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ODESZA are revisiting their past to find their future

During a long stint at home, ODESZA revisited their past to better understand how they arrived at the present. DJ Mag chatted with the Seattle-based duo to learn about the profound discoveries they made and the implications for their art, which they chronicle in their forthcoming studio album, ‘The Last Goodbye’

Every human on Earth possesses a history. The version of you who lived yesterday informed the one who breathes today, and the one to emerge tomorrow will be different still. Each life is but a string of moments, relationships, locations and lessons, colliding together in the most complete version of a self. Yet that version, too, is fleeting –  ever-changing, constantly  imprinted by the energies and circumstances that envelop it. 

Quiet time lends itself to these kinds of introspective thoughts. Just ask Harrison Mills and Clayton Knight of the Grammy-nominated duo, ODESZA. In 2020, the two found themselves off the road for the first time in nearly seven years. Unexpectedly at home in the pacific northwest with an open schedule, Mills and Knight felt a mutual desire to revisit the past, and together they set off to uncover how their friends, families and surroundings played a role in shaping who they are today.

ODESZA’s fourth studio album, ‘The Last Goodbye’, arrives on July 22nd via Foreign Family Collective/NinjaTune, and the 13-track collection is the culmination of their detailed excavation. Infused with themes of hope, love and growth, it’s undoubtedly their most intimate work to date. 

When DJ Mag catches up with Mills and Knight, their day is just beginning. The two join a video call from their studio in Seattle, not far from their separate homes. Despite it being early in the morning on their coast, the two look well-energized. Anticipating the first album release in four years can do that to a person.

“It's been awesome. I mean, we were scared out of our minds, too, because we haven't put out music for so long and we haven't put up a show either. So, we didn't know what the rules were anymore or if people even wanted to see us,” Harrison says, chuckling. 

The modesty is refreshing. Of course, by now they must realize that tens of thousands are clamoring to catch ODESZA on ‘The Last Goodbye’ Tour this summer. Dates for the three-night hometown kick-off in Seattle, as well as those in New York City, Chicago, Denver, Vancouver and basically every other major market are already sold out.

When fans spill into packed arenas and amphitheatres for the performances, as well as when they listen to the newest LP on their headphones, they’ll gain a glimpse into the private lives of Mills of Harrison – something the twosome asserts is fresh territory for ODESZA.

ODESZA performing live

“I feel like this is probably the most personal thing we've ever done. Just putting lots of our family in it, and pieces of us across the record. Almost every single track has something from our lives scattered around it.” – Harrison Mills

That Version

“In a crisis, I think we talk to our loved ones differently,” Mills shares about the shift in perspective he and Knight experienced during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, while back amongst the people and places of their upbringing. “We started thinking about our own mortality and our family's mortality.” 

Those somber realizations led to creative outcomes. More time at home, meant more opportunities to catch-up with the close-knit circle that had become a bit distant during their breakneck decade in the international spotlight. Such rekindlings also helped inspire the radiant design of their forthcoming LP. 

“We started diving into our old home videos, which was a big process, and even interviewing our family, recording them and basically exploring a space that I feel, maybe sometimes, we’ve taken for granted,” Harrison says. The album is about their findings – specifically, the power of unconditional love, the influence of human relationships and how these present in a self-reflective manner from one generation to the next. “Honestly, it’s also about how much you are like your parents whether you like it or not,” he adds with a laugh.

“Being home, we were just around family a lot more, friends a lot more and through that we kind of reconnected with who we were before the road almost,” Knight adds.

Woven throughout the long-player are audio samples lifted directly from dusty VHS tapes they found tucked away amongst their parents’ belongings. The vivid sound of parents’ voices, childhood memories and other nostalgic milestones fill out the emotional soundscape of ‘The Last Goodbye’. These elements add color and texture to the expansive, cinematic productions that make up the core of the release, and which persist as a hallmark of the ODESZA soundprint. 

“I feel like this is probably the most personal thing we've ever done,” Harrison continues. “Just putting lots of our family in it, and pieces of us across the record. Almost every single track has something from our lives scattered around it.”

ODESZA’s albums always seek to tell a story. The albums generally follow a broad theme or fictional characters – for example, some may remember the lone cosmonaut adrift in space who sat at the center of 2018’s ‘A Moment Apart’, the duo’s third studio album. The cosmonaut hears a loud tick but has no way to silence it, so in order to keep from losing his mind, he decides to fall in love with the sound. That ticking sound is a present force throughout the album, which ultimately boasts an uplifting, vast aesthetic. 

