Passion Pit On Being “A Cockroach in a Nuclear War”
Michael Angelakos pads to his record player in polka-dot socks, flipping the Nat King Cole record on the turntable for the first of many times tonight. “What we’re listening to right now is The Nat King Cole Story,” he says, placing the needle back on the vinyl. “This is perfection, right? [But] there are mistakes all over these records and orchestras; the reason why they sound so beautiful is because they’re not all in tune, completely. The breadth is created by dissonance.”
In a Mets hat barely containing his unruly curls, jeans and checked shirt, 30-year-old Angelakos looks kind of like a fresh-faced college student — an impression that belies everything that has befallen the man we know best as Passion Pit over the course of his music career: suicide attempts, hospital visits and more than a few barbed reviews.
Today, though, Angelakos is buoyant, cloistered in his Manhattan apartment before the release of his fourth record, A Tremendous Sea of Love, all the proceeds of which will be donated to the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at Broad Institute.
In the pristine white space dotted with vinyl and homey touchstones — a heavy marble chess set stashed in the corner, incense smoke undulating from the coffee table — the musician holds court on a sprawling, aromatic leather couch, feet tucked under him, vape pen busily darting between his lips. Via a torrent of words that began flowing the minute he answered the door, he outlines his plan for the record release, sure — but also the de facto launch of the Wishart Group, a project he’s undertaking to help musicians gain easier access to mental healthcare, legal resources and addiction services. Plus, he aims to help artists donate intellectual property or revenue streams to nonprofits or institutions in a more streamlined fashion.
“I’m looking to make more artists leaders,” he says. “That’s what I’m interested in doing. I just know that lots of artists want to change things.”
Wishart is named after the musician’s grandmother, Jean Locke Wishart, who passed away in April. “My grandma was a genius and I owe everything to her,” he says. “I named the company after her; she’s never going to die. Everything is based on her community service; she was a theologian, a philosopher, just a great person.”
In essence, Angelakos’ mission with Wishart is akin to that of many Americans nowadays grappling with a White House that seems at odds with liberal sensibilities — a sentiment perhaps best captured in this recent Huffington Post headline: “I Don’t Know How To Explain To You That You Should Care About Other People.” He wants to underline the humanity of musicians (and journalists, and everyone — but that’s another story), to stress that artists are not just “content creators,” not just people we should deign to care about when they’re pushed to some final limit, as with the tragic cases of Chester Bennington and Chris Cornell.
“Do we need another Chester?” he asks, jiggling a socked foot. “How many car crashes before we put on our seatbelt?”
Just the other day, in fact, Angelakos announced via Twitter that he would be stepping away from the commercial demands of the music industry — what many mistook for a hiatus. “I love Passion Pit and I love music even more. When something would be wrong, I’d try to ignore it. Then I’d almost die. Really,” he wrote. “History loves to repeat itself and it’s because of systems and their flaws. So, I decided to make solving this issue my priority for now.”
After the predictable onslaught of articles claiming Angelakos was taking a break from music due to mental health issues, and much hand-wringing from fans, the artist released a statement to the contrary, clarifying that he wasn’t quitting music — just the system within which he had be toiling for a decade.
“I cannot continue to operate in this space, this industry, due to the way that it functions and treats people that work for it or create within it,” he wrote. “It does nothing to promote the health required in order to produce the work it sells. The risks associated with being a commercialized artist and embarking on a typical album release, like endless promotion and touring, have nearly killed me.”
Shifting on the massive couch, his knees to his chin, talking about his visions for the future, Angelakos certainly doesn’t look like someone who needs a break. “You know how many calls and texts I got yesterday asking if I was OK?” he says. “I’m fine! You know how few calls I get when I’m not OK?” He shakes his head. “Suddenly it’s like, ‘We wish Michael well,’ and, ‘Good for him.’ ‘We knew he wasn’t cut out for the music industry.’”
He pauses, opening his wide eyes even wider, a laugh playing on his lips. “I’m like, ‘Motherfucker I’ve been doing this fourteen years!’ I flew back and forth between electroconvulsive therapy sessions and playing in front of sixty thousand people at Lollapalooza in 2012 with a teleprompter. I’m a cockroach in a nuclear war.”
Angelakos has been working in the music industry in one way or another since 2008, when his Chunk of Change EP — a gift for an ex-girlfriend — caught the attention of indie label Frenchkiss and, eventually, Columbia Records. Passion Pit’s debut LP, Manners, came out one year later, and soon singles like “Sleepyhead” and “The Reeling” took over radio and TV. In 2012, with the release of Gossamer, Angelakos revealed via a cover story by Pitchfork’s Larry Fitzmaurice that he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age eighteen and that the ensuing years had been difficult for him, to say the least. He was hospitalized during the writing of the article. “My God, I dragged [Fitzmaurice] through hell,” Angelakos recalls, taking a sip of water from a stemless wine glass. “The poor guy really cared.”
