The Joy Formidable
2135 Queens Chapel Road NE
Washington, DC, 20018
Getting to Where We Belong: The Making of Passion Pit's Gossamer
Hundreds of hipsters, college kids and music biz schmoozers gather under a massive white tent to see Passion Pit. It is an afternoon shindig hosted by the blog Brooklyn Vegan, at the 2009 South by Southwest festival. The sun is setting and it is a classic make-it-or-break-it moment for Passion Pit, who is headlining despite having just released a lone EP, Chunk of Change. The crowd is giddy on both free Izze fruit soda and the Boston band's bubbly pop. Between songs, frontman Michael Angelakos runs his fingers and sweat through his thick, curly, Greek hair. He starts to rant—about a shirt he bought for his new girlfriend, about veganism, about inane blog comments. After a few awkward minutes, the music kicks back in. By the end of the performance, Michael is rolling on a red Persian rug amongst many, many keyboard and effects pedal cables, clutching his microphone, wailing in his signature helium falsetto. The audience cheers, the Tweeters tweet, the bloggers blog ecstatically.
Michael leaves the stage and begins crying. He has made it, and he has broken.
When the festival ends, the rest of the Passion Pit guys van back to Massachusetts. Michael stays behind in Texas. He calls a friend for support and begs her to come be with him. In a panic, he buys her a plane ticket. It is for the wrong year, 2010. He calls his parents in Buffalo, New York. "I'm going to a hospital," he tells them.
Michael is standing with his father outside a hospital in Houston, looking at mock-ups of album artwork on his cellphone. Passion Pit has just signed to Columbia Records, and a debut album, Manners, is due in a couple months. The record cover is green and messy and murky. Michael is not crazy about it, but there is no time, as the hospital is about to take his phone away from him. "It looks fine, Michael," his dad says. "Just go."
In the hospital, Michael is not allowed to talk about work. "Up there, onstage, you're alone, darling, " a nurse tells him. "And if your life evolves into ruin, everyone will watch what you're doing." Michael thinks these would make good lyrics. His friends smuggle in positive reviews of Manners. When one magazine blesses the record with an 8 out of ten, he almost cries again.
"I'll Be Alright"
This first sentence was not always the first. Originally, I was going to start with a simile: Michael Angelakos' brain is like a shaken can of spray paint with no nozzle. Millions of particles of bright ideas bounce around in there. When inspiration punctures his head, art sprays out. Often, someone else must puncture the can, or smash it. Only, if you hold Michael's bursting skull up to a canvas, you would not get a cloudy splatter of dripping bits. The paint would land perfectly in a detailed map of the knotty Tokyo subway system.
You can hear this "I'll Be Alright," the second song on Gossamer, in which a sudden seizure of skittering programmed drums swarms over diced synths. "My brain is racing and I feel like I'll explode!" Michael sings amidst the orchestral glitch. He compares it to the sensation you feel after an orgasm.
Writing about creativity is like architecturing about dance. When I sat down to describe Michael's thought process, a can of paint formed in my mind for whatever reason. After that, I thought no nozzle, because I like the alliteration. Then I tacked on a subject and verb. I start with a phrase, an image or a rhythm of words and construct around it. I'm not a beginning-to-end sentence builder. Michael asked me to write this piece because he intuited, correctly, that my writing is akin to his song crafting.
A spark of a Passion Pit song might be found in the fuzz of a guitar pedal. It might be a stumbled-upon drum loop, the tintinnabulation of layered chimes or some gibberish harmony he's humming. It might be one of the 200 scratch melodies Michael has stored on his iPhone. Later, Michael might sit at a keyboard and work out a melody. "I do things backwards," he admits, "and I'm a maximalist." Indeed. The songs on Gossamer carry anywhere from 60 to 200 instrumental tracks, according to Michael. If you ask Alex Aldi, Michael's engineer, the number 80 to 120. (The maximum output on their version of ProTools is 120 tracks.) Whatever, it's a fuckton. But it's important to talk to Alex.
