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Their time is now

Riding a wave of hype, the members of Passion Pit release their debut album without worrying about the backlash

Passion Pit Boston's Passion Pit consists of (standing from left) Nate Donmoyer, Michael Angelakos, Ian Hultquist, Ayad Al Adhamy, and (seated) Jeff Apruzzese. (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)
By James Reed
Globe Staff / May 19, 2009
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CAMBRIDGE — It’s a simple question, really, but no one huddled around the table at the Harvard Square bar has a good answer.

Why has Boston’s Passion Pit become one of the most talked about bands in indie rock this year, based solely on a short, seven-song album that frontman Michael Angelakos recorded two years ago in his bedroom as a Valentine’s gift for his girlfriend at the time?

Angelakos looks at his bandmates, clustered together with beers in hand at the subterranean bar Shay’s, and offers his best guess.

"We know we're a hype band, and we know exactly how it works," he says, pushing back his crown of curly dark hair. "We know how lucky we are. We don't have any kind of ego about it. We're really kind of surprised that any of this is happening."

But it is. And fast. The hype, starting last year, came from the usual sources - online music blogs and eventually magazines that deemed Passion Pit the next band you must know - but it also rippled outside your typical hipster audience. Kanye West, for instance, has written about Passion Pit a few times on his blog, at one point commenting on how "sick" the drums sound on the band's song "Cuddle Fuddle."

The avalanche of early buzz has been promising - and landed the band high-profile gigs at big festivals like South by Southwest in March and Austin City Limits in October. But today marks the band's grand entrance on a national stage. "Manners," Passion Pit's stunning full-length debut (see review at left), will be released on the boutique Frenchkiss Records in this country, but it's on Columbia in the United Kingdom, an interesting paradox that gives Passion Pit both indie and mainstream cred.

It makes sense that a major label has latched onto Passion Pit. The music industry can no longer force-feed hit bands to independent-minded music fans like it used to. Every year there's at least one or two sleeper hits that emerge to everyone's surprise, from Bon Iver to Grizzly Bear. Like any other business, the industry has to tap into the indie market and produce its own successes, making sure to keep its corporate marionette strings tucked away.

Chris Zane, who produced "Manners," says that the hype can cut both ways. "I think the challenge is to get people to listen to this album with semi-normal expectations," he says. "I think the hope is that it goes much further than the jaded blog kids in our circle and really hit the 16-year-old girls who live in Missouri."

Of course, we've heard all this talk before about Boston's next big band. The past few years are littered with boldface names - the Click Five, Will Dailey, Boys Like Girls - that eventually fade into more low-key profiles. The Click Five, following a string of stadium shows, recently wrapped up a monthlong residency at the cozy Lizard Lounge.

Maybe it's because they're all 22 or 23 (Angelakos turns 22 today), but the men of Passion Pit - including Jeff Apruzzese, Ian Hultquist, Ayad Al Adhamy, and Nate Donmoyer - behave like the most unlikely rock stars, silly instead of swaggering. They all still suffer from varying degrees of stage fright. They fret over who's the biggest dork ("Hey, man, I embrace it," Al Adhamy crows).

The guys are amused that all their interviews have involved questions about the porno called "Passion Pit." (Contrary to published reports, the band didn't take its name from that film; for the record: They're fans of it.)

But the public doesn't see this unassuming side of Passion Pit. It sees yet another hyped band emerging seemingly out of thin air. Angelakos understands the band's detractors who might resent Passion Pit's swift ascent. In fact, he's surprised the backlash hasn't started already.

"People don't trust you until you've been around for two or three years. When you become a name that sticks, then they'll start giving you a decent look," he says. "I feel like now we're just a flash in the pan to them. But I think this record distinguishes us - we're not MGMT, we're not Vampire Weekend, we're not Hot Chip."

Some of Passion Pit's refreshing appeal comes from how it formed. Angelakos had no intentions of starting a band when he released "Chunk of Change," the EP he gave to his girlfriend, until it became a word-of-mouth sensation around Emerson College, where Angelakos was a student. He started selling the album, burned at home on his computer, for $4 a pop.

Hultquist remembers one of Angelakos's first solo performances with the "Chunk of Change" material.

"He had this one show where it was just him and a laptop and - no offense - it wasn't that impressive," Hultquist says to Angelakos's apparent surprise. "I knew people liked the music, and I liked the music, and I thought it would be fun to play [with a band]."

From there, the band lineup gradually coalesced with some of Hultquist's fellow Berklee students. The music Angelakos was writing was specifically electronic, so he decided the band needed to adhere to the same aesthetic.

"We decided early on that the best way to do this is to have as many keyboards as possible," Angelakos says. "Because we're all guitarists, we approach keyboards like guitars. We're not great keyboardists, but that's not the point. Our sound is very full and polyphonic."

Sill, with the album now measuring up to the hype, he knows the band's moment could be fleeting.

"People are either going to really love it or really hate it," Angelakos says. "But the response has been so surprisingly positive that I don't think we really quite understand what we're walking into. We know it's going to be pretty fun from now on."

James Reed can be reached at

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