ODESZA Find Higher Ground with Majestic New Album "A Moment Apart"
By Etan Rosenbloom, ASCAP Director & Deputy Editor, Marketing & Communications • October 26, 2017
If you've been part of the lucky throng at one of ODESZA's recent sold-out tour stops, you know that this genre-defying electronic act does way more than make music onstage. They present an immersive multi-media experience, full of lights, visuals, a full-on drumline, and a setlist carefully curated to highlight the dynamism of their vibrant soundscapes. It's an unforgettable show they put on.
ODESZA's current tour is a victory lap of sorts. It comes hot on the heels of the incredible success of their newest album A Moment Apart, which debuted at #3 on the Billboard 200 chart, and topped the US Dance/Electronic Albums chart (their second album in a row to do that). Even more impressive than their chart feats? ODESZA's Clayton Knight and Harrison Mills have remained humble and true to themselves throughout their ascent. It shows in the boldly textured - but defiantly human - record they just put out.
On a rare day off following a string of triumphant West Coast gigs, we caught up with Knight and Mills to find out how they do it.
Compared to a lot of electronic acts that sell out arenas, your music feels darker-hued, more contemplative. I mean it’s uplifting, but you’re not making rave records, you know? When it comes to playing live, is there anything you have to change about your songs to make them come across with the power you intended?
Knight: When we write our albums, we go back to the albums that really impacted us, and a lot of those albums are really intimate. There’s a lot of space between things. And when we approach our shows, we’ve been to the shows which we really like, and those were really energetic and super fun and really built around, for lack of a better word, moments. We try to really build those things throughout our set…this is the dance part, this is the contemplative one, this is the atmospheric space. And we try to make it feel really cohesive and full, and feel like you get a full spectrum of a lot of different energy without losing it to the point where you’re not enjoying yourself. ‘Cause it’s easy to check out, especially with people around you, and some people can ruin the time you’re having, or maybe you waited in line for four hours. All those things we try to take into account and try to grab people’s attention.
So that’s something that you keep in mind from having gone to shows yourself and knowing what works and what doesn’t?
Knight: Yeah, I mean we’ve actually only been recent music-goers. We’ve always been huge fans of music, but it wasn’t until college that we really started going to shows. I think Harrison’s first festival was actually the one that we played at, Sasquatch in Washington. So we’ve learned a lot in the last couple years about what we want to take away from the show.
Electronic music has this amazing ability to keep this really unique energy up the entire time. There’s a huge amount of tension and release. So we really loved the atmosphere of that but we wanted to bring some more cinematic and theatrical elements from other shows we’ve seen into the electronic realm. So that’s kind of the balance we’re going for. We want people to have fun and dance and have these energetic moments but we also want to create these beautiful cinematic landscapes that we’ve taken from more band-oriented shows.
Mills: Yeah we rewrite the whole show pretty much from the album. I would say 60-80% of the music in the show is reworks of album songs.
So you’re completely redoing the entire production? How does that reworking process go?
Mills: Yeah so, a lot of the new music there’s a couple of moments where we’ve tweaked transitions and stuff. And we really like to blend various elements from one track into another. The way our setup allows us to do, we can take a vocal stem or isolate a vocal from one track and easily just pop it over and loop it over another one. Any real instrument in the set we can do that with.
But a lot of the older material, now that we’ve been playing out for so long, can feel a little stale and stagnant after two or three years of being on the road with it. So we’ll go back and revamp a lot of old stuff. We have a “Say My Name” remix in there that’s been really fun to play…a “Memories” remix. All the new stuff is basically reworks from production level from the ground up. There’s a bunch of different little surprises and we built in some custom stuff, even music we haven’t released.
Let’s go back a little bit to the early days of ODESZA. So taking you back to 2012, it’s your senior year at Western Washington University, and you finish Summer’s Gone... did you have a release strategy?
