"'Etiquette' sounded terrible. 'Manners' sounded fine," Michael Angelakos told me, laughing.
In a phone interview that ranged from deeply personal to light-hearted and everything in between, the primary mind behind Passion Pit took me on a trip down memory lane to 2009 when the group released its debut studio full-length album.
That record, "Manners," mainly the work of Angelakos, was a full-throated effort about love, despair, confusion, resolve and the romanticism of a wide-eyed 20 year old juxtaposed against buoyant, synth-led electro-pop hooks and its author's otherworldly, glass-shattering falsetto.
It powered through alternative radio with singles like "Little Secrets," "The Reeling" and "Sleepyhead" -- and was both inescapable (you also heard the band in countless commercials, movies and TV) and a breath of fresh air in a music world that was still propelling Nickelback to the top of the charts.
However, it was also the work of a man mightily stuggling with his own mental health. At 18 years old, Angelakos was diagnosed with bipolar disorder -- a condition that heavily informed the album in a myriad of ways, even though he probably didn't fully realize it at the time.
"It’s taken a very long time to come to terms with how painful 'Manners' really was," he told me. "Of all [my] records, that’s the most suicidal, the darkest, I think ... I wasn’t honest about who I really was back then. I was really trying to fit in and I was young. I was 20 or 21 years old and I was terrified of what people would think of me.
"One thing that 'Manners' really represented was this extraordinarily internalized conflict," Angelakos continued. "Something that was just deeply, deeply hidden from other people. The idea of 'Manners' itself came from the Emily Post etiquette book, which my mother brought up. [She] wanted me to go to a manners summer camp, like an etiquette camp -- for reasons of which I have no idea. It's not like I had bad manners. [laughs] I can't even understand why! I have an older sister and a younger brother and they weren't put in the line of fire for manners camp, only I was. [laughs] For some reason though, it just kept coming into my head -- the idea of putting on this facade that everyone has to go through."
It may seem like a foreign concept to some, but in 2009, people weren't speaking about mental health like they do now. And while those conversations are starting to happen, the stigma of mental illness remains -- and, as Angelakos explains, it's actually gotten worse.
"The numbers are staggering and every time I answer these questions about mental health stigma and what it actually is and how it manifests itself in culture and work and the social lives of people with mental illnesses or disabilities or people with addiction issues -- it’s increased by over 10% or something in the last seven years alone. Over 60 or 70% of people wouldn’t want to work with me, wouldn’t want to date me, or marry me, or wouldn’t want to live in a building with me. That’s just based on if someone knew I had bipolar disorder. But also, at the end of the day, at 20 [years old], I was really symptomatic. Now, I’m 32 and I feel more evened out and better than I ever have before in my life."
More than a decade after its release, Angelakos is now reflecting on the record that simply changed his life. As he and his band prepare for its 10-year anniversary tour, the process of revisiting songs that document some of the most turbulent times in his life has been more eye-opening than maybe he even imagined.
"The thing that I really understand best, and it’s taken me a really long time to, is how lonely and dark and desperate I was to be understood at that time. It’s so much easier now to be understood, I think. Time has helped me and I’m open to celebrating it and talking about it more, you know?
"It’s really, really interesting to reflect on a record that’s 10 years old and be like, trying to figure it out because it’s so far from where I am now, it’s really wild," he explained. "It’s weird because the music does conjure memories; memories don’t necessarily don’t come as easily on their own. It was such a blur, it was so fast. The time from writing the initial demos to getting signed to an indie label, then to a major label, to being in a band and then being on a bus -- it was so quick and so fast, and also I was on so many different medications. These are stressors that most young people shouldn’t really have to be exposed to or really deal with at that age. It was just too much."
Surprisingly, Angelakos doesn't seem to hold any resentment toward "Manners." On the contrary, he's gained a new appreciation for it.
"It was so messy. But getting back into it now, it’s like, I’m able to kind of see -- despite that mess and absolute disarray -- I was still able to kind of make something cohesive. Probably out of all my records, it might be the most cohesive from front to back ... I kind of marvel at the fact that I was able to get through it and finish a record that was so consistent in tone and yet I had children’s choirs on three or four tracks, I had a string ensemble on one, I had a horn section on two or three songs -- I mean, I went into the studio and I wanted to do everything possible! How I was able to pull it off? All I can remember throughout that period, is how unbelievably tired and physically and mentally exhausted I was and yet I kind of kept pushing through."
For a process that could've easily been a harrowing minefield to navigate, revisiting that debut album has turned into somewhat of a victory lap.
"You reprocess that feeling of something new and positive so a record that is ultimately a triumph and an achievement -- but that you’ve never seen as anything but a deeply dark period of your life -- is now connected to something that is nothing but triumphant and fulfilling ... It’s kind of a conquering type of feeling as opposed to a this type of 'Oh my God, I’m gonna revisit this traumatic period.' There’s a always a little bit of that, but there’s a type of confidence now to be able to go out onstage and perform these songs with a kind of understanding between me and the audience that I’ve gone through enough." [laughs]
For many, the prospect of seeing Passion Pit onstage performing again is hugely promising -- after all, Angelakos declared in 2017 that he'd be stepping away from being a "commercialized artist." Does he see a future for the band after this tour wraps at the end of May?
"I didn’t expect to but I think I do have at least one more Passion Pit record left in me," he admitted. "It’s just that it’s really laborious, dealing with labels and people [laughs] -- but in my opinion, what it's really all about is dusting off the cobwebs and getting back to a position where I feel confident enough to give it a try. I needed to be reminded of why I do this, so part of the reason for this tour was not to just reclaim the record and reflect on it but also to move on from it and maybe get back into something new. This is the tour where it’s like, OK, I want to be back in this and really see if I can pull this off again. So far, it feels as though it’s been a good decision. Honestly, I really feel like this is exactly what I needed to finally jump back into committing to something again. It’s hard. I just take what I do seriously, I wish I didn’t. [laughs] I really really wish it was all just fun -- but I care about what I put out into the world. It matters."
Passion Pit headline the Observatory North Park on Wednesday, May 1. The show is sold out.
Dustin Lothspeich is a San Diego Music Award-winning musician, senior associate editor at NBC SoundDiego, talent buyer at The Merrow and founder of the music equipment-worshipping blog Gear and Loathing in San Diego. Follow his updates on Twitter or contact him directly.