low. I have four octaves, which is quite a few. The androgyny is fun. I love the female voice, I always wished that I had a female voice [Laughs]. It was more just circumstantial and a funny idea [to emulate a female voice]. Then it kind of worked, because no one else had that vocal sound and it was unique.
How is the record going to be translated live, visually and in terms of the sound?
Visually, it's going to be beautiful. We're working on multiple projections, and some weird, crazy stuff that's going to be really exciting. It's totally different from a typical light show. I just got really bored with the typical light show that every fucking band does, and everyone just expects... But at the same time, it's still as engaging and exciting, and euphoric as ever.
Musically, it's going to sound huge. We're putting a lot of effort into making the sound absolutely stellar, but also, we're not a band that just copies the CD... I've never like bands that sound exactly like they do on the record. Unless it's like The Strokes or whatever [laughs]. Rock bands like that. There's no way we could sound like the record and perform our music, because we actually perform, we don't just sit down and press play.