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The evolution of Pentatonix

Pentatonix “On My Way Home” tour
March 29
Verizon Theatre at Grand Prairie
Sold out

By Robert Philpot
Posted 6:41pm on Wednesday, Feb. 04, 2015
The song begins with three notes of window-rattling bass, but they’re not coming from a guitar. They’re emanating from deep within Kevin Olusola, one of the instruments of Pentatonix.

Next on the video — a cover of Ariana Grande’s Problem — Kirstie Maldonado and Mitch Grassi bring in the sweet high notes. And they’re joined by Scott Hoying, the smooth baritone, their childhood friend from Arlington who stands almost a head taller than them.

Avi Kaplan’s bass vocal adds a fifth part to the harmony, and as the song unfurls amid a dizzying vocabulary of clicks, beats, bumps, hand claps and whispers, the sound is electric. Infectious. And completely devoid of anything but the five voices of Pentatonix.

The a cappella group, started by three Arlington Martin High School friends, and launched by a reality TV show, has rewritten the rules of popular music.

With little or no radio airplay, Pentatonix has ridden a wave of social media shares and YouTube subscriptions to the brink of a Grammy. The group is nominated this weekend in the best arrangement, instrumental or a cappella category for “Daft Punk,” its medley of songs by the techno-pop group. At this writing, YouTube has logged more than 116 million views for the near-surreal video, in which each member flashes a pair of ethereal electric-blue eyes.

But the Grammy nod is simply the icing on a cake that continues to add layer after unlikely layer.

• Pentatonix’s Christmas album, That’s Christmas to Me, was the fourth-bestselling album of 2014, behind albums by Taylor Swift and Beyonce. It was the highest-charting Christmas album in 50 years.

• The quintet is slated to appear in Pitch Perfect 2, the sequel to the 2012 hit about an all-female a cappella group, due for release in May.

• Pentatonix’s YouTube channel is approaching 7.5 million subscribers. For comparison, Beyonce’s YouTube channel has close to 1.4 million subscribers.

• On Feb. 15, Pentatonix will begin its “On My Way Home Tour,” so named because the U.S. leg concludes March 29 at Verizon Theater in Grand Prairie. All but one date, including the Grand Prairie show, are sold out.

• The group recently performed on The Today Show, in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, on Christmas in Rockefeller Center, at the Billboard Hollywood Party on Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve 2015, and at the Kennedy Center Honors, where they performed That Thing You Do as part of a tribute to Tom Hanks. Hanks wrote them a thank-you letter, which began: “When you appeared onstage … my wife [actress Rita Wilson], seated behind me, shouted out, ‘My god! Pentatonix!’ ”

After winning Season 3 of NBC’s a cappella competition The Sing-Off in late 2011, Pentatonix could have easily slipped into the oblivion that swallows up many winners of reality-TV shows. But their magical blend of voices, contemporary sound and fresh-faced enthusiasm proved undeniable.

“People are looking for something that’s real,” says Mike Grassi, Mitch’s proud father. “There’s so much Autotune in the world, and so many ways to produce and overproduce music that people are really kind of gravitating to them, because it’s just them.

“It’s good music. When you go to their concerts, there’s little kids all the way up to grandmas and grandpas.”

Rick Hoying, Scott’s father, says he knew practically from the moment the group was formed that there was something special there.

“That blend of the voices was unbelievable,” he says. “All of them were so talented; they were right on key on every note, every time. It was just magical.”

What has happened since, it’s fair to say, has been surreal.

“We all dreamed of [this], but it’s just crazy that it’s all happening,” Scott Hoying said in a rushed phone interview with the Arlington-bred members of the group in December (they were at an airport, headed overseas for a brief European tour). “Every day we have a moment where we can’t believe that this is real.”

We are young

As schoolmates growing up in Arlington, the trio weren’t the cool kids, but they weren’t the nerdy social pariahs of Glee, either. Hoying, now 23, was more outgoing, but Grassi and Maldonado, both 22, were shy, says B.J. Cleveland, former artistic director of Theatre Arlington, who worked with the latter two.

