ODESZA: In Between The Lines
In the ever-shifting landscape of dance music, ODESZA consistently blur the lines between electronic and live music. That genre-defying mentality has helped the duo, comprised of Harrison Mills and Clayton Knight, both top the charts and land marquee spots at a mix of more rock-oriented festivals.
“With so many distractions and all this new technology, what’s so great about a live show is that it’s one of the last places where you command people’s attention. They can still feel something communally,” Mills says, a few months after ODESZA became only the second electronic act to headline Bonnaroo’s main What Stage since the festival’s 2002 debut. “To be able to experiment in that space is our favorite thing.”
However, their latest offering, the saccharine EP, Flaws in Our Design—created in partnership with South African singer-songwriter Yellow House—unleashes yet another new artistic flavor. Mills and Knight utilize Yellow House’s poetry and trademark ‘60s and ‘70-inspired sound to sow a sonic field that serves as a place of reprieve between the legs of their stratospheric The Last Goodbye tour.
Despite facing several roadblocks along the way, leading the project to be temporarily shelved, Flaws in Our Design has already become a key part of ODESZA’s catalog.
For the pair, the work doesn’t stop after leaving the recording studio. Melding electronic beats with live instruments, vocalists and even a drum line, ODESZA envision the future of the concert experience as a dynamic amalgamation of technology and live energy. “There’s a real draw to that,” Knight says. “People want experiences where they walk away being like, ‘What the hell just happened?’”
You recently released Flaws in Our Design. Could you talk a little bit about how the EP evolved into what it is today?
HARRISON MILLS: We had just come back from touring A Moment Apart, and we were looking for singers, and we happened to stumble across the SoundCloud of Yellow House. He has such a unique voice. He really feels like a blend of a lot of different artists. It’s inspired by the ‘60s and ‘70s, and he has a poetic nature in his lyrics. We were intrigued by it so we just sent him a message, and we made little demos. He was in Cape Town, and we were just sending stuff back and forth for months. We decided to fly him out and have him stay at the studio. He would show up in a suit and play guitar, bass and sing while writing lyrics. It was a fun process, but after a while of working on it—while we loved some of the ideas—we didn’t feel like we were bringing them to fruition. Then, about a year ago, we were playing some of the demos late at night for some friends, and we happened to come across one of them. It got a big reaction and made us rethink it. So we went back, wrote a couple of new tracks and put it all together.
The EP starts with the soft hum of a cassette tape rolling, then flows into the pristine production you are so well known for. Was that juxtaposition of sounds intention?
CLAYTON KNIGHT: We love our intros. That’s something we tried to focus on to start the project and set the tone. We love the idea of taking the ‘60s-‘70s sound—especially his vocal work—and combining it with modern production. Even on The Last Goodbye, that’s something we focused on—finding the balance between worlds. It can be hard at times, but if you do it right, you get something pretty unique.
How did you approach combining your distinct musical styles to create a cohesive sound? I feel “Heavier” is a fine example of that.
KNIGHT: It’s always a lot of trial and error. These songs went through probably two or three different versions, at least. It’ll be a pretty basic beat or just chords, and then once we got the vocal sitting, we’d go back and reinterpret the production around that. He was cool enough to let us be like, “OK, we’re gonna experiment here,” and run with it. He was very open-minded about it all and let us mess around, tweak things and find the right balance. We’re always trying to find ways to take what our sound is, and what the vocalist is hearing, and find the parallels in those two worlds in a way that makes sense. “Heavier,” in particular, went through a couple of different versions, and that one’s the oldest one. The original file is dated 2017.
MILLS: “Heavier” was just the name of the first demo. There’s nothing about being actually heavier. [Laughs.]
You’ve worked with many vocalists over the years. Have there been certain experiences or people that have altered your approach to making your vision and your contributors’ vision flow together?
MILLS: It’s always different. You go on a first date with every artist, and you feel each other out: “Do you want to try something experimental? Do you want to do something totally new? Do you have an idea in mind?” We’re drawn to singers that often other people wouldn’t think would work with us. We just try to find people who are interested and open to trying different ideas, and then—whatever comes out of that—that’s what makes music-making fun!
On “Waiting Forever,” you utilize the unmistakable drum-and-bass approach that so many producers seem to return to. Tell me about fitting that BPM into such a mellow song and why it resonates with so many producers.
MILLS: It was initially 120 BPM.
KNIGHT: It was a dance track, yeah.
MILLS: We had an almost ‘80s vaporwave version of it. [Laughs.] We didn’t feel like it felt modern enough. While we had a cool drop on it, it was super different than how it is now. It didn’t feel like it matched the rest of the record. It was a standout and just felt old to us. We were trying to think of a way to recontextualize it. So we floated it to the producer—Preston [Anthony Chin], who used to go by Robotaki—because we had heard some of his recent demos, and he had been doing some interesting stuff. We were like, “Just ruin this song. Do something completely different with it. We have a lot of great chords and ideas, but it needs to be something new.” He was the first person to be like, “Dude, let’s put a break on it.” When he sent it back, I think it was 168BPM or something. It was actually really fast. It got a little too crazy. But the idea was awesome so we worked hard to make that feel like it was the right change.
I found its placement to be elegant.
KNIGHT: It’s definitely a homage to that electronic-leaning energy, but also, you don’t want to go over the top, especially because the EP itself is more indie-based music. So it’s hinting at those heavier electronic elements throughout while still finding that middle ground.
“The Last Goodbye” [which features Bettye LaVette] reminded me of Pretty Lights’ use of Etta James on “Finally Moving.” You opened for him in 2013. Do you think that experience has influenced your musical approach?
