Michael Angelakos’s speaking voice is nothing like you’d expect. “If I sound really weird,” he says by phone from his Cambridge home, “it’s because I have really bad allergies right now.” But that’s not it. No, it’s more the fact that he doesn’t sound like a woman, which is the way he comes off when he sings with his fast-rising electro-pop outfit, Passion Pit. “Oh, that?” he says. “That’s like a character I do with this project. I don’t usually sing that way.”
In fact, he explains, he never sang like that at all until a couple of years ago, when he made the now-famous Chunk of Change EP, a kind of valentine for his girlfriend at the time. He used his happy, high-pitched falsetto all through the six-track laptop recording; released by Frenchkiss Records in September 2008, the EP included the contagious single “Sleepyhead,” a club-ready pop joint with a pitched-up vocal sample from the Irish harpist Mary O’Hara. The blogs went nuts for it, Passion Pit became the new Vampire Weekend, and Angelakos’s life changed forever.
A lot of musicians would spend months preparing material for a record born of such hype. Not him. The 21-year-old showed up at Gigantic Studios on the Lower East Side in November with not one note written for Passion Pit’s debut full-length, Manners, unless you count “Sleepyhead,” which made the cut. Angelakos made up every other song on the spot, with producer Chris Zane at the console. “I’d come in and pull up a blank screen on the computer,” Zane recalls. “Then I’d turn to Michael and say, ‘So, what kind of song do you want to make today?’ ” The resulting tracks vary from ’80s-style soft-rock (“Eyes as Candles”) to Arcade Fire–esque anthems (“Moth’s Wings”) to straight-up dance-floor electronica (“Little Secrets”). A giant step up from the EP’s homemade feel, Manners seamlessly meshes surreal, deeply psychological lyrics with epic melodies and elaborate sound design.
Zane admits that, at first, he had serious doubts that this off-the-cuff method could produce such a well-written album, especially for such a young band. “I was like, ‘This is going to last about two days with this kid,’ ” says Zane, who, at 31, became a kind of big-brother figure to the frontman and his bandmates, most of whom only breezed in occasionally to lay down instrumentals. “But just the time when I thought he was bullshitting, I’d realize he was so on it. He’s simultaneously the most irresponsible and mature 21-year-old I’ve ever met. “
Zane would eventually learn much more about Angelakos’s personality than he ever wanted to know. The two of them, along with engineer Alex Aldi and drummer Nate Donmoyer, quickly fell into an intense alternate dimension of creativity. Disregarding their personal lives, they worked 14-hour days for almost three months from November to January in hopes of making a record that would justify the buzz. “The stakes were really high,” Angelakos says. “The intensity of the project had become something way different than it was in the beginning, something we never thought we’d be dealing with.”
For one thing, the budding songwriter decided to use the sessions as an opportunity to examine his personal life. While Chunk of Change was aimed at an external romantic subject, Manners is almost entirely self-reflective. “I wanted to write about something that I knew really well,” he says. “So the whole album talks about paranoia and guilt.” He won’t get too specific about his sources of turmoil, but his cryptic lyrics harbor strong hints of existential torment. On “To Kingdom Come,” he wails, “Me, I cried out ‘God!’/You dared me in the dark/I felt a hush fall quietly from my spark/So now I hide in piles of princely orange peels.” The album’s title alone symbolizes the struggle to keep a façade of normality on a psyche racked with confusion.
“For me, it represents the ability to kind of live through, to be polite and kind and put on a show for everybody even though you’re pained,” he says. “I got to a point where most of the time, I was walking around thinking the exact opposite of what I was doing.”
Passion Pit’s overall aesthetic holds major clues about this existential dichotomy. In the video for the single “The Reeling,” released last month, his lip-syncing face is obscured by a collage-like effect, while the star of the clip, a gorgeous young woman, dances down a dark street joyfully. On much of the album, Angelakos’s manic-depressive poetry is veiled by the band’s jubilant party-pop sound: synthesizers, dance beats, helium voices. The band even employed a choir of fifth-graders from P.S.22 to sing on the choruses of a few songs, including the invigorating track “Little Secrets,” which, though Angelakos won’t confirm it explicitly, hints at possible drug use. (The explosive chorus goes: “Let this be our little secret/No one needs to know we’re feeling/Higher and higher and higher.”)
Though these sessions with Zane were producing brilliant pop music, outside the control room, things weren’t necessarily going smoothly. As much as the group tried to put blinders on and focus on the album, there were plenty of real-life hitches: Zane contracted bronchitis, the weather was bad, the studio’s ventilation system broke down. Meanwhile, Angelakos and Donmoyer were sharing a bed in a spare room in a stranger’s Lower East Side flat and blowing off steam as much as possible in their spare time. “Shit was just insane,” Donmoyer says. “I said some things I wouldn’t repeat, but Michael and I are very similar, like twins, so it worked out.”
One low point occurred when the group took a two-day break for Thanksgiving and the band was due to fly back to Boston. When Angelakos reached LaGuardia Airport, he called Zane, frantic. He was about to be arrested because he didn’t have enough money to pay his cab fare. “I had to pay $45 to get there, $45 to get back, plus Michael’s $45,” Zane recalls. “I want to say it’s typical, because making records is always intense, but this was pretty extreme.” One night, Zane says, he locked all the band members’ cell phones and laptops in another room and had it out with them. “I remember saying, ‘I’m about to kill you motherfuckers,’ ” he says. “They would go out and get wasted and come in to the studio hungover, stuff like that. But I eventually realized, they’re 21—that’s what they do. It’s going to be fine.”
And, of course, it was. Despite the trials of getting it done, no one involved with making Manners has a single regret, least of all Angelakos, who, by all accounts, has changed dramatically since the sessions started. “I’m not the most emotionally mature person I know, but that’s what really fuels a lot of this record,” he says. “This past year saw me in very difficult situations, and I dealt with them accordingly, but I’m self-aware enough to know my shortcomings.” Asked to name one, he hardly hesitates: “I need to grow up.”
Passion Pit play Bowery Ballroom June 19 and 20