“These were incredibly shy kids,” says Cleveland, who is now a teacher/actor at Dallas Children’s Theater. “Coming from non-theater backgrounds and families. They were just kind of trying to find themselves, and I think through music and theater, they really moved forward and developed the personality and presence that propelled them to where they are right now.”

They started finding themselves — and earning notice on their own — as early as their pre-teens. Grassi was singled out for his take on Tiny Tim in a 2001 production of Scrooge at Arlington’s Creative Arts Theatre & School. It was there that he met Hoying, who earned praise for his performance as Ben Gunn in a 2002 production of Treasure Island at CATS. Maldonado got kudos in a 2004 review of The Music Man at Theatre Arlington, which is where she and Grassi met.

“I knew I wanted to be a singer when I was around 6 or 7 years old, because my sister sang all the time, and I started emulating her singing,” Hoying says. “I auditioned for the [Johnnie High] Country Music Revue and I totally fell in love with performing and doing community theater.”

Rick Hoying recalls Scott’s interest starting even earlier.

“I took him to a concert at Caravan of Dreams in downtown Fort Worth, a little two-man band called Trout Fishing in America,” Hoying recalls. “They did a lot of children’s music, very catchy, brilliant lyrics. … It was just such a fun night, and when we left the venue, Scott said, ‘That’s what I want to do when I grow up!’ He was 4 years old.”

Rick’s wife, Connie, enrolled Scott in a group called TKO Tots; Scott’s older sister was also a singer and was part of TKO Kids. The group gave him some stage experience, and he went on to join Johnnie High’s Country Music Revue, and began doing community theater at Arlington’s Creative Arts Theatre & School and at Theatre Arlington. At CATS, he performed with Caroline Cradick, daughter of the late DFW radio personality Kidd Kraddick.

Kraddick became one of his earliest champions.

In a 2011 story on Pentatonix, Kraddick told the Star-Telegram that it was obvious to him years ago that Hoying was special.

“We’ve been friends for well over a decade, and it’s been fun helping him and watching him become so accomplished as a singer and musician,” Kraddick said then. “He’s one of the few people I’ve mentored over the years that I truly thought had a great chance to make a living at this.”

“[Kraddick] was a huge influence in my life,” Scott Hoying says. “He really believed in me. He always brought me on the show. I won a lot of contests when I was younger, like 14 or 15. He was always trying to work with me, write with me. He let me write the songs for his charity.

“He was an amazing, amazing man who really believed in people and believed in his projects. I was completely devastated [when he died].”

For Mitch Grassi, who can still be somewhat shy in interviews, it was singing that brought him out of his shell as a kid.

When his parents settled in to watch him in a CATS production called America, they didn’t know exactly what to expect .

They were stunned.

“It was a patriotic thing, and at the end, he sang America; he did a solo,” Mike Grassi says. “His mother and I were blown away. We were in tears.

“We had no idea that he could sing like that, because around the house, he wouldn’t sing for us. We’d hear him singing sometimes in his room, but he would never come out and sing for us when he was very young. When we saw him do that, and heard that, it just blew us away.”

As for Maldonado’s early spark, her mother says she spotted Kirstie singing into a microphone when she was 2. “She always loved to sing,” Angelica Maldonado says via email. “I began to take her seriously when the wedding music coordinator at my church surprised me with Kirstie singing at my wedding. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her!”

Kirstie and Scott met through the Martin High choir, which wasn’t just any choir program. “When you have 500 people in a choir program, it looks like its own entity,” Hoying says.

In 2009, the trio were among a dozen Martin students to earn a place in the Texas All-State Choir, one of the most difficult state choirs to get into.

By then, they’d all become close friends, and made a lo-fi YouTube cover of Lady Gaga’sTelephone for a “Kings of Gleeon” competition concocted by Kraddick. The voices and elaborate harmonies are already evident, with Grassi’s soaring tenor and Maldonado’s sassy R&B-inflected voice trading leads while all three bounce around background vocals so rapidly you wonder how they spent three minutes without taking a breath. The choreography is charmingly rudimentary, the production values — well, it looks like it was shot in someone’s suburban rec room.

But it was a hint of what was to come.

“[The parents] really hoped that the three of them would do something together,” Mike Grassi says. “When they did that Telephone video, all the parents were trying to think of a way that they could really get out there. We just kind of knew, once that started, that something special was there.”