When Alex and Michael set forth to record Gossamer in January of 2011, the two first rented a studio near the Manhattan Bridge in Brooklyn's DUMBO neighborhood. Well, it was technically an office space. The new Passion Pit headquarters shared the building with digital media start-ups, dot.coms, that sort of thing, which were not appreciative of gut-rumbling bass bumps rattling the uninsulated walls.
"We'd blast these huge R. Kelly–like booms," Michael says. "There would be fists pounding the walls," Alex remembers.
The duo began working from 6PM to 6AM, partly to avoid pissing off the neighbors, partly because Michael is "really OCD about who's hearing me" In the wee hours, Michael would toil at his array of keyboards, sequencers and computers.
The fruit of this first stage is the stunning slow jam "Constant Conversations." It's the kind of stank-faced, flesh-slapping R&B groove that makes a name like "Passion Pit" sound positively filthy. That is, until you pay attention to the lyrics. They are not nocturnal; they are dark. "I'm drunker than before / They told me drinking doesn't make me nice," Michael sings. "Well, you're standing in the kitchen and you're pouring out my drink."
It's important to pay attention to the lyrics.
"Slip-ups in this town are like a sentence to life." –"Mirrored Sea" What makes Southern California's orange sherbet sunsets so gorgeous? It's the life-strangling smog. Toxic clouds can sometimes lead to beauty.
In June of 2011, Michael headed to L.A. to continue work on Gossamer with a variety of big name producers. One producer would bring in pretty girls to sit on a couch in the studio. He would play back tracks at top volume. If the girls got up and danced, it was a hit.
Michael slept in another studio beneath the control room, where he could hear some dude fucking people's brains out all night. The walls were marble.
Michael slept where Fiona Apple once slept. Michael recorded in a fancy house outside of which photographers snapped model in lingerie. Michael worked with a prominent hip-hop producer. They tinkered with "Hideaway," an upbeat tune set to a speech a nurse once gave him. Michael played the hip-hop producer his demo. "You don't need anyone to produce you," the producer humbly admitted. Michael flew back to Brooklyn, ending what he now calls his "June gloom."
"Everyone let's me make these mistakes," Michael says.
"He plays music so loud in his headphones, I can hear everything he's doing. When he's working, he won't get up to use the bathroom or to take a sip of water. Watching him is watching someone in their element, someone doing what they were born to do. But it can be a waiting game for him to get an idea. Then, bam, ninety minutes later there's this amazing finished song. He does stuff on the fly. Michael thrives on that, the immediate pressure. Everyone else game-plans. The game-plan is in Michael's head and he's twenty steps ahead. Conveying that is difficult. It's information overload.'" — engineer Alex Aldi
"It's Not My Fault, I'm Happy"
Aside from the sarcastic "Love Is Greed," all the songs on Gossamer are one-hundred-percent true. I know this because I've compared the lyric sheet to a 3,672 word life story Michael emailed me. It begins, "A main talking point seems to be about the fact that there is a dichotomy in my music." It ends with, "The next day I quit drinking." I read it one evening while listening to "It's Not My Fault I'm Happy" repeatedly as tears welled in my eyes.
Unlike some songwriters, Michael does not write in character. He compares the album to a collection of John Cheever stories. "It's non-fiction, but dramatized. It's euphoric pain," he tells me.
The record is more intimate than that. Listening and reading along, I feel as if I am reading his chart. I am eavesdropping. I am putting him inside one of the TSA's full-body millimeter wave scanners.
Ah, I think, "Take A Walk" must be about his father and his father's father, his Papou, who sold old roses and owned a candy kitchen, using his savings to bring his village to America.
Hearing the celestas and xylophones skittering about the opening of "Love Is Greed," I envision bolts of blue electricity flashing across Michael's grey matter. The systolic, panicked pulse of "Mirrored Sea" is awash in adrenaline and amphetamine salts. The pomp and silver twinkle of "On My Way" is confetti for a forthcoming wedding.
