Valentine's Day 2007 was responsible for two strains of viral phenomena.
The first, appearing in January, was a Valentine's Day-themed Trojan horse that automatically dispatched e-mails with syrupy headers like "Our Love Is Free" and "Eternity of Your Love" at the rate of about 11,000 addresses an hour. Clicking on the contents of the message would expose the machine to remote tech-heads with ill intentions.
Its competitor arrived shortly after February 14. A gent named Michael Angelakos used the heartfelt occasion to craft a belated gift for his girlfriend: a handful of dreamy electro-pop songs penned under the moniker of Passion Pit. Dubbed Chunk of Change, the short collection was recorded and mixed using Angelakos's Apple laptop and its built-in mike.
Propelled by near-excessive mounds of synth and Angelakos's distorted vocals, so high-pitched they verged on off-key, the crackling — if quickly cobbled-together — result was the hipster equivalent of a third grader coating a paper plate in uncooked pasta and neon glitter for his sweetheart.
Surprisingly, Angelakos's modest enterprise, originally intended for a single listener, wound up more widespread than that inbox-invading worm. A little more than two years after its creation, Passion Pit has proved to be quite the potent weapon; interest surrounding the project is more charged than ever, while that Trojan horse has been forgotten.
Angelakos didn't go soliciting this attention. Instead, once he posted his work on MySpace, listeners began to come to him. Blogs were quick to champion Chunk; charmed by the sincerity and gusto of this grab bag of hyperactive candy, they passed around hype-heavy MP3s emboldened by their lack of polish.
The fire caught. Passion Pit racked up an impressive online following that gradually turned into flesh and blood when Angelakos started putting on one-man performances. Then fellow Cambridge, Massachusetts, citizen/former bandmate Ian Hultquist approached him after a show and nudged him towards turning his idea into a full-fledged group. Angelakos first declined the offer, but was soon convinced of its merit.
Passion Pit had rapidly evolved from one guy on a laptop to a quintet with an army of electronic instruments. New York indie label Frenchkiss bit, and formally issued Chunk in September '08. The tacked-on "Sleepyhead" — a warm, shimmering, rainbow-flavored whorl laced with chimes and more of Angelakos's distinctly weightless vocalizing — became the EP's prize. As boisterous evidence of the new coalition's swift growth, it closed the disc with a hint of what could be on the full-length that was sure to follow.
Sure enough, only a couple of months after Chunk's physical release, the fleshed-out Passion Pit was already immersed in recording that LP. Released last month as Manners, it sparked a seismic wave of media coverage, online and off. "Extroverted, brash and unconcerned with nuance," said Pitchfork in awarding the album 8.1 points out of 10.
Passion Pit's sudden popularity is evident in drummer Nate Donmoyer's voice. Reached at 9 p.m. on a recent Thursday evening, he sounds exhausted. The group is marooned doing press in California — seven interviews in one day, at one point — but Donmoyer is a good sport.
He's not the band's first drummer, either. A part-time DJ, Donmoyer and the band kept in touch through the greater Boston scene; when an opening abruptly became available, he fell into the Pit just in time to record Manners.
Rather than Angelakos's bedroom in Massachusetts, Passion Pit constructed the LP in a lower Manhattan space once owned by master composer Philip Glass, who even left behind an imposing Bösendorfer grand piano when he moved out. The group filled the renovated studio with a barrage of keyboards (both retro and high-end) they borrowed just for the recording.
"We wanted to take advantage of anything we could get our hands on," says Donmoyer, adding that each of the dozen or so synths has a distinct personality. The vintage Roland SH-101, for example, is the "perfect bassline synthesizer."
Passion Pit did use guitars and drum sets, too, but far and away, the synth array is why Donmoyer calls Manners a "cure, a drug that would put people in a better mood and will make them want to listen to it again and again." It was also, he says on the group's blog, a "monster to make" that took up "two and a half very stressful months of our lives."
With hues that shift in much richer patterns than Chunk of Change, the result is a lush playground of handbells, a children's choir, R2D2-style chirps, fluctuating melodies, twinkling whirs and trails of ambient noise. It's a gleeful joyride towards a land of sonic plenty.
Making the album, Passion Pit's five members frequently spent drawn-out stretches in the studio, even going as far as to share beds or sleep restlessly in the space, and they changed managers on top of that. Donmoyer himself was also going through some long-distance relationship difficulties.
"We were all going through some weird mental times," he says. "That's the monster we remember. At least we [have] the album to compensate for it."
Donmoyer acknowledges Passion Pit's unlikely, quick success. He calls the much-repeated origin story a "perfect storm" that would otherwise be an improbable fairy tale.
"It's way above our heads — it didn't make sense," he says. "Why the hell are we in the studio right now and people are taking us seriously? Let's just make the best of it. That's what Manners is."
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