The evolution of Pentatonix

After graduating from Martin High, Hoying and Maldonado went off to college — he at the University of Southern California, she at the University of Oklahoma. Grassi was still in high school.

While pursuing a degree in popular music at USC, Hoying joined a campus a cappella group called SoCal VoCals, where he met a former member named Ben Bram, who was the vocal arranger for The Sing-Off.

Bram told Hoying he should audition for the show. Hoying was barely familiar with it, but he’d had experience with reality TV. In 2004, when he was a 12-year-old sixth-grader at Moore Elementary School, he appeared on CBS’ short-lived update of Star Search, singing Billy Gilman’s There’s a Hero. He received a standing ovation from the studio audience, but fell just short of advancing on the show.

Hoying kept at it. He auditioned for American Idol three times without making the cut. He also auditioned for America’s Got Talent, and missed there, too. But his spirit wasn’t dampened.

“He was like, ‘Well, here I am in Southern California and I’ve got a chance to try out for this one,’ ” Rick Hoying says. “ ‘I’ve done it before, and I can do it again.’ ”

Hoying wanted Grassi and Maldonado to be part of his group, but there was a problem: The minimum group size on The Sing-Off was five. Bram knew Avi Kaplan, which made finding a bass singer easy. He suggested to Hoying that the group also find a beatboxer.

“They looked up ‘beatboxer’ on YouTube and they found Kevin’s YouTube video,” Rick Hoying says. “I don’t know how exactly they found his number, but they called him up and talked him into flying out to L.A. to try out with them.”

Olusola was in Connecticut at the time. Scott called his father as soon as he found him.

“He said, ‘We’ve got this guy, he’s going to be a great addition to the group,’ ” Rick Hoying says. “I’d already been through all those rejections — American Idol and everything. I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah — what do you want from me?’ And he said, ‘Well, I want you to buy his plane ticket.’ ”

Rick Hoying said no, but Scott and Bram scraped together the cash to pay for Olusola’s trip. Bram still works with the quintet and in fact shares the nomination with them.

“I consider Ben the father of Pentatonix,” Rick Hoying says. “He’s the one who made it all happen.”

He wasn’t the only parent to hesitate. Angelica Maldonado had reservations about Kirstie’s studies at OU, and Mike Grassi balked at having to move Mitch to L.A. One thing changed his mind.

“I’d never heard of [ The Sing-Off],” Mike says, adding that he asked Mitch how he found out about it. “He said, ‘Scott contacted me about this, and he wants me and a Kirstie to do this.’ And I said, ‘Oh. OK. Go ahead.’ I shudder sometimes to think that I may not have ever let him to do this.”

The quintet rehearsed for the first time the night before the audition, and clicked almost immediately. The idea was to take the a cappella sound beyond a barbershop quartet/glee-club feel and give it a modern spin. Olusola and Kaplan’s rhythm section were key to that, but it wasn’t just their bass-and-drums effects that set Pentatonix apart — this was a group that could emulate techno, an electronic genre, without using instruments.

Still, it took a few episodes of the show before they really took off. The fifth episode of their season had a “Guilty Pleasures” theme, but during rehearsal, the group felt that they were taking their version of Cher’s Believe too seriously. So they made a late switch to the Buggles’Video Killed the Radio Star, best-known as the first song ever played on MTV.

With a strong lead vocal by Hoying, dead-on close harmonies by Maldonado and Grassi, a chugging rhythm “track” by Olusola and Kaplan, and humorously robotic choreography reminiscent of something Devo or Kraftwerk might have done, Radio Star became the group’s turning point on the show.

“I think you guys are sent back from the future to save a cappella and do it in a futuristic way,” said Boyz II Men’s Shawn Stockman, one of the show’s judges. “I think this ’80s type of electromagnetic, synth-saturated space-age music is right up your guys’ alley.”

Other strong performances followed, and in the series finale, Pentatonix — considered the underdog at the beginning because of the group’s small size and the members’ youth — was declared the winner.

The trick was keeping the momentum going afterward.

