You know Pentatonix. The music industry’s vanguard a cappella group, the YouTube-conquering heroes of the Glee and Pitch Perfect generation, the bleeding-cool clique of musical manipulators who ooze as much talent as they do panache.
The five-person group—who make music only with their mouths (what a time to be alive!)—have kept their pulsating momentum going since entering a whirlwind of fandom following their 2011 victory on NBC’s The Sing-Off, an accolade which even today seems like a distant, negligible memory considering the remarkable path the band has taken since. On the heels of their third album—PTX, Vol. III, which dropped on Sept. 23—the a cappella quintet is also plotting a second holiday album (That’s Christmas to Me, due October 21), a buzzy appearance in next year’s Pitch Perfect 2, and other as-yet-undisclosed plans for a packed 2015.
Mitch Grassi, Scott Hoying, Avi Kaplan, Kirstie Maldonado, and Kevin Olusola stopped by EW’s New York office and sat down for a roundtable interview wherein we got down to the details of the group’s exceptional year. The gang is fast, funny, and ferociously honest—which is exactly what you’d think.
EW: Before we start, I want to make sure I know what not to ask. What’s the question you guys are asked the most?
SCOTT HOYING: How we came together.
KIRSTIE MALDONADO: What does it feel like being the only girl?
MITCH GRASSI: Pitch Perfect 2. And how are you so good looking?
KEVIN OLUSOLA: That’s mainly for me.
HOYING: But yeah, those first three.
My second preliminary question: Is there any incorrect trivia about you online that you want to take this opportunity to fact-check?
GRASSI: People think Scott and I are married.
HOYING: They do. It’s half-true. There’s all sorts of weird things that start online.
MALDONADO: There are times when you read stuff and you’re truly like, what!? Where did they get that?
Real question time. How is 2014 Pentatonix different from 2011 Pentatonix?
HOYING: Where do we begin?
GRASSI: We’re thinner.
HOYING: I think we’ve all grown up a lot. We’re a lot more mature, and that goes for our sound as well. Our sound has matured, and I feel like we’ve honed in on what the Pentatonix sound is, and that was the best self-discovery.
Is that just due to the nature of time?
HOYING: We’ve arranged so much stuff, we’ve seen what we like, we’ve seen what our fans like, we’ve seen what works for us, what we can do live, what we can do better, what comes across better on videos. So many little details we’ve learned, and now we know how to craft a song better. That’s been a great thing.
OLUSOLA: I think the cohesiveness of our team has grown so much. We’ve become a lot more tenacious. We understand that what we do is very different… we’re always going to be the underdogs in this industry, but that’s what gives us the drive and the will to do our thing and try our best to persist.
Has your chemistry changed a lot in the last few years? Going on this adventure together, you’re bound to become very close.
HOYING: We’re like a family, to the point where we spend all our time together and sometimes we don’t get along.
GRASSI: We get snappy.
HOYING: Because we spend so much time together. But actually, everyone always says this and it’s very true, out of most bands, I would say we get along the best. We get along really well. And we’re able to work together really well.
Can you pinpoint the moment in your career when you became best friends and not just bandmates?
OLUSOLA: That’s just grown over time. I feel like I’ve learned throughout this whole process that you have to really understand and learn about people. Coming into this, we didn’t know each other very well, so whenever we would talk to each other about certain things, I think sometimes it wouldn’t make sense to us because we didn’t understand where that person was coming from. Now that we understand each other so well, we understand how to make things work because we know each person’s dynamic and character.
GRASSI: Something else I noticed, or it was sort of a revelation I had about being in such close quarters with people, is that everyone is a little bit crazy.
HOYING: I thought that my whole life.
GRASSI: We all have our things, and you just have to be accepting of people’s craziness.
HOYING: Everyone has their quirks.
GRASSI: But that’s all part of growing up. Oprah Winfrey tease!
What are your parents’ favorite qualities about the other members of the group?
