Passion Pit: ‘R Kelly Was A Huge Influence, And Usher’

Harriet Jennings talks to Michael Angelakos about the making of ‘Gossamer’.

Not every day do you encounter an album put together with such attention to every microscopic detail as Passion Pit’s sophomore effort, ‘Gossamer’ but then that’s Michael Angelakos, through and through. The talented songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and frontman obsesses over the minutia of most things, or so we’re led to believe. We catch up with Angelakos in his swanky label HQ to talk through the new release, writing for Jay-Z and being best mates with Diplo. Fancy.

The first thing I wanted to clear up was that most of the information about Passion Pit seems to just be talking about you at the moment. Are Passion Pit still a band or is it a solo project now?
It’s always been me in the studio and a live band. I guess we just were never asked. Everyone was working on their own stuff, and I felt like I didn’t want to take away from what they were doing. They know that this is my writing project so it’s totally an amicable thing. They’re a really awesome live band. I didn’t talk to them for almost a year and a half - we needed that break after that amount of time together - and they were all like, “Yeah, let’s do this!” They’re totally behind it, and it just feels like such a huge leap from where we were when we ended the touring cycle. I consider us a band because live it’s an interpretation of what I do in the studio. Most people see you live, they don’t buy the record.

So the instrumentation on the album, is that all you as well?
Yes, it’s all me. I don’t play a violin but I wish I did. I have horn sections come in and Chris Zane, who co-produced it with me, he plays drums on the record, just because he’s better. But I do everything else myself.

And when it’s all written and recorded, do you then go and teach it to everyone else?
No, I’m the only one who didn’t go to music school so when I explain things to people about how to play music, it’s more emotional than theory based. So they’re like, “Ok, we’ll just listen to the tracks. Just give us all of the stems and we’ll figure it out.” But I’ll go and I’ll advise and we’ll figure it out together because there’s stuff that they’ll do that won’t fly but mostly they’re dead on. They know what they’re doing. I trust them completely and they trust me. It’s just such a good vibe this time around. We’re really excited.

You mentioned working with Chris Zane but I heard you also worked with a number of other producers in the beginning - is that right?
It’s pretty chronological. I had this opportunity to work with other people, co-production, because this is my project and I don’t want anyone to take it away. But no one could really because it’s a little weird. When you walk in with a hip-hop producer, you have to have a lot of direction, you have to have a strong sound. Really, all they were saying was, “I don’t know what to do here. You can pretty much do this yourself.” And so, after months of trying that, I was like, “I’m doomed. Passion Pit just can’t work with anyone else. Is it me? Is it the project? Am I the project?” That was a big crisis.

Where did the move to work with Chris Zane and Alex Aldi come from?
I realised at a certain point, I guess I’m gonna work with my friends. Chris is my friend. Alex Aldi is one of my best friends, and he’s an amazing engineer that has helped me throughout the entire process. I remember calling him and telling him, “Hey, I think we should work with Chris on the rest of this record.” We were thinking it’d be like a month or two. It ended up being six months. Poor Chris. Poor Alex, it was 13 months for him! He knows what went into the last record and how hard we worked on that. It was five times as much work for this record because it’s just so much more ambitious.

You mentioned the word ambitious there, and there were a lot of instruments that went into this record. We’re told you reckon up to 200 and Alex thinks 120?
Ok. That’s an annoying detail. I liked it because it plays into my brain a little bit. What happens is, when you have a ProTools system that can only do an output of 120 tracks stereo tracks. So that’s two tracks for one instrument sometimes. You have to bounce down. Alex was being technical, I was being honest.

With so many different tracks, how long did it take you to make one song?
Sometimes it would take a week. ‘It’s Not My Fault I’m Happy’ took about a week and a half, just for one song. I listened to the last record and I was like, “Oh my God, I can’t do it the same way!” so I made sure everything was perfect. Actually, in the end that was great because mixing was so much better. I think that’s a real difference between the two records; I don’t think they could’ve done a good mix with ‘Manners’ because it was crazily recorded when we were trying to figure out what Passion Pit sounded like. You want to go insane? Come to a studio with me for six months. I’m terrible. One of my best friends is Diplo. He does everything on his computer and he knows exactly what he’s doing. And then there’s me, going through all 8,000 kick drums to find the perfect one. It’s so crazy. And no one’s ever even going to know. But I know and I can sleep at night.

Would you ever want to work on a Passion Pit track with Diplo?
I work with him, but on other tracks for other people. I’d let him do a remix but I wouldn’t let him touch a Passion Pit track. I remember he was going to work on stuff and I was like, “Bro, let’s just hug it out.”

