'Hindrance Became The Power': Passion Pit's Angelakos On Music And Mental Health

Aug 12, 2017
Originally published on August 16, 2017 8:00 am

Michael Angelakos founded the musical project Passion Pit as a college student in his dorm room at Emerson College. A decade and four albums later, Angelakos is more than just a musician: He has become an advocate for mental health, too.

In February, Angelakos founded the Wishart Group, which aims to provide support services for musicians. One of its priorities is improving mental health services — something Angelakos, who has bipolar disorder, has found particularly lacking in the music business over the course of his career.

"If you read any book on the music industry, if you talk to anyone in the music industry, it's like, 'Well, this is just the way it is,'" he tells NPR's Scott Simon. "There's no healthcare. There are no benefits. There's no one taking care [of you]."

In March, Angelakos offered free downloads of a new Passion Pit album, Tremendous Sea of Love, in exchange for tweets in support of the #weneedscience Twitter campaign. Four months later, the album was released to streaming services. Angelakos is also donating royalties from the sales of Tremendous Sea of Love to the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at Broad Institute of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Angelakos joined Scott Simon on Weekend Edition to talk about how his childhood and his mental illness inform his music. Hear the conversation at the audio link, and read an edited transcript below.

Scott Simon: How did you find music?

Michael Angelakos: My dad recalls me singing in perfect pitch when he was changing my diapers. My father was a musician [and] a music teacher for 15 years at public schools — when his son suddenly becomes a professional musician, and you were always trying to be a musician — he's not the one who's going to give me that for free. I love my father, I love him to death, but it naturally came to me. [My father] tried to pay for lessons, and I would go to lessons and get my hands slapped because I didn't understand why I needed to learn other people's music when I could just write my own. And I also thought that, with my obsession with The Beach Boys around four or five — I thought they had annual tryouts!

To be in The Beach Boys?

Yeah, I just wanted to be a Beach Boy, really. I thought I would impress them if I wrote songs. So I was a little bit of a brat, but it was encouraged. My family was very kind about allowing me to sit in my room — I recorded over all my dad's tapes. I wreaked havoc, but at the end of the day they nurtured a songwriter, and that was really all I ever wanted to be.

On Tremendous Sea of Love, there's a song called "For Sondra (It Means The World To Me)." May I ask — who's Sondra?

Sondra Radvanovsky, the opera singer. I've met a lot of famous people in my life, but one of the only people who made me cry upon meeting them — like just freaking out — was Sondra. Opera was something that I shared with people I'm very close with, that I had to go through a lot with. And something about that night, meeting Sondra and everything, brought the women in my life to a place where — I'm just very grateful to my mother and my wife, my grandmother, all of these people that I just didn't know how to talk about, really.

Did this song help you do that -- talk to them?

Yeah. You connect it to something, a memory like that — it allows you to access a certain place. I don't know. It's something that I remember thinking, at that time — I was like, I missed everybody. When I met Sondra, I missed everyone. Because at that time, I was blaming lots of people for problems that are just impossible to explain, that are in my head.

What does that mean?

Well, I have bipolar I disorder, rapid cycling, with anxiety and PTSD. And what I've always been doing with my music, even though at certain points I just denied it flat-out, was just a way of explaining it sonically. I just wanted to hear what it sounded like, what my bipolar disorder sounded like. And it would sound like, to me, I was the underdog winning, or something like that. And that's been my life. It's really just trying to explain and apologize and work through this illogical world in my head that has been like running with weights, but no one can see the weights. And suddenly at a certain point when you've lived through it, that's one thing that I started realizing: the hindrance became the power.

The hindrance became the power.

I started realizing, as a mental health advocate, that everyone's going to deal with melancholia. Everyone's going to deal with anxiety, grief, so-and-so. But how you walk through them is important, because you could develop something very serious. And I cared deeply. Because when I was sexually molested, what happened [was] I did not go to counselling — and I was 12, 13, 14 years old. What happens when you're in your twenties — these things develop bad behaviors that look like choices, but they become treatments, self-medicating — things that are really, really dangerous.

I don't want to lose sight of your album, because it's good music. Point us to a song you'd like us to hear.

A song that I love is "Hey K." A lot of my music has been about my wife, and my life with my disorder and how much we went through. You know, you're a hormonal nightmare as a male in your twenties. [Laughs.] You're going through a lot, on top of having a disorder and having to be the center of attention the whole time, and like — it's a giant miscommunication. At a time when I just couldn't connect, when I was manic — and a lot of people, when you're manic, you really have to quarantine yourself. And so we weren't talking, but just through this music I was able to kind of speak to her and say something along the lines of, "Don't forget that my entire life and everything that I'm doing — all the work I'm doing now — is because I'm also trying to protect you. I'm going to actually try and do something, instead of just talk."

Listen to Tremendous Sea of Love at Spotify and Apple Music.

Web intern Karen Gwee contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

(SOUNDBITE OF PASSION PIT SONG, "THE UNDERTOW")

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Michael Angelakos started Passion Pit a decade ago out of his dorm room at Emerson College. He's released four albums and also become known for his involvement in mental health. His latest album out now is "Tremendous Sea Of Love."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNDERTOW")

PASSION PIT: (Singing) Come to me honey and feel the warmth around you grow. Calls from above me echoes down below. We've resorted to the undertow. I try, but what you're feeling is the undertow.