Mills: Well the strategy wasn’t really a strategy because we didn’t think it was going to be anything. I was graduating with a design degree, so I was really treating it as my portfolio piece…like the big thing I was gonna do outside of my school project that was going to show that I could make an album cover and merch and ad campaign, so I treated it seriously in that way. Then me and Clay talked about who we really wanted to reach out to, and the only blogs we really knew were the ones that were more design-oriented.
At that time people were really listening to SoundCloud mixes and stuff so it actually worked out really well that we were sending this out to people that did want to post this stuff. I remember Kitsune Noir - I think they changed their name to The Fox Is Black - that was a design blog, one of the biggest that put our album out. It was just for free on SoundCloud, and it slowly made its way around the design community, and that really helped us sell tickets in San Francisco, strangely enough, and also propelled us from there. That was the beginning of seeing an online audience from the SoundCloud people, who were mainly producers at the time - it wasn’t really a fanbase - and then these people in the design community. That was the very beginning.
Knight: Yeah, and then it slowly kind of transformed. So our visual guy Luke, he’s a big skier, actually was a professional skier at one point, we had serious roots and ties into the ski community and snowboard community. We had a lot of our music early on go into these ski videos and different videos that they were putting out. That was kind of an early boost for us so we had a kind of foothold in the ski community before anything else, as well as the design community. Then it kind of expanded from there. We did a couple tours with Emancipator, and we just kind of toured non-stop along the West Coast and various parts of the US and that slowly developed the scene for us and our music. We’ve just kind of been touring and working at it for a long time.
A lot of people see it as kind of this overnight success, but there were a lot of long, long weeks and days of being on the road and being away from family. It wasn’t as fast as I think everyone thinks it was.
Mills: We wrote an EP and an album while on the road for basically three years. We didn’t really come home. We kept thinking we were gonna go home and then a new tour would pop up and we would just jump on that one. We were pretty much gone for three and a half years.
So you didn’t really have much of a local following in and around Washington early on?
Mills: Not really! It was actually funny, the first couple shows we did in Seattle, people would ask us where we’re from as we were walking off stage. We’d be like “A couple block from here!”
Did you proactively do stuff to get your name out there, or did it really just happen on its own?
Knight: At the time, Hypemachine was one of the biggest things, and their algorithm for getting music was really strange. What we ended up doing is we searched other bands that were similar to us that we felt that other blogs would like, and we would find their email addresses and check out their website and figure out really what they were about, and write really personal emails to all these people. We would send like 50 a day, but they were all very personal, they weren’t spam.
That helped us a lot, people really gave us a chance when we took the time because so many people were used to this one sheet of “Hey, we’re the coolest band in the world! Post our music.” Really it was more about “Hey we checked out your website, you posted about this person…we find ourselves kind of in a similar realm, we really like what you’ve been posted blah blah blah…and we just wanna to see if you like something, we’re not asking for anything.” And that was a really nice approach, I think people were happy with that, and it was just kind of an organic thing that happened.
Wow, it seems so simple, you want this person to write about you… of course you want to get to know who they are and what they enjoy writing about and listening to.
Knight: Yeah exactly. In this day and age, it’s so bad, the amount of emails you must go through on a day to day basis that have no personality or care put into them. Even if we get something from a fan...we got an email from Naomi Wild [who sings on] on our album. She was a fan who saw us at Coachella, she wrote this a cappella and wanted us to produce around it, and that became our song “Higher Ground.” We listen to people when they’re genuine to us. People are transparent if they’re not.
So you didn’t know Naomi before she wrote that email? I just figured she was very well known in a community I am not aware of.
Mills: No, that’s like the second song she’s ever put out. She’s really great. She saw us at Coachella, and she’s been a fan since, and kind of wrote this song with us in mind and then sent it off. We got this beautiful lead vocal, and just built a track around it. Sent it back and forth a couple times, and actually met her in the studio to finalize it. That was the process of “Higher Ground.”
So the bigger you get the more infrastructure you need to support what you’re doing. How do you keep that intimacy with your fans as you get more successful?