Edge of glory

The Sing-Off did connect the group with a major label, Sony, which assigned them to subsidiary Epic. Epic didn’t promote the group that well — imagine the challenge of a record company trying to market an a cappella group, known mostly for their elaborate covers of other artists’ songs. So they were moved to another, smaller Sony division, Madison Gate. But the Sony deal did hook them up with their manager, Jonathan Kalter, and their publicist, Ken Phillips.

Kalter had a reputation for knowing how to use social media for promotion. He persuaded the group to promote itself via Facebook, Twitter and other social media. They proved to be quick studies, often teasing the videos a day or two before their appearance on YouTube.

The group doesn’t talk about having a leader, but Scott Hoying does seem to be the one who gets things going.

“I think I had this drive all along, honestly, and I got it from my parents,” Scott says. “They were always reaffirming me all the time, that I was really talented and I could make it if I really went for it. I had such love for it, and they just never ever, even for a second, let me get distracted.”

“He kind of knows what the pulse is of the audience,” Rick Hoying adds later. “He kind of plows forward with it if he has to to get it done. He’s backed off several times on songs that he wanted to do but nobody else did, but most of the time, he seems to get his way.

“But he is a humble leader, and he lives by the philosophy that it’s amazing what you can achieve if you don’t worry about who gets the credit.”

And it was Scott’s drive that led them to a collaboration that would change their fortunes, according to Rick Hoying. Scott hooked up with his friend, fellow singer Peter Hollens; Hollens knew a couple of film producers who worked under the name FifthGen Films, and Scott solicited them to put together more professional-looking videos.. That led to the Grammy-nominated “Daft Punk” video, which was made for about $400.

Video thrilled the reality-show stars

Pentatonix didn’t just grow up in the YouTube era. It mastered the art of the viral video.

In a way, it had to. Though the group’s music is an aural phenomenon, it almost has to be seen to be believed. It sounds like a full band — can these sounds actually be emanating from mere humans?

In the videos, the group often comes together in what has been a familiar pose for Pentatonix fans: the towering, blond-headed Hoying at rear center, flanked by Kaplan and Olusola, with the shorter Maldonado and Grassi out front.

In the video for Problem, Maldonado, lips made up in a burgundy red, flashes flirtatious smiles; Kaplan, striking in long hair and beard, varies between I’m-your-buddy affability and soap-opera villain smoldering. Grassi, a goatee not quite hiding his stature as youngest member of the group, slides into a rap as Olusola runs through his human beatbox repertoire.

But that’s just one video: They can be reverential, as in the Mary Did You Know clip; cinematic, as in their video cover of Imagine Dragons’ Radioactive, which has a post-apocalyptic feel (and in this case, musical accompaniment, by Olusola on cello and guest Lindsey Stirling on violin); or just plain weird, as in another video with Stirling, Papaoutai, which has the group as toys under a little boy’s spell.

At the end of most of their videos, the group greets its fans, and tells viewers not to forget to subscribe to their YouTube channel. Viewers have listened: The channel might pass the 7.5-million subscriber mark by the time you read this.

“The first two winners on The Sing-Off didn’t really do anything like that at all,” Mike Grassi says. “They just sort of withered on the vine. They didn’t use social media to connect with people. Pentatonix has a constant presence on all those [platforms] and that’s really helped to get their message out.”

Scott Hoying says he thinks the group could have succeeded without YouTube, but not to the extent that is has thus far.

“It just depends on the situation,” he says. “We were on a television show, [and] a reality show created way more stars back then, pre-YouTube. We maybe would’ve had a shot. But definitely without YouTube in this day and age, we would not be as big as we are.”

Pentatonix is working on its latest studio album, and after the “On My Way Home” tour comes home (or close to home) in Grand Prairie, they’ll leave home again — for a month of dates in Europe. No dates have been announced after May 6, but the group tours almost relentlessly, so it’s likely that more dates will be added. And the fan base will continue to grow.

“I feel like because of our story, and because of our backgrounds, [we’re] very relatable,” Kirstie Maldonado says. “All the people we meet on tour, I feel like we would’ve met them in choir camp or theater camp. They’re all easy to get along with, and we always bond over all the same things.

“I think that’s part of our charm, that the three of us grew up together and have been best friends. I feel like we’re all geeky and nerdy choir kids.”