MINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE

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Pentatonix's beatboxer talks about touring with Kelly Clarkson


Pentatonix aims to take a cappella to new heights – namely, sports arenas with Kelly Clarkson.
By Jon Bream Star Tribune JULY 25, 2015 — 4:18PM

Television, YouTube, small theaters — even the silver screen. That’s where fans are accustomed to experiencing Pentatonix.

Are they ready for the Grammy-winning a cappella quintet to perform in giant sports arenas?

“It’s definitely a different feel,” said Pentatonix beatboxer Kevin Olusola, whose group will open for Kelly Clarkson on Aug. 4 at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. “We’re getting used to it. It’s a different sound system, and a different way of playing. This is going to be our future.”

The biggest challenge is getting adjusted to the acoustics, which are very different from theaters.

“With an arena, it sounds so big and full sometimes it can obstruct the way we sing because we’re hearing so much slapback and things like that,” he said. “So we have to be very, very attentive when we’re singing. We’re figuring it out.”

After headlining their own tours in theaters and playing themselves in the recent a cappella movie “Pitch Perfect 2,” Pentatonix is ready to graduate to these bigger venues.

“We want to gain new fans,” said Olusola, 26. “There are a lot of people who haven’t heard about us. We hope a lot of Kelly’s fans will also become our fans.”

Pentatonix even sings each night with Clarkson, the first “American Idol” champ turned pop star.

The arena tour is a prelude to the next big step for Pentatonix: an album of original material.

“We don’t have a specific [release] date,” Olusola said. “We’ve been working on it all year, with a lot of different producers while on tour. We’re working with a lot of new people, which is an interesting process, but I think we’re starting to get the hang of writing our own material.”

Meanwhile, the members of Pentatonix have been doing what they’ve always done — imaginative covers of well-known songs, usually delivered on YouTube. The group released a Michael Jackson medley in June, on the anniversary of his death.

“Of the members of the band, I’m the biggest Michael Jackson fan,” Olusola said. “I made an outline before we decided to arrange it. It took me a while because I wanted to make sure that I didn’t miss anything. I even talked to other Michael Jackson fans.”

Debt to YouTube

With the tour, Olusola doesn’t spend as much time looking at YouTube as he used to, but he clearly owes his Pentatonix career to the website — that’s where the group discovered him.

Pentatonix emerged when three suburban Dallas high schoolers entered a contest to meet the cast of “Glee.” They didn’t win, but Kirstie Maldonado, Mitch Grassi and Scott Hoying cemented a musical friendship.

When Hoying went off to study music at the University of Southern California, he heard about NBC’s “The Sing-Off” a cappella competition and contacted his two friends. They needed four members to enter. They recruited bass vocalist Avi Kaplan through some friends and then discovered Olusola on a YouTube video of him beatboxing and playing cello at the same time.

The quintet met the day before auditions for “The Sing-Off” — and won the show’s third season in 2011.

More than a beatboxer

Olusola, who also plays saxophone and piano, started as a music major at Yale but switched to East Asian studies after a short trip to China. He has studied at Berklee School of Music, finished as runner-up in a Yo-Yo Ma cello competition and worked with the likes of Quincy Jones and KRS-One.

Since winning “The Sing-Off,” the Los Angeles-based Pentatonix has released three albums and a few EPs featuring covers of such hits as “Royals” and “Can’t Hold Us.” The group won a Grammy this year for best arrangement, instrumental or a cappella, for its medley “Daft Punk.”

Given Olusola’s success, is there any chance that Yale will offer a course in beatboxing?

“I wish,” he said. “That would be fun. It’s more of an academic institution, I guess.”

Maybe he could help teach it — via YouTube.