Knight: I can think moreso to the people that we surround ourselves with moreso than the fanbase. The crew we’ve had around us has been with us from basically the beginning. Luke, our visual guy, who does all kinds of creative live visuals has been with us since college; Sean Kusanagi who’s been our creative director and videographer, I’ve known him since sophomore year of high school. So we’ve kind of grown up together, and keeping that close-knit tight family has been a big part of what keeps us together and keeps the project humble and really cohesive all at the same time. It’s been quite a journey but that’s kind of been a big focus of ours is surrounding ourselves with talented people and people we really trust and know from the ground up.
Mills: They’ve seen us at our worst. They’re there to say “Don’t you even dare try to get a big-head” - that has always been important for us. And as far as trying to keep authenticity with our fanbase, we don’t really let management post anything that we haven’t written and made ourselves. I think the only thing they touch on social media is factual posts like “Hey, we’re touring here…go get the tour poster!” We’re not hiring a marketing company to make those posts. So we’ve always tried to be very genuine about that and it’s important to us.
Was there one moment where you realized that something was happening with ODESZA, that this was really catching on?
Mills: There’s this festival called Sasquatch which we touched on a little bit ago, and that’s always been a dream of mine. And we got to play that one of our first year or year and a half into the project, and I was like “It’s all downhill from here, we peaked! We can retire.” So I think that was one of the moments where it sunk in that this music thing is really a potential career for us. We always had plans from the beginning.
Knight: We kind of made a pact in the beginning that this was…that we’re doing this for the stories. We’re doing this to like tell our kids when we’re older. Just to have no regrets. We got to play some shows with some artists that we love, and we got to make music for a while. And literally every month, we thought we were gonna be done, go home, and have to get real jobs. We were just losing money on tours. sleeping in U-Haul vans, but it just organically grew over time. About two years in, we started feeling like “Oh, wow, I can buy groceries now!”
So yeah it felt slow for us, but I can see how everyone saw it as a fast rise. I mean, there’s bands that have been doing this forever, look at Portugal. The Man! They’ve been doing it for like 12 years, and they finally just got their big hit, which is amazing.
Let’s talk about collaborators a little bit. You’re working with some insane vocalists and other collaborators, some far outside the realm of electronic music. Regina Spektor and Leon Bridges...how do you meet these folks?
Mills: When we first showed up to start writing for this album, we went to LA and met with a bunch of different writers. A bunch of them were more in the electronic music scene. We started writing with these people and it just wasn’t creating the content that we were happy with. Finally we reached out to management and they hooked us up with some more indie writers and vocalists. RY X was actually one of the first people we met up with. The writing process changed dramatically, because we were working with people who weren’t too familiar with electronic music, and we weren’t too familiar with their worlds of music.
This push and pull started to happen, and these really interesting sounds and creative ideas started emerging from us trying to find this middle ground between the two worlds. That’s what we based the rest of our writing process on; we wanted to work with singers and collaborators that weren’t too familiar with our music or with the electronic music scene, who we thought were making really interesting stuff. As opposed to working with people who have a specific sound in mind or were maybe falling into a formula a lot of the time.
Knight: We started reaching out to people that we were massive fans of, and seeing what we could do together. And we’re also really happy that those people took a chance on us, because they’re walking outside their realm and they’ve established who they are in their community. They don’t need to do this kind of stuff and branch out to these like two random kids that are making electronic music.
It’s actually a really funny story with Regina. We were fans of hers since high school, and we jokingly told our manager it would be really cool if we could get her for the album, because we didn’t think it was possible. Our management sent a rogue email that we didn’t get a response for two months, and randomly she just emailed us back and said “I love these tracks, I’d love to work with you guys.” It was really crazy - she was excited by the demos. We ended up sending her this song that was just this weird harp loop - it was called “Harps for Regina,” I remember. She goes “I sang on your song, I wrote to it and I really want you to hear it. I said “Cool, can you send over a vocal?” and she said “No you have to come and listen to me sing it to you.” We had never met her, we were overwhelmed.
