Harrison Mills is one half of IDM group Odesza. He and Clayton Knight merged their solo projects in their senior year of college and immediately began gaining momentum. In the space of two years, they’ve started selling out shows and releasing a wealth of content. Their new album In Return dropped last month and they’re arriving in Melbourne in January 2015 for Sugar Mountain and side shows. We spoke to Harrison about eating on tour, shaping albums and on-stage fornication.
How’d the In Return tour go in the States?
It was pretty wild. We didn’t know what to expect and it ended up being a lot of sold out shows and a lot of really good audiences and the people we were touring with were great so I can’t complain at all.
You’ve earned a huge amount of support in two years, from having your music used in ads to reaching international headline status. Do you feel a greater pressure in terms of the quality or direction your music could take?
I feel like the only pressure I feel is that we tour so much and we’re on the road so much that I don’t want the music to ever suffer so trying to make time to be able to work on stuff is always hard. I think time’s more of an issue than worrying about the direction of the music because I think that me and Clay always try to refresh out palettes and listen to a lot of different stuff. There’s a lot of ideas we still want to accomplish.
I know that early on you used a lot of old orchestral loops for example in the song How Did I Get Here. More recently though, you had Max McDermott performing on strings live in a radio stream. Do you ever incorporate analogue instrumentation when recording or performing on stage?
Not so much for on stage but a lot in recording. My roommate, where we do our music is like downstairs. We’ve got a little studio built and she plays guitar and Clay also plays a little bit of guitar so we do record guitar a lot but we also do a lot of mouth sounds and I’ll record myself just hitting a wall or dropping some coins in a cup or something. A lot of little sounds stuff.
Is there meaning behind the album title In Return?
Yeah! Basically, we were travelling a lot during the creation of that album and a lot of it was made on the road and in hotels and on planes and for us, something that we began to appreciate was coming home so it kind of comes down to coming and returning home.
Is there a difference in how you approach crafting a remix compared to creating a song from samples or an original composition?
That’s a good question. I think the main thing we go for when we make a remix is just trying to make it completely different from the original song. I think that’s the first idea we run with, like ‘how can we make this different to what we heard before?’. But approaching a song, we just try to take any sound that might catch our ear and try to emphasise that and put different production around that. Usually it starts with a loop and then a small beat and then later just layers.
Odesza started when you guys decided to try remixing each other’s stuff. Do you feel like there’s been significant progression as a duo or was there already a unified kind of sound in those first few jam sessions?
I think one thing that, just thinking now about it, we’ve definitely grown a lot. I think we started out pretty different from each other but liking a lot of the same sounds. Now we produce similarly because we’ve kind of taught each other the tricks from when we were making music on our own and we’ve kind of grown together and drawn from the same music. But both of us have our own Soundcloud that we just follow different people on so we always show each other different music and stuff. It’s kind of like a never ending learning process. I think that’s my favourite thing about collaboration, that you’re always learning from that person.
When I look at your respective solo projects before Odesza (Catacombkid and BeachesBeaches), I notice there’s a lot similarity not just in the sound, but also a lot of the imagery used and your logos. Did you guys feel an aesthetic synchronicity as well as a musical one when you joined up?
Actually, when I met him, I made that logo for him. *laughs* So that’s probably why they look so similar. But yeah, he was just like ‘hey, if you could make some images for me, that would be great’. I even made his Facebook! He sheltered a lot of his music and I was trying to make him put it out more and then we just ended up making music together.
To me, you guys are an example of successful, modern bedroom producers. You clearly care a lot about Soundcloud distribution, such as access to free streaming with the option to purchase. What advice would you give to anyone looking to start out in the same kind of genres and avenues as you?
I think you shouldn’t say no to opportunity and not worry so much on the logistics of that sort of stuff because the only thing you can do is just try to get people to listen to you. There’s so much over-saturation in the internet world altogether that I think if you can find a unique voice and just keep pulling people to you then you’re halfway there because all it takes is working hard and making your music good. That was for us the big thing, we finished an album and all we wanted was for people to hear it so we just put it all up for free online at once.
