“I hear everything that’s going on in the pop world. I find a lot of it repulsive.”
In itself, that’s perhaps not an unusual sentiment to be coming from an artist who’s been feted by the alternative press. Here’s the catch, though; Michael Angelakos is a pop musician, in nearly every sense - his first two records as Passion Pit were replete with killer hooks and smart melodies, he released both of them on a major label - after a debut EP not originally intended for public consumption - and in 2013, when touring in support of ‘Gossamer’, he and his band headlined Madison Square Garden. For him to be railing against a world that seems to have wholeheartedly embraced him could certainly be considered a little incongruous - even ungrateful.
For Angelakos, though, actions speak louder than words; if he’s calling out some of his contemporaries, it’s only because he himself is in the process of trying to effect change. Passion Pit’s third full-length, ‘Kindred’, has him at his sharpest, snappiest and pithiest - it clocks in at under thirty-eight minutes. Where ‘Gossamer’ was sprawling and expansive, ‘Kindred’ is Passion Pit with the fat stripped away, pushing Angelakos’ deeply personal lyrics - somewhat overlooked by many critics on ‘Gossamer’ - to the forefront. Themes of family, community and support systems are prevalent throughout, with a slew of songs attesting to the positive influence of Angelakos’ new wife on his well-documented battle with mental health issues. “There was no happy ending on ‘Gossamer’,” he says over Skype from his home in Brooklyn. “It was pretty fucking bleak.” With an entirely new live line-up in the offing and Angelakos’ outlook tentatively becoming sunnier, though, ‘Kindred’ feels like Passion Pit 2.0 - looking forwards, never backwards.
Did you take some time off once you wrapped touring for ‘Gossamer’?
Actually, yeah. I made a concerted effort to just live my life like a human being, for a change, but it made me realise that even when I’m successful at that - at taking a break, and at enjoying life - I still end up getting so antsy. I need to be working every day, but it took me a while to realise that. I didn’t really know if I was ever going to make another Passion Pit record, to begin with, but I think that restlessness eventually forced me to a place where I was excited enough to start writing again. To put yourself in the position to write Passion Pit songs, you have to let the emotion kind of stir itself up; it’s like assuming a role, like I’m taking on a character.
Like the last two records, you made ‘Kindred’ primarily in New York City. Why?
We tried recording it someplace else. We always do! I mean, this time, for no other reason than it being, ‘OK, we’re all married, everything’s cool, let’s have a little bit of fun, and push ourselves in a different direction.’ We went out to the middle of nowhere, but it was thirty degrees colder than in New York, and we ended up finding our way back to the city. I think, honestly, we could record anywhere, but there’s something about the craziness of New York that seems to be at the core of this project, and as soon as we realised we were missing the nice weather there, we were like, ‘fuck! Maybe we should go back!’ You learn a new lesson every time, I guess.
Chris Zane, who produced ‘Manners’ and ‘Gossamer’, was behind the desk again. Is he an essential part of the process, at this point?
Put simply, yeah. Zane and Alex Aldi, who mixes the records, are like brothers, and they’ve coached me through these albums. We’ve been through a lot together, and I feel like I couldn’t make a Passion Pit album without them. Not because I couldn’t write another one, but because I don’t think there’d be anyone else who would understand the immense amount of layering, and the way I use it to convey what I’m doing from a songwriting standpoint. Passion Pit is me, it is my project, but I love that I’m no longer afraid to collaborate with people. I can be so much more open; I don’t feel like I’m losing myself, or diluting the ultimate goal. It’s supposed to be fun, but when it’s not - when it’s trying, or taxing - those guys are brothers, and I know I can count on them.
"Just get to the fucking chorus! You know you want to anyway, because this is what you do."
— Michael Angelakos
There’s clearly a heavy undertone of family and support systems to ‘Kindred’. How did that come about?
That kind of thing is never deliberate. I mean, I know screenwriters who go into a screenplay meaning to come up with one thing, and actually ending up with something completely different, you know? I’ve never been the kind of person who goes in to execute a specific idea. What I did want to do with ‘Kindred’, in a more general sense, is make a more positive record, and I think I achieved that, to a certain degree. There’s still an immense amount of frustration at things I haven’t fulfilled, but there’s also a desire to get better being acknowledged - there’s a lot of human, relatable subjects coming to the surface. I won’t go in trying to write about them, but then I’ll think, ‘oh, fuck! There’s that whole situation from three nights ago that ties in here, and there,’ and it’ll end up leading into three or four different narratives. That’s why it’s always the worst question ever when somebody asks me what a particular song is about - it’s like, ‘pick an angle! Pick a narrative!’ I’m not sure I’ll ever get away from that, because there’s always so much of it going on with Passion Pit.
