Passion Pit Singer on Battling Mental Illness and Taking New Songs on the Road
A few hours before his band makes their main stage debut at Lollapalooza, Passion Pit singer Michael Angelakos is having serious reservations about the impending gig. “It’s hard to be doing this at all,” the singer tells Rolling Stone of the touring lifestyle, over lunch at his hotel on Chicago’s Gold Coast. “I make it work because I have to.” Angelakos suffers from bipolar disorder. Only recently, however, thanks to a well-publicized article, did this battle he’s been waging since he was 17 become public knowledge. “It’s not just debilitating,” he adds of his illness, picking sparingly at his tuna tartar. “It’s all-encompassing. It’s something you have to work on your entire life.”
Aside from an intimate club show in Chicago the previous night and upcoming performances at Osheaga and Outside Lands, Lollapalooza is a rare live performance from Passion Pit; the group was forced to cancel a string of upcoming shows in order to give the singer additional time for treatment. But with the recent release of Gossamer, the band’s second album, Angelakos realizes it’s only a matter of time before he’ll be back on the road full-time. “I need to make a living,” he admits. “This is what I do.”
Rolling Stone sat down with the Passion Pit frontman before his band’s Lollapalooza performance on Friday to discuss his medical battle, the band’s new album and why he no longer cares what you think about his music.
How was your show last night? We would have joined you but we needed our baby sleep before Lollapalooza weekend.
I would have joined you. It was good. First show in a while – there’s always something happening that you’ve forgotten about that you have to be reminded of.
Is it hard to keep a groove going with the band when you’ve been taking time off between shows?
It takes touring for months straight. ‘Cause it’s a comfort thing. And also, with your voice and everything, you have to play a ton of shows before your voice is primed per se. I had so much time off – while not off, I was away. I just wasn’t singing. It went better than I thought it would. It went pretty well.
Is there a sense of apprehension at playing a bigger stage like Lollapalooza?
I don’t really remember what it’s like to play the larger shows. They keep getting bigger. And I mean that in a completely observational sense: you are looking out and there are just more people. And it’s a bit daunting. There’s that disconnect. I’ve always really loved smaller shows. A perfect-sized show is like 2,500 people. You start getting bigger or smaller than that and you’re playing with something very specific. I think last night, for instance, it felt like we were touring on Manners around the time that it came out. And I like that. I do miss that. I’m never going to have that again.
Is that a scary realization?
It’s as though you’ve made friends with someone and you know that it’s not gonna last – it’s never going to be the same. They’re just permutations of the same thing. When it’s magnified, when you play a festival, which is a completely different type of show, there’s a humongous disconnect. There’s a humongous barrier and the sound is much more sterile because everything is bigger and wider and maxed out. It is scary because you feel like it’s not really your show. You’re playing for people that are checking you out and it’s not always the most comfortable thing. But there are so many great things about festivals I’m not mentioning. Festival crowds can be the best crowds. They can be the most fun to play to and the most excited. There’s something about it. They’re oiled up and ready to go.
It was empowering that you chose to be so open about your battle with bipolar disorder.
That means a lot. I’ve gotten really good feedback. Obviously there are lots of people that will not ever understand and it makes it difficult. I didn’t know how it was going to be received. I didn’t even know how it was going to turn out. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. It’s a lot nicer to be able to talk about it. I’ve been lying about it. People have been like, “Why’d you cancel the shows?” I was like, “Oh, I had a migraine.” It’s like no, I couldn’t leave my bed. It’s just so much a part of my life. An interesting thing is, for instance, I was working with a specialist at one of the hospitals and he was telling me that they’ve had a lot of cancer patients come in after having cancer and they suffer from such a debilitating depression. But there’s this insane statistic that people who have had cancer and have had depression prefer cancer. And that’s something that you don’t hear. It’s a lot easier for me to say “I have pneumonia.” And that is what I was going to say. And then that article came out and I didn’t have to say anything. People don’t understand that it’s not just debilitating; it’s all-encompassing. It’s something you have to work on your entire life.
