Based on their early aesthetics alone, Passion Pit arrived at exactly the right time. 2008 was a moment when rainbow-hued, fizzy, synthy indie rock reigned supreme, and nobody did it quite like Michael Angelakos and Co. Any of the other sugar rush greatest hits from that year — Cut Copy’s In Ghost Colours, M83’s Saturdays = Youth, Hot Chip’s Made In The Dark, MGMT’s Oracular Spectacular, Black Kids’ Partie Traumatic, the Ting Ting’s We Started Nothing, Starfucker’s self-titled — still fit seamlessly next to any song from Chunk Of Change, Passion Pit’s debut EP that was released 10 years ago today.
Chunk Of Change conjures up visions of band logos being screen-printed onto American Apparel skinny tees, teens discovering tracks on Hype Machine, future Frenchkiss and Neon Gold bands spawning ad infinitum, and blog-rap producers lining up to sample it. The music is almost inextricable from its era.
Angelakos’ bedroom pop was endearingly homespun and laptop-lo-fi at a time when that was still a novelly twee concept, but it sparkled and moved with expertise beyond its sonic constraints. When his voice peaked into the red on opener “I’ve Got Your Number,” it was clear he didn’t yet possess the precision-oriented studio-rattery of, say, Hot Chip, but his raw melodic instincts and inventive production choices certainly didn’t make you long for something more clinical. Whether moving along at New Order pace or to the rhythm of chintzy hip-hop beats, he grooved and contorted his limited palette into blissful synth-pop. “Smile Upon Me” is a romantic race against sunset; “Cuddle Fuddle” is a devotional ode to snuggling that folds in a “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” sample; “Sleepyhead” is a cut-and-paste pocket symphony that shouldn’t work but absolutely does. In 2008, it seemed like this guy was injected with every attribute a certain breed of indie kid loved at the time — an earnestly yelpy voice, the ability to dial up quirky synth tones out of thin air, an ear capable of reducing omnivorous tastes into a cohesive package, a fondness for all things ’80s.
Passion Pit’s sound wasn’t the only thing that was too market-tested to be true upon arrival. The band’s origin story belongs in a rom-com: Boy meets girl. Boy records girl four-song EP for Valentine’s Day. EP gains local buzz via word-of-mouth, self-distribution, and house shows. Boy meets bandmates. Band signs deal and commercially releases EP.
But of course, that’s not the full story. Angelakos and the original recipient of Chunk Of Change broke up before he and his bandmates even wrote the two additional songs they tacked onto the commercial version, “Better Things” and “Sleepyhead.” In fact, Angelakos wrote the latter song about his then-ex yelling at him for frequently sleeping in, so the Chunk Of Change we know best is, in fact, a Valentine’s Day present that includes a built-in breakup song. Once you know that, the rest of the air comes out of its buoyant 2008 fantasy world.
Remove those rose-colored glasses found in an Urban Outfitters checkout aisle, and Chunk Of Change isn’t quite as cheery as it may have once seemed. Just under four years after that debut release, Angelakos opened up about being diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 17, and its ensuing effects on his music and life in the ever-widening spotlight. Though Chunk Of Change isn’t anyone’s idea of a depressed record, the signs were there. Angelakos, 21 at the time, displayed the distinct behavior of someone leaning too far into a young relationship — “You’re the best damn friend that I’ll ever have,” “Oh my God, please don’t ever let me go,” “You’re gonna drive me crazy.” Some of this can be chalked up to youthful naïveté, but there’s also the toxic idea that a romantic partner can solve all of your problems, the clear insecurity of defining yourself primarily by your relationship with someone else, and even the cloying positivity of someone trying to overcompensate for depression.
Speaking about this period in his life a few years later, Angelakos noticed similar patterns in his behavior. “I was very carnivorous,” he told Pitchfork in 2012, referring to his early relationships. “I just thought I was going to ruin someone else’s life, and someone was going to be impeding on my life, too.” In that same interview, he also offered up an anecdote from his band’s first SXSW show that parallels Chunk Of Change’s disconnect between its seemingly exuberant vibe and writhing emotional interior:
I started standing on my vintage keyboards and freaking the fuck out. It got to the point where I was just rolling around on the grass, going crazy. When I got off the stage, all the Columbia [Records] people there were very excited. I was on the side, and I was crying. I couldn’t control it. No one knew me well enough to say, “There’s something wrong.” They just thought I was drunk.
This psychotic episode, which soon led to Angelakos being hospitalized, was interpreted as enthusiasm or quirkiness by onlookers, which was, to a lesser degree, the case with Chunk Of Change, too. A few of the EP’s songs, as well as some from Passion Pit’s ensuing 2009 debut album, got prominent placements in commercials, movies, and TV shows thanks to their zeitgeisty peppiness. In retrospect it’s deeply weird that such intimate, raw bedroom pop originally intended for one person’s ears was used to sell Palm Pixis, PSPs, and the video game LittleBigPlanet 2.
In retrospect, I think a lot of this has to do with prioritizing aesthetics over the often-substantive content that lies beneath. That’s always been prevalent in most forms of art, but it seemed more common than usual in mid-to-late 2000s indie music. Something that Gareth Campesinos!, frontman of Los Campesinos!, said in our recent interview with him (coincidentally conducted by Larry Fitzmaurice, who also conducted Angelakos’ aforementioned 2012 Pitchfork interview) caught my eye earlier this week:
CAMPESINOS!: Around 2007 or 2008, for better or for worse, the bands you liked and the festivals you attended and the T-shirts you wore were all a badge of honor. There were elements to it that I find — I don’t know if embarrassing is the right word with hindsight, but I can look at the person I was 10 years ago and go, “Yeah, nice one pal — you thought you were so smart.”
… It’s hardly mods and rockers, but back then there was a clear line drawn in the sand with whether you deemed yourself to be “alternative” or “indie.” Back then, I think we would’ve willfully identified ourselves as “indie,” and the people who drank at the same bars and club nights would’ve done the same. It’s probably a good thing we don’t judge people’s character anymore due to the bands they like.
Apply this to Passion Pit, and I can totally relate. As I was preparing to go to college in 2009, I didn’t know anyone else who was attending the same school as me, and I didn’t want a fully random roommate, so I joined a Facebook group for admitted students. I bonded with other kids over music in lieu of actual personality traits, especially one who sent me an early leak of Passion Pit’s debut album, Manners. I enjoyed the album so much that I awkwardly asked him to be me roommate. To make a semester-long story short: we were a terrible match and had nothing in common besides a very thin sliver of the Venn diagram of our music tastes.
Maybe it’s just because I lived through Passion Pit’s initial hype cycle, but the aesthetic carbon date of their first EP still seems to subsume any conversations about its actual content. There’s a lot of vulnerability lurking under that brightly-colored surface. Even if you have a stronger connection to Chunk Of Change and Manners than Passion Pit’s later work, you have to give Angelakos credit for the personal growth and healing that’s readily apparent in his more recent music. It may not manifest itself in the head-over-heels love songs of his younger years, but that’s a good thing. As he said in 2015, “I’m so lucky and I’m healthy, so I can actually talk about more relatable, even more mundane subjects. That is such a fantastic luxury for me at this point.”