Odesza on taking electronic music live

Odesza may be an electronic act but they’re also a band, and like Miike Snow or Chromeo they walk the line between being old-fashioned musicians and a modern dance act. The duo’s basement rehearsal space in western Canada is the perfect example of this; it plays host to many a jam with fellow musicians, but there are more screens and synths than there are guitars. Taking cues from this live/electronic hybrid that’s working so well for them, Odesza’s second album – In Return – replaces the sampled vocals from their debut with featured vocalists like Shy Girls, Py, and Zyra. One half of Odesza, Clayton Knight, explains what it was like making that change, alongside some interesting tidbits about their trip to Australia, and the reason why every review calls their sound “sunny”.

The live instrumentation in your sets, are you adding more of that?

Yeah, right now we try to keep it pretty compact because we’re moving around quite a bit. We’d love to add more in the future. Right now we have added some STVs, which are electronic samplers basically, which you can wail on while you to trigger drum samples. And we really want to add some live vocalists here in the future, I think that’ll be the next step. A lot of stuff on the new album is pretty songwriter-oriented so we’d like to bring out a vocalist for a couple tracks and see how that goes.

I wanted to ask you about improvising, do you guys improvise a lot or is it tightly planned out?

Well, it’s a little bit of both. Basically what we have set up is each song is stemmed out in tiny little pieces so like the kick is one channel, snare is one channel – we have control over each little piece of every song we’ve basically ever made. We have it broken up so I have control over all the drum and bass and it’s all stemmed out in little pieces on my computer so I can switch out a kick from one song and add it to the other or swap ‘em around or add a snare on top of another one from another track, and so you can do these different layers and whatnot and you can change out different sounds, which makes blending tracks really fun. Once a song starts we have a set way we go about playing it and we know where we want to take it.

Of course there’s accidents and we’ll put on some other part over the part that we didn’t expect, which can work out sometimes but not always, but then when we transition to different songs we can keep adding and removing layers from each individual track, which allows you to blend into the next track very easily instead of just DJing it over the top. Basically we add different elements from each track together and make a new track in between tracks.

That sounds cool but like it could get pretty complicated.

Sometimes mistakes are made. But you find out things that work together that you didn’t think worked together, and then of course we have some live percussion that we do jam a little bit over the top of while we play and we definitely want to add more.

So you’re basically the rhythm section and Harrison’s melody?

Yeah, basically that’s how it’s broken up. He has all the top end and I have all the drum and bass.

How did that split come about, is it just that’s what you like or who’s the best at what?

It kind of was just “Hey, you have a lot of the melody parts already on your computer, let’s do that!” Both of us love all the different elements that go into making a track so it wasn’t like “who does what better” it was more about splitting it up so it works and there’s a lot of ability to freeform pieces. This is definitely a way that I haven’t seen anyone else cut it up like that, and maybe it’s because we didn’t know what we were doing when we did this, but I think it’s added to our set and made it much more unique.

You mentioned vocalists before – In Return is the first time you’ve done this much work with vocalists – so what was it like learning to collaborate with a singer?

It was really interesting because we basically had to go about making our songs the opposite way. Usually we would start with a little bit of a vocal sample and build an entire song around the vocals we wanted to use or that caught our ear. Then for these we would basically have to think of the singer and then build an entire instrumental thinking about what they would do and then we’d send it off to them and there was a lot of back and forth, once they reached the place where they had verse/choruses and something we liked, we would basically remake the entire song again around those verses and choruses, and really make it custom to their vocals. It was a lot of back and forth and learning new ways to approach music.

Who are you looking at bringing with you for your live set?

Right now it’s still up in the air. We’ve talked to a couple of vocalists about performing with us, we actually had Dan, who is Shy Girls, come and play with us in our last show in Portland last tour. That went really well, so hopefully we can bring him back out, and then of course the female vocalist we’re still searching for and working with hopefully we’ll have an answer for you in the near future.

It sounds like working with vocalists on In Return made a huge difference to the way you worked. Did you notice a huge difference in the way your music sounded?

Oh yeah, definitely. Any time you throw another artist in the mix it definitely plays into how you go about approaching a song and how the overall product ends up. A lot of times we would send these ideas out to vocalists and then they would send their ideas back, back and forth process, so by the end what we had originally sent them was nothing like the final products. We had gone back and forth and we arranged stuff, we worked with different tones to match the feel that the vocalist was giving it, so it was definitely a new thing.

The album’s been out for a few months now. Do you pay much attention to the reaction to it? Do you read your reviews?

I’d like to say that I don’t but I definitely did in the beginning. And then I read a few that I was “No, that’s wrong! You don’t understand!” People that are basically misinformed. That was a hard thing in the beginning, to let that stuff go. People would say we were signed to one label and we did this because of this and it wouldn’t be true. It’s hard to let that go but I very much came to the realisation that there’s no point, it’s not a big deal in the scheme of things at all. I think that stuff can really affect you negatively so the best thing to do is stay true to what you like and you’ll find the audience you want to.

I have noticed a lot of the reviews talk about sunshine and sunniness, “sun-kissed bliss” even. Is this just what happens when you use the word sun in a couple of track names? Because it seems to keep coming up.

[laughs] I think it’s also the fact that we use the sunset tones in our aesthetic. I think those two things probably allow for a lot of labelling like that but I think that people have decided this is the new kind of music, I’ve been hearing a lot of people say “tropical house” and stuff like that. It bothers us to be labelled anything honestly because we love so many different genres of music and diverse new music, we would hate to be pigeonholed as one specific sound. And there’s definitely songs on the album that don’t feel sunny at all to me so I don’t know. Once things leave your computer they’re not yours anymore. People can call them whatever they’d like.

You’re heading back to Australia for the second time. What was your first time like?

It was pretty interesting. We came out there and really no one knew us or knew our music, we had a following, but we came out we did a show with RUFUS, it went pretty well – we were a little jetlagged for that one, it was a little tough to get too into it and the crowd response it wasn’t on par with what we were used to because we had just come off a tour of the States where we were doing sell-out shows, there were a lot of people there to see us. That was a change of pace. We did our own shows as we travelled around Sydney and Melbourne, and then the response we got was good. I think once we come back when people have heard our music a little more I think the response will be a little better.

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