I have this undiagnosed anxiety disorder (maybe you suffer from it, too?). If I’m watching someone having a bad go at her five minutes of fame on national TV, her anxiety transfers to me. My heartbeat races, my stomach gets knotted up, and I come away feeling worse off than I did during the previous few minutes. And the worst part? The feeling might last all night, long after the TV’s been shut off and the covers have been pulled up. That’s the reason why I almost never watch reality TV music competition shows anymore. American Idol did it to me. And so did The Voice. Nashville Star? Ouch. There’s always someone who finds herself in a situation where she thought she was winning, and all of a sudden, she gets struck with the realization, on-air, that she has no chance. All the judges hate her. She’s “dreadful,” to swipe a particularly anxiety-inducing adjective from longtime Idol judge Simon Cowell.
There’ve been a few exceptions to the rule, of course. One such show was NBC’s short-lived a cappella competition reality show, The Sing-Off, which I started watching during its third season and just couldn’t get enough of (this was before the days of binge-streaming). A few things I immediately liked about it: Two rock stars from my childhood, Shawn Stockman of Boyz II Men and Ben Folds of Ben Folds Five, were not only judges, but also offered incredibly insightful, intelligent advice to the competing teams. (Sara Bareilles, who I came to really enjoy as both an artist and judge, was also on the panel. You might know her music from that little Broadway show called Waitress.) The show also didn’t really ever single out the bad apple of the bunch either; it all came down to the sum of the parts (Folds would often be able to tell where the exact weaknesses in the harmonic structure existed, but he was never a dick about it like Cowell). It was also the little-show-that-could at the time: It never roped in the type of viewership numbers that ratings-juggernaut Idol did, but what it lacked in household totals, it made up for in pure heart, and well, talent, among the groups it brought in. (The way I looked at it was this: On Idol, just one person had to be a standout, but on The Sing-Off, each member of the group had to be incredible. That was a much bigger task, in my mind.) It featured myriad styles of groups, from college glee clubs to old-timey barbershop quartets and inventive, new-age groups that were seemingly ahead of the times and constantly thinking outside of the box. Season 3’s winners, Pentatonix, were one such group. You could tell, the second they rocked their first number, that they were going to be famous…whatever it took. Even with the foreknowledge that a cappella groups rarely ever crack the surface of mainstream pop radio. They were just that good.
That was seven years ago. At the time of The Sing-Off‘s airing, Pentatonix had only just recently formed, making the winning feat all the more incredible. Then, the group consisted of Scott Hoying, Mitch Grassi, Kirstin Maldonado, Kevin Olusola and Avi Kaplan, who blew away the competition with tightly (and inventively) arranged pop covers—with Hoying, Grassi and Maldonado sharing lead vocal duties as a quasi trio-within-the-quintet (though Hoying was clearly the leader)—all held together by the vocal beat-box/bass one-two punch of Olusola and Kaplan. The Sing-Off win earned the members of Pentatonix $200,000 and got them signed to Sony Music—but immediately following their big win, the true reality of showbiz came crashing down on the quintet. Just three weeks after the season finale of the show, Epic Records unceremoniously dropped the group, “because they just didn’t believe that a cappella music could have a significant place in the industry,” said Olusola at the time. But that didn’t stop the group from dusting themselves off, launching a YouTube channel and starting a viral, grassroots movement, the likes of which not many in the pop world had ever seen. Ironically, being dropped allowed Pentatonix to reach the absolute stratosphere of popularity as independent artists, reining in a staggering 15 million subscribers on their YouTube channel, and logging obscene amounts of views for their slickly produced videos, which include “Hallelujah” (331 million views), “Daft Punk” (285 million), the “Evolution of Music” (118 million) and “Somebody That I Used To Know” (63 million). (They’ve since been re-signed, by the way.)
Although Kaplan is no longer with the group—he was replaced last year by bass vocalist Matt Sallee—Pentatonix has continued its meteoric rise, winning three Grammys, landing a No.1 album on the Billboard charts (and a number of other high-charters) and a string of gold/platinum singles and records. They’ve also performed at a number of high-profile gigs, including the Kennedy Center Honors. And on August 22, they’ll be making their debut at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC)—a truly perfect fit for the group, who have both classical leanings (Olusola is a Yale-educated cellist) and street cred among the pop-minded, hook-crazy masses.
This actually marks the second time in my career that I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing the band—the first time coming five years ago for a Food Network blog (unfortunately, none of the 40-plus links exist in cyberspace, so you’re just going to have to take my word for it). I caught up with founding member Olusola and “new guy” Sallee in advance of their big SPAC debut.
The last time I talked with you guys—back in 2013!—you hadn’t scored your first No.1 album yet or won a Grammy, and Avi Kaplan was still part of the group. How have your lives changed in five years? What’s the coolest part of fame?
Kevin Olusola (KO): Wow, it’s been a crazy five years, and there’s so much that’s changed, and honestly, we’ve loved the journey we’ve been on. The coolest thing, I think, is to know that so many people respect the art that we’ve been able to put out. We’re so thankful that so many more people know about what we do as an a cappella group. And the fact that we, as an a cappella group, can fill out arenas and amphitheaters—I mean, we’re on tour right now, and it’s crazy to know that Logic and Halsey are performing in the same venues that we are. So we feel very blessed and thankful.
