When Ian Hultquist first saw Michael Angelakos perform at a Boston bar, only a laptop computer accompanied the singer, then a student at Emerson College. But that was enough to convince Hultquist, a Berklee College of Music student who had befriended Angelakos prior to that show, that they could collaborate.
"I'm not sure what made me think that we could work together," admits Hultquist. "I always thought what attracted me was the music. Musically, he does something that's fresh. I think he has a good way of standing out in a crowd. Lyrically, he's very honest and will mask things in a certain way. A song like 'The Reeling' is a sad song but he makes it sound like a happy anthem. He's just a really honest songwriter."
But Hultquist says it was initially a struggle to get some kind of band together. And even after Passion Pit formed in 2007 with Angelakos at the helm as the sole singer and songwriter, the band didn't really become a proper band; Hultquist and two other guys essentially served as touring members of the band and didn't play much on the albums. That arrangement hasn't changed, either.
"It really took awhile for us to get it together," says Hultquist, who initially played guitar before joining the group and still plays guitar in a side project band he has with his wife. "We rehearsed for months and months. We didn't know how to use synthesizers. We spent a full summer and all of a fall as well learning how to use keyboards and getting familiar with them. Since then, it's been easier."
Hultquist says that even though Angelakos writes all the songs in isolation, the band members do help shape the indie rock group's sound. When he was young, Hultquist was simply into "whatever pop was on the radio." But as he grew older, he got into bands like Radiohead and Wilco and then at Berklee discovered jazz and classical music. While Passion Pit's music is heavy with synthesizers, Hultquist says he's not a huge fan of electronic dance music.
"I do like some electronic dance music, but I'm not the biggest fan of it," he says adding that he has played a bit of guitar on Passion Pit's albums. "I love LCD Soundsystem but most bands are too one-dimensional and after a point I need to hear something else."
While Hultquist doesn't play on the band's debut, 2008's Chunk of Change, an album of tunes that Angelakos wrote for a girlfriend, he did tour behind the disc. The album quickly established the band in the indie rock world; the single, "Sleepyhead," which features ricocheting electronic beats and a vocal sample from Irish singer Mary O'Hara, became an underground hit. Thanks to positive reviews from publications such Pitchfork, Chunk of Change received enough attention that the major labels came calling and the band signed to Columbia Records in 2009 for its full-length debut, Manners. That album featured glitchy synth-pop singles such as "Little Secrets" and "The Reeling," and the band's popularity rose once again. The songs on Manners were more refined and catchy than the ones on Chunk of Change.
"Playing in a live band has helped [Angelakos] open up his palette," says Hultquist. "He writes songs with the band in mind. Passion Pit has always been two entities, the studio version and the live version. I'm a full member of the live version. I was on Manners a little bit and I helped out with [2012's] Gossamer. It seems weird when people find out that's how it works but that's how it is. It works pretty well. I love to be around in the studio in general. It works to our benefit. On a personal level, I like that I don't have to deal with the label wanting us to write a hit."
After a successful tour in support of Manners that included a raucous sold out show here at the House of Blues in 2010, the band returned in 2012 with Gossamer, an album that debuted near the top to the U.S. pop charts the first week of its release. But all was not well. The group canceled initial tour dates after Angelakos took time away from the band to seek treatment.
"I didn't know half of what he was going through," says Hultquist when asked about Agelakos's illness. "He's very personal and private."
While it's been about six months since Gossamer's release, the band is just now starting to reap the dividends and experience just how popular it's become. Hultquist says they plan to be on the road for the entire year and have plans to play South American before heading to Southern California in April for the Coachella Festival.
"I think this tour will be really fun," says Hultquist of the current jaunt, which started earlier this month and includes a date at New York's Madison Square Garden. "This tour will be interesting for us because we're hitting a new level and playing some arenas on this tour. We're all excited but extremely nervous because we never thought it would it escalate to the point that it has. It has surpassed a thousand times what we thought it would be. We just thought we'd be just another band that rehearsed and played a show. We played a show and then played another show and then kept playing shows. This is our job and it's how we pay our rents. We never thought that would happen."