Pat Grossi, the multi-instrumentalist behind Active Child, is not one to hide in a crowd. Super tall with burnt red hair, the LA-based musician plays the harp—not exactly the West Coast cool instrument du jour—and mixes choirboy vocals (he sang in the Philadelphia Boys Choir as a kid) with James Blake-esque, post-dub step arrangements. He grew up with Dre, Eminem, “and random people like Peanut Putter Wolf” dropping by to say hello (dad worked for rap label Priority Records), and while the now seminal ‘90s gangster rap of Priority is not an obvious reference for his angelic, strangely-distorted bedroom pop, it’s certainly a base in his musical lexicon.
Tonight, Grossi will play at the Williamsburg Hall of Music with a string quartet and eight piece choir. He’s coming off the release of his new EP Rapor (Vagrant Records)—a sweeping, newly stylized electro pop compilation with appearances from Ellie Goulding and up-and-comer Mikky Ekko—after many months on the road with M83.
We caught up with the singer to discuss the new music, growing up with gangster rap, and why his sound just might be getting more pop—and more religious.
You’re in LA?
I’m in Pasadena, yeah, a little bit outside of LA.
When did you start making music as Active Child?
For me, it really started when I was living in Denver about five-six years ago. I had gone to school in Boulder and actually I wanted to study music, but ended up studying art. But I was just surrounded by a lot of creative people and just having those people around me just kind of inspired me to start making music on my own. Music for me really started when I was young, when I was nine years at a choir in Philadelphia. I performed a lot with them and traveled with them, down to New Orleans and stuff. For the first time, I was being a performer, learning about beautiful composition, learning how to use my voice. More than anything, that’s kind of influenced my style now – it’s a combination of that period and a little bit later in life when I was in Denver and when I moved back to LA.
What was the first music that you made like? Was it really similar to early Active Child releases?
It was similar; it was less electronic and much more organic sounds and live drumming. Me playing guitar or piano and stuff like that. It was less of a mess of like electronic and harp and it was more just straight up organic sounds, like live sounds. But it was also very strange like song structure. There wasn’t really a format. I was just kind of rambling vocally. I was just learning how to create a song – all this stuff. But it’s funny; I look back on that stuff and sometimes it’s a lot more interesting because I was so unlimited and nothing held me back. I wasn’t doing anything but having fun and making sound. Sometimes, there are little nuggets of stuff that you never would have ever made now because your experience has changed you so much.
You started moving in a more electronic direction— was it a natural progression?
I think it was the music I was listening to. I was listening to a lot of Animal Collective and kind of these experimental electronic mixtures with organic sounds. It gave me that extra push to look into programs and synthesizers and delve more into that world. And once I did that, I was obsessed. And that’s kind of where I remained for the next three-four years.
So at what point did you move out to LA? Were you just kind of ready for a change or was it very much linked to the project?
It was a combination. Partially, it was me just kind of being ready to move home. My family is in LA, all my brothers and my parents. So, I think it was me feeling like I was ready for a change – I had been in Denver for four years – and me feeling like I needed a new spot to find some new inspiration. So, I moved home and it was also at the point where I had made a considerable amount of music in Denver for the last year and I was going to take that and I was hoping that I could use that to build a new start in LA with music. It was funny because when I got home, my parents weren’t really aware of any of that – that I’d been making music –so they were expecting me to move home and get a job and do all these things. I was like, ‘You know, I think I wanna do music.’ Thankfully, they’ve been amazingly supportive. My dad used to work for a record label so he was just trying to help me out, wading through different stuff.
Yeah, he was with Priority Records – is that right?
Yeah, that’s right!
That’s really cool. What was that like? Growing up in that world?
It was cool. I felt really lucky to kind of be in a space where he was always constantly introducing me to new music, whether it be his favorites from the past like all the classics from the Rolling Stones or even more modern stuff that got lodged in my head like different experimental Eno albums, different stuff like that mixed with what his record label was putting out which was all like gangster rap and hip-hop, stuff like that. So it was really kind of a strange combo. But there was always tons of CDs around, music around for me to listen to. It was fun. My friends would come over and I could just give them random free CDs like ridiculous compilations like with love songs from the ‘80s or whatever.
