“It always happens to me when I’m in an Uber,” says Scott Hoying, the towering baritone lead of Pentatonix, a pop group with a very unusual twist. With his blond coif and square jaw, the 24-year-old looks beamed into 2015 from a 2000s boy band. “The driver will ask what type of band I’m in, and I always feel like I have to defend it: ‘A cappella, but, like, cool a cappella.’ And they’re like, ‘So…you do weddings?’ ”
As a pop property, Hoying’s act should be a hard sell. Pentatonix employs no effects or instruments, and comprises five people with niche skills who named themselves after a musical scale. And yet, the Los Angeles group’s triumphs seat it firmly in the mainstream: more than 1 billion YouTube views; the highest-charting Christmas album by a group since 1962 (No. 2 on the Billboard 200, 1.1 million sold, according to Nielsen Music); appearances on Ellen, Today and Access Hollywood; and perhaps best of all, in February, a Grammy for its viral Daft Punk covers medley. And all before releasing its first full-length, non-covers studio album, Pentatonix, which arrives Oct. 16 on RCA.
“We were the choir nerds,” says Avi Kaplan, 26, a basso profondo with an intense stare and well-shaped goatee. He, Hoying and their three bandmates, sitting in the lobby of West Hollywood’s Palihouse hotel, exude a style and charisma that belie the geekery inherent to their craft. Kevin Olusola, 26, is a kind-faced beatbox wizard in a sharp blazer. Mitch Grassi, 23, has colorful tattoos and a sassiness that complements his high, vibrant tenor. Mezzo-soprano Kirstie Maldonado, 23, wears steep Louboutins that clash with her mellow vibe. “We still watch the barbershop quartet finals,” says Hoying.
Considering the popularity of Glee and Pitch Perfect, it now seems inevitable that the obsession with the fringe but time-honored tradition of a cappella would generate some sort of choral Justice League. Pentatonix actually appears in Pitch Perfect 2 — as Journey-singing, khaki-wearing Canadians — and they formed for a TV show, NBC’s The Sing-Off, in 2011. Their jaw-dropping vocal arrangements of contemporary songs from Psy’s “Gangnam Style” to Lorde’s “Royals” have found a massive audience with ease.
“Pentatonix is Nirvana — they’re breaking the glass ceiling,” says a cappella singer-guru Deke Sharon, who’s often credited with pioneering the modern style of the genre; he worked as producer on The Sing-Off and arranger for Pitch Perfect. “A cappella was a punchline 10 years ago. What’s happening now is more dynamic. As pop gets more mechanized, nothing’s more expressive than the human voice. You can touch hearts in a way that’s impossible with all the Pro Tools plug-ins in the world.”
But Pentatonix is still a huge gamble. Unlike three previous EPs (each of which has sold 200,000 copies) or its blockbuster That’s Christmas to Me, the record will feature almost all originals, penned by Pentatonix with help from songwriters: “Probably 30 different people; it was like a blind date every day,” says Hoying. First single “Can’t Sleep Love” isn’t yet a chart hit, but it is a sugary R&B earworm that would make a fine Justin Timberlake song, and has a remix featuring a rap verse from Timbaland protegee Tink.
“We want to be considered a band, like Maroon 5 or Coldplay,” says Olusola. Adds Hoying: “The second we were done on The Sing-Off, we were like, ‘All right, now we’re competing with Rihanna and Taylor Swift.’ We’ve always set the bar high. We want a hit.”
Sharon points out that while it wasn’t rare to hear a cappella songs by the likes of Boyz II Men on the airwaves in the early ’90s (see sidebar, below), it has been a “vast desert” for the genre since. But Pentatonix’s recent tourmate Kelly Clarkson sees Pentatonix’s rarity as a boon. “We don’t need another pop band that has the same formula as everyone else,” she says. “We need people like Pentatonix who push the boundaries and inspire radio to embrace talent, not repetition. That’s what will bring them longevity.”
Hoying, Grassi and Maldonado have been friends since childhood; they grew up in Arlington, Texas, and in high school covered Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” for a contest to meet the cast of Glee. Today, the men live together in Beverly Hills. The fact that they’re both openly gay has inspired fan fiction, but they’ve clarified their BFF status on their popular YouTube comedy show, Superfruit. Grassi is clearly the jester of the group; when Hoying cops to being the wild one, Grassi hooks a thumb at his male buddy and quips, “She likes to have fun.” Maldonado is the sweet one; she lives in West Los Angeles with her boyfriend, singer Jeremy Michael Lewis, and a dog with his own Instagram account (@olafthehusky; 64,000 followers and counting).
Olusola is the prodigy. The Kentucky-raised son of Nigerian immigrants, he speaks fluent Mandarin, completed Yale pre-med and has mastered several instruments; his “cello-boxing” YouTube mashups inspired the Texas trio to reach out. He lives with Kaplan, a California native who already had a rep in the a cappella scene when a mutual friend connected him to the band; everyone agrees he’s the serious one. He and Olusola only met each other and the rest of Pentatonix the day before their audition for The Sing-Off, but the five clicked immediately, winning the show’s third season.
Still, Maldonado admits the unlikely group has its spats. “We are all so different, and stubborn, about the kinds of music we like,” she says. Hoying adds: “But like a married couple. We’re honest with each other, and it’s very democratic.”
Another thing keeping Pentatonix together as it takes on the pop world? They still impress each other. “Sometimes I’ll look over while Mitch is killing a high note onstage and just be amazed,” says Hoying. “Even though I’ve seen him do it 500 million times since I was 8, it never gets old.”
This article originally apperaed in the Oct. 24 issue of Billboard.