You got your big start on the TV competition show The Sing-Off. Have you stayed in touch with judges Sara Bareilles, Ben Folds and Shawn Stockman?
KO: Not necessarily intentionally, but we’ve seen them at different awards shows and backstage parties, and it’s always such a good thing to see them again, ’cause they’re just so proud of what we’ve done. We went to the Vanity Fair party for the Oscars last year as a band, and it was cool to see Sara Bareilles; she had so much praise to give us, which we appreciate so much, ’cause we love her and appreciate her art.
Who do you look up to as your mentors in show business today?
KO: Oh man, the biggest mentor for me has been Quincy Jones. I got to meet him, because he heard my cello/beat-boxing video, so I got to go over to his house and spend four hours with him. He taught me so much about music and the industry. He said that you have to have a beautiful pairing of the two, but also to remember that you are trying to communicate your art. It’s all about communication and being able to do that in the simplest way possible. That’s something I’ve kept with me the whole time we’ve been doing Pentatonix.
Tell me a little bit about the addition of Matt Sallee. What has Matt brought to the table that is new and exciting?
KO: Man, it has been such an amazing thing to have Matt with us on this journey. He’s brought so much life, energy and such a kind-hearted spirit to the band that we’re so thankful for. And the fans have latched onto him so well and so easily. I remember when we announced that Matt was going to be with us for the Christmas tour, and fans were already making drawings of him, creating all this really cool Matt art. It’s just amazing to have such an amazing character with us on this journey.
A cappella always struck me as something that was cool in high school and college and then sort of fizzled out afterwards. You guys have changed that perception, dramatically. What do you think resonated (and still resonates) with fans about your group and its music?
KO: I think there are a couple of things; I mean I think it’s a perfect storm of several situations. The Sing-Off was on, Pitch Perfect was going on at the time, Glee as well, so there was already an established fanbase of people who were interested in what a cappella was. We tried to make a cappella a pop, mainstream thing. When we thought about our sound, we wanted it to be something where people said, “Oh, this is so different, this is so interesting.” You know, I think our formula really captured a lot of people, in addition to the fact that, we are blessed to have this amazing platform called YouTube. As a distribution platform, that fact that you can see and hear something—like you can watch Matt hitting the low notes, me doing the beat boxing, the trio doing their crazy harmonies—I think that kind of brings about the magic of what a cappella is. So I think the perfect storm of a lot of situations that came together to allow us to be able to do what we do best.
I’m guessing that one part of that formula to success is the inventive ways you cover other pop artists’ tunes.
Matt Sallee: Yeah, it’s really cool to take a song and reinvent it in a way that’s us and fun and cool and different. We all have different musical backgrounds and styles, so we get to put all that into a melting pot and just pick and chose from different parts of it.
Have any of the artists you’ve covered reached out to you and praised you for your take on their work?
MS: Yeah! It’s really fun to be able to do that with different artists, and it’s really cool when they notice it. On our most recent album, PTX Presents: Top Pop, Vol. I, Charlie Puth actually retweeted our version of his song “Attention.” I think Camila Cabello saw our version of “Havana.” It’s so cool to hear that I was honored by a famous artist. Like, wow, it’s really cool. [Editor’s Note: Puth performed at SPAC back on July 22.]
Who’s the member of the group that’s most creative on his or her toes? Who’s the biggest comedian?
KO: Wow, I think it depends on the situation…but you know, I would say in a lot of ways, we all love Scott so much, because when it comes to the visual aspect of the band, he’s so brilliant. And he’s really great at coming up with concepts. For example, “Evolution of Music” was something that he completely thought of just in his head. Especially with the video concepts, he really has a very strong idea of what a video should be. Who’s the comedian? I think we all have our moments, but definitely Mitch [Grassi]. Mitch is just a ridiculous, hilarious character. I don’t even know how he thinks of most of what he says.
Tell me your favorite celebrity encounter of 2018 so far.
MS: I’m a huge Jonas Brothers fan, and we got to go to a Grammy party for Republic Records, and Joe Jonas is friends with the other members of the group, so he comes up to us to say hello, gives me a big hug and says congratulations on being a new member and I was just like, “You know who I am, and you know what’s going on in my life—what is going on?!” It was crazy!
You guys’ll be playing SPAC on August 22. This is your first time in Saratoga, right?
KO: I think this actually is our first time performing at Saratoga Performing Arts Center. We’re so excited. We’ve heard about the racetrack, but we’ve never been. And listen, if there are good places to eat that y’all know of, please let us know, because we love a good meal in a city that we’ve never been to!
MS: And if there are ways for us to ride cars on the racetrack, we’ll take that, too [laughs]. You know, we’re fun. We like to have fun.
KO: True that.
Speaking of the racetrack, you’ll be here at the height of track season. Have any of you ever bet on horses before and won? Who’s the luckiest member of the group?
MS: Yes, we actually had the privilege of singing the National Anthem at the Kentucky Derby this year, and I actually bet for the first time, on the very last race, after the main race. I did bet on Justify to win, and I won a little bit of money, but at the end of the night, it was the last race and everyone was putting money up and I was like, you know, I’m gonna put a bunch of money on this No.6 horse, and I came out with, like, triple the amount! I had never bet before, and everybody was so shocked. We were all cheering. It was a fun experience.