Finding strength in the sad songs

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Passion Pit front man Michael Angelakos.

Passion Pit, the electro-pop band whose hit single "Take a Walk" is familiar to all who've been exposed to TV and radio commercials for Taco Bell's Doritos Locos tacos, headlines the Electric Factory Thursday.

This Philadelphia date for the band fronted by Michael Angelakos, which played the Made in America festival in September, is part of a world tour in support of the group's emotionally fraught, seriously catchy sophomore album, Gossamer, that is scheduled to continue into next year.

All of that may sound like business as usual for an up-and-coming pop-rock band in 2012, down to the fast-food ad "sync." That's an essential element today, when "licensing is the new radio," as Angelakos, 25, put it in a telephone interview from a tour stop this month in Leeds, England.

But things other bands take for granted don't come so easy for Passion Pit. In July, Gossamer's release was paired with the revelation in the online music magazine Pitchfork that Angelakos was diagnosed with rapid-cycling bipolar disorder when he was 18, and had survived multiple suicide attempts.

Shortly after the album's release, Angelakos told Pitchfork he had to be dissuaded from the urge to "end on a high note" and jump off the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Passion Pit canceled a half-dozen shows and Angelakos issued a statement: "To ensure that there will be no further disruptions, I am going to take the time to work on improving my mental health. . . . I hope to see you all very soon."

For the band's fans, the gravity of the situation made it sound as though "very soon" might be a long time coming - and just when its moment had seemed to arrive. The band formed in 2008, when Angelakos was a student at Emerson College in Boston. Its Chunk of Change EP - recorded as a Valentine's Day gift to Angelakos' then-girlfriend - caught fire online and led to its signing with Columbia Records.

So it came as a welcome surprise when Passion Pit was able to make Made in America on Labor Day weekend, and follow with a world tour that has gone off without a hitch since.

In the past, heavy drinking had exacerbated Angelakos' mental health issues. "Now I'm drunker than before they told me drinking doesn't make me nice," he sings on Gossamer's "Constant Conversations," his voice gliding into a smooth, soulful falsetto range.

But this year "I've made a number of changes in my personal life," says Angelakos, who sings, "Just believe in me Kristina / All these demons I can beat them" in "On My Way" to his fiancee, Kristina Mucci. "And the whole band has made a lot of changes as well . . . . That's a very hard thing to do in an industry that's literally designed to drive you to drink. . . . Everything is pretty much corporate sponsorship now. Everything is either 'Red Bull this' or 'Heineken that.' "

Before touring, Angelakos says he "got help for, it felt like, the umpteenth time. But it's actually worked. . . . I'm not pulling my hair out. I'm pretty relaxed. It's not fun, it's not easy. But I'm able to do it."

The singer, who wrote and recorded nearly all of the music on Gossamer himself, says, "I can't say how I'll be in a year. But for the foreseeable future it looks very good."

Gossamer largely focuses on Angelakos' troubles - "it's pretty honest, almost to the point where it's cringe-worthy" - but it starts with "Take a Walk," which is not autobiographical at all.

(The "Take a Walk" video was shot by a remote-control helicopter flying above Philadelphia. The band had hoped to shoot in New York - Angelakos was born in New Brunswick, N.J., and raised in upstate New York - but Angelakos says Philadelphia "let us do it for so cheap, it was amazing.")

The song's verses concern the financial struggles of three generations of Angelakos men. Despite reports to the contrary, "it has absolutely nothing to with the recession," the singer says of the galloping, synth-spiked anthem.

"It has to do with these men in my family and how they dealt with money and how it became like a secret and a pride issue that created so much tension. I felt like it was setting up the record because I delve so deeply into my own life and my own issues. I felt it provided some kind of framework."

The 10 songs that follow are equally sticky - the most irresistible is the lighter-than-air chorus of "Carried Away" - as Angelakos surveys the emotional wreckage of his drinking life in titles like "Love Is Greed." The lyric sheet can be rough going, but the intricately insinuating arrangements are buoyant, even when Angelakos is confiding: "It's hard to keep on living when your heart weighs about a million pounds."

Angelakos doesn't think Gossamer is unremittingly dire: "There are glimmers of hope," he says. But pairing downcast words with upbeat music comes naturally. "I think the prettiest, most accessible, beautiful songs on the face of this earth are the saddest songs as well." The Beatles' songs, for instance. "All those are about people leaving each other. Or 'Stop in the Name of Love.' That's a terribly sad song, and everybody's dancing along to it."

"I've been doing this for so long," says Angelakos, who formed his first band when he was 7. "And I've always written sad songs. That's the way I've always found a way to deal with things that I find so upsetting and terrible and beautiful. I think all those things are kind of wrapped together, and it's much more human to present them that way."

 


Contact Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or deluca@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @delucadan. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at www.philly.com/inthemix.