Pentatonix: 5 members, 1 hour, 37 questions
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
The video for “Papaoutai” is pretty fascinating, but I think that can be said about all of your videos. The production value is always impressive. Where does that come from?
OLUSOLA: That video was mine and Scott’s idea.
GRASSI: We were inspired by the original Stromae video with the mannequin.
HOYING: That one was inspired by Stromae. I wanted to do something where there was a kind of creepy absence in the characters, because that’s the story of the song—an absent father—but instead of being mannequins, we were toys, and we were entertaining the kid that wasn’t getting enough attention from his dad. And it turned out really cool and creepy, like we wanted. But in general, our video concepts come from the group. Usually we have ideas and we’ll bring them to a video production team we work with a lot. It’s cool being able to collaborate and tell them your vision and then work together to make it come true.
It’s cool to just be in these videos, which has to be such a new experience for all of you, right?
AVI KAPLAN: It’s almost like being able to live out your fantasies. Just becoming a different character, and I like that. For all the different videos that we got to dress up in, I love fantasy stuff, so for “Radioactive,” I felt like I was a warrior, and for Daft Punk, I felt like I was a space warrior.
SCOTT: We’re always warriors.
KAPLAN: I just love it. It’s so much fun to do that.
OLUSOLA: Also, I’ll say this—the level Avi likes a video depends on whether we have to do a lot of choreography or not. If it’s a lot of choreography, then he’ll be a little crazy.
GRASSI: Shots. Fired.
KAPLAN: I think there’s only one video that we’ve done major choreography.
HOYING: And going off of that, what’s really cool about videos…you said living out your fantasies, and that inspired me—when I was a kid, I used to always, when I heard music, picture a video with it, or when Destiny’s Child would release a song, I was like, I know what they’re going to do for the video. I always thought about that. So now it’s cool being an adult and having an idea for a song and then being able to watch it later and execute it.
How accurate were your predictions for Destiny’s Child videos?
HOYING: No, they were never right. And it was the same thing with commercials, like for video games. I was like, I know exactly what commercial they should do for this. I would get really inspired by things, and it’s cool to be able to create now.
Well, I will say, because you’re the vanguards of your genre, it seems unlikely that anyone is telling Pentatonix whether they have to dance in a video. Is that accurate?
KAPLAN: Yeah, I think that we just know ourselves and we know what our fans like and we know how we want to convey something, and that’s something that’s really special about us. We know how to convey exactly what we want to convey. We know how it makes us feel and we know exactly how to show our fans how to feel the same way.
[The group’s attention turns as they begin scanning the Entertainment Weekly wall of covers.]
Do you like our cover wall?
OLUSOLA: That’s very cool.
MALDONADO: Katy Perry…
OLUSOLA: My woman!
HOYING AND EW: Lupeets…
HOYING: Did you just say Lupeets?
GRASSI AND HOYING: Oh my God.
HOYING: I just called her that. And I don’t ever call her that, it was only just now. That was weird. We’re meant to be friends.
On the topic of friends, I feel like I have friends who know every single one of you in some distant form. How has the six-degrees connection been for you?
HOYING: People will Facebook me, like, “Hi, I’m your friend Lauren’s friend’s mom’s bowling teacher, I just wanted to see if you wanted free lessons.” That happens all the time.
MALDONADO: I feel like we travel so much that we’ll be like, oh my gosh, here’s this person I went to high school with, or we’re going to my friend’s college to perform a show and I haven’t talked to her since we were 10.
HOYING: But you meet a lot of people growing up.
OLUSOLA: Friends that you know growing up and then they do something and you’re like, oh my goodness. Today, one of their friends was on Good Morning America working our interview.
HOYING: He was literally…[Mitch, Kirstie, and I] always talk about how we were a trio in high school, and he was probably the fourth to our group of friends. We were so close to him.
Really? And he just interviewed you guys this morning?
HOYING: He didn’t interview us, but he produced on the show.
MALDONADO: He’s living out his dream doing what he wants to do, too. It’s like worlds colliding.
OLUSOLA: And, like, Lupita [Nyong’o]—we went to school together.
You and Lupita?
OLUSOLA: Lupita and I were really good friends. I went to Yale, and she went to Yale Drama School, so when my video came out, she e-mailed me. She said, “I know you’re African, let’s hang out!”
GRASSI: Did she say that? I love that.
