Interview: Pat Grossi of Active Child

"I happen to work in this realm where things come out with this hymnal quality."

Pat Grossi aka Active Chlld
Andy Sheppard/Contributor/Redferns/Getty Images

Pat Grossi is a 28-year-old from Los Angeles who records as Active Child. Grossi grew up a childhood chorister, and the music he makes shows he's still a choirboy at heart. Grossi sings in a keening, soaring falsetto whilst building glittering cathedrals of sound from harp, synths, drum-pads, washes of reverb, and creepy vocal effects. It's canonical music, but it's just as influenced by the stadium new-wave of Tears For Fears and the vocal-distorting electro-pop perversions of The Knife. In 2010, Grossi released his debut EP, Curtis Lane. A year later, he followed it up with his first-ever album, the incredibly impressive You Are All I See.

Interview: 29 July 2011

What were your beginnings in sound?
"I started singing in the Philadelphia Boy's Choir when I was nine years old. That's my first experience with any musical expression at all. I convinced my mom to drive me into Philadelphia to audition for the choir, so it was something that I pursued. I was singing in my school choir, and the director pulled me aside and said I could audition for this bigger, more professional choir. Having someone tell me I could do something like that really inspired me to pursue it. It ended up being a real positive thing, I got to travel to Europe and Africa and Australia as a kid. It really opened my eyes to the world. And, I think it also had a real lasting effect on my musical style, even now."

Had you always wanted to make music inspired by your time as boyhood chorister?
"I never sat down and thought about that concept, that I wanted to make choral music with a pop sound. It kind of just came out. It was really something that was etched into my brain early on, and then when I sat down to create something new it came out again. Once things started getting rolling, I wanted to somehow thread the needle between pop music, that radio music that we all sing to, and then a darker, more experimental style. The [Curtis Lane] EP was, for me, a lot more an exploration of making music. The songs are a little more accessible, to me. For this album, I was interested in creating something with a little more depth and sophistication to it."

How did you find your work perceived —or, perhaps, misperceived— by the world?
"In general, people were really picking up on what I was doing. There wasn't some strong conceptual idea that people needed to 'get,' so the EP was just songs. I'm more intrigued with how people are going to pick apart the new record, how they're going to interpret the new songs. I find that really fascinating."

Is the opening song on You Are All I See, the title track, like your invitation into the world of the record? A kind of love song to the listener?
"Absolutely. The placement of that song was very intentional. It was the first song I wrote for the album, and it felt, in a lot of ways, like a re-introduction to me, as a musician. It has this long, empty intro of just delayed harps; it felt like this refresher to who I am, and what I'm doing; all those same elements that were on the previous EP."

When did you start playing the harp?
"I started playing the harp about 2003 or so. It was always an instrument that intrigued me. I had a friend whose mom was a harpist, and he'd grown up taking lessons from her. And one day he was returning a viola he had rented to a music shop, and I kind of tagged along. And, there, they had a whole showroom of harps. And the woman said to me: 'hey, if you want a harp, it's 30 bucks a month, and you can rent to own.' And without even thinking about it, I signed the piece of paper, and walked out with a harp. After that, I took a few lessons from the harp shop, and ended up owning that harp. And I sold it, upgraded to another one. Since then I've always just been playing it. There wasn't any one point where I knew it would work in the music, I've just always been adding little bits of harp where I thought it was appropriate. And the album has more harp than I've ever used before."

In terms of traditional pop-music set-ups, the component parts you use are unusual. Did you find it, at any point, difficult integrating them, making these elements work together?
"No. I've never been at a point where I've been trying to force things. If I've ever been playing a song and the harp just didn't fit, I just didn't put harp in it. If my voice didn't match a particular kind of keyboard sound, I just wouldn't use that sound. I just have waited for those moments when things could come together; where I could combine that harp, and some synths, and some arpeggiators, and some drum samples. When I can get all those different elements to work together, that's when I think I'm at my best."

What qualities united the songs on the LP?
"After I'd written 15 or 20 demos for the album, the ones that interested me the most were, surprisingly, a lot slower. Slower than I usually write, which is pretty slow to begin with. Slower, and darker, and a little bit eerier. I'm not sure what led to me doing things a little bit darker. It was perhaps me trying to not get too cutesy with it, too pretty. To try and give it a little more depth, by using pitched vocals and minor keys on the harp. I naturally tend to fall into a lot of G-major scales, so I was trying to flip more to F#-minor. Just to try and get a bit more creepy-beautiful, or something."

Do you think you succeeded in making a creepy record?
"[laughs] There are definitely sections where I feel like I totally nailed what I was trying to go for. The end section of 'Way too Fast,' this really long outro, there's a lot of strange pitched vocals and ramblings on different synths. In 'Johnny Belinda,' there's lots of different chimes and string samples that evoke this ghostly, cathedral-like feeling that I definitely was hoping for."

Do you feel as if your music has canonical qualities?
"I think there definitely is. It's something that I've embraced, because I happen to work within this realm where things come out with this hymnal quality to them. The chord-progressions aren't really changing that much, it's more about creating this flow, this forward-momentum that propels things ahead. You're not going to a different place, you're moving down a path, towards something."

Are you religious yourself?
"I don't really adhere to any religion at all. But I would like to think of myself as spiritual, in a certain way. I'm definitely superstitious, if that counts for anything. Weird things, like omens; I'm definitely a believer in picking up a penny, feeling that rush of optimism and luck."

Has superstition influenced your music before?
"It's definitely had an effect on some of the lyrics. 'High Priestess' is, lyrically, very focused on prayer and superstition and mysticism. That song is me reflecting on things that have happened, and asking for a sign; some sort of mystical omen to come along that will help me in this situation that I’ve put myself in. It definitely seeps into some of the storylines I write about."

How did you go, after the release of the EP, turning a recording project into a live band?
"That’s something I'm still working on. Like, literally, right now. I've gone through and deconstructed every track on the album, just working out which parts are the ones I feel are most important to conveying the songs live. I've got a drummer now who can trigger a lot of the drum samples and claps and toms. I've got a vocal sampler so I can live sample a lot of the vocal quirks and chops, and create these kind of washes. I'm playing harp a lot, and keyboards as well. And I have another band-mate who switches between bass, guitar, and keyboard. Hopefully we can get to the point where every element of the song is something we can play before your eyes, but we’re not there yet."

So there was no live influence on You Are All I See?
“Initially, when I set out making the record, I had this constant thought in the back of my mind: 'wait, how am I going to play this live?' Then I realised that thinking that, even for a second, was very limiting, and that this anxiety was something I just had to block it out of my mind. My only focus had to be on making every song as interesting and powerful as it could be."