How did you start playing the harp? It’s so rare.
Yeah, it is. It started in Denver for me. When I first moved there when I graduated from school I was really just kind of playing music with different people and really for the first time gaining confidence I guess, as a musician and as a creator. I was just excited about exploring new instruments and doing whatever came my way. I tagged along with a friend of mine to a music shop. He was going to have some work done to one of his instruments, I think a violin or a viola or something…he went in one direction and I just kind of walked around in the shop and they had a whole room full of harps and I just kind of ended up sitting in there for half an hour and playing around. At the end of the day, I went home with a harp. I just couldn’t leave without taking it with me. From there on, I worked on it and played it. I was pretty much obsessed with it- from now until when I started, you know?
When you were making the new EP, what were you listening to? What were the main references and thoughts going through your head?
I wasn’t listening to a whole lot. I kind of dug into a lot of my dad’s old records. I’ve been trying to kind of rediscover a lot of the subconscious music that has been influencing me. I listened to Peter Gabriel. I was listening to old Kinks records, Cars. I was also coming back from a year and a half of touring. After that, I had a clear idea of what I wanted and how I wanted to feel onstage and how I wanted to perform. A lot of the first record was pretty consistent as far as mood and pretty somber and at a pretty slow pace and I think I came back wanting to write music that had a little faster pace to it and a little bit more bite I guess—a little bit popier, a little bit bolder. So yeah, all those things were kind of going through my mind when I got back. I think more than anything, I was focused on writing music – not just songs for songs sake, but wanting to actually write songs that I felt like would last and not just be like a passing EP. Songs that felt like they were important.
What was the first song that you wrote?
One of the first melodies that I came up with was “Silhouette.” I got home and I bought a piano – I’ve been playing piano forever so I bought an upright and that was one of the first melodies I came up with on the piano – the cords for “Silhouette.” It was just simple and really small and I continued to work with it it just got bigger and bigger. I added strings and it just became this much bigger thing than I ever imagined.
You worked with Ellie Goulding on that?
That was really special. I was working on that song and I kept hearing her voice. It was weird. I kept playing the track back and she wasn’t there yet, but I could hear in my head in the way it would sound. So I reached out to her and introduced the idea and she was super excited about it. So a couple months later, when she was in LA, we sat down together and recorded.
And Mykky Ekko. How did that one come about?
I had just been kind of a fan of Mikky’s for a while. I heard his track Pull me down and watched the Grammys and I thought, ‘Wow, this guy on stage with Rihanna sounds incredible.’
That was kind of insane.
I think everyone thought that. ‘Who is this guy?’ He came out of nowhere! So, I actually kind of reached out to him – he’s out in LA – and we just met for lunch and kind of chatted about writing something together. He’s been so busy writing his own album that I was just thinking it wouldn’t come together. But I started working on the track subtle and sent him a track about it and he got really excited about it.
Are there people that you still really want to collaborate with? Do you have a list?
Yeah, I would love to, in a dream world, collaborate with the lead singer of The Knife. She’s like…a huge inspiration for me. She’s an incredible vocalist. Her vision is pretty nuts. I’d love to maybe do some work with people who I get compared to a lot of the time that I’m huge fans of like James Blake or Jai Paul. I’m also doing some collaborations with different hip-hop artists. I think it’s interesting to delve into different territories and push myself a little bit.
I’m sure. What are you working on now?
Now? I’m pretty focused on getting the live show organized. I’m a couple days I’m gonna fly over to England and Australia. I’m also – just to keep myself kind of sane – I’ve been writing some new music and I put together a bunch of music that I’ve written over the past two years that has just been kind of floating around. I think I’m going to release them for one of my friends – Benjamin Curtis, he plays in multiple bands and recently was diagnosed with cancer, with leukemia. It’s a really awful, sad story. So I’m going to be releasing some music to raise some money and awareness for him. Hopefully, it will help.
What’s the new stuff you’ve been working on like?
I’ve been working a lot on the piano and a lot of the music I’ve been working on has been leaning a lot towards a gospel sound. So, I’m curious about maybe working with some sort of a choir section for recordings. I’m curious about exploring some sort of less electronic and more gospel sounding sound.