Passion Pit On Coachella, Pop Music And How The Band Stopped Hating Touring

04/09/2013 08:47 am ET

Passion Pit's Michael Angelakos knows you're going to ask him about bipolar disorder. He also knows you read the Pitchfork interview in which he candidly discusses multiple suicide attempts. He knows that you know he cancelled multiple shows last year, citing mental health as the reason for doing so.

"It's so hilarious going into a lot of these interviews because I just assume that someone will ask something about the illness, and at this point I just throw my hands up in the air and assume that it's a lost cause," Angelakos said in an interview with The Huffington Post. "But some people I speak to really actually want to understand. And if that's the intention, then I can read that and try to satisfy that need and also talk about the music."

The problem is that knowing these things -- that Passion Pit rallied from Angelakos' personal struggles to release last year's "Gossamer," one of the strongest and most popular indie-pop records in recent memory -- leads critics to a base understanding of the band's music and, worse, to think they actually know Angelakos.

"I've recently learned to stop trying to be understood the way that I want to be understood, because it's not going to happen," the signer and songwriter said. "You can't understand me in the media. You have to talk to me, and we have to have a conversation. I've become this caricature of mental illness, for better or worse."

And while it's true that "Gossamer" sees Passion Pit setting songs about self-doubt, self-hatred, paranoia and a number of other dark mores against music that is infectiously joyous, that dichotomy (another piece of bait Angelakos says all writers take) isn't just about Angelakos own battles. As a songwriter who has worked with Usher, Nelly Furtado and Britney Spears, Angelakos delights in sneaking the stuff of real life into pop music, where he readily agrees it's been missing for far too long ("Very few artists are really pushing the envelope in terms of the actual narrative and story that's being told").

HuffPost Entertainment caught up with Angelakos in advance of Passion Pit's big appearance at Coachella (they play on April 12 and 19, the two Fridays of the double-weekend festival). Ahead, an edited transcript of our conversation about the band's journey from hating touring to having fun on stage, where pop music is headed, what folks still don't know about Angelakos and why Coachella "seems gratuitous."

Congrats on the success of the album. Now that there's been some time since the release, do you have any perspective on how you feel about it?
We're on tour for what seems like the rest of our lives. [Laughs] Comparatively speaking, it hasn't really gotten old. It's been fun trying to work on arrangements for the live show that are different and the songs allow for a lot more in terms of live instrumentation and improvisation. Which is exciting, because "Manners" was very confining in that sense. It's been fun visiting these songs from a very different perspective. This album just breathes a lot better. It's been a lot of fun for us.

Is it interesting to see how crowds react to your songs, some of which are famous for sounding really upbeat at first glance despite dealing with very serious subject matter? Do you get the sense that the crowd gets it at this point?
I can't really speak to that -- It means so many different things to people. Some people don't take the lyrics so seriously and other people really do. Our music is pop music, but it's still pretty weird. That's what's endearing about it.

In terms of the darker side of the music, I think that live, I wouldn't say it's a pity party. At this point, we try to make the shows as fun as possible, that regardless of whatever I'm singing, it's going to be fun. At this point, the reactions have been so positive, that I don't know how it's working or why it's working, but I like that it is working.

Things were almost too perfect, in a sense, at your Madison Square Garden concert, because there was a blizzard that threatened the show. It seemed like a real moment of triumph, not only for the band but in a "we are here and we are doing this" sense for you.
What I personally deal with and what the band has had to deal with subsequently … It's been a rough road. But somehow we have gotten over these hurdles to a place where we're all very happy and excited about playing. And that's not something we ever thought we'd say -- we were always kind of miserable on tour. But it was just insane that we had gotten to that point [of being able to perform at the Garden]. Everyone doubted us and no one thought we could do it. And we did it.

The storm was funny, because it put the whole thing into perspective. Even with the storm, we had about 11,000 people come out for a sold-out, 13,500-person room. So that was just ridiculous. And from that point on, there has been nothing but moments where we look at each other and are blown away by it. We did "SNL," we did Madison Square Garden, we did 9,000 tickets in San Francisco. The more emphasis we put on having fun, the better things are getting. So we're just trying to keep that frame of mind.

I feel like there's an honesty about what it's like to be a person in this world that shines through on "Gossamer. Outside of a certain form of love and joy in the Katy Perry/Lady Gaga vein, emotion seems to have fallen out of pop music. If you look at some of the most enduring pop acts, from Michael Jackson to Madonna, there were real considerations of paranoia ("Billie Jean"), personal struggles with religion ("Like a Prayer") and other everyday battles.
Well it's not really easy for the pop artists of today to subscribe to the nature of questioning. It's all about confirming. Very few artists are really pushing the envelope in terms of the actual narrative and story that's being told. Maybe Lady Gaga, but I wouldn't even say it's her music, it's more about her character. But someone was talking to me about how our record has been successful and our radio story is changing, and they asked me if we knew what it entailed. A lot of it is compromising for artists. They're scared to go to pop radio because it's not the same thing as alternative radio. But I keep thinking that if you don't like it and you don't think there's anything interesting going on, well then change it.