“We love having a narrative in records, whether it's overt, or subtle,” Harrison explains. “We want them to feel like a journey, and by the end like you've experienced a breadth of different music. That's always been really exciting for us – how do we make 10 to 13 songs feel different but also feel as though they are each a part of the same thing?” 

Now, in ‘The Last Goodbye’ the story is directly tied to Mills and Knight whose journey together began at Western Washington University, about an hour and a half outside of Seattle. The two met during their freshman year despite pursuing starkly different areas of study – Knight’s time was taken up by physics and math classes while Mills followed a more creative path in graphic design. They eventually decided to collaborate in 2012, and have been working together since.

“We actually drove back up to Bellingham, the college town where we all met. We went with our friends and some people that we still work with and who help us with the live show,” Harrison explains with a wistfulness in his voice. “We listened to music and showed them the record as it stands, and it was pretty fun to go walk across campus, to stroll down by the water and revisit our old stomping grounds and the different things we would do. Just to take in those moments, to feel how much has changed, and think about who we were then and who we are now, it brought back a bunch of memories.” He takes a second as if his mind just catapulted back from one of the fonder recollections. “It was a bit overwhelming, but it was cool.” 

Despite its inmost accents, ODESZA wants the narrative of ‘The Last Goodbye’ to feel relatable. “I think that's a cool part of the album, in that it's deeply personal but almost anonymous,” Harrison shares thoughtfully. “What you hear from the home videos could be anyone’s home videos. And then it becomes deeply communal. The introvert-to-extrovert balance that’s struck across the record is something we really tried to strive for.” 

press shot of ODESZA

“Quite often, I feel like we make the last song first,” Knight says, looking at Mills who nods in agreement. “The first months of writing can be kind of frustrating because you're trying to make stuff, but you don't know where you're really going.” – Clayton Knight

Echoes 

Perhaps it shouldn't seem surprising that ODESZA looked behind in order to move forward. It’s not unusual for them to work backwards, especially when writing an album. 

“Quite often, I feel like we make the last song first,” Knight says, looking at Mills who nods in agreement. “The first months of writing can be kind of frustrating because you're trying to make stuff, but you don't know where you're really going. We must have written 20 to 30 different, little demos in that first month-and-a-half before we had a breakthrough.” 

The ultimate cut, ‘Light of Day’ – a deeply-moving, dancefloor stunner produced alongside Icelandic artist Ólafur Arnalds – was that breakthrough, and is considered a key anchor point of the LP. From its instrument-laced build up to its thumping, progressive breakdown, this track embodies ODESZA’s riveting cross-genre approach, and serves as an explosive finale for the sentimental album.

“I think he lives in a similar area between ambient music and electronic music, and I feel like we kind of drift in that gray area, too, where we love cinematic sound, but we also want to try different modern techniques to change it up,” Harrison explains of the commonalities the artists share. “I think some people find that to be blasphemy – especially in his world where he’s really classically trained. So we've always connected over that and loved his work.” 

Another fixture is the title track, ‘The Last Goodbye’, featuring iconic soul singer Bettye Lavette. “She's just the coolest person we've ever met,” Knight gushes when the renowned songstress comes up in conversation. “You never know how it's gonna go, especially when taking an older song and reinterpreting it. Some artists can be a little more hands-on with it, but she was enthusiastic about the whole process and loved the direction we took it, and we're just so happy to have her on board.” 

ODESZA’s rework includes a stirring sample from her 1965 hit, ‘Let Me Down Easy’. Set against funky guitar strums, drilling basslines and perfectly placed skips, it succeeds as a fierce take on a timeless classic. 

“‘The Last Goodbye’ and ‘Light of Day’ are the longest songs we've done as ODESZA,” Harrison explains. “We knew these needed to make the record, and we built the rest of it around those two songs.” 

ODESZA achieves their goal of tailoring each track to be equal parts unique and at the same time fitting to the greater collection. ‘Love Letter’, a collaboration with NYC duo, The Knocks, also boasts a raw, vintage feel. “It's got that early 2000s, Moby-esque vibe – that time period was a big influence for us and for this record,” Knight shares of the groove, which was nearly three years in the making. “It kind of feels like a sample-based track with the vocal work-up, and it has a lot of vinyl grit and retro sounds built into it to capture that sentiment.” 

