Pentatonix on AMAs 'Star Wars' Tribute: 'It's Going to Be Epic'

A cappella chart-toppers' beatboxer talks geeking out over John Williams, binge-watching films on tour

Pentatonix beatboxer Kevin Olusola (right) gives us a sneak preview of the group's AMAs 'Star Wars' tribute. Credit: RCA Records

This Sunday, the Force will be with choral students and orchestra nerds around the world. The 2015 American Music Awards will pay homage to the imminent release of the newest Star Wars installment, The Force Awakens, and the series' legendary score composer John Williams by enlisting the chart-topping group Pentatonix. The vocal quintet will lend its pristine harmonies to a medley of the Star Wars score backed by a full orchestra. 

The a cappella group, winner of Season 3 of the reality competition The Sing-Off, is known for its ebullient and inventive arrangements of songs by popular artists from Beyoncé to Michael Jackson. The outfit has released three covers albums, one of which was last year's holiday juggernaut That's Christmas to Me, which outpaced Taylor Swift's 1989 for the top spot on iTunes. After such successes, Pentatonix made the strategic, albeit risky move into the realm of original music on their October release, Pentatonix, which debuted at Number One. The group's latest single, the lilting, infatuated-with-love song "Can't Sleep Love" is one of the rare times you'll hear instrument-less music on Top 40 radio.

For Kevin Olusola, the group's resident beatboxer and an Owensboro, Kentucky, native who grew up playing classical cello, Sunday's performance is the opportunity of a lifetime. In between rehearsals for the AMAs, Olusola spoke to Rolling Stone about the upcoming performance and binge-watching his favorite Star Wars movies on tour (his favorite is The Empire Strikes Back).

Let's talk about Star Wars. What can we expect from Pentatonix's performance on Sunday?

We just came out of rehearsal and it's going to be epic.

Did you guys write the arrangement for the medley?
It was really a collaboration with the orchestra. We were ecstatic when they asked us if we would be willing to work with John Williams' orchestra. Our background is in choral music, so this felt like a chance to revisit and re-study certain classical techniques. It sounds so amazing. Our fans are going to be geeking out, because a lot of them are choral students, and I think they're going to get a huge kick out of this.

Have you met John Williams yet?
We haven't yet, but I hope we get to during another rehearsal. I was classically trained on the cello, so it's unbelievable to me that we're singing with him. 

He's such an iconic composer, from Jaws and Jurassic Park to Star Wars. When did you first become aware of him?
It had to be when I first saw E.T., I learned about Williams. Later on, I was reading Quincy Jones' autobiography because he's a mentor and someone I really admire. I didn't realize how much Quincy had worked with Williams. Quincy was producing for Michael Jackson at the time E.T. came out, and he served as a producer for E.T. as well.

Are you a Star Wars fan? 
Are you serious [laughs]? Absolutely. 

"When we're on tour, I'm planning on re-watching each Star Wars movie before we go onstage."

Does that mean you're a purist and against the Disney takeover of the franchise?
Not at all, I'm definitely not against the Disney takeover. Star Wars is such a huge franchise, and Disney is the best suited to pour all the resources in it that the films require. Also, it's J.J. Abrams, so you know it'll be quality. And plus, looking at the previews, the movie actually looks like the original Star Wars movies. I mean, that probably took a lot of money and planning. When we're on tour, I'm planning on re-watching each movie before we go onstage; then I'll be ready to go for when the newest one comes out next month.

Star Wars is obviously a massive part of pop culture and Pentatonix has had some wild success in the last year. What does it feel like to get a taste of the pop-culture machine?
I'm really happy about our trajectory because we didn't really start out in the pop light. We started on YouTube, growing our fan base organically. So I feel like the pop machine is really run by those core fans who are sharing our music because it's different. Hopefully, it means we won't just be a flash in the pan, and we're doing something that has longevity. The fans and the publicity — the pop machine — are so great, but it's not really about that. We just love what we do.

We've all seen that music awards shows can play it safe. So what, to you, makes a great awards-show performance? 
I think it really depends on the type of song and artist. But, for example, we recently saw at the Country Music Awards Little Big Town perform their song "Girl Crush." It was a very simple production, but the harmonies were so beautiful, they made you weep. Then you had Justin Timberlake and Chris Stapleton, two powerhouse vocalists, performing together. The chords, the harmonies — the emotion was so palpable in the room and not a single person was sitting down.