Would you say you plan before constructing an album, focus on individual songs or is it more organic than that?
I think we try to work out lots of different ideas that we have. I think a lot of them start with references to things we like in other music and then the things that work together, I think we kind of work until we find something that we like that we haven’t heard before. Once we find that, we try to expand on that on different songs and then if they feel cohesive, that’s where the album goes. But definitely everything feels very fragmented until we have six or seven different songs and then we start feeling how it works together. I think it’s a very unconscious thing, too. We never think too hard about ‘this album is going this way’ until we’re probably 80 percent of the way there.
When I ask you to think of an artist you’re into right now, who immediately comes to mind?
20syl, he’s like a breath of fresh air. He’s one of the producers of C2C, from France.
What’s more frustrating – people asking you how you came up with the name Odesza or people asking why you chose to spell it with a Z?
*laughs* I think there’s no way out of either of those questions because the answers are both dumb. Do you wanna hear the story?
Odessa is the name of a boat that a relative of yours owned, right?
Wrong. *laughs* We were trying to think of a name and we were listening to a lot of electronic music and Caribou’s Odessa came on and we were like ‘oh, I love that song so much’ and we were like ‘I really like that name as well’ so we looked it up and there’s like a hardcore metal band named Odessa that was pretty popular in the UK and so we just decided we had to put a Z in it to differentiate ourselves. But that boat story is true, it’s about my uncle but we kind of have this joke because we thought the original story was so dumb that we would just tell a different story in every interview and I literally told that story in one interview a long time ago and it just stuck. I never said it more than once and it’s made it to Wikipedia. We ran out of stories after, like, five interviews. So it’s pretty funny.
You’re on tour a lot. What’s your favourite take away food?
Oooh. You know, my favourite food has always been Thai food but as I’ve been travelling a lot, it’s slowly become either ramen or Mexican food.
While we’ve got time, got any weird stories from being on tour?
We were playing a show in Montana. I’m not sure if it was an all ages show. If it was, it makes this story more horrendous. But basically, we were playing and I couldn’t hear out of the left speaker, the monitor, that was pointed at me. And I look over from my laptop and I realise there’s a girl lying over it and I think ‘what is going on?’ and I try to ignore it for about 10 seconds but I still can’t hear myself so I look back up and I realise there’s a guy having sex with this girl over the monitor while we’re playing and this goes on for about 25 minutes and they’re just staring at me the whole time they’re having sex. And it was probably the longest show I’ve ever played with people having sex while staring at me. I was just trying to play music, it was pretty hilarious but also terrible.
How would you even walk away from that? Just sneak off stage?
There was just no security and the stage was really low. This was very early on in our career.
That’s awesome. It’s almost more punk rock than IDM.
*laughs* I don’t know, maybe we’re slowly changing IDM to punk rock.
Maybe that’s a potential idea for a concept album or band reboot.
I think one time we were talking about playing Nirvana remixes. I don’t want to taint that though, I’m pretty sure all of Seattle would boo us.
I see you guys described as EDM a lot but I think you fit more in the IDM spectrum, you know, more of a WoodzSTHLM, Bonobo, Moderat sound. Where do you guys think you sit?
Dude, I think you just gave the nicest compliment you could give me. I very much wish we fit in that realm but we’re often not compared to those people. I am a huge fan of all of those guys. I think they’re big influences on what we do. I think we definitely apply more of a pop sensibility to what we do but in a lot of ways, those are our main influences and I think they show up in the background and in a lot of the songs we’ve come out with.
Is that pop sensibility something you guys do on purpose?
Yeah. I mean, we like pop music too. It’s just something we wanted to try and on this new album, we were thinking ‘what can we do that we haven’t done before?’ and one of them was ‘let’s make a pop song’. We had never really made a pop song and that’s what Say My Name ended up being. It was just something fun. It’s kind of an ode to what we love.
You’re probably sick of talking to me so I’ll go now. Thanks for answering my questions.
Thank you so much man, I appreciate you taking the time.