The single ‘Behind the Sun’ bears similarities to an epic film score, and there’s plenty of cuts that put an emphasis on songwriting as well, two ends of the spectrum that are ever present in the opus from the Knight-Mills camp (or the BeachesBeaches-Catacombkid camp, if you want to go way back.) ‘Wide Awake’ featuring Charlie Houston is in that second category and encapsulates ODESZA’s talent for building sonic worlds around singalong-worthy lyrics. The Canadian vocalist’s passionate performance is filtered, repitched and cut loose in every chorus in ways that feels wholly authentic to the band’s output so far. 

“With the first demo we got from her, we sped it up 15 DB, or something, and that made her sound pretty wild. She was like, I think I’m gonna re-record this,” Harrison adds, cracking up at the exchange. Even after the tweaking, the end result is one that makes you want to dance, and that’s no coincidence. 

“I think [this album] is a little more uptempo. With ‘A Moment Apart’ there were higher tempos, but, like, halftime so you’re looking at the 70 or 80 BPM range,” Knight explains. “We even use a lot of different party noises in this one, so it has this sense of community coming back together, I think, which is fun.” An increased focus on synthesis also adds an innovative and body-moving complexity to many of the songs. 

Fans will have to wait a bit longer to hear the rest of ODESZA’s evocative creations, and when release day comes make sure to listen nonstop from start to finish, and then maybe a second time. In fact, some might not even realize they’ve reached the end, as the body is produced as a perfect loop (it fooled us more than once.) After ‘Light of Day’, the audio feeds right back into the intro, aptly titled ‘Version of You’. It’s an especially entrancing piece (actually) that features American producer, Julianna Barwick, and a soothing voiceover from Mills’ real-life hypnotherapist. 

“I found the recording from a session she and I did about four years ago, and it really spoke to some of the themes of the record,” Mills explains. “We ended up talking with her about putting it on the record, and it just felt very fitting.” 

“I don’t know if she realizes how wide her voice is,” Knight comments before Mills quips back.

“I don’t know if she even knows what band I’m in!” The colleagues laugh at the thought of how that will play out later this month when her mesmerizing words pour from loud speakers across the North American continent. 

ODESZA performing live

“We love having a narrative in records, whether it's overt, or subtle. We want them to feel like a journey, and by the end like you've experienced a breadth of different music. That's always been really, really exciting for us – how do we make 10 to 13 songs feel different but also feel as though they are each a part of the same thing.” – Harrison Mills

This Version

It’s been a long road to this unveiling. Circumstances felt like a “gut punch” for ODESZA at the top of 2020, when plans to tour the self-titled debut LP for their BRONSON side project (which they share with Australian producer, Golden Features) were dashed.

“That album was built for live,” Knight says, with a lingering disappointment. 

“And then we couldn’t do it,” Harrison continues. “When that happened it just felt like we couldn’t give the full experience of what that record was supposed to be.” 

But in this new chapter, ODESZA are seizing the opportunity to give fans exactly what they deserve. They’ll launch their stage show for ‘The Last Goodbye’ on July 29th at Seattle’s Climate Pledge Arena, complete with the brass section and a live drumline that make their layered productions larger than life. Here they’ll reveal the narrative that they believe is reflective of the men behind the decks right now. 

“We needed to do what we were thinking about, and it felt like it would be disingenuous to not make [the album] about how we were feeling at the time,” Harrison reflects. “You’ve got to follow your heart, as cliche as it sounds.” 

When attendees take in ‘The Last Goodbye’ in-person, they’ll bear witness to ODESZA in their highest form yet. As the Foreign Family Collective label bosses and their bandmates travel through a decade-long discography, unleashing cuts against a backdrop of video, audio and other relics from the days that led to this moment, audiences will in turn become an important part of the group’s history.  

The guys perhaps said it best in a development message about ‘The Last Goodbye” that they sent to their champions earlier this spring: “​​We came to find comfort in the idea that those close to us, stay with us. Within ourselves and forever echoing in our lives.” 

The people we love, the places we go, the experiences we share, the music that we listen to, all become forces that drive us, collectively bearing forth the version of who we are today. Basking in the euphoric light of ODESZA during these summer months should make for some exceptional versions, we must say.

Megan Venzin is DJ Mag North America's Contributing Editor. You can follow her on Twitter @Meggerzv