At face value, you’d expect the mastermind behind shimmery pop outfit Passion Pit to be as chirpy as the infectious melodies and catchy hooks he crafts. But dust off some of that sherbet coating and you’ll find that Michael Angelakos has been battling with some serious mental health issues for quite a long time. What’s more, these struggles can be found laced through the veins of the group’s new album, Gossamer. “Essentially, the record is about instances that occurred during a horrific manic episode that lasted far too long,” Angelakos explains. “I don't remember much of it, and I had to be told what had happened and what I had said. It was just devastating. I could barely live with myself.”
Michael has suffered from a very difficult case of manic-depression, or bipolar disorder, since he was 17, but it was only recently that he opened up about it. “It was kind of obvious and it makes life a lot easier to just say it,” he explains. Indeed, the band had to cancel six concerts in the States late last week, citing the artist’s mental health. “Manic-depression isn't exciting,” he tells me. “It's not romantic. It's the worst thing in the goddamn world to deal with when you have timeframes, when you're travelling and when you've had a date set for months and you're just not functioning. It's impossible.”
“Most creatives that have bipolar disorder operate on a high level when they are experiencing a hypomanic episode. Hypomania is actually not too bad; it's relatively manageable, though it could cause some problems if you suffer from other issues. But mania is not fun and, quite clearly, neither is depression.”
Although he may not have always been fully transparent about his condition, a bleak lyrical presence has always been evident in Passion Pit’s work, and Michael says this has been taken a step further in this follow-up, spurred on by a combination of what he’s been reading and watching and, of course, his personal battles. “Most of these songs are about people, told by a person: me, who is seriously delusional,” he says. “I became obsessed with ensemble casts, theatre-to-film adaptations, and developing several characters' life stories in an hour and 45 minutes in one single room. I had gotten tangled up in many issues, many of them involving my fiancée, that I wanted to visualise in some way.
“I applied these non-fiction stories to songs, and it just felt so fucked up. There are songs that make some of my friends uncomfortable, but they see how much it helped me. It was extraordinarily therapeutic, drawing myself out; dripping with flaws and uncertainties, while the people around me basically either helped or worsened the situation. Sure, the lyrics are dark, but it's ultimately a triumphant record. I made it out alive and everyone is intact. I am very grateful.”
It’s surprising, then, that no matter where Michael’s headspace is at, his music never follows his lyrics down this dark path. He has always had an undeniable knack for manufacturing summery, uplifting tunes, which couldn’t be further removed from their subject matter. “It’s just something that happens,” he says. “I like things that are pretty – I love gorgeous textures more than I love pulsating beats or anything. But most importantly, I'm more of a melodist than anything else. The melodies will always come first, and then the dark material comes later.”
This is no more evident than in the album’s lead single, Take A Walk, which contrasts those trademark shimmering synths with a narrative depicting Michael’s family issues over the course of two generations. “The men in my family never spoke of money; they were the tight-lipped breadwinners. They provided. They suffered greatly and worked honestly, except for the third character in the bridge: he's a present day family member who stole money from his son, and I imagined him telling his wife and it being rather disastrous. That interested me – this emasculating confession, which is so damaging, especially if the lying has gone on for most of the marriage,” Michael explains. “But these men are my blood. And as Take A Walk is the first song on the record, it alludes to a genetic disposition and a lineage. But when the song is over and I proceed to become fully transparent, I'm liberating myself. I've reacted against the pattern. I learned from their mistakes by being open and admitting where I've gone wrong.”
Musically speaking, Gossamer picks up where 2009’s Manners left off, but it also sees Passion Pit taking on some soul influences that weren’t as evident as before – especially in Constant Conversations, which presents a slow, dawdling, almost RnB jam. Michael says this stems from a new maturity and confidence that was derived from the basics: more time in the studio, and experience on the road. “I was emotionally very, very young when I made Manners. I was also rather naive, but that only rendered a more interesting approach to recording back then, so I just went with it. After touring and lots of studio work I started getting more of an idea of what I wanted. I also became more familiar with the gear, but I still distanced myself from it enough to make sure I had perspective.”
“There was quite a bit of tweaking and I guess I was surrounded by keyboards for the duration of record, as well as lots of toys, effects and things of that nature. The writing came about in two ways: either I developed it on piano or guitar, or I went about the typical, super fragmentary route. Either way, they're both laborious because I ended up changing parts and switching parts over from one song to another. I let Passion Pit kind of run wild because it's more fun that way. It's also really maddening for everyone else working on it.”
This second album will be met with high expectations following the success of the buzzed-about debut – but this doesn’t seem to be fazing Michael at all. “I think second records are where you either find your real, core audience or you expand exponentially on a commercial level. I don't think this is a bad record, so I think it'll probably be one of the two. I'd be happy with either.
“I think people greatly exaggerate the notion of the second record. If an artist fails at a second attempt after having decent success early on, they can just go back, start over and try again. At one point something had to have worked for them, so there is still hope. Maybe the formula didn't work or they were in a bad place, but it's not the end of the world like every single journalist makes it out to be,” he says. “Things move so quickly now and all you really need is one single to ‘hit it’, which I find rather sad but, hey, that's me. Apparently I find lots of things sad.”
Looking to the future, Michael says he hopes for “lots more positivity”, and he wants the band to keep doing what they do best: pushing out stadium-pumping pop. They’ll be doing just that when they land Down Under for this year’s massive Parklife festival. “Passion Pit is not a project attempting to reinvent the wheel. It's a project that is optimistic about the notion of pop, our general perception of pop, and how it can change or improve. The band and I work really hard, so we're hoping it all goes well and we start having more fun instead of freaking out. We work too hard for that.”
BY CALLUM FITZPATRICK
Gossamer is out now through Sony. Passion Pit play Parklife on Saturday October 6 at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl.