By Jose Lopez-Sanchez of Dead Curious.
Seattle natives ODESZA have been driving through the Arizona and Texas desert for the better part of a day when I finally reach them. While the Texas hill country has become somewhat of a tech-hub in recent years, that isn’t doing much to provide us with a stable line to talk – our call keeps dropping thanks to spotty service, and what I can only assume was interference from all the swag descending upon the area for Weird City Fest. By the time I finally connect with Clayton Knight, we’ve endured more conference-line muzak than anyone should ever be subjected to (besides DC consultants). Nonetheless, Knight is easy going, affable, and a pleasure to speak to – and as one-half of ODESZA alongside Harrison Mills, it was great to see that newfound fame as part of the hottest electronic/downtempo production duo hasn’t gone to his head.
With the release of their new gorgeous and sonically lush album In Return earlier this month, and their four-month North American and European tour supporting it, ODESZA is poised to make the jump from “that electronic duo your hipster friends love” to well-known internet darlings, and with good reason. Catchy beats and grand, canyon-esque soundscapes dominate the first half of the album, occasionally giving way to a smattering of slower, more introspective songs and the occasionally glitchy dance number. Stand-out tracks include summer banger “Say My Name” (featuring Zyra), and a collaboration with fellow Pacific Northwest up-and-comers Shy Girls on “All We Need” that really brings everyone’s best assets to the light.
ODESZA plays Washington, D.C.’s U Street Music Hall on Tuesday. (An early show has been added.) The duo heads to NYC later in the week for shows at Bowery Ballroom, Music Hall of Williamsburg, and Rough Trade – all of which are sold out. In Return is available now on Counter Records.
How’s it going, Clay? How are you guys doing?
We’ve been good – just been on the road. We’re driving to Austin, Texas now. We did a 16-hour drive yesterday. It’s a lot, but we made it. We’re like an hour outside of the city.
Where are you coming from?
We played Phoenix the day before yesterday, and have been driving this distance basically since we left. It was a lot of ground to cover!
I guess Arizona and Texas are huge states – I’ve never done the drive, but I’ve heard. Is this your first time driving across the country?
No, we did a similar one a little while back when touring for [2013 debut] My Friends Never Die. It was kind of a similar drive. Usually we open for acts, and we just hop on their tour bus or something, but right now we’re in a van we rented.
What kind of van is it? Is it an old, retro “porno” van, or is it a cool tricked-out one?
[Laughs] No, no. It’s just a Mercedes [Benz] Sprinter van.
I had this vision of a maroon van with beige stripes, with the words ASTRO on the side, or something like that.
[Laughs] Maybe for the next tour.
What inspired you two to work together? How do your individual styles feed into this collaboration?
Well, we were kind of the only people who were into this style, who listened to electronic music while we were in college. A lot of people where we come from are much more into the folk scene – not many listened to lo-fi or hip-hop or electronica. That was kind of the initial thing. We started to make music, and the flow went pretty well. We were able to produce decent stuff pretty early on, and just kept doing it.
How has collaborating with Harrison [Mills, the other half of ODESZA] affected the way you produce? Have you picked up new things, and how has your style shifted?
I think we’ve both learned from each other quite a bit – how to start a song, approach different sounds, or how to build up to a drum break, anything like that. We’re learning stuff from each other every day.
What was the original goal when you guys started playing music together? Did you ever think that you could make this a living, or was it just kind of goofing off?
It was just a hobby. We each had our own kind of thing. When we graduated college we both had plans. We started the project just after graduating college with different career plans: get a job, whatever. Harrison was going to work at a design firm, I was going to grad school, basically. I studied physics, and was going to do that whole thing. Yeah, music was kind of a side project to start. We started producing, and began playing some shows, and decided to put everything else on hold and focus on this.
Tell me more about your background in physics. Do you find that having that kind of training affects the way you produce and compose music?
Yeah, in some aspects. I’m really into building synths, basically. The problem solving side of things is interesting to me. You really have to be persistent to study physics, and you can’t give up easily. Some of this stuff, some of this music software has a pretty steep learning curve – without that kind of dedication to try learn something even though it’s difficult. I think it has helped me quite a bit.
Do you think you’d want to go back to school and get a Masters or PhD in physics, or are you not interested in that anymore?
Yeah. I love school. I would totally be open to going back for it when things start to calm down.
What’s your typical creative process as a duo?
It usually starts with one of us who will have a very simple idea, usually a piano loop or notes stuck in our head, and then we’ll sync up our laptops. We’ll use Ableton or Maschine – those are usually our go-to software. And then we just go back and forth layering pieces over that initial idea. We’ll have a drum break, or some drums over it, while someone adds a melody or a chord progression over the beat. Once we have a bunch material layered on top of each other, we begin to lay it all out, and then it’s time to trim the fat. We break it down to the pieces that work the best, and get rid of what doesn’t.