Did you feel a need to get away from the negativity of ‘Gossamer’ with this record?
Well, I’m not sure. How do you feel this one stands next to ‘Gossamer’?
It’s seems much more balanced to me. The more I heard of ‘Gossamer’, the more that the darkness and anxiety stood out.
Yeah, I’d say something similar. ‘Gossamer’, to me, sounds super fractured. I mean, all the lyrics, all the topline, I left all of that until the end when we were recording, for no other reason that I just couldn’t face any of that shit. It was like going through hell. That makes the record really beautiful, in a way, but it also makes it difficult to get through, at least by the standards of the average pop record. What’s amazing about Kindred is that you can listen to it all the way through and it feels good; you’re not trudging through this really arduous field of mud, emotionally. So, yeah, it’s balanced, but using the word ‘balance’ implies that you’ve achieved it; really, I’m just working on it. I’d rather be honest; nothing is perfect, nothing’s worked out yet, there’s no happy ending, but there’s certainly an attempt at one. There definitely wasn’t on ‘Gossamer’.
What was it like touring those songs from ‘Gossamer’, and playing them every single night? Was it difficult?
No! That’s the amazing thing about performance, and specifically in terms of Passion Pit, that’s what solidifies the notion of it being like musical theatre; I’m kind of detached from it. I mean, I’d never say that this is a truly personal project, because, like I said before, I feel like I have to become a certain version of myself to make a Passion Pit record. It just so happens that I’m talking about a lot of my personal issues. It’s like I need this character, and this weird notion of whatever it is that people think of and expect from Passion Pit, to be able to talk about these things, so when I go on stage and perform, there’s a weird distance. I don’t feel the weight of it as much as, say, when I was writing or recording it, but it also doesn’t feel like a release - it’s not particularly therapeutic. If I get anything out of it, it’s that I can whip up this exciting, communal experience that is like the total opposite of the situation I was in when I was writing the songs. I thought I would have a hard time touring, initially, but the fact that the songs yielded such beautiful, positive results made it a real pleasure.
"I made a concerted effort to just live my life like a human being, for a change."
— Michael Angelakos
This is easily the shortest, sharpest Passion Pit record - ten tracks, under forty minutes - and it feels really taut in terms of song structure, too. Is that what you were aiming for?
I listened to ‘Gossamer’, and I wanted the exact opposite experience. I didn’t want to drag people over the coals this time. I love ten-track records, too. I love records that are succinct, and have a lot to say and a lot going on, but don’t leave people feeling like they finished too soon, or that there could have been more. That’s how a lot of my favourite albums are; they almost run like a live set, where on the one hand you’re thinking, “fuck! They didn’t play such a song!”, but at the same time, you know that song would’ve interrupted the flow. This seemed like an appropriate time to go after that feeling for myself. It all just boils down to that idea of simplicity, that thing that Kathleen Brennan said to Tom Waits on ‘Bad as Me’: “cut the six-minute shit!” That’s how I thought about it - just get to the fucking chorus! You know you want to anyway, because this is what you do. You make pop music, so make a fucking pop record, and if it’s weird, fine - just make sure it’s efficient.
You’ve talked a lot about Passion Pit being a pop project. How do you feel about the current state of pop music?
I hear everything that’s going on, and I work on a lot of pop stuff, and the gut instinct is that I always want to change it. That’s how I view that kind of thing - if you think there’s something wrong, stop complaining and do something about it. If you don’t like it, change it. Try something different. I’ve always played around with pop elements, but I could never pull off a true pop record. I’m never going to make anything that’s completely palatable, in that sense. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t fun to play around with what we’ve always known as ‘contemporary pop’; I mean, that’s huge in the UK right now, isn’t it? You look at all these indie blogs, and everybody’s covering pop music. It’s just been dressed up differently. It’s all about production. That’s why my thing is, ‘what if I take that production, and I fuck with it and mess it up?’ There’s a little bit of me on either side, and you can pick and choose which way you want me to lean, because the music I’m making can kind of go either way. I like being somewhere in between - that’s what makes it fun. And that’s why, however it might seem, Passion Pit is always light-hearted, in that sense. I don’t take it seriously at all.
Photos: Phil Smithies / DIY. ‘Kindred’ is out now on Columbia.