When she came to Seattle, she was playing a show and invited us to her hotel. We went to like the 40th floor, we were super nervous. Knocked on the door, we met her entire family, her husband answers, her kids were there. Then she pulled out her laptop and played the instrumental off her laptop and sang it to us with her eyes closed in this hotel room. It was extremely powerful. In fact the instrumental had all these other bells and whistles on it, and we stripped it down because we wanted to transport the listener to where we first heard it, really stripped down and beautiful. It ended up being one of our favorite tracks on the record.
So you’ve said about A Moment Apart that you delved deeper into the songwriting process on this album than in previous work. How did that play out during the creation of this record? Because to these years it seems that the songwriting and the production is pretty inextricable in your music.
Mills: We tried to be in the studio with the singers for the first time while people were writing for us. We had never really done that before. [Our last album] In Return was made entirely over email, and then we had one studio session at the end. So this was us reaching out and going and having sessions with people we didn’t know, trying a lot of things, and that was a completely a new process for us actually. Being in the studio, working through an idea and songs with other people, and trying to expand how collaboration works.
Usually it’s just me and Clay in a room, tweaking things around. So it was cool to be with an audio engineer, and have a singer, maybe that singer’s friends, and all just working together. We learned a lot about communication and how to work with people. I mean, any process you take to make music that isn’t something you’re super comfortable with will change how the song comes about. We could feel different things changing and making decisions in ways we never thought about, just by being in the room with people.
You’ve done so much without mainstream radio play or press. What are some of the advantages of foregoing some of those more traditional marketing tactics?
Mills: I think once you get a mainstream hit or radio single there’s definitely the chance of you being pigeonholed, kind of developing a sound around that, you’re kind of stuck. Especially if the track becomes massive, people kind of know you for that and that’s all they really want to hear from you. Whereas our scenario is a little different. With the streaming platforms taking off, it’s given us a chance to emerge in this world, get some recognition, but also put out a lot of diverse music. We’re not very single-oriented, we love to write albums, we love a bunch of different styles of music, we love to challenge ourselves and push ourselves in different ways and try different ideas. It’s definitely given us a little more room to try new things, experiment, be a little more collaborative. It’s a little more freedom as opposed to being stuck with a certain sound.
Knight: Yeah when we’re playing a show we don’t have people yelling the one single name throughout the show. I feel so bad for those people that have to deal with that, people just waiting to hear one of their songs.
By a lot of different yardsticks you guys have had an insanely successful last few years, how do you measure success for ODESZA?
Mills: I personally measure it by the people I’ve gotten to get to know or meet. Like I’m a huge fan of Bonobo, who I can now call a friend. We’ve gotten to meet just so many artists that we look up to, and then met them on, I don’t wanna say level playing field, but we get to hang out in a room with them and have casual conversations, and I never thought I’d be there. To me, success is that I’m surrounded by peers that I’m just proud to be in the same room with.
Knight: For me, it’s the way we’ve been working and being on the road so much, we’re always getting new challenges, we’re always learning new things. Always having that opportunity to really push myself in a new direction and never feeling too stagnant. That, to me is success. All this is pretty new to us. We’re learning day by day new things and meeting new people. That learning process and making mistakes and learning from them and just kind of developing as an artist and a person, every day, is a form of success to me.
You guys have been ASCAP members since the beginning. Can you talk a little bit about how being with ASCAP has made any kind of difference in your professional lives?
Mills: I remember we got a good lecture on how you do things right, and there were two things they told us to do: 1) Sign up for ASCAP and 2) buy a Radial 2 DI. Those are the two things we did when we first started making music. I think it just set a precedent in the beginning for us that we were gonna take this really seriously, and we were shooting to do things right from the get go.
ODESZA's new album A Moment Apart is now available for purchasing and streaming and loving.