Passion Pit's Michael Angelakos talks about canceling concerts, the jolt of performing live, following up 'Gossamer' and more
Michael Angelakos has acute bronchitis.
“It all started with allergies, and I have a lot of stresses in my life, so I’m starting to get sick,” said the Passion Pit singer, calling last month from a tour stop in Colorado. “It happens. Touring is touring, and people get sick.”
This is not good news for Passion Pit fans. As the synth-pop band continues to scale ever-greater heights — playing Saturday Night Live, selling out Madison Square Garden, headlining Saturday’s Coastline Festival in Tampa — Angelakos’ viability as a touring musician remains a touchy subject.
The band has canceled many tour dates over the years, including several in September, when their gear was damaged during a storm at an outdoor festival. That led Angelakos to post an open letter titled “Why Bands Cancel Shows (And Why It Sucks For Everyone),” in which he outlined the many legitimate reasons —personal, technical, logistical — why an artist might bail on a gig. More than a few critics ridiculed the letter — Spin called it “hugely condescending” — prompting Angelakos to post an explainer to the explainer the very next day. And yet, one week later, the band canceled yet another show in Portland, Ore., due to “scheduling conflicts beyond the band’s control.”
Angelakos, 26, doesn’t regret the letters. He wants fans to know that he knows they’re upset. He wants them to know that he does love performing live, that it pains him when his band can’t deliver on a ticket.
Most importantly, though, he wants Passion Pit fans to know he’s okay.
“If I just canceled a show,” he said, “and I didn’t say anything, most likely someone’s going to say, 'Oh, it’s Michael — that’s the suicidal, bipolar one, right? Yeah, okay.’ It’s reductive and it’s not true. I’m a person that only came out and talked about my mental illness to explain cancellations. Then it became a precedent for people chalking up any cancellation of any kind, even when that had nothing to do with it.
“I don’t lie,” he continued. “I don’t have the ability to do that. I’m tired of people continually saying, 'Oh, it’s because he’s mentally ill.’ That’s crazy! My whole point is to show people that I CAN tour and have a mental illness, and deal with it. I will do everything in my power to make sure people understand that.”
How did Passion Pit get here? How did Angelakos, who never intended to take his buoyant brand of squiggly, synthetic electro-pop on tour in the first place, find himself dodging the arrows of critics who claim he’s unfit for road life?
Start at Emerson College in Boston, where in 2008 Angelakos made a four-track EP as a Valentine’s Day gift for his then-girlfriend that eventually spread around the campus. It included the song Sleepyhead, a dreamy disco mix of spiraling synthesizers, distorted vocals and Angelakos’ own distinct, high-pitched voice. Sleepyhead became an instant music-blog sensation, leading to a deal with Columbia Records, which released Passion Pit’s debut album, Manners, in 2009.
Passion Pit were poised for much bigger things when they released their sophomore album, Gossamer, in summer 2012. But about a week before the album’s release, Passion Pit canceled a handful of tour dates so that Angelakos could, as he stated at the time, “take the time to work on improving my mental health.”
In a lengthy interview that summer with Pitchfork, Angelakos opened up about the bipolar disorder he’d lived with since age 17, and how it had led to substance abuse, institutionalization and suicide attempts. “Creativity essentially leads to suicide — where you think to cut yourself up, sit in the bathtub, and take more medication than you should,” Angelakos told the website.
That all of this came to a head at a time when Passion Pit should have been at its most visible was unfortunate. Manners was relentlessly hooky and impeccably danceable, but Gossamer was a grand and glorious manifesto of pop, dripping with ambitious production and influence — the Beach-Boy harmonics of Take a Walk, the ’70s soul of Constant Conversations, the arena-filling chorus of Cry Like a Ghost, the confessional lyrics of It’s Not My Fault I’m Happy.
“Gossamer took a really long time, and was a coagulation of so many different weird ideas and patchwork ideas,” Angelakos said in our interview. “For a second record, it was a good balance between doing what you do and are known for well, and trying some different tempos and things out as well.”
He laughs. “I would love to go back and change almost every single song. It’s just the way I am.”
Angelakos’ obsessive nature and history of mental health issues have led some to call him indie pop’s Brian Wilson. Angelakos understands the comparison, but says his admiration for the enigmatic Beach Boy has more to do with his creative process — exacting and perfectionist — than any sort of empathy for his mental well-being.
“I understand the controlling nature of it,” Angelakos said “but he also went through a point where he was really controlling, and then he started collaborating, and that’s where I’m at now.”
As Passion Pit’s tour for Gossamer winds down — this weekend’s shows in Tampa and West Palm Beach may be their last for a while — Angelakos said he’s already begun writing his next album, which is “unprecedented,” he said. “I can hear it already. I’m very excited.”
Videos abound online of Passion Pit performing acoustic, stripped-down versions of kitchen-sink singles like Take a Walk and Sleepyhead. It can be a shock to see Angelakos strumming a guitar or crooning at a piano, considering Passion Pit’s live shows are overwhelmingly electronic, with members playing multiple synthesizers before an ambitious light display.
He admits there may be a disconnect in how fans view electronic music in a live concert setting. A guy with a guitar? That makes sense. But four guys playing densely layered dance music on an array of synthesizers and percussion kits? That’s less relatable to the average fan —and it may explain why so many have gotten so riled up about Passion Pit’s periodic concert cancellations.
“I’m sure they think a lot of it is backing track, because we’ve witnessed an enormous amount of bands that just mime it, which is really disheartening,” Angelakos said. “For me, I think, I’m always out there engaging the crowd and trying to turn what is a very emotional project into something, for just a brief moment, into a communal, participatory event. And I think people can see that we actually do put in the effort.”
As Angelakos speaks, there’s a palpable frustration in his bronchial voice. He’s right — he does seem unflinchingly honest, incapable of telling a lie. So when he’s asked again if he honestly does enjoy performing live, he is emphatic in response.
“When I get on stage, and I’m with my friends, and we get on there and we’re playing songs that I heard in my head years ago, and I see the connection with the crowd, and everyone’s dancing and smiling, it’s worth all that. It’s worth the doctor’s appointments, if you’re being seen through an illness. It’s worth all that. It’s worth all the stress of dealing with this type of issue.
“It’s a show, an experience, and that’s why we love it, and why we are so serious about being level with all our fans. This is something we love to do. And it’s certainly reciprocated. We feel that love back. It’s fantastic. That’s definitely what gives me a jolt.”
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*