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Odesza finds stardom with EDM for people who think they don’t like EDM

Above: Harrison Mills (left) and Clayton Knight of Odesza.TREVOR COLLENS/AFP/Getty Images

From its humble beginning in 2012 as a collaboration between college students Harrison Mills (CatacombKid) and Clayton Knight (BeachesBeaches), Odesza has become one of the biggest draws in electronic dance music (EDM). Known more for indelible pop songs such as “Say My Name,” “How Did I Get Here,” “Sun Models,” and “It’s Only” than for bone-rattling dance-fest pyrotechnics, the duo now has two best-selling albums to its credit (2012’s “Summer’s Gone” and 2014’s “In Return”).

A consistent bestseller on the road, Odesza has become a familiar presence at destination events like Coachella, Lollapalooza, and Bonnaroo. Speaking by telephone from his home in Seattle during a brief break before a headlining spot at Boston Calling, Mills spoke about Odesza’s rapid ascent.


Q. Reading into some of the very positive press notices you’ve been getting lately, you could definitely get a sense of Odesza being described as “EDM for people who think they don’t like EDM.” Do you ever get that sense?

A. I think usually that’s actually when they get it right. I wouldn’t say that that’s exactly the right thing, but I would definitely say it’s closer than the alternative. Some people just assume, because there are laptops involved, that it’s not even music.

Q. You and Clayton met in college. What made you connect musically?

A. We went to school about an hour and a half north of Seattle, a liberal arts school in Bellingham called Western Washington University. We went to school with a bunch of people who mainly did folk and indie rock, so electronic music really wasn’t a thing — when I was getting into it, I couldn’t really share that love with anyone. My friend Sean [Kusanagi] is a music-video director, among other things, and he introduced us. It was a pretty quick friendship, because we liked so many artists that people didn’t really know about; this was right at the beginning of SoundCloud, and we were talking about all these artists that had like 200 followers. We wanted to do a record together — “you do two songs, I do two songs” — but we ended up working on a track together, and in four hours we’d made three songs.


Q. The average listener can visualize musicians sitting together in a room, writing songs on guitars or whatnot, but how do the two of you approach that process?

A. It’s shifted a lot since we started. At first we’d set up both of our computers; we were in Clay and Sean’s basement, and they had a drum kit set up, a bunch of guitars and basses, and a little PA system. We’d plug in our computers; we each had a thing called a Maschine, which is a MIDI controller. We would synch our computers together, and then we’d start with little pieces — a chord progression, a drum thing, or maybe it’s cut-up pieces of other sounds — and then we’d just layer them back and forth, over and over, and take turns trying different things. We were trying to just get ideas out as much as possible.

Q. There are tracks on both albums where you’ve employed sounds like vinyl crackle, tape hiss, and other anachronistic signifiers. Is that a conscious kind of nostalgia? A nod to your roots?

A. Yeah, there is a piece of nostalgia in that, listening to old records that my parents had. But another piece of that is we kind of fell in love with hip-hop production, the sampling of old records, and the real warmth of vinyl that you just can’t hear anywhere else.


Q. Dealing with electronic music in a live setting, you’re always confronted with a perception that if you’re up onstage with just a laptop, who’s to say you’re not starting up a playlist and then reading your e-mail the rest of the time? Given that you’re dealing with programmed elements, how do you change things up from one night to the next?

A. I would say 60 to 80 percent of our show is reworked versions of our songs, whether it be almost completely new everything except for the melody that people recognize, or maybe just replacing drums and bass to make things sound better — you can make something in your bedroom and it sounds good, and then play it on a giant PA system at a festival and realize, well, that sounds terrible. We try to bring out surprises from time to time; we’ve brought out drumlines. We have two horn players. We have a guitar and bass player, which is actually Sean, the guy who introduced us. We’re up there triggering stuff, cutting stuff up, looping stuff. Grabbing different pieces: kick drum, snare drum, percussion, vocal, hi-hat, synth, melody, harmony — I can grab each individual piece and do whatever I want to it. It really is a lot of fun up there to just mess around.



At Boston Calling, City Hall Plaza, May 28 at 7:55 p.m. www.bostoncalling.com

Interview was condensed and edited. Steve Smith can be reached at steven.smith@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nightafternight.