The Passion Pit mastermind has a good memory for the journalists who have covered him and his music in the past, specifically name-checking freelancer Ilana Kaplan, who penned a story back in May 2016 about musicians and mental illness for the Observer that mentioned Angelakos. That article, which a scientist friend posted to Facebook, was his entrée into a conversation with neuroscientist Michael Wells of the aforementioned Broad Institute.
“Eventually, we’re on private DM and it’s like 3 a.m. and I’m like, ‘What are you doing tomorrow?’” Angelakos says, his hands sketching invisible patterns in the air. Wells invited the musician to his Harvard lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Within five minutes of going to his lab, he showed me a live molecule and I actually wept,” he recalls. “I really tried to contain myself because I was around all these amazing people that are curing Zika. It’s just nuts. They’re showing me actual human consciousness.”
Seeing that tangible connection to how the mind works was definitely meaningful for someone who has dealt with mental health since a young age, the breaking point coming in many ways via his second album. Gossamer is both sore spot and triumph for Angelakos; he plans to reissue a stripped-down remixing of the album in the future titled Gossamer (Reduced) as part of his efforts with Wishart. At the time of the initial writing and release, though, Angelakos was struggling — as documented in that Pitchfork piece. And, despite Pitchfork’s crowning the record Best New Music, outlets like Spin took the opposite opinion.
“My whole life has been a bunch of people not wanting to like my music because of posturing and branding and all of these things I didn’t understand at the time,” Angelakos says of the bad press. “I was like, ‘I’m the version of you that you don’t want to show anybody; I’m your password-protected version of LiveJournal, not the public one, you know?’”
“At the end of the day, I was like, ‘Come on guys, you know we’re all fucking emotional wrecks deep down and that’s what Passion Pit is,’’ he adds. “It’s the fun, weird version of [‘cool’ music]. It’s painful and all these other things; it’s not one color. It’s a marble; it’s a ton of colors and if you broke it apart, you’d see that it’s definitely a lot more.”
Angelakos is the aural equivalent of a hurricane in some respects. He speaks in spirals, ideas swirling until one makes impact. He jumps from discussing how news headlines have changed given the advent of the Internet to the anxieties of our country commingling with the mundaneness of everyday irks to how one could conceivably compare him to Donald Trump: “I don’t like saying I have a lot in common with Donald Trump. He’s erratic, he’s hard to follow, he’s verbose…”
At one point — when he utters, “I drag my wife through this, both privately and publicly” — it’s unclear whether he’s talking about Mrs. Trump or his own ex wife, Kristina Mucci. Thoughts come fast and loose when it comes to Angelakos.
(Tremendous Sea of Love is, however, named after a Trump quote. “That was something that Trump said, explaining the vast sea of people at his inauguration,” Angelakos explains. By claiming that quote, Angelakos sought to flip it. “Like you know, disrupt them all, fuck it all up with a hug,” he says.)
In the same way that the musician values that Nat King Cole record for all the pops and crackles and mistakes, he values this kind of chaos. That’s why Tremendous Sea was conceived to be imperfect — imperfect music and linear notes riddled with typos, a missive to his fans. “I love the typos, because if you don’t discredit what I have to say because of them, you’re a genius. The point is to look past people’s disabilities,” he says.
Still, through all the sound and fury, his message regarding Wishart is clear: “Everyone needs help. Music is powerful but it’s not enough,” he says. “I started making music because I wanted to make friends. I want friends who make music; I want a system that I feel like doesn’t make us all enemies.”
Today, that means working on connections with his fans; before wider release, the record was sent specifically to Twitter followers who supported his #weneedscience campaign. And, since tapping out of the industry and tapping into his base — though social media and a wide-ranging Reddit AMA — Angelakos says he’s made some fascinating relationships. “Someone gave me passionpit.com, which was a porn site for ten years, for free,” he says in disbelief. “They were like, ‘What you’re doing is really cool.’ That was the coolest thing ever. I wanted that .com forever.”
Another college-aged fan, encouraged by the musician on Twitter, penned an essay about being a concert photographer with generalized anxiety disorder. Angelakos has that piece locked and loaded for later perusal.
“My fans are awesome,” he says, getting up to turn the record over again. “I still am trying to figure it out, who they are and whatever, but it’s like the ones that I do know about, it’s an honor. It’s also scary, I feel like a parent,” he smiles as he slopes back to his seat. “Like, God I’ve got to be a really good influence. I hope I was, but you know.”
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