You can either live in the indie world and keep preaching to the choir or you can kind of infiltrate the pop world and make it more dynamic or interesting. These artists that you bring up, Madonna and Michael Jackson, these are complex figures. Whatever anyone may think of Passion Pit, the music is very dark and interesting and talks a lot about the way we view pop music. People don't necessarily know how dark and depressing the music actually is, because it's technically so happy and it masks that. And that's one of the most interesting case studies that's a big part in our success. I'm not blowing ourselves up -- we're not the first band to do this and I'm not the first person to write songs like that. But it's a great opportunity to try and change it, because I like pop music… or I used to like pop music, at least.

There are other artists who are not just in the "everything's going to be OK and everyone will love you no matter what" camp. I think fun.'s Nate Ruess gets into this stuff a bit and Kanye does at times, but generally, it seems like the idea is to make people feel good when they're listening to it. But maybe the lesson from a Passion Pit concert is that you can feel good without lyrically being told everything is perfect.
That's something that I've been thinking about lately, so it's nice that you picked up on that. I talk about it with a few friends in the industry who write for a lot of other artists and we always talk about how we want to make these bigger shifts in terms of the sonic elements, which is moving rapidly. We're moving away from the 128 beats per minute dance thing and starting to get some slower songs, which is great, because I miss ballads. I really do! I think if Passion Pit starts permeating the membrane of pop, that's such a coup for me. That's really powerful for me, because I love pop music. I just wish it had more depth.

fun.'s music is great -- Nate is always questioning himself in their songs. He and I talked about this for awhile, and it was very interesting to see how he felt about moving into pop and how it was this weird thing for him. But "We Are Young" and all these songs from "Some Nights" are really self-effacing stuff. You probably wouldn't think about it because the choruses slam home that positive mentality, but it's a lot of questioning about integrity. It's fun talking to other artists about this.

It's what you slip in under the radar that's the most exciting thing for a writer. Randy Newman's "Sail Away" is a dark song about coaxing African tribes into getting onto a boat and coming to America. Everyone just thinks it's a beautiful ballad. And there's "Short People" -- he masks humor in a way that's very critical of American culture. But that's how it works, you've got to give a little bit of sweet with the sour. If you balance it correctly, you can have a song like "We Are Young." I am a fan of fun.

How did the round of press and statements you did when you canceled the tour factor into your songwriting? Did you feel a relief or as though it's something that's on the lips of everyone you speak to, and that it's become something else that you have to deal with?
It's when you start realizing that there's a version of you that people know, or think they know. And then there's the real you. Because it gets totally eaten up and spit out in a very confusing way. And doing a lot of press between the ages of 21 and 24 when I was also trying to figure out who I was in the first place was very difficult. And it still can be, for me. But I just have a better handle of what's going on and what my limit is. How much should I say? When I decided that I was going to go public with being bipolar, that was almost only strictly to explain the cancellations. And then it became this bigger topic of conversation that informed listeners too much.

I got so many questions of the dichotomy of the music and whether I structured it that way because I am bipolar, which is ridiculous! So many people, without even understanding the illness at all, would say things like, "Well now that you're happy, how are you going to write another album?" You won't believe what people ask. I've recently learned to stop trying to be understood the way that I want to be understood, because it's not going to happen. You can't understand me in the media. You have to talk to me, and we have to have a conversation. And not about me! Just a regular conversation. But it's definitely been really interesting, especially after that Pitchfork article, seeing the shift in how people talk to me or review the concerts. Very few people review them without mentioning my issues. I've become this caricature of mental illness, for better or worse. At least it's brought attention to the illness, and it's made the character study of Passion Pit a little more interesting for people. But it's been hard to get it down to what I really want it to be. I'll do an interview with someone and think it's totally great, and they'll totally write it off. It's just unbelievable how people can twist your words, but it's something I've learned to just not take so seriously.

Perhaps there's a hubris on our end of things, which is that at once there is so much and so little that we know about people who make music nowadays. Even someone like Lady Gaga, there are so many articles about her personal life, but most of the people writing these things are either not talking to her at all, or just asking her 10 questions or so like I'm asking you. In your case, you gave more information than most, but instead of it being clarifying, it led folks to think they know a lot more about you than they might.
But at the same time, I am being awarded by a lot of mental health societies and associations and speaking at a lot of foundations and things, so I feel like I've done more than I even set out too. And I get a lot of letters of people saying, "Thank you for putting a face in music to this issue." So it makes it all worth it in the end, but I wouldn't wish suffering through some of the interviews on my worst enemy.

Do you think it has clouded the perception of the band?
We have a really good story, outside of my issues. A lot of times I think it's just kind of the "wow factor" of it, so people can write something "crazy" about a "suicidal dude." If you talk to most of these artists, half of them have depression. So it's not really that interesting to me, at least. But I feel like it takes away from the music a bit, and that's what really bothers me. But some people I speak to really actually want to understand. And if that's the intention, then I can read that and try to satisfy that need and also talk about the music.

Is it weird at all to do the two weekends in a row at Coachella?
I can't actually answer that because this will be our first double-weekend festival. To me, it seems gratuitous and just a little too much, but I understand these festivals want to make money and if they can, they'll do the double-weekend thing. And it's also good for bands because it's double pay, but we'll have to see how it goes. We're probably going to be over it, but we'll try our best. I think that festivals can be very special moments, like when we did Lollapalooza after all those cancellations -- walking out in front of those 80,000 people was a beautiful thing. If we did two weekends of that, we'd be playing to a much smaller audience. But I'm open to it, we'll see.

Passion Pit Songs

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