SIMON: Michael Angelakos joins us now from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

MICHAEL ANGELAKOS: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: How did you find music?

ANGELAKOS: My dad recalls me singing in, like, perfect pitch when he was changing my diapers. And my father was a music teacher.

SIMON: (Laughter) Well, all of us fathers do that. But it's rarely true, you know?

ANGELAKOS: You know, I...

SIMON: Our daughters recited Shakespeare when I was changing...

ANGELAKOS: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...When my wife was changing their diapers.

ANGELAKOS: You know what? My parents are - my father being a musician - and he was a music teacher for, like, 15 years in public schools and everything. When his son suddenly becomes a professional musician - and, you know, you were always trying to be a musician - he's not, you know, the one who's going to just give me that for free, which - I love my father. You know, I love him to death. But it just naturally came to me. It was one of those things where, you know, they tried to pay for lessons. And I would go to lessons, and I'd get my hands slapped or - you know, because I just didn't understand why I needed to learn other people's music when I could just write my own. And I also just thought that with my obsession with the Beach Boys around 4 or 5, I thought they had annual tryouts. I thought they had, like, yearly tryouts. And so I was like...

SIMON: Oh, to be in the Beach Boys, you mean?

ANGELAKOS: Yeah. I just wanted to be a Beach Boy, really. And I thought, you know, I would impress them if I wrote songs. So I was a little bit of a brat. But I - it was encouraged. My family was very kind about allowing me to sit in my room. And I recorded over all my dad's tapes. I wreaked havoc. But at the end of the day, you know, they nurtured a songwriter. And that was really all I ever wanted to be.

(SOUNDBITE OF PASSION PIT SONG, "FOR SONDRA (IT MEANS THE WORLD TO ME)")

SIMON: Let's listen to one of the songs. This is "For Sondra."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOR SONDRA (IT MEANS THE WORLD TO ME)")

PASSION PIT: (Singing) Darling, I know that you still take care of me. It means the world to me. And my life sways back and forth like light from above. It's true. Now we both can see.

SIMON: May I ask, who's Sondra?

ANGELAKOS: Sondra Radvanovsky, the opera singer. And I've met a lot of famous people in my life. But the - one of the only people who made me cry when I - upon meeting them, like, just freaking out was Sondra. Opera was something that I was introduced to very young. It was a thing that I shared with people I'm very close with, that I've had to go through a lot with. And something think about that night - meeting Sondra and everything - just brought the women in my life to a place where, I mean - I have - I'm just really grateful to my mother and my wife, my grandmother, all these people that I just didn't know how to talk about, really.

SIMON: This song lets you do that - talk to them?

ANGELAKOS: Yeah. You connect it to something - like a memory like that. It kind of allows you to access a certain place that is - I don't know - it's something that I remember thinking. At that time, I was like, I missed everybody. When I met Sondra, I missed everyone because at the time, I was blaming lots of people for problems that are just impossible to explain. They're in my head.

SIMON: Well, what does that mean?

ANGELAKOS: Well, I have bipolar 1 disorder - rapid cycling - with anxiety. I have PTSD. And what I've always been doing with my music, even though at certain points I just denied it flat out - it was just a way of explaining it sonically. And I just wanted to hear what it sounded like - what my bipolar disorder sounded like. And it would sound like - to me, I always like the underdog winning or something like that (laughter). And that's been my life - is really just trying to explain and apologize and work through this illogical world in my head that has actually been - it's been like running with weights. But no one can see the weights. And suddenly, at a certain point, you've lived through it. And that's one thing that I started realizing. It was, like, the hindrance became the power.

SIMON: The hindrance became the power.

ANGELAKOS: So with my illness, I started realizing, like, as a mental health advocate that everyone's going to deal with melancholia. Everyone is going to deal with anxiety, grief - so on and so forth. But how you walk through them is important because you could develop something very serious.

SIMON: Yeah.

ANGELAKOS: And I care deeply because when I was sexually molested - and what happened when I did not go to counseling when I was 12, 13, 14 years old - what happens - when you're in your 20s, these things develop bad behaviors that look like choices. But they become treatment, self-medicating, things that are really, really dangerous.

SIMON: I don't want to lose sight of your album because it's good music.

ANGELAKOS: (Laughter).

SIMON: Point us to a song you'd like us to hear.

ANGELAKOS: I think a song I love is "Hey K."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEY K")

PASSION PIT: (Singing) Hey K, I'm fine. Just tell him what you need. You can run. I'll hide. Still, we end up on our knees. K, I swear just try and tell him what you need. Feel him emanate and never again feel weak.

ANGELAKOS: A lot of my music has been about my wife and my life with my disorder and how much we went through. And, you know, you're a hormonal nightmare as a male in your 20s (laughter). And you're just going through a lot on top of having a disorder and having to be at the center of attention the whole time. And, like, it's a giant miscommunication. But at a time when I just couldn't connect with her, I was manic. And a lot of people - when you're manic, you just, like - you have to really quarantine yourself. And so we weren't talking. But I just - through this music, I was able to kind of speak to her and say something along the lines of, don't forget that this entire - my entire life and everything that I'm doing, all of the, you know, work I'm doing now is because I'm also trying to protect you. I'm going to actually try to do something instead of just talk.

SIMON: Michael Angelakos of Passion Pit. Proceeds from his new album "Tremendous Sea Of Love" go to benefit the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

ANGELAKOS: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.