OLUSOLA: Yeah, and we were talking about, I feel like we have these African vibes, and so we always kept in touch, and then when I was in London, I was watching The Butler and then all of a sudden I saw the preview for her movie and I texted her and I was like, “What in the world?” And she texted me back, like, “Wait a second, my brother just told me about Pentatonix!” She came to our Beacon Theatre show. I invited her. It’s just cool to see friends that are just so…
You’re both doing your thing! Would you ever enlist her to pop up in a video?
OLUSOLA: Ooh. I’ve never asked her about it.
HOYING: It would just be her standing there with her all-Prada outfits.
Okay, back to the album. As far as the track list goes, what goes into that conversation? I imagine you have a list of 50 songs that you’re interested in that you then whittle down to just a few.
MALDONADO: It’s actually the opposite.
HOYING: Usually someone comes with a song, and then we do it. And then we have 7 songs and the EP is done. We do not whittle it down.
KAPLAN: The only time, honestly, is if we have the covers first, then that’s what we’ll base the originals on. The vibe of the entire CD. If we have a bunch of slow songs, then the originals can’t be slow, or if we have the originals first, then the covers, we need to…you know what I mean? It really is whoever brings stuff in first, and then once those are confirmed, we have to figure out what else the album needs.
HOYING: But no one really brings a song to the group unless they really think we’re going to do it. Unless they’re super inspired. I came to the group with “Papaoutai” and I was very passionate about it. And Kirstie was like, “We have to do ‘Rather Be,’ it’s the coolest song ever.” It’s cool how it works because it’s rare that someone brings a song and it doesn’t end up being done.
What are some songs that have been left on the cutting room floor?
OLUSOLA: Oh, “Muse.”
HOYING: We were like halfway through arranging that.
OLUSOLA: “Madness.” And “Clarity.”
HOYING: “I Knew You Were Trouble.”
KAPLAN: “Sweet Nothing.”
MALDONADO: “Beauty and a Beat.”
GRASSI: [sings something EW can’t understand]
Are there genres or songs that you just can’t seem to figure out?
OLUSOLA: I think it’d be weird for us to do hard rock.
MALDONADO: Rock music, because you can’t really do a guitar solo.
HOYING: The thing is, what we do is we take things from all these different genres anyway and make it our sound. Because of the way we arrange them.
KAPLAN: I don’t really think there’s a genre that we couldn’t do, but it wouldn’t sound like that genre, if that makes sense. I think we could take any song, but it would sound like us. If you’re doing a country song, it could maybe sound a little bit country, but it’s going to sound like Pentatonix.
As you’ve gotten bigger and signed with a major label, has anyone pressured you to change your formula?
HOYING: With Pitch Perfect, they were like, do your thing. We arranged it, sent it, and they were like check, we love it.
Why would anyone want to change anything?
HOYING: It’s the same thing with joining a big major label. You have reservations that they’re going to change you and you should be careful, but then they were like, do your thing.
GRASSI: Because they signed us for what we do.
HOYING: And it’s cool to have that because we don’t want to change. This is what we do.
KAPLAN: Nobody ever asks us to do that. Nobody.
MALDONADO: They just know it works well for us. We’ve built this because of what we are, and so I don’t know why they would want to change it.
KAPLAN: We really are kind of the only people that do this, so nobody’s going to be like, “Well we know this better than you so you have to do it like this.”
HOYING: There may be certain aspects to the industry that we could use help on.
KAPLAN: 100 percent.
OLUSOLA: I think the only pressure we have, especially coming into this, is how to keep it continually progressing. The next album is mainly going to be original, I think. How much new stuff can you do with just five voices? And I just pray that there’s not a limit. And that’s why I know for myself, as a beatboxer, I’m continuously listening to more music, just to get more ideas for how I can make things sound. Different timbres, different musical environments that we can lay the vocals over, just so we can continuously progress.
Do you ever find yourself on YouTube spirals of other a cappella groups?
MALDONADO: It generally begins with puppy videos.
HOYING: I watch all sorts of weird shit on YouTube. And then I always end up with, like, ‘Guy puts 14 tennis balls in his mouth.’
GRASSI: ‘Woman eating live squid.’
HOYING: We watch YouTubers to get inspired for our vlog channel.
GRASSI: I go on iTunes benders. Like sample previews and what’s related to that and what people have bought, and I just keep going.