It must be difficult to slip back and forth between mental health treatments and live performances.
It’s hard to be doing this at all. It’s not just a person who suffers from any mental health issue that shouldn’t be touring – most people shouldn’t really be touring. It’s not really a healthy lifestyle. I know how to do it to a certain extent to make it work for me and I have people who care about me and want me to be well. I make it work because I need to make a living too. And this is what I do.
But canceling shows felt like the right move?
My depression was so bad three weeks ago when we had to cancel everything – people don’t understand this. It was so bad that I was suffering from something called Psychomotor Retardation, which is essentially where your brain starts shutting down your entire body. So you’re sitting in bed and you can barely move.
And the band has been supportive throughout these trials?
They’ve always been supportive. They’ve always been so understanding; they’ve never questioned anything. They’ve always understood how serious it was because they’ve witnessed it. They’ve had to deal with it. It’s not fun to be on the other end of it. I remember going to rehearsals and trying to give input and I didn’t even care what anyone was playing. “Just play something.” That’s partially why I’ve been so eager to find something that works because it always affects the people around me as much as it does affect me. You have to be cognizant that when you’re getting better, your whole world is getting better.
Now that Gossamer is out, is there a sense of relief? After all, this was a project several years in the making.
Apathy is a bad way to put it. It’s kinda like I just got it out of the way and now I can move on. ‘Cause I’ve been doing it for so long. It’s just nice to have it out there. I mean, god, it took forever. The reviews have been good. And you get those token bad reviews that are just so out of sync with what I was going for. I feel like I’m in a completely different state now. I don’t care what people think anymore. I really don’t care. If you don’t like my album, I’ve got three albums out now. You can go fuck yourself. I don’t care what your literary review says about my record. One out of five stars. Why even review it? I used to really care. But at the end of the day, I can now say a review really doesn’t mean what it meant three, four years ago to me.
How do you feel the new songs are translating to the stage?
They’re good, actually. I mean, the band has really taken them and been very true to the record, but also made it work for a live setting. It took a very long time for us to translate the music for a live setting for Manners. Really, really long time. We also didn’t know what were doing. We really didn’t. But finally something clicked and we just kind of got it. And I think that’s carried over with Gossamer. I think now the stuff just made more sense.
Were you thinking about how the songs would play out live when you were writing and recording them?
I think I was more informed by the touring and what worked live. Maybe in the back of my head I knew it was going to work more so than I ever did with Manners. Something like “Carried Away.” There are songs like “Love Is Greed” that might be a little more difficult, but we know how to at least get them on the grid to even start working on them.
Without successive shows it must be hard to sustain any sort of cohesion with the band.
That’ll come. You just gotta give yourself some time. I think artists shoot themselves in the foot by not taking into account that space and not overloading and oversaturating. The music world is smarter than you’d think. Most artists are so eager to just do everything all at once: play Letterman, play every TV show, play 8,000 shows. I’m actually happy in a way that we’ve backed off a bit, ’cause now I’m excited about it. And I think the band is more excited about playing live than we ever have been before. We like the material more this time around. It suits us better. Everything seems to be falling into place in a way that I think is suitable. I think that Manners was such a learning process and Gossamer is now just well-tailored to what we like and want to do. I did write it with that in mind. Ultimately I think we’re in a much better spot than I thought we would ever be in. We’re going to tour for two months straight and then we’ll be fine.
So what does the future look like?
I don’t know what the outcome [of my illness] will be and how much it’s going to color the whole project now. I really didn’t want to be a bipolar artist. People romanticize it. I’ve been dealing with this since I was 17; eight years of hospitalizations and medications and finally I found treatment and medication that works. It’s a pain but hopefully now that’s just going to eliminate the need to take time off and I can actually start focusing on what I like to do.
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