Austin is normally a fiery bowl of dust this time of year, but it's uncharacteristically pissing it down with grape-sized droplets and we've unintentionally entered a wet t-shirt contest by the time we arrive at the lobby of the J. W. Marriott. Teeming with artist wristbands and dishevelled band managers, SXSW is in full swing, while ODESZA's Harrison Mills and Clayton Knight are enjoying a few minutes break in between what must be one of the tightest schedules of the festival.
Billboard recently crowned the act the hardest-working band of the main US festival season, and it appears they've brought that same ethic to the Deep South, with seven shows scheduled over four days. "In retrospect, I think we would've cut it down a little bit, to try and enjoy some time here…" admits Clayton, lamenting their set clash tonight with Leon Bridges, who's gracing the altar of a downtown Episcopal Church."He was the number one person I wanted to see here," Harrison nods.
Though the duo are, clearly, busy performing and writing their own music, they've also just started up their own label – Foreign Family Collective – which looks to curate and allow select new artists a platform. Surely South By South West would be a prime opportunity to sniff out some talent.
For a pair whose music sounds like smoking a thousand blunts in a meadow, or some other sonic expression of dreamy, sun-drenched bliss, they work pretty hard. The now-label heads are serious about their new jobs, too. "We've been building a team, making sure that when we release stuff we do it right. We didn't wanna be one of those artists who are like, we're kinda popular now, so go check out some people we put on our label! And that's all we do for them. We wanted to genuinely help people," Clayton stresses.
Its inaugural release – a low-slung, monastic cut with a melancholic 'cocaine for breakfast' refrain, comes from two previous ODESZA collaborators – Troy Samuela and Monsoonsiren.
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Not only have the two Seattle natives been up to their necks in soundchecks and performances while in Texas, they've just hopped off a panel debating the future of streaming audio: 'The Un-Distortion of Sound – What's Next' (prior to those #TIDALforALL announcements). The monetisation aspect of Spotify and its rivals is often discussed, but for artists (and audiophiles), the lack of quality can be frustrating.
"Streaming music is pretty low quality, and until we get an infrastructure and network to be able to stream larger files and it's convenient to do so, it's not gonna change much," Clayton summarises. "I'm pretty sure the lowest mp3 is like 10% of the quality of the original song. Which is insane, most people don't know that," adds Harrison. Compared side by side, and on a decent pair of monitors, you'd easily tell, he continues, but "convenience is king. People don't wanna give up the streaming, they want it here, right now, on your phone…"
The buzz of the World Wide Web has been kind to ODESZA, though. The university friends originally gained notoriety via the heights of the Hype Machine chart and Soundcloud re-posts. But their concerns surrounding quality, at a time when 70% of smartphone users listen to music on their phone, are especially valid for artists whose output is designed for miniature soundsystems. "Our albums are usually meant for headphone music and intimate connection," Harrison explains, of the ethereal cuts that made up last year's 'In Return', that surfaced on Ninja sublabel Counter Records.
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While the live show is a different beast to their recordings; all energetic lashings of low frequencies and live experimentation. "If we didn't [experiment] we'd be bored out of our minds, yeah," admits Harrison. "At the same time, we have to keep some sort of structure because usually we have visuals and people doing lights, so if we keep it too out of the box it's not in tune with everything else."
They're in the planning stages for a new setup to debut at Coachella, complete with live vocalists and upgraded VJ-ing. "The visual experience with our music I think is really important," he adds. There's barely even a queue for alcoholic iced tea at Spotify House's open bar when they play, three days earlier; the pair bashing sticks and firing samples in front of an enamoured crowd. Their setup: two Ableton sessions, with MIDIs synced for tempo and stems they can trigger via eight channels each.
"You can do some really cool blending, and on top of that we have [Roland] SPDs which allow us to do some live triggering of drums, and hopefully we're adding some more soon," explains Clayton. Given an unlimited budget, he'd like to bring a custom speaker system on tour with them for 360° sound. "There's ways where it's binaural – you can actually hear the panning across different speakers behind you, the different waves."
Despite their seeming enthusiasm to do it as often as they can, playing live doesn't always go to plan. "Mexico!", Clayton groans, holding his head in his hands. "We had to stop short because the power grid was so shitty. Then sometimes your gear dies and you've gotta figure out something new in that time period – a drum solo, freestyle rapping…?"
While for Harrison, the crowd can dictate his own enjoyment. "It's so hard for me to not focus on that one guy hating life at the front – there's always one guy who doesn't enjoy himself!" he admits. "I think that person might be me, too, maybe that's why I hate it so much… I love when you go into a show and people are excited and just ready to have fun. You don't feel like you have to win over a certain number of people before they'll get into it."
Something else they've noticed in their crowds is the unusually balanced gender split – for a dance show, at least. "I know, it's weird, because we are so not good looking!" laughs Harrison. "We get designer people that wanna hang, to heavy EDM-heads who want to party, then 18 year-old girls," Clayton says.
They put this partly down to the inclusion of female vocalists and poppier sound that drove the last LP. "There's the young girls that have heard the one pop track we did that did really well ['Sun Models ft. Madelyn Grant'], then you have people at the back who are 35 and listen to us while they work all day, to our more mellow, downtempo, ambient stuff. I don't think anyone really knows what to expect when they come to our shows if they've only heard a certain amount of our stuff."
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They're producers who don't make the kind of straight house or 2-step garage that'd allow bloggers and hacks to pigeonhole them, so naturally they get branded with genres ranging from EDM to IDM, deep house, post-dubstep, and future garage (for a start).
"There are some bad ones," Clayton groans. "One that's pretty popular that I just hate is chillwave. We get that all the time. Either it's good music or it's not good music! You can say like yeah, it's electronic, they use a lot of non-analogue stuff, that makes sense to me. But we like so many different kinds of music, and try to implement so many different styles into the music we make that it feels restricting."
It's fitting that right now they're in a city known for blasting Young Thug and Drake from every street corner and car imaginable, since they're now looking to 140BPM boom-bap. "We've been on a hip-hop binge lately, and writing some tracks that are pretty hip-hoppy. Each album we try to push the songs in a new direction, and we did the vocal pop thing, so that would be new territory," says Clayton.
Would they get rappers on board too? "I'm really picky with rap – it would really take the right person," answers Harrison. "I feel like there's gotta be this soulful funk to the way they rap. One of my favourites is Q-Tip – hes so bouncy and flowy. I do love ignorant rap, though. Where you can barely tell what they're saying. But that's probably someone we could never collaborate with – it would definitely have to be a Q or a Kendrick or someone like that."
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With shades optimistically placed on heads, the pair are off to go set up for the next show. While it must be a compliment to be so in demand, maybe ODESZA's fans could cut them a little slack now and again. "I remember like two months after our album coming out, people saying, 'You guys need more music!'" laughs Clayton. "It's like, we have two albums, an EP and 12 remixes out, which I think is a lot for two years!"
Words: Felicity Martin
Photo Credit: Tonje Thilesen
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