Photo: Jean Claude Billmaier

Passion Pit Are Ready to Hit the High Notes Again

Ten years after a medication paralyzed his vocal cords and forced some of his favorite songs out of rotation, Passion Pit's Michael Angelakos can't wait to tour his debut album Manners and perform those songs again.

Passion Pit
19 May 2009

Just Like Heaven, the late 2000s indie-throwback festival, makes its debut on Long Beach this May. It’s not like any other festival. Instead, it’s the latest teary-eyed blast-to-the-past featuring artists I didn’t quite identify as throwbacks yet. When I saw the lineup, with all the musicians from my early adolescence packaged into a sun-soaked nostalgia-porn bonanza, it was something of a wake-up call. I’m only 20 but soon enough, I’ll be out of touch.

Passion Pit, the first name of the second-line of the poster, fits right in. A little bit older than Beach House, a little bit younger than Yeah Yeah Yeahs, a little bit more humble than Phoenix, with a little bit more YouTube views than Grizzly Bear… if indie rock is the new wave of nostalgia, it’s hard to think of a better group to lead the embrace.

Longevity is rare in a time where listeners, let alone musicians, struggle to keep up with ever-morphing trends. Passion Pit mastermind Michael Angelakos will be the first to admit he doesn’t do as many interviews now as he used to. It’s only been ten years since Passion Pit’s earth-shattering debut Manners rode the turn of the decade to end an era where bands could take whatever major label money was thrown their way, hit the studio, and see what happens.

But to say it has “only” been ten years is a little ill-conceived. A lot has changed in ten years. Could Manners sweep onto the scene now, with its blocky beats, buzzing synths, phantasmagoric poetry, and spawn the same league of imitators, snagging the same marquee spots on festival lineups? Could “Take a Walk” transcend alternative radio to infiltrate the Billboard Hot 100 and become a bonafide pop hit if it were competing against Juice WRLD and Khalid?

Angelakos doesn’t seem to think so. “Everything has sped up so much,” he says. “We very easily forget what was released yesterday, let alone ten years ago. I feel like tenth-anniversary tours today are like what 20th-anniversary tours were ten or 15 years ago.”

This acceptance is core to why Angelakos rightfully didn’t take his Just Like Heaven invitation as a sign of waning relevance. Instead, he saw it as motivation to embark on his first tour since 2017’s Tremendous Sea of Love, this time celebrating the ten years that have passed since his debut album sent shockwaves through his life.

The decision comes after a recent change of heart. “I used to talk so poorly about [Manners] for years and years,” he says. “Then I finally sat down and listened to it around the time I was doing Tremendous Sea of Love and I was like, wait a second! I made this when I was 20 years old? This record is awesome!”

It might seem bizarre that Angelakos would grow to hate the album that made him who he is, but it shouldn’t. “Anyone that puts themselves out there always feels like they could have easily done it a lot better. And if you love it and people don’t like it as much as you thought they would, you start to hate it.”

It’s not that the album was poorly received. Passion Pit is one of the alt-rock rarities that remain critical darlings while making a tangible commercial impact. However, it’s more to do with the confusion surrounding the time it was released, a time when Angelakos, a fresh college dropout, was thrust into the responsibilities of a major label musician as soon as he entered his 20s. “It was kind of uncharted territory,” he says. “It’s not like I was talking to the guys from MGMT being all ‘Well, what’s it like?'”

“I was a little ashamed and embarrassed because‚Ķ” He stops for a second. “Well, I don’t know why.” It makes sense. Ambiguous anxieties must arise from having to navigate your life when your whole sense of well-being depends on the marketability of your art. “I think a lot of it was just the pressures of the industry, the pressure to financially secure ourselves so that we could continue to do everything, the pressure to prove to people that Passion Pit is a band to take seriously,” he says. “I felt very defensive because I was young. I don’t really feel that way anymore.”