MALDONADO: Or Pandora, and I just stay on there forever.
What’s on the Pandora Pentatonix station?
OLUSOLA: It’s Glee, it’s Sing-Off stuff. It’s other artists, just in the a cappella world.
Do you have a pulse on where college a cappella groups are now?
HOYING: Every college a cappella group in the world is probably doing “Bang Bang.”
OLUSOLA: “Shake It Off,” for sure.
HOYING: I feel like Avi probably keeps a tab on it the most.
KAPLAN: Yeah, I was super involved in my college a cappella group, so I love seeing what different groups are going to be doing, and I love going to the ICCAs, too. As much as I can go. If I can go, if I can judge, if I can just watch—and my old group still performs, so I always try to go to their stuff.
HOYING: I am obsessed with college a cappella groups and there are some amazing groups out there. I was watching some performances from the ICCA finals and they’re all so good.
KAPLAN: They get better and better and better.
Has it changed much in the last ten years?
KAPLAN: Totally. It’s gotten so much better, it’s unbelievable.
HOYING: When I was in high school, I would watch a cappella groups because I was thinking about joining them. Mitch introduced me to Reverse Osmosis, at USC.
GRASSI: Oh yeah. I got into them when I was like 15, I don’t know how that happened.
HOYING: It’s crazy because the sound has progressed so much.
KAPLAN: Competition brings out the best in people, and people continuously go back and their groups are always getting better because they want to win so bad. I love that, and I love seeing new groups become a force to be reckoned with.
In a way, a cappella groups are the new garage band. What’s your advice to the actual formation of one?
GRASSI: Be passionate.
KAPLAN: I would say just find like-minded people that have the same heart in it. If people love singing and they really want the group to be something, everyone should feel that way. If someone just wants to be in it because they like a girl or something, they shouldn’t.
HOYING: That’s why you joined choir.
GRASSI: That’s why I joined choir.
KAPLAN: But I also fell in love with the music. If you’re going to start a group, make sure the people you’re starting it with are in sync.
HOYING: And I would say it’s so important to put a lot of emphasis on being creative. I remember when I arranged stuff for SoCal Vocals, I was so wrapped up in all the parts and making it sound like the original song that I never thought about putting a creative twist or moments in it at all. It wasn’t until The Sing-Off that I started thinking we should do more moments, because it was so much easier. It was hard to arrange for 16 people, so I would be more worried about the theory of it, and I think it’s important that if you put a group together, to not let theory get in the way or let the tediousness stop you from getting creative with it.
KAPLAN: And one more piece of advice—play to your strengths. I think that’s a huge, huge deal with any group. Play to your strengths because that is what is going to make your group special.
NEXT: Biopics, The Sing-Off, and Secret Santas
Speaking of The Sing-Off, what’s the fondest snapshot you have of that show?
OLUSOLA: Oh I can tell you that right now. It was right before we were doing “Dog Days Are Over.” Scott had actually lost his voice, and that was a moment when we had come all this way, what’s going to happen? And we just overcame. And I just believed it. I knew we were going to overcome this. It’s moments like that, you always see in movies, that you know you’re going to overcome.
HOYING: I always have a snapshot of us walking offstage after “E.T.” We were so excited. Because we didn’t know if they were going to hate us. We all thought we were getting eliminated first episode, 100 percent, and we were so pessimistic about it, but we went onstage, and we saw the crowd’s reaction and the judges’ reaction. We were like, oh my God, we’re something. We have a shot at this. And I remember getting offstage and there was a feeling of euphoria.
I have a very random question. Would you ever do a Secret Santa between the five of you?
HOYING: That’s a really good question. We have never done that.
OLUSOLA: Should we?
HOYING: Can it work with five people?
MALDONADO: Totally. We could totally kill that. I already know the gifts I would give everyone.
KAPLAN: We all know each other that it would be so easy.
MALDONADO: So easy.
KAPLAN: You guys know what I like. You would give me, like, a gift certificate to a barbecue place.
HOYING: I should get you a dragon sculpture. No, I’m not going to get you a dragon sculpture, I’m going to get you a lifetime supply of every season of every anime show.
MALDONADO: He already has it.
Who’s in the Pentatonix biopic?
HOYING: Who would be the actor to play all of us?
OLUSOLA: Idris Elba, probably.
HOYING: Avi would be Dave Grohl.