"Are you sure you want to be this open," Alex asked when he first heard the lyrics.
"This music is so on point with myself, I don't know that I could do it any other way," Michael replied.
Yes, Michael's music juxtaposes dark subject matter and ebullient pop. It is at once escape and reality. It is also consciously androgynous. In the past, this was suitably captured with Michael's falsetto. Now the unisexuality is enhanced by Erato, a female Swedish a cappella trio, two brunettes and one blonde, who went viral with a performance of Robyn's "Call Your Girlfriend" on empty yogurt cups. Michael likes the idea of us not being able to discern if he or they are singing in certain parts. This is not duality or dichotomy. This is depth and honesty. Human beings are emotional, messy and murky creatures.
"On My Way"
It is a misconception that Manners was written for a girl. It was a record about Michael. Gossamer was written for a couple. "It's an album about making an album that's straining the relationship that's helping you make that album. But say it better than that," he tells me.
Kristy is an editor for a prominent food website. Her face appears throughout the Gossamer artwork. The back cover is a letter Michael wrote to her. He proposes to her in the chorus of "On My Way." Originally the tune was called "Ballerina."
"Just believe in me Kristina," he sings. "All these demons, I can beat 'em."
"Where We Belong"
Upon returning to Brooklyn from California, Michael reconnected with producer Chris Zane, who helmed Manners. Here is a sporting analogy, hockey specifically, according to Michael:
"Chris is the general manager and Alex is the coach. Without Chris I wouldn't have been able to do this record. Without Alex I wouldn't have been able to do anything."
Alex is ten years Michael's senior, Chris a little older. Michaels refers to them as his older brother and his older, older brother. The trio hunkered down in Gigantic Studios and started over on Gossamer as a mild winter fell upon New York. Michael admits he will often redo songs "like thirteen times. It's one of my worst habits." Manners was largely built on three keyboards. There was a conscious effort this time to avoid the same process, to use more organic ingredients. Composer Nico Muhly dropped in, dueling pianos with Michael on "Love Is Greed" and arranging strings. That being said, there were still dozens of keyboards, walls of keyboards, "some Herbie Hancock shit." Yamahas, Moogs, Arps, MS-20s, SH-101s, Junos, Prophets, a Japanese piano. They flipped over a couch in the control room to stuff in even more keyboards. Ask Michael to explain the differences between these many keyboards and he synesthetically describes it by texture: "One is felt, one is 100% cotton, one is tweed…" Alex would watch and listen in a busted La-Z-Boy recliner permanently stuck in the recumbent position.
"I did a calculation of the time I spent on this record. It was 4% of my life," Alex tells me. He has recently heard the finished record. We chat about the sequence of the songs and debate the decision to cut a string section that originally opened the album. "It dawned on me this morning" he says. "After having a best friend for thirteen months, Michael is gone. I'm like, what the fuck do I do now?"
When I hang up, I must immediately play Gossamer again.
The Joy Formidable
Not a lot goes down in Casco, Maine. In the winter months, this sequestered hamlet around 30 miles from Portland in the North Easternmost tip of the United States acquires a Siberian stillness as suffocating snow descends and carpets this eerily remote and reclusive region.
Yet it was to a forest just outside Casco that The Joy Formidable singer/guitarist Ritzy Bryan and bassist Rhydian Dafydd retired at the start of 2012 to dream up their magnificent second album, Wolf’s Law, a record that teems with imagination, yearning and a Carpe Diem restlessness.
“It was just the two of us in this isolated spot where we hardly saw anybody else all the time we were there,” says Ritzy. “It snowed every day and the surroundings and the solitude gave us a different level of intensity.
“We had no phone signal, no wi-fi – it was fucking bliss! It is Stephen King country up there and we worried that we’d turn into The Shining and cave each other’s heads in. But it was very still, very beautiful – and in a strange way it reminded us of our home area of North Wales.”