Indeed, age has brought forth a hunger to celebrate Manners for what it is. Free of all the burdens of earning airplay and making the right impressions, Angelakos is ready to have fun with the album, reclaiming it from a time drenched in stress and trauma. “That takes a while to move past. At the end of the record, I was completely exhausted. I think, long story short, I just put so much into the record that I needed a lot of distance from it. Ten years is a decent amount of time to meditate on it and give it the credit I think it deserves.”

Angelakos, just like any other high-profile musician, persistently battles with being misunderstood. Part of it is due to overzealous music journalists (I know, I know…guilty as charged) putting words into his mouth and using him as a vehicle to deliver their own preconceived narratives. “People pretty much projected and would say “your music is happy, but your lyrics are sad!”

He’s not wrong. People definitely do say that. I’ve said that before. However, Angelakos accepts that the most simple juxtaposition can often lead to the most fruitful angle for a lazy writer, so he accepts some of the blame. “It’s mostly my own fault,” he says. “I don’t think I really had the vocabulary or the ability to properly discuss it.”

He expands: “There wasn’t much of a conversation to be had about how much was actually going on in the record and what I wanted to say because a lot of people were telling me not to talk about those things. I mean literally. People were saying ‘Don’t talk about your personal problems, don’t be honest about your mental illness because that’s all they will know you for.’

“And I wanted to hide. I was extremely ashamed of what was going on with me.” It’s painful to think that a now openly bipolar mental-health activist was forced into silence as soon as he blew-up due to internal and external pressure to polish his image. “And then the ultimate catharsis came with Gossamer, where I broke all those promises and told the whole story. And look what happened! Everyone understood the record! Well, close enough at least.”

Gossamer, the follow-up to Manners, was graced with a noticeable shift in lyrical style. Emotions that were once displayed through abstract metaphors and dream poetry were now being delivered in unrestrained, painfully earnest anecdotes. “Gossamer was so diary-entry-like. It was such a vivid account of what was happening,” he says. “Manners was so much more in my head. It probably would have been therapeutic to talk it out in interviews.”

As a writer, it’s easy to get caught up in the emotion of hearing an artist whose music walked you through your own times of adolescent confusion speak so candidly about where that music came from. It’s hard to keep it in your mouth, for the sake of objectivity or whatever, that a musician publicly hashing out the battles they had with themselves helped you identify that your own mood swings could be clinical episodes and that there is a way to alleviate the pain if you seek help from the right people.

But don’t worry, I did it! I still got the answers that anyone going to see Passion Pit on this tour needs. Yes, he’s very excited for Passion Pit to the play the songs a lot better than they used to play them. As of right now, he doesn’t know if they are going to play Manners front-to-back, but he’s leaning towards it. And yes, they will still play “Take a Walk”.

But for Angelakos, this tour is not simply a cash grab or a trip down memory lane. There are very tangible personal obstacles to be overcome here, things he needs to prove to himself.

The story is simple but tragic. Angelakos had been taking an antipsychotic medicine called Seroquel (“I will go on record and say it’s the worst fucking medicine in the world. They don’t even give it to mice anymore.”) Unbeknownst to him, a side effect was paralysis of the vocal cords. Obviously, this is a nightmare situation for any singer, but this left Angelakos completely incapacitated.

He was unable to hit the high notes. Imagine trying to sing any song from Manners without being able to hit the high notes. Now imagine that happening when you’re touring the songs for the first time, eager to win over the brand new audience you worked so hard to get.

“It was absolutely traumatizing. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t sing, all of a sudden. I sang everything in the studio, and then out of nowhere, I couldn’t do it live. That kinda drove us away from playing a few of the songs, particularly ‘Seaweed Song’, ‘Swimming in the Flood’, ‘Folds in Your Hands’ … there were a few. And of course, those were some of my favorite ones.”

Angelakos hasn’t played “Seaweed Song” since it was forced out of rotation. Now, he’s going to get the chance to take a crack at it without his voice being mutilated by his medicine. “I really wanna hit the ground running this time,” he says. “I honestly can’t wait to see what it feels like to play those songs again.” It’s at this moment where I realize he’s not kidding. This tour isn’t for the money or the nostalgia or even for the fans. It’s for him.