KAPLAN: No, he’s not an actor!
OLUSOLA: Who’s that guy everybody says he looks like?
HOYING: That guy from Big Bang Theory!
GRASSI: James Franco.
KAPLAN: No, I would choose the guy that plays the king of the north in Game of Thrones.
KAPLAN: That guy. And then I would have him be over-dubbed by James Earl Jones.
GRASSI: Kirstie would be…
MALDONADO: No one looks like me. All my doppelgangers are random girls.
OLUSOLA: Selena Gomez?
MALDONADO: Jennifer Lawrence can play me. We look exactly the same.
HOYING: Who sang “Pyramids”?
GRASSI: Frank Ocean?
HOYING: She sang “I Will Always Love You.” She’s Filipino?
GRASSI: Whitney Houston. Oh, Charice!
She had a moment once.
GRASSI: That was shady.
MALDONADO: Isn’t there a younger…isn’t Hailee Steinfeld Latina? She’s up and coming.
HOYING: Becky G.
OLUSOLA: What about Selena Gomez?
MALDONADO: Selena Gomez is not going to play me.
HOYING: Yeah she could. She’s amazing. She’s like the best Disney star to come out of Disney in 10 years.
GRASSI: And she’s got her shit together. Look at everyone else. Continue.
What about Scott?
HOYING: I don’t know. My first instinct is Beyonce, obviously. Just, like, skill-wise. I’m kidding.
OLUSOLA: Avicii maybe?
GRASSI: I’m seeing, like, Aaron Paul.
MALDONADO: But he’s short.
GRASSI: And he’s also way older.
TOUR MANAGER ESTHER KAPLAN: Macklemore, if he was an actor. Who is Mitchell?
GRASSI: I’m picturing a Julie Andrews tease, like Peter Pan. I would have a woman play me. I want to say Sarah Silverman.
MALDONADO: Oh my God.
HOYING: I could totally see her playing you. If she cut her hair like that.
GRASSI: I’m also nasty.
MALDONADO: So there’s our movie!
OLUSOLA: It would be a very interesting movie, though.
GRASSI: The title is called Behind the Candelabra: The Pentatonix Story. Starring me as Liberace and Scott as my young buck.
Who are the most surprising celebrity fans of Pentatonix?
GRASSI: Oh my God, I have one.
MALDONADO: Channing Tatum!
GRASSI: Don’t jump in front of me.
MALDONADO: He posted our “Royals” video and I geeked out because I was like, “He’s seen us.”
GRASSI: Do you know Bonnie Hunt?
HOYING: She literally tweets us every day.
GRASSI: She loves us.
HOYING: She tweets us jokes all the time.
OLUSOLA: Who’s that?
HOYING: She plays the mom in Cheaper by the Dozen.
MALDONADO: She’s been around for a long time.
GRASSI: That’s the number one. She’s funny, and she’s in Jumanji.
HOYING: Kelly Clarkson. My friend opened for her, and I went backstage to say hi to my friend and Kelly walked into the room and saw me and goes, “I literally just watched every single one of your videos last night. I’m a big Pentatonix fan.” And we were like, no way. This is a moment for me, because I have idolized you since I was 8 years old. And I never ask for pictures with celebrities, but I was like, I have to ask for a picture because I want the band to believe this story.
OLUSOLA: Imogen Heap. She was in the baggage claim at the airport and was like, “You’re from Pentatonix, right?” She’s like, I love you guys! I’m like, that’s awesome.
Who have you been most starstruck by?
HOYING: We saw Ariana Grande at the Grammys and even I was starstruck. I couldn’t even go up to her.
GRASSI: Who did we just meet that I was freaking out about?
HOYING: Christina Perri asked us out for milkshakes. And they were good.
Last question—what does 2015 have in store? What are the big goals?
OLUSOLA: 2014’s been an amazing year, and it’s been setting up for ’15. ’15 is where I feel like we’re going to do most of our original material.
KAPLAN: World tour.
MALDONADO: Win Grammys.
HOYING: Grammys might be 2016. Maybe 2015? You know there’s a category in the Grammys now, a cappella arrangement or orchestral arrangement?
I’ll speak for the fans when I wager that that’s because of you.
HOYING: If we’re going to win one, it’s going to be in that category.
GRASSI: Is there any way we can be on every ballot?
HOYING: Yeah. We just have to…
GRASSI: Pull some strings.