Scott Hoying, vocalist in the a cappella group Pentatonix, admits that doing an album of current top 40 covers, such as the group’s latest album, “Top Pops, Vol. 1,” could be seen as a step back, considering it comes after a self-titled album on which the group upped the creative ante by recording only original songs.
“Yeah, there were a handful of fans that were like, ‘Why would they go back to just top 40 stuff?’ ” Hoying acknowledged in a recent phone interview.
But there were good reasons why doing their versions of recent pop hits, even if it would be seen as being less ambitious than the “Pentatonix” album, was the right project at the right time for the group.
For one thing, the group realized that taking hit songs and reinventing them as a cappella performances was what fans like most about Pentatonix.
“We decided we wanted to kind of go back to our roots for a second,” Hoying said. “What started Pentatonix and what kind of blew us up was doing covers, kind of the charm of what we did. Then we kind of graduated into originals, which was great. But we felt like we, in some ways, had lost that original charm of Pentatonix. So this album was a way to bring that back.”
Hoying is right on the money in pinpointing that path that made Pentatonix a platinum-selling success story.
The Pentatonix story goes back to 2011, when high school friends from Arlington, Texas — Hoying, Kirstin Maldonado and Mitch Grassi — decided to audition for the NBC show “The Sing-Off.” In learning that groups needed at least five members, the trio recruited bass vocalist Avi Kaplan and singer/beat boxer Kevin “K.O.” Olusola, to complete the lineup.
Pentatonix won Season 3 of “The Sing-Off” — claiming the top prize of $200,000 and a deal with Epic Records. But before Pentatonix could even release an album, Epic dropped the group, feeling Pentatonix didn’t fit the label’s plans.
Undeterred, the group got signed by Madison Gate, a small Sony-owned label that mostly released soundtracks. Madison Gate released a debut EP, “PTX, Volume 1,” in June 2012, followed that November by a Christmas EP, “PTXmas.” Around the same time, the group started a You Tube channel, on which it posted videos of songs (mostly their versions of hit songs such as “Somebody That I Used to Know” by Gotye, “Gangman Style” by PSY and “We Are Young” by Fun), many of which went viral. But the big one was a medley of Daft Punk songs, which got 10 million views in the first week of its release in November 2013 and went on to top 150 million views.
With those achievements in hand, Pentatonix landed a major label deal with RCA, releasing a steady stream of music — three EPs, two holiday albums and the 2015 self-titled release.
But by 2017, the time for a pit stop had arrived. The wear and tear from six years of work prompted Kaplan to leave Pentatonix, and the group as a whole was ready to tackle some outside musical ventures.
“Basically, we had been going non-stop for six years,” Hoying said. “Then when Avi decided he needed to take time for himself and leave the group, we were like this is a good time, while we search for a new bass, which we don’t want to rush. We all can become creatively refreshed and do our own things.”
That’s exactly what happened. Hoying and Grassi released an EP by their side group, Superfruit, while Maldanado did a solo EP, “LOVE,” and performed on Broadway in “Kinky Boots.” And while those projects were underway, Matt Sallee emerged from a pool of 80 applicants as the choice to replace Kaplan.
Not wanting a long gap between Pentatonix releases, doing an album of recent (or newer) top 40 covers became an idea that made practical sense.
“Doing an original album takes months and months. We can do a cover album in, like, about a month or less,” Hoying said. “So not only did it (“Top Pop”) bring us back to our roots, it was more time efficient, and it was during a pretty stressful time.”
“Top Pop, Vol. 1” is perhaps a bit safe, but is nonetheless entertaining, as the quintet deftly blends voices and vocally created beats and bass lines on hits such as Camila Cabello’s “Havana,” Charlie Puth’s “Attention,” Portugal, The Man’s “Feel It Still” and a medley of Dua Lipa’s “New Rules” and Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody?”
Now on tour in support of the new album, Hoying promised a show that runs about a half-hour longer than any previous Pentatonix show, plenty of choreography and a visual presentation suited to the amphitheaters that are hosting the concerts, complete with huge video screens that emulate the cover of the new album.
“Since these crowds are so massive and these venues are so cool, we wanted our production to, like, really be big and extravagant so everyone all the way in the back can see the screens. We wanted it to be an experience,” Hoying said.