When you guys write a song, are you solely writing an instrumental version? How do you go about choosing a vocalist for a track? When do you decide to introduce someone for that?
For this album, a lot of stuff was built as instrumentals. We usually work with harmonies we like first, and then we’ll write a melody over top, and that’s kind of the starting point. Once we get that, we go about looking for singers – we write the top line, and then have an idea of where we want to take it. We’ll ship it out to two or three singers, and whoever did the best, or we were digging the most is who we’ll work with.
You feature some really amazing vocalists on In Return. I’m thinking of Zyra, specifically.
Yeah, she’s a British vocalist we found online, and she did a really good job.
How did you guys discover her?
There was this YouTube video of her jamming over one of our older tracks, actually, and singing these really simple but catchy hooks, and we were like, “Whoa, you may be on to something.” We reached out to her and sent her some of the stuff we were working on, and bounced ideas back and forth, and the result are the two tracks featuring her on the new album.
That’s really cool. It really feels like we’re in an era where social media, and music aggregators are a great way to discover new acts. I know you guys blew up on Hype Machine first, right?
Yeah, Hype Machine has been good to us. That was our initial go-to. The blogosphere has been really nice.
What do you think about the utility of Hype Machine, SoundCloud, and the blogosphere generally for new artists?
It’s great, and it’s a good launching pad. There’s a lot of material out there, and having people curating things helps. I think SoundCloud is one of the best advances in a long time – the ability to share music online for free with anyone that wants to follow you, and also being able to see what they’re listening to or liking… it’s one of the best services I can even imagine. Same with Spotify, I love it too – being able to stream music is basically the future, and just kind of where it’s headed.
Do you feel any tension now that you’re in a position to capitalize off of your hard work and compositions? Do you ever think to yourself, “Shit, we probably shouldn’t have given that away for free.” O are you still happy about doing that?
[Laughs] No, no – I think giving our stuff away for free is one of the best decisions we made. There are spots [on the Internet] where people will still be able to get their hands on our music for free as it is, so no regrets there on our behalf. I’d still like to keep releasing things to our audience for free. I feel that’s how it should be done.
It feels like people in our generation who grew up using Napster, or Torrents, and all that stuff are very much of that mindset – get it to the people, get it out there for free.
Exactly. And that’s maybe one of the reasons Spotify is big. There are other ways to make money these days: You go on tour, you play shows, you explore other avenues. It’s not the old model of making a bunch of albums and cashing out. I think that’s dying out, and I think it’s a good thing because it takes power away from labels. This is all a new frontier, and we don’t really know where it’s going, so it will be interesting to see how it all works out.
Speaking of touring, you guys have had a pretty meteoric rise over the last couple of years. I heard you had to add a second performance in San Francisco, and I know you’re adding a second show for DC. How do you feel about this? Your life is totally different from what it was not that long ago.
[Laughs] It’s pretty surreal. I don’t really feel any different, but you go play shows and the crowds get bigger and bigger. It’s a little weird at times, but I guess it hasn’t really hit me yet.
Has there been any experience on tour that has been particularly memorable?
Yeah, there have been a couple, and not all good. [Laughs] Being able to play some of the cooler venues, getting to see new cities, and being able to see fans out and about while traveling between cities is cool. Off the top of my head, we just played a couple of venues that we were really excited to perform at – like The Fonda Theater in LA – and managed to sell out. I was pretty happy about how everything went.
How are you guys keeping sane and handling stress while on the road?
Just down time, down time. You can’t think about this all too much, or the pressure builds up and you can go crazy. Getting a lot of sleep helps, trying to stay as healthy as possible is extremely important, because these late nights take a toll.
Do you have anything you do to take your mind off shit? Like, something you do to relax you. I dunno, I’ll play FIFA – that’s what I do to unwind.
[Laughs] That’s funny you say that – we have an XBOX in the Sprinter van, and FIFA is a go to. We play a lot of FIFA! Yeah. Sitting around and making music is relaxing for me, and doing it on the road is really hard, but if I can, it’s really nice and I find it relaxing.
Are there any new directions you want to explore artistically? Are you thinking about making soundtracks for movies like Trent Reznor, or what?
Oh yeah, we’ve always been big fans of film music, and would love to score films someday, or even have an opportunity to do so. Honestly, we’re really open to anything – we want to push ourselves, and have the chance to try new things.
So, looking forward to the show at U Street Music Hall on 9/30 – have you guys been to Washington, DC before?
Yeah, actually, we played U Street Music Hall once before and it was a lot of fun. Fun show, cool crowd – you guys also have some really great soul food right around there!
[Laughs] Yeah, there are a couple of well know spots on the block. There’s Oohs and Aahs, and Ben’s Chili Bowl. But you guys should really check out the jumbo slice situation around here.
Hmm… jumbo slice. OK. I think we went to Oohs and Aahs last time, and it was just awesome. We were blown away by it, but we’ll have to try some other things around there. We’re really looking forward to our time in DC.