NEW JERSEY STAR LEDGER

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Pentatonix talks growth, future before N.J. gigs with Kelly Clarkson

By Bobby Olivier

July 14, 2015

HOLMDEL — Avi Kaplan was just 21 when his group brought "Since U Been Gone" to a cappella's largest stage.

The quintet, named Pentatonix, had woven Kelly Clarkson's cathartic single with Cee Lo Green's spiteful "Forget You," and in March 2011 they delivered the skillfully harmonized mash-up to millions of viewers on NBC's "The Sing-Off."

A week later, they were crowned victors of the talent competition's third season, receiving $200,000 and a recording contract with Sony Music. And four years after their big win, the relentlessly talented vocal group has begun their largest tour to date -- opening for Clarkson herself -- and is set to rock PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel Tuesday night.

"We've been so excited for this, (Clarkson) is such an amazing performer and artist," says Kaplan, now 26, in a recent phone interview. "We want to see how she uses her stage, and works with her band and speaks to the crowd."

But vocally, the veteran pop star and fellow television champ may not be able to teach Pentatonix much -- their stellar brand of performance is singular to New Jersey's summer concert schedule.

Of course, the a cappella outfit uses no traditional instruments. Instead, beatboxer Kevin Olusola vocally provides drums and digital sounds, and Kaplan's clear, deep tone injects the melodic rhythm, as a bass guitar would. Bandmates Kirstie Maldonado, Scott Hoying and Mitch Grassi sing crisp harmonies and solos over the beat to produce fresh, buoyant renditions of famous pop, hip-hop and R&B tunes.

After "The Sing-Off," Pentatonix grew its brand on YouTube with razor-sharp medleys of hits from Beyonce, NSYNC and most recently Michael Jackson. A jumble of electro-pop hits from the French duo Daft Punk is the group's most popular clip -- 145 million views.

They wrapped a sold-out theater tour, which included a stop at Borgata in Atlantic City, in late March.

And this past winter, Pentatonix earned its greatest commercial success yet when their second holiday album, "That's Christmas To Me," peaked at No. 2 on Billboard and was certified platinum on Christmas Eve.

But Kaplan says if the troupe hopes to stay relevant, they must transition toward a focus on original music.

"It's extremely important, a cappella groups get so easily pigeonholed into essentially just being a cover band, and we want to be at the forefront to show it's its own art form and just a different way to have a band," he says. "Only we just use our voices."

The perpetuation of a cappella in pop culture, namely the cult following of the "Pitch Perfect" film series and its May sequel, will surely assist the group as they continue to write and record new music. Kaplan says they hope to release an original single and subsequently a full album later this year.

For the rest of the summer, they will continue to play short sets mainly focused on what they have proven they do extraordinary well. And just two dates, a new cover has been added to their repertoire -- Clarkson's "Heartbeat Song," which they perform with the songstress, during her set. In front of 15,000 fans per night, Pentatonix hope to convert to a cappella aficionados.

In "On My Way Home," a documentary cataloging the spring tour, Olusola sums up the group's newfound struggle.

"We won a competition where it was a cappella groups against a cappella groups, but now it's this small genre we do, competing against the world," he says.