2014, NASA tells us, was the hottest year on record. Although that implies a troubling trend, it’s good news for Clayton Knight and Harrison Mills, because their work as electronic duo ODESZA is infectiously summery. Think reverb-drenched vocals and glitched-out acoustic guitars, chewed up and reassembled across eclectic drum samples. It’s what you might think an MP3 sounds like when it’s been left out in the sun but held its shape remarkably well.
Clayton Knight and Harrison Mills were college buddies. They bonded over a love of electronica and decided to merge their respective solo projects. Within a year they’d released an acclaimed debut album, Summer’s Gone. The rest is a blur of press buzz and sell-out shows. When I speak to Knight on the phone from the US, it’s the night before ODESZA commences a massive tour that culminates with this weekend's Sugar Mountain, as well as a sideshow at Brunswick’s Howler.
So after a whirlwind two years, what makes the new ODESZA album, In Return, tick?
“For the new album we went back to a lot of what we were listening to in college,” Knight says. “We listened to a lot of organic electronica. Boards of Canada. Four Tet. M83. But it’s not always other recording artists we’re listening to. Sometimes it’ll just be some guy on the street playing drums, or some old dusty vinyl recording of a film soundtrack. At the moment we like the subway. That sound is something we’re trying to work on, but not to full success yet. Random tidbits of sound give you a lot of creative space to work with.”
ODESZA’s sound is rich with organic noise, from background ambience to the reassuring sound of a cassette deck hissing into life. “A lot of [those sounds] we make,” says Knight. “We do field recordings. We take textures like room hiss, and layer that until it sounds unique and interesting. Really, we try to create as much as possible from scratch.”
As for the songwriting, these days it takes place largely in collaboration with songwriters from across the world. “We usually know what we’re trying to do, but that can change depending on what the vocalist brings, and sometimes we go back and rewrite and rework things to fit the vocalist. We leave the lyrical work to them. We offer structure and the overall vibe, and then hear their take on it. It’s a lot of back and forth.”
ODESZA also has a solid reputation for remixing. Its remix of Charli XCX’s Break the Rules is a case in point: a typically structured bit of very 2014 pop becomes, in the hands of ODESZA, a brooding, layered synth jam. Again, with Zhu’s house mega-hit Faded, ODESZA imbues it with glitchy, muddy depth, without losing its core.
“We’ve done remixes in the past where we hear the track and really like it, and then we’ve got this connection with it that you don’t want to mess with too much. These days we usually don’t like to hear the song before we remix it. We just get the stems, the little pieces, and listen to each individual bit and rebuild it. We treat it basically like writing a new song.”
For Sugar Mountain and Howler punters, it’s worth noting that the duo’s live set takes a similar approach – it’s a kind of computer-assisted jam session with multiple laptops and drum pads. “Basically, it’s me on the drums and bass, and Harrison has all the toplines; the vocals, the melodies,” says Knight. “We mix it up quite a bit and sometimes we get these happy accidents and something happens that’s never happened before.”
ODESZA plays Sugar Mountain on Saturday January 24, and a sideshow at Howler on Sunday January 25.