They're one of the biggest a cappella groups in the US, after winning TV singing competition The Sing Off in 2011 - but it hasn't all been smooth sailing for Pentatonix. We recently chatted to Scott Hoying and Mitch Grassi from the Texas-formed five-piece about making their own luck when they were dropped from their record label, their Daft Punk megamix that has clocked up 103 million views and counting, and their new Christmas album, 'That's Christmas to Me'.
You guys have been together for three years now – can you explain how you first formed?
Scott: It happened really organically. Three of us grew up together, so we've been best friends our whole lives. Then when I went to USC, I became obsessed with a capella; I was a total choir nerd. I wanted to try out for The Sing Off with my two friends, Kirstie and Mitch, but you have to have at least five people. So we decided to add a bass and beatboxer. We met Avi through a mutual friend, and we found our beatboxer Kevin on YouTube. The only day we had to rehearse was the day before the audition, and that's when we all met for the first time. From that moment on, it's just been crazy.
Individually speaking, when did you all first start singing and when did you realise that harmony groups were what you wanted to do?
Mitch: I think we all had our individual ambitions and dreams, but we all had been studying music pretty much all our lives. I know Scott started really young, I started really young; Kirstie and I started doing musical theatre when we were about 9 or 10. Kevin had been studying classical music since he was really young, and Avi was in choirs since about 14. So we all really loved music, but the a cappella thing wasn't really a main thing for any of us. When Scott went to college, he was in an a cappella group and that's when he started to get into it. I think the way we do a cappella is really unique – and I think that's why people gravitate towards our music: it's not just cheesy collegiate a cappella. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but…
Scott: I think we just fell in love with it. We went on the show as a hobby. We thought 'We're all friends, it'll be a really fun thing to do to be on TV together', and when we first sang together for the first time, it was like 'Whoah. This is something special, this is something very unique, and we should really run with it.' And now we're all really in love with it. It's been so much fun.
What acts and bands would have been the biggest influence on Penatatonix, collectively speaking?
Scott: What's so cool about our band is that every single person has drastically different taste – but a lot of it is harmony-based. Mitch loves tons of harmonies, I was always a big r&b guy; Avi loves choral music and Kevin loves classical music, so he's really big into counterpoint and technical things. Kristie loves singer-songwriters. It's cool that we all have different taste in songwriters, and we pull from each genre to help contribute to our overall sound.
Most people would be a little unfairly dismissive of groups who took part in a reality TV singing contest, but you guys have managed to build a successful career on your win on The Sing Off.
Scott: I think we dealt with all of the negative aspects of being on a reality show really quickly. Right after you're done with it, you fall off the face of the earth – which is why we started a YouTube channel. We thought 'People are gonna forget about us really fast' and our label had dropped us, so we thought 'OK, I guess we're on our own – let's start a YouTube channel.' And that's when it really took off.
The channel has done amazingly well - 6.7 million subscribers, 669 MILLION views of your videos - that's insane. It seemed that your Daft Punk medley really send you skyrocketing - were you expecting that video to do so well?
Scott: Not that one, no. (laughs)
Mitch: Definitely not as big as it is now. We had high hopes, obviously, but the budget for that video was really small and we did it in Avi's apartment, actually.
Scott: The fact that it turned out so great was awesome.
You're well established in the US at this point, but does having that online fan base make it less daunting to go and try to crack a new market like the UK and Ireland?
Scott: Yeah, absolutely. I remember going to Europe for the first time, we were almost dreading it because we were so scared that no one would come (laughs). They didn't show The Sing Off there, we didn't know if people watched our videos over there… so we did all of these really small venues and they all sold out and the reaction was crazy. So now we feel a little more comfortable going overseas, because YouTube is so universal.
You've covered songs from every different genre, from pop to rock to reggae to classical – what's the most challenging genre or type of song to arrange for five different voices?
Mitch: I would say maybe rock is pretty challenging – and even though we do it pretty often, dance music is pretty hard. It's such a wall of sound, you have to make it so loud and fill it out, so when you only have five voices, it can be pretty challenging.
What about original material – do any of you write?
Scott: We have a handful of original music and we're planning on writing more. This next album that we're going to do is primarily original, so we're starting to work with writers and write on our own to kind of create our own sound.
The new album is a Christmas album – what's your favourite song?
Mitch: I think my original is Sugar Plum Fairy, that got me pretty excited. I usually like darker music anyway, so that's my favourite.
Scott: The one I always go back to first is Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. It's that or Mary Did You Know, but whenever I want to listen to a Christmas song and get into the spirit, I listen to Hark!. Our version is like a classic version that gets a little crazy, and it's always enjoyable to sing.
What are your favourite Christmas memories as kids?
Mitch: Oh my god! I just remembered something. My sister and I would always do a Christmas Variety Show with my parents when we were younger (laughs). We'd sing along to current pop tunes and Christmas songs. That's one of my favourite Christmas memories.
So you were destined to make this album, then…
Mitch: Yeah (laughs).
Scott: When he goes home for Christmas, he's gotta act it out first. (laughs)
Touring with no instruments except your voices must make the process a lot more enjoyable… no long soundchecks, etc...
Scott: Yeah, we love touring. It can obviously get exhausting, like anything does; just being on the road for so long, and being away from your friends and family. But it's the most unbelievable experience to just sing, and meet people, and have a good time in each city. To get to travel the world is completely a surreal thing, and we love it so much. We're excited for next year's tour.
What are the band most inclined to argue about on tour?
Scott: (laughs) Honestly, it's always just arranging songs. We always have to arrange on tour, and write on tour – so whenever we have to double up on work – do shows and write and arrange before and after them – usually we're a little more tired and irritable. So the creative decisions can sometimes be a little tense (laughs). But it's kind of insane how peaceful our group is – there's never an intense argument, like you'd see on reality shows.
Well, that's disappointing. What's on the Pentatonix rider?
Mitch: Well, the funny thing is that up until like two years ago, we had like, cheeses and candy and really unhealthy stuff – but we've learned that eating healthy is obviously very good for you, but it also helps your voice as well. So we have a ton of water, no dairy products, lemon, tea, honey… everything that we can do to keep ourselves as healthy as possible.
Scott: Honestly, the weirdest thing we have on our rider is usually two rotisserie chickens. That's about the most Mariah Carey thing we ask for (laughs). It tastes so good and it never gets old.
Can we plan to see you in Ireland anytime soon?
Scott: We haven't confirmed our European schedule yet, but we definitely plan on coming to Ireland. Dublin was our favourite show of the European tour last year, and it's where we finished the tour, actually – so we can't wait to get back there.