By Laura Studarus; photos by Jason Nocito on August 15, 2012
Michael Angelakos chooses his words carefully. Not prone to verbal fumbling, the Passion Pit frontman speaks in deliberate fits and starts as he searches his mental data banks for the proper shade of meaning. That is, until he hits upon a particularly intriguing line of thought, sparking a queue of rapidly falling conversational dominos that seemingly stretches into the distance, his narrative tenses slipping from first person to second person and back. “Sometimes I’ll get fixated on a certain subject and I’ll just go off,” Angelakos says good-naturedly, after a question about sincerity in indie rock turns into a rant about guilty pleasures. (For the record: he’s anti-guilt.) “Stop me if I keep going,” he laughs, aware of his ability to get swept away in an idea.
It’s a light moment for the Passion Pit frontman, who admits culling much of his band’s material from his own inner turmoil. Having first achieved notoriety on the strength of its 2008 debut EP Chunk of Change—recorded as a belated Valentine’s Day gift for Angelakos’ then-girlfriend—the band (which also features Ian Hultquist, Jeff Apruzzese and Nate Donmoyer) followed it up with a proper debut, Manners, in 2009.
Although Angelakos admits that he hasn’t idealized the life of a full-time musician since aspiring to the position at the age of 6, the rapid shift from unknown tunesmith to blog fodder was a difficult transition. Faced with the pressure of creating a follow-up and compounded with events in his personal life that he’s hesitant to discuss, Angelakos entered what he calls a “very dark period.”
“You couldn’t really get away with not talking about these issues,” he admits. “I can’t even believe that half the stuff happened to me, that I did these things or that I said these things. I can’t make sense of it.”
The emotional yet oblique upheaval clings to every corner of Passion Pit’s new album. Gossamer’s upbeat, candy-colored electro-pop songs (featuring orchestral arrangements by Nico Muhly) are littered with references to booze, pills, broken relationships and heartbreak of every stripe. Although, with lines such as, “We all have problems, we’re all having problems and we’ve all got something to say,” juxtaposed with a sea of squiggles, the turmoil of its creator could easily slip under the radar, which, as Angelakos admits, would suit him just fine.
“It’s pretty embarrassing sometimes to share with the world what are some dark moments, but there’s something to be said about that,” he says, warning against the idea that the album can be used as a sort of Rosetta stone to understanding him as a person. “The catharsis of it is tremendous. I’ve never understood when artists talk about their music and say ‘it’s very painful to play these songs, because it reminds me of this time.’ When I made these songs I was in a very skewed state. I don’t really remember those times specifically. I look back and it’s an enriching experience...I can make sense of what’s happened. That’s when you know you’re in a good place.”
Angelakos places the credit for his journey towards emotional wellness on his friends, bandmates and family—particularly his fiancée, Kristy, who, in the thick of things, served as an almost-constant support system. “I was in a dark place with someone else there that really loved me and that I love,” he says. “So [Gossamer] is about the strain of going through it and making a relationship work under these terrible conditions. Ultimately, I can say that it’s a happy ending.”
The album is infused with the DNA of their relationship. Kristy appears as a character on “On My Way,” with Angelakos promising to “buy a ring and then we’ll consecrate this messy love.” Likewise, the album’s artwork features images of Kristy and a letter to her penned by Angelakos.
How romantic, right? Not really, Angelakos insists. “That’s the one aspect of Passion Pit that’s completely accidental,” he clarifies, mulling over the gap between the way he sees himself and that of his public persona. “I really don’t think romantically. I certainly don’t act like a romantic. I always try to be much warmer than I actually am. There’s an iciness that I got from someone in my family. When I write music, somehow that taps into a certain part of my subconscious. I’ve never really considered myself to be a romantic, but often people write about me as being one and I have never understood it, but I guess they’re only going off of my music. It does speak for itself.”
This, from a guy whose livelihood started as a Valentine’s Day gesture? Angelakos good-naturedly brushes off the indication. “The sensationalism behind that was fine, and I expected that,” he says. “It was really more fun that it was earnest. But it ended up being a little earnest, almost by accident.”
He also shrugs off the notion that Gossamer could be framed as a triumphant narrative. He jokingly knocks the idea of identifying as an optimist (“Not in any way shape or form!”) and pragmatically notes that some listeners may view the new album in that light. “There are moments of optimism but they’re quickly weighed down by moments of darkness,” he says, measuring each word. “The record, if you listen to it from front to back, ends in a very weird middle ground. There’s no real resolution. It’s not satisfied with the results. I suppose that’s interesting, but optimism is not something that I hear on this record as much as I hear the negativity. I find that funny because people always pick out the negative aspects of themselves more often than they will pick out the positive things. So, I don’t know, maybe there are more optimistic moments on this than I take in, just because of my own personal bias.”
In view of the events immediately following this interview, that offhand comment could have been viewed as a foreshadowing of sorts, but at the time, Angelakos chalked his viewpoint up to hard-won realism. When we spoke, Angelakos was on the cusp of returning to the road for another extended promotional period and emotionally preparing for the release of Gossamer. A few weeks later, he cancelled a handful of Passion Pit dates, checking himself into the hospital to address depression caused—in part—by his complicated personal struggle with a bipolar disorder. Seen in that sad light, the musician’s guarded optimism about what the upcoming year had in store is not without its own darkness, yet is belied by a genuine, gritty sense of hope.
“It is weird and confusing, and probably as unhealthy as you can imagine,” he said of the grueling cycle of writing and recording, which—for better or for worse—he has made his life’s work. “My goal now is to make sure that I make a healthy world to exist in. That’s going to take a little bit of time and effort. I’m confident that with this new record I’ve got my catalyst. I’ve got the one thing I really need to get me through it, which is a body of work that I can honestly say I’m pretty proud of.”
He paused to consider the implication of that statement. “I can’t believe I’m saying that. It’s hard when you put it out there or are waiting to put it out there. But I can say that I couldn’t have done any better. In this industry you just have to find a way to survive. Hopefully it’s a healthy way.”
May the music keep Passion Pit forever in a safe place. F