MILLS: Not so much on The Last Goodbye but touring with him and watching the show—seeing all the live elements—was definitely an influence on us. We loved his set; he was doing some innovative stuff. I’ve been able to watch the livestreams of his comeback shows, and he does such a good job—the whole band. Adding all this energy and the live elements without taking away from the music can be a dangerous thing when things get too live. It can get a little wild, but there’s a focus in the chaos. It is a hard line to walk, and he does it incredibly well.
One of the words I would use to describe the EP would be transformative. Along with its folk core, you delve into some emotional themes. How does the title of the project play into the overall concept?
MILLS: Yellow House is like a poet, man. It’s so hard to be that wordy in music. It either comes across as really cheesy or it feels too cerebral. But he does such a great job of flowing light over the music, and he has so much emotion behind what he’s saying that it just gives it a deeper meaning. The theme of the record, in a lot of ways, is embracing our imperfections and being human.
KNIGHT: Visuals are also a huge part of what we do. It’s a lot of people’s first impressions. Summer Wagner is the main artist. There are people who did a few other things, but she was the main artist behind all the cover art, which encapsulated what the record felt like to us. It’s like you are lying in a field in a daydream, just warm and connected to nature. We want to create an atmosphere over the albums as a whole—we want the whole thing to feel like one thing. It shouldn’t feel like a playlist of singles or a bunch of songs in a row—we want it to flow. That is something I was surprised we were able to do with only six tracks because, usually, it’s pretty difficult unless you have a bigger body of work to play with.
Your label Foreign Family Collective has both sonic and visual artist rosters. Are there common qualities you look for in someone that you aim to work with, regardless of their creative medium?
KNIGHT: Other than our established personal history, we look for people who can take the musical elements and find the imagery around and within them, especially in the live format. Luke [Tanaka] was spearheading the EP—he’s also the guy who does the visuals for the live show. He’s an integral part of this team. Another guy, Sean Kusanagi, is on the roster and helps us with the live show quite a bit. Those guys have been with us basically since day one and are able to get what we want to do.
Speaking of Sean, he worked heavily on The Last Goodbye’s cinematic experience, which offers a unique perspective on your live show. How does the film capture the energy that you bring to the stage?
KNIGHT: Sean has been filming us for over a decade so this thing has been talked about and pushed in different directions and spit-balled for a long time. After this iteration of The Last Goodbye, we got to a spot where we’re like, “OK, it’s ready to have this piece around it. It makes sense and feels cohesive enough.” So we’ve combined that with some other footage and built this documentary/live performance thing. Sean spent too many hours trying to put this thing together. It has been his baby.
In the film and the live show, you also collaborate with a horn section, vocalists and a drum line. Could you tell me a little bit more about the collaborative process of integrating those elements?
MILLS: It’s a long process. We have to get a lot of the music done pretty early so that the visuals can start being built and we can start planning choreography for all the different elements. Choreography is obviously such a big part; it feels like a big theatrical play in a lot of ways. It’s bombastic, it’s moving. There are all sorts of energy shifts. So it’s a long process, but we’ve also been working with these people for a long time. The main two people that run the drum line were a part of the first drum line we brought to Red Rocks [CU drumline]. So we’ve known them since the beginning, too. The horn player Scott Flynn used to play with Pretty Lights, and he’s still with us. The singer Naomi [Wild] came out for her first show opening for us at Bumbershoot in our hometown.
KNIGHT: A lot of it is having trust in the people that you have on the road with you and letting them run with their ideas. For the drum line and choreography, we’ll have some input, but we also put trust in them. They each have a vision of what the music’s doing and how they fit into it. And if you have that many people working together, they can elevate the project.
With a show that is so deeply tied to the visual experience, I’d imagine little of it is improvisational, correct?
MILLS: We welcome improv in the overall creative process of figuring out the best pieces. We’ll just try a ton of stuff, then we lock into this big performance. There are a lot of cues, moving parts, people going on and off the stage and costume changes. We don’t want to push things too far out of the realm and cause an issue.
You guys have the second leg of your tour coming up. Are there any new experiences or elements that fans can expect on this upcoming run?
MILLS: We’re definitely gonna incorporate some of this new EP into it. We’re always tweaking it a little bit. Sometimes I don’t know if people know that we are completely remaking the songs from the ground up so that they sound better in an amphitheater or whatnot. We can’t go watch it ourselves, unfortunately, so the changes we make are from talking with our team and seeing the crowd’s reaction to certain stuff. It’s like, “OK, this is supposed to be a big moment, but we’re not getting the reaction we want. Maybe we need to redesign the bass. Maybe it needs to feel thicker here or be bigger at this moment.” [Laughs.] We definitely have some surprises, and it’s always exciting to keep trying new stuff.
KNIGHT: We brought back the Pretty Lights remix. It’s funny, we were experimenting with this old Pretty Lights remix, and he started doing his comeback, and I was like, “We gotta put it in the set.” So we’ve been playing that at festivals and will play that in the fall. We’ll have a new male vocalist out with us, too. We’re excited to see how that turns out. There are some songs we play that stay more in the pocket than the release version, but we’ll do a lot of full remixes of stuff to amp up the energy, highlight certain pieces and stretch stuff out. That’s always the fun aspect from a musical standpoint. We get to try all these new things out that aren’t just the album format. You can really take it in any direction you want.
How does it feel to bring dance music, which has a long history but not a massively commercial one, to events with so many people like Bonnaroo, for example?
KNIGHT: It’s pretty surreal. One thing that’s good about our show and the electronic elements being paired with these indie and even live instruments is that we can play a place like Bonnaroo. Bonnaroo has this history of certain types of headliners, and rock and jamband acts are the foundation of it. We can live in both those worlds in ways that make sense. It’s not just one big DJ set with all that stuff going on.
MILLS: We live in a beautiful gray area.
KNIGHT: In between the lines. [Laughs.]