GRASSI: My parents think Kevin is really funny.
GRASSI: Yeah, you came over once. I don’t remember when.
HOYING: My dad’s always like, Kevin’s so easy to talk to!
GRASSI: My parents think you’re a really easygoing and funny guy.
OLUSOLA: Oh! Whoa.
GRASSI: And I’m like, no.
MALDONADO: My mom really respects Kevin and thinks he’s so kind and so hard-working and that he’s just a very good light and example, and he is.
OLUSOLA: You guys are very nice. I like your compliments a lot.
HOYING: Our parents like you better than we like you. No, I’m just kidding.
HOYING: I was kidding!
OLUSOLA: There goes that cohesiveness.
Kevin, do you have compliments to give?
OLUSOLA: [points to Mitch] My parents think you’re really sassy. [points to Scott] My parents think you are just a creative genius.
HOYING: That’s nice.
GRASSI: Do they say that about me?
HOYING: This is so interesting, we’ve never been asked this before.
OLUSOLA: [points to Maldonado] My dad says he likes your smile a lot.
MALDONADO: That’s nice! Aww.
OLUSOLA: [points to Kaplan] And you know why I can’t say what my parents think of you.
So, you’ve got a new album. What was different this time around in terms of planning? The song choices seem to be decidedly more indie.
GRASSI: I think so.
HOYING: I think sound-wise, we definitely did a bunch of stuff differently, and we wanted to pick songs that really inspired us—not necessarily the most popular stuff out there, but songs that really worked for us and that we liked musically. And we got a little world-y with this album. I think it’s because we’ve been traveling a lot and we like that big epic world sound.
GRASSI: And everybody’s into that world thing. The big tribal drums and the chanting.
MALDONADO: But I think what’s important is that we don’t try to cover things that are really popular anymore. We’re very comfortable in our own sound and what we do and so that’s where our inspiration is from—just things that we are truly inspired by or that we think will work well for us, and not just because something is Top 40.
HOYING: “Problem” was Top 40, but we loved that song.
MALDONADO: Right, and it works well for us.
“Rather Be” is popular but still on the fringe.
HOYING: It was big in the U.K.
GRASSI: It’s very strange.
MALDONADO: It’s doing some [up-down motion] on the charts.
HOYING: We could tell there were going to be great moments for us in that song. And then “Papaoutai,” the whole thing was in French so you would never think that we should cover that for our American listeners.
GRASSI: But I feel like it’s very accessible.
HOYING: Yeah, it’s catchy. And you can at least sing along with the chorus.
You guys took a French lesson to prepare. How was that?
[Hoying, Grassi, and Maldonado all gasp.]
MALDONADO: It was so hard.
HOYING: It started off a little rough.
GRASSI: It was tedious.
MALDONADO: I don’t even say that many French words, so I feel stupid saying that it was hard, but it was still hard. I don’t know how Mitch and Scott did that.
HOYING: The thing is, with stuff like that, I feel like I would normally get lazy, but I was so, so excited about the song and so inspired by it that I was so ready for this lesson.
GRASSI: And we knew that if we didn’t kill it, the fans would be like, y’all are so bad.
HOYING: And our teacher—his name was Jean-Baptiste—he did this thing where he said, “Just try it.” And I was like, I don’t even know where to begin. The way the words are spelled are very, very not how they sound.
GRASSI: Ninety percent of the letters aren’t even said. So you’re like, where do I go?
HOYING: I would say something and he’s like, “No, that’s wrong,” and I’d be like, “Well I don’t know how to say it, why don’t you tell me?!” and he wouldn’t say it.
HOYING: I’m just kidding, I love you Jean-Baptiste. He was nice. And when we finished it, I sent the rough mix to all my friends that speak French and they, like, killed it. They gave back the lyrics with bolded things that were like, you need to say this better.
NEXT: Rejected songs, Pandora, and Lupita