Wolf’s Law is a driven, hugely emotive record, an alluring and attitudinal follow-up to The Joy Formidable’s keenly received 2011 debut, The Big Roar. It’s an album that was recorded in very different circumstances to its predecessor, both geographically and emotionally.
“We had a very difficult period in our personal lives making The Big Roar,” says Rhydian. “Ritzy’s parents were going through a very painful, long-drawn-out divorce and also we lost both close friends and family. We made it in very tight, enclosed studio spaces and it made it a very frustrated and aggressive record.
“With Wolf’s Law, some of the difficult personal circumstances have been resolved, so while there is still aggression there, the record is a lot more harmonious and focussed. It helped that we were completely lost in nature in Maine because it is really an album about reconnecting – with yourself, with nature and with spirituality.”
Such heavyweight and profound themes run through Wolf’s Law like a pulse. The album’s audacious reach and ambition is clear in the extraordinary film that The Joy Formidable commissioned for its title track: a breathtaking sequence of monochrome images of birth, death and the natural world.
“That track (Wolf’s Law) was always meant as an art piece, we wanted to make a visual that introduced the mood of the record. It’s a song about encouragement, reawakening hope and knowing that time is precious,” says Ritzy. “It’s very aware of its own mortality and how fleeting a moment can be.”
“It encapsulates the themes of the album,” agrees Rhydian. “It’s about how beautiful and cruel life can be and how it’s always moving, and also about seizing the moment, because life is short.”
It’s evident that the stark serenity of snowbound Casco impacted on the marrow of Wolf’s Law. Themes of the raw beauty and majesty of nature are laced throughout the album. The buzzsaw, ragged yet beautifully melodic Cholla was inspired by the giant cacti of the Joshua Tree National Park, yet also details familial breakdowns; The Leopard and the Lung was written in honour of a doughty environmentalist campaigner.
“It’s about a true hero – a Kenyan female activist, Wangari Maathai who fought against an entire corrupt establishment for nature and for women’s rights,” says Ritzy. “She was so fucking brave! Her name,Wangari, means leopard in Kukuru. She told Kenyan women to plant trees because she said that trees are the lungs of the earth.”
Yet not all of the audacious, propulsive Wolf’s Law is about such extraneous matters. Although Ritzy and Rhydian have been a couple since before the making of The Big Roar, they have never previously referenced their relationship in song. On the taut Tendons, a shimmering rock reverie powered by the martial beat of Joy Formidable drummer Matt Thomas, they courageously affix their hearts firmly to their sleeves.
“Rhydian and I were making music together before we became a couple, so we have never experienced our relationship outside of the bubble of this band,” muses Ritzy. “It can be a difficult dynamic to maintain and it sometimes makes me wonder – is our relationship based on the chaos of this band and our music, and if that were to change, where would it leave us?”
“The tendons reference is because we’re so inextricably linked,” adds Rhydian. “This band and music join us so closely together; we’re soul mates, but could it destroy us as well?”
Precarious relationships. Confessionals. Catharsis. The call of the wild. Life, birth, death and all points in-between. With such vast, profound and heartfelt themes, wrapped up in some of the most visceral and voluptuous art-rock-and-roll that has exploded since the halcyon days of the Pixies, it’s no surprise that a lot of people expect Wolf’s Law to be The Joy Formidable’s quantum-leap breakthrough album, a springboard to arena-filling status, this fiercely driven band’s tipping point into rock’s A-League.
Are they ready for this? Is it even what they want?
“If we can keep our artistic integrity,” says Ritzy, “and carry on writing songs that are important to us, and keep the thrill and the excitement of doing what we do, and carry on moving forward and evolving, and still manage to connect with an arena full of people – fuck it, that would be fantastic! But it’s not the reason why we do what we do. We won’t change to get there.”
“That’s true,” agrees Rhydian. “The point is to reach as many people as possible – but for all the right reasons.”
Their charming reticence may soon become immaterial. The Joy Formidable have made an album so colossal, so compelling that it may even put Casco, Maine on the map. If there is any justice in the world, 2013 will be the Year of the Wolf.