You mentioned earlier about this record being very different to ‘Manners’. Was there anything you learned during the writing/recording of the first album that you wanted to apply this time around?
Well, time. Sometimes it can be detrimental to an artist, but I think taking time with this record was really smart. I think I needed to have these jarring experiences, get really unhappy, experience my life and have all of these things happen to me that ended up becoming the story of ‘Gossamer’. Everything happens for a reason. ‘Manners’ was put together very quickly. I was very naive, I had no idea what I was doing and it was all about my afflictions and things that I couldn’t control, and actually stuff that to this day, I still don’t understand where it came from. It was a stream of consciousness record. I find that beautiful actually. I wish I could’ve recorded it a little better - I think we all do - but I think it’s a really interesting stamp on a captured moment.
I learned a lot because I had to play it for two and a half years. I kept thinking to myself, “I know exactly what I’m going to do with this next record, I’m going to write better songs!” I’m a real song person. I love production but the song’s got to be there for the production to be there. Here I am whittling away at over 200 songs, thinking to myself I could release like eight albums right now. Everyone’s saying, “This is your Tom Petty record, this is your Joni Mitchell record, this is your Laura Dalton record, this is your Wilco record.” I was all over the place with my music. R Kelly was a huge influence, and Usher. A lot of hip hop and R&B. I think what happened was that ‘Manners’ made me want to explore, and I went too far into the exploration process and then I brought it back in and we have ‘Gossamer’.

What’s the plan for the other tracks?
Do you know what? I have this terrible problem where I’ll write a song, and then I’ll be like, “Meh, I’m done,” and I won’t work on it ever again. Alex is like, “But the song’s good, why don’t we just try it?” He talked me into a couple of songs on ‘Gossamer’. And so did Zane. They were like, “You need to do this song.” And I listen to people because if I listen to myself, I’m never going to put out anything because I’m extraordinarily prolific and terribly stubborn. I’m also the most indecisive person I know so I need guidance all of the time. I’m probably going to release a solo record in four years, three years, maybe two, depending on the cycle.

Lyrically, this is quite a personal album. Was that a concern at all when you were writing?
Not really because I’m tired of hiding what I’m writing about. Art is about exposure. It’s a really tough job because you put yourself out there for people to shoot you down or sensationalise. It’s really f**ked up, actually, if you think about what it is that you’re actually doing. I had to think, “Well how open do I want to be?” because I’m talking about someone else now, someone very close to me, my fiancé, and my relationship with her and my problems that affect her. She can’t listen to the record. She loves it but she just can’t listen to it because it’s all real. And I don’t like making things up for the sake of making things up. I just write about what I know.
What happened to me was, I thought, tremendously scary and beautiful and interesting and riveting to me, and made me a better person after I was able to deal with it. Dealing with it was making music and writing music about it. When I finally heard the record in total, it’s the saddest thing I’ve ever put out if people actually listen to the lyrics, but it’s also a triumphant record. I’m still getting married. I finished my record. I’m talking to you right now. I’m still alive. I didn’t go overboard. I’m cleaned up. It’s a triumphant record because ultimately, that is where I was and this is where I am now. I can look back and go, “Wow, I’ve grown quite a bit.” And I’m really proud of myself for that. I hope that’s something I can connect with because I think low point records are the most inspirational ones to me. I never want to preach. It’s never preachy, I just want people to think that there can be a good outcome, you don’t have to kill yourself over it.

You worked with a Swedish trio [Erato] and a well known composer [Nico Muhly] as well this time around. What was it like letting other people get involved in the album?
With them it was different because Erato were just like, “What do you want?” And I was like, “Whoa!”. They’re very Scandinavian. I would just sing out harmonies and they would do it perfectly. They had really sweet, soft voices. The androgyny is one of my favourite parts of the record. My friends went two weeks without noticing that they were on two tracks. And Nico Mulhy is by far one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever worked with. I can’t say enough amazing things about him. He’s become a good friend of mine and an inspiration as well. He really understood where I wanted to go.

There’s quite a lot of variety between tracks across the album. Was that a conscious decision?
Yes. Even though Phoenix is one of my favourite bands ever, I never want to make a record that’s that cohesive. I went the 90s route, where you could put people in a room that like a band and everyone has a different favourite song but they all like the record. I love that idea. There’s no way that it’s not going to sound like me. The one thing that bothered me about ‘Manners’ is that it’s too much of the same vibe the entire record. I was like, “Alright, I’ve got nothing to lose, I’m going to write the record that I’d like to write, which is a record that shows diversity in the songwriter and producer.” There’s not a lot of that today so if I get hate for that, whatever. If I get love for that, then that’s great too. I don’t really care.

Finally, what’s next for you this year?
Touring. I’m really excited. I’m terrified but I’m excited. We went back on the road and did a load of college shows and it was so fun. I haven’t had that much fun with the guys in like so long. We were like, “What happened? Why are we having this much fun?” I was like, “Wait a year.” We’re all older, one of us just got married and I’m getting married, hopefully next year some time, and I think we’re all in good places. We’re taking advantage of the situation and we’re having fun.

Passion Pit’s new album ‘Gossamer’ will be released on 23rd July via Columbia Records.

Taken from the July 2012 issue of DIY, available now. For more details click here.

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