Just six months after Pentatonix added new bassist Matt Salllee in October, the a cappella group is in full-on go mode. They’ll be releasing their first LP as a new fivesome, PTX Presents: Top Pop, Vol 1, on Friday and heading out on a 39-date North American tour in July. But first, Pentatonix will be making a stop in Louisville, where they’ll be singing the national anthem at the 144th Kentucky Derby on May 5.
Singing the national anthem is an honor on any platform, but the Derby is particularly special for Pentatonix’s Kevin Olusola, who was born and raised in Owensboro, Kentucky.
“I love the Derby, it’s been a huge part of growing up for me,” Olusola excitedly tells Billboard. “When I was a fourth-grader, in my class, we made this thing called Derby Pie, which to this day is still my favorite pie that I have ever had in my life,” he adds with a laugh.
Aside from the pie, Penatonix’s Derby performance will be a memorable one because it’s the group’s first time singing the national anthem together since 2011, when they performed at a Charlotte Bobcats game fresh off of winning The Sing-Off. And with a new member to add some different flair, Olusola and his bandmates (Sallee, Scott Hoying, Kirstin Maldonado and Mitch Grassi) can’t wait for this year’s run for the roses.
Billboard chatted with Olusola about his excitement for performing at the Derby, the group’s seamless transition with Sallee, and the most fun songs to record for PTX Presents: Top Pop, Vol 1.
How are you feeling about performing the national anthem when you haven’t sang it together since 2011?
We’re all like, “Uh-oh, we’ve got to do it again!” [Laughs] We’re actually rearranging it right now. That was right after we were on The Sing-Off. We were such a young band. We knew a good amount about ourselves, but we weren’t as polished and as well-rehearsed as we are today. We’ve learned so much about ourselves over the years. We want to kind of redo it so that it’s more comfortable for us to go in there and do what we do best.
How difficult is it to put together an a cappella national anthem rendition versus the covers you guys do of hit songs?
The thing about the national anthem is that it’s actually a pretty difficult song to sing for anybody. It’s very rangy. It goes very low, then you have to go all the way to the top of your range. That actually works well for us, because we can take soloists and, depending on what part it is, certain people can sing parts of the solo that’s very comfortable for their range. That’s actually a strength that we get to bring to that. Also, nobody’s really heard it done a cappella by a beatboxer and a bass singer. We’re going to bring a newness and a swagger to it that can only be done a cappella.
The Derby is known for its traditions, so does Pentatonix have any traditions fans should know about?
Before performances, we warm up, sometimes we pray together. But the biggest tradition that we have is during Christmastime, because immediately after, the last thing we do is we say, “You know, we love you guys, but we’re down to not see you until next year. And then we go home and just chill out. It is so nice, because we’re working all the time. Especially now that we’re doing more band stuff and everyone has separate projects, we’re working way more to make sure stuff with Pentatonix is done in an efficient manner. It’s nice when we finally get that one break of the year where all of us get to go home, see our families and be with our loved ones. That’s the one tradition that we really cherish.
You brought a new member into that Christmas tradition last year with Matt joining the group. How has the transition been since he came onboard?
It’s been amazing. He is such a bundle of joy and life, and he’s already like my little brother. The thing I love the most is that the fans love him. They embraced him the minute we announced it. That’s super important to us, because we wanted someone that fans would say, “Wow, we love this guy, he’s so humble and so kind.” From the first couple moments we had with him, fans were already drawing fan pictures of him and making art of him. That’s also how we knew he was special.
What do you think he brings to the table for you guys?
He brings a vitality to the group that we just love and we want to hone in on. He has such amazing strength as a bassist, which is awesome for us because it forces us to do more things that are different and new for us. Although the Pentatonix sound is inherently what it is, it gets to change because of the new influences that he brings, which is really exciting for us.
He’s an amazing improviser and a funky bass singer. We were trying to figure out how to take that strength that he has and do some really interesting, funky things with it. I think for example, we do a cover of [Bruno Mars’] “Finesse” on the album. He really helped drive that, because he has this way of singing that’s so funky and groovy. He had some great ideas, like, we would never do this! It’s just new life and vitality that we’re so excited to utilize and hone in on.
Are there any tracks on PTX Presents, Top Pop Vol. 1 that you would consider the most special to you?
“Perfect” was the most special to me. That is a timeless, beautiful song Ed Sheeran wrote. I’m really happy we did that one, and I got to play cello on it, adding my own flair. We don’t usually put cello on our records — we do it live — so being able to play cello on a record was really special.
“Praying,” was really special for us because it’s such an emotional song that Kesha wrote and we just wanted to capture that emotion on our album. It’s very dramatic, but I think it’s such a beautiful way that really honors the song.
Was there a track that the arrangement was the most fun to put together?
Doing “New Rules x Are You That Somebody?” was really, really fun. I sometimes do these short covers on Instagram of me playing cello and beatboxing, so I made a short version of “New Rules x Are You That Somebody?” We thought as a band, “Why don’t we take that idea and expand on it?” It turned into what made the album. There’s a very different flavor to “New Rules,” it’s got a little more of 2000s hip-hop. It’s so sick, I love those beats.
It must be nice for you guys to have 11 new songs to perform when you hit the road this summer, huh?
We’ve been doing [OMI’s] “Cheerleader,” even [still] last year, and we were like, “This song is like, 2 years old, we gotta change it up.” So we were so excited to do that. It’s nice to put certain songs to rest and to add some new stuff to give it a newness and freshness on tour.
You guys have been at this for seven years now. What are some of the standout surreal experiences that you guys have been able to share together?
The first time we won a Grammy together was one of the most memorable experiences of our lives. I’ll never forget this — the arrangers of “Daft Punk” were calling our names individually, and I remember Scott and I just looked at each other and we were like, “Is this really happening?” And performing with Stevie Wonder on the Grammys, during the second Grammys that we were on.
Performing the American Music Awards and having Harrison Ford introduce you behind the John Williams orchestra for Star Wars, and then Meghan Trainor is in the front just standing up and like, “I love you guys!” That was a huge moment. There were so many moments when we’re just so blown away that people have really received what we’ve done. It’s given us so much strength.
I feel like you guys have brought a cappella music to the mainstream and people appreciate it, not just kids who were in choir.
Completely! We just wanted to give it a flair that’s pop-sensible. I know a lot of people think a cappella is this cutesy, kind of novel thing. We wanted to make people say “Wow! This is just… cool!” I think we’ve also shown people that if you love a cappella, there’s a viable way to make a career out of it. It’s awesome, because now so many a cappella groups have been springing up because of the things that we’ve done. We’re just glad this community is growing.
The 144th Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve will broadcast live on NBC on Saturday, May 5, with Pentatonix’s performance taking place just after 5 p.m. ET.