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Pentatonix brings a capella to pop
Five -- that's the number of singers in the band called Pentatonix. But the more impressive numbers are these: more than two million albums sold in the U.S. alone and over 905 million views on their YouTube channel with more than 7.8 million subscribers. Not the kind of numbers that might have been expected for an a cappella group.
The Grammy-winning vocal quintet plays Shoreline Amphitheatre on Sunday, part of its current tour with Kelly Clarkson.
Pentatonix's youngest member, Mitch Grassi, who turned 23 in July, says, "It's been absolutely unreal. Kelly is the nicest person I've ever met, so considerate. Its been just totally laid back. Being the opening band, the pressure's off a little bit. We've been playing these amazing arenas, because of her, so that's been an upside, as well."
Arenas packed with pop fans are appreciating Pentatonix's music as the group expands how young people perceive vocal music.
Grassi, the group's tenor, says, "I feel like a cappella music is already kind of at the forefront of what younger teens are listening to right now. It's getting really, really popular. That's evident by the age groups that come and see our shows ... and Kelly's shows, as well.
"I think people are looking for something maybe a little more organic and a little more interesting, with a touch of humor. 'Pitch Perfect' pushed that along, as well, because that was such a smash hit. And we were in the second one, which was awesome."
The group has come a long way in a short time, from high school to appearing in the "Pitch Perfect" sequel.
Three of the members -- Grassi, Kirstie Maldonado and Scott Hoying -- were schoolmates in Arlington, Texas.
"We were all in extracurriculars together. We did choir and theater. And we just meshed really well. For some reason, we all sang together a lot and we learned each other's voices and how to blend with each other."
A local radio station held a competition to meet the cast of "Glee." "Our friends were really supportive. They were like, 'You should definitely try out.' That encouraged us. We didn't end up making it, but we've been doing all right since then," Grassi says, laughing.
The encouragement from those around them carried their enthusiasm into auditioning for NBC's competition series "The Sing-Off." That time, Pentatonix, named for the pentatonic scale, did make it. They were bolstered by new members Avi Kaplan and Kevin Olusolo.
For Grassi, 2011's "Sing-Off" was both fun and nerve-wracking. "For me, personally, it was my first time of being out of my home state. So it was pretty scary. I hadn't even been to college. It was right out of high school. But the good thing about 'The Sing-Off' was that it wasn't extremely competitive, because there was such a family dynamic amongst the groups. Everybody supported each other. So it was a really memorable experience.
"We were sort of a pop/dance/remix a cappella group. That was our niche on the show. But after winning the show, we realized that we had something really special. We wanted to take it to the next level and become a respectable, prolific band that actually made music, aside from just shock value and novelty. We wanted to become a real, working musical entity."
They had a wide spectrum of influences from which to draw, including pop, hip-hop, electronic and R&B. "We all have vastly different tastes in music. So that ends up being a plus."
They develop unique arrangements, imaginatively covering tunes associated with such artists as Lady Gaga, Gotye, Lorde, Daft Punk, Kanye West and even Ray Charles.
Grassi says of the arranging process, "It really depends on the task at hand, but usually, if it's for the album, we'll sit down with one of our producers and arrangers, whose name is Ben Bram. He's been with us from the beginning. We'll sit with him, cut a vibe, throw out ideas and he'll put it in his computer. But if it's just the five of us, we sit in a circle and it's a collaborative effort. We just throw out ideas and start with Avi [bass] and Kevin [beatboxer] as the foundation and riff over that and see if anything comes of it."
The group didn't take for granted that their "Sing-Off" success would ensure stardom. "We were naive. We didn't really know how the path was going to turn out. And there was a lot of rejection. A lot of people were like, 'This is absolutely ridiculous. There's no way you can make it as a pop group.' But I think we've done really well for ourselves. We're still pushing to be the best that we can be."
After being dropped by Epic Records, Pentatonix became a YouTube sensation, their colorful videos going viral. Their career soared.
"We already had a leg up, because we had publicity from 'The Sing-Off.' But I think it was just a really eye-catching niche market, because nobody was really doing that a cappella thing at the time. We did the novelty thing, to garner attention, and it worked, it really did. Our strongest following is because of YouTube. So we're so thankful for that. But it's hard, because we want to grow away from being just a YouTube band. But YouTube is our home base. It's where we get all of our publicity, honestly."
Marielle Wakim, on Huffington Post, "described Pentatonix as, "a formidable musical force, creating full, interesting arrangements that sound as good (and, on occasion, better) than the songs they're covering."
Signed to RCA, Pentatonix has been selling albums and EPs by the ton, even without radio support. Their "That's Christmas to Me" was the fourth best-selling album of 2014.
Gazing into his crystal ball, Grassi says, "I see us maturing musically, playing bigger venues and maybe doing some experimentation musically. It's pretty limitless. That's the beauty of a cappella.
"We're gearing more toward original songs now, as we work on our upcoming album. But our fan base loves the covers. And we love doing them, so we definitely don't want to stop."
As far as what the audience takes away from a Pentatonix concert, Grassi says, "I feel like the reason we do what we do is so we can inspire others. If not even that, then to just give them an escape and raise their spirits a little bit."
Grassi says, "It's been super rewarding, reaching so many different types of people, inspiring musicians, a cappella enthusiasts and just growing our business.
"It's challenging to be competing in this current pop market, because nobody's expecting an a cappella group to be on the radio. But we're still pushing for that. We're in good spirits."