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Odesza, the Grammy-nominated Seattle duo, is fostering success through community

I first heard of the metaphorical use of “layers” in 2001 when I saw Shrek. At 12, I inherently knew there were rarely straightforward explanations to the actions of people, or ideas, or events. But this is my first memory of a simplified term being used to describe complexity.

Shrek, the film’s misanthropic protagonist, is attempting to explain to Donkey, his sidekick, that he is a layered individual whose identity could not be summed up in mere appearance.

A few weeks ago I was describing Odesza to a friend and she quickly brushed the conversation off with “I don’t really listen to EDM.” This statement scraped at the back of my head for the next few hours, not because it was dismissive, but because I struggled to define Odesza’s sound as EDM. Much like their green ogre counterpart, their sound is too layered for that definition to be apt.

Nowadays using the term “EDM” to define a genre is about as useful as labeling something “alternative rock” – the term is too broad and all-encompassing to accurately define those who technically play within it.

Not every EDM artist sounds like Marshmello, though certainly many attempt to (looking at you Slushii, go be your own person!). There are also music critics, like an often misguided Pitchfork, who have tried to box Odesza into the “CDM” category (Chill Dance Music: chillstep, chilltrap, etc.), but this too is simplistic – especially with their album A Moment Apart’s recent ascent.

If I had to categorize the Seattle duo’s music, and especially A Moment Apart, I would describe it as Joie-de-Vivre-DM—it is a celebration of the spectrum of emotions that are constantly defined and redefined by our relationships with one another.

And though continuously shifting, no aspect is more magnificent than the other – they simply pronounce different nuances. This is why “Corners of the Earth” was the perfect bookend for A Moment Apart, and probably why it was chosen as the official song of the Winter Olympics.

Three years ago it might’ve been considered audacious to mention Odesza in the same breath as LCD Soundsystem and Bonobo, yet on Sunday they will be competing (perhaps as favorites) for accolades against those same artists in the 60th Annual Grammy Awards.

A win on Sunday would put them on a shortlist of other Seattle-based artists to win the award: Macklemore, Soundgarden, Dave Matthews, jazz singer Diane Schuur, and fiddler Mark O’Connor. So when I spoke to Clayton Knight, one half of the Grammy-nominated duo (along with Harrison Mills) a few weeks ago, I asked him about the significance of their nominations:

“It’s setting in. When I found out, I had been hanging out with my cousin in New York (Sup, Brady!) and at the time I was just not ready for the news. I think what has been making it the most ‘real’ has been seeing my parents’ generation get into it and finally understand where we are as a band. It’s almost like ‘oh, now we’re legit.’ I think at times, from production to all of the time and energy we put into our tours, it was difficult for them to fathom why we were doing everything at this scale. But now that they’re ‘getting it,’ that’s been really cool.”

One key aspect to Odesza’s famously loyal fan base is that almost every live performance is different: they not only perform multiple iterations of the same song based on venue, crowd size, and ambience, but also often include Easter eggs of other songs they’re working on during these sets.

This was the case in their Spring 2016 tour when they regularly dropped snippets of then unreleased tracks “Boy” and “Line of Sight”. And there are still samples of other songs we’ve had glimpses of that have yet to be released. When working on this album, the duo began with 50 possible songs, which they eventually whittled down to 16. I asked Clayton about that process:

“Each track begins as an idea and we save every single idea. The paring down process is essentially that every idea needs to have a moment where we think it deserves to be on the album – where it conceptually ties into the theme of everything else we’re doing. But there are ideas that we’ve been working on since college that are still unfinished. Sean Kusanagi (their lead guitarist) definitely has moved into the role of our de-facto tiebreaker. If I like something that Harrison doesn’t, or vice-versa, we always ask Sean to weigh in—his feedback and opinion is invaluable to our process.”

Clayton went on to describe his most difficult omission thus far:

“As far as our toughest omission from an album goes… oh, that’s tough. I guess I’d have to say ‘Falls’. We had written the instrumental on that way before In Return came out – it was just never ready. We went through a lot of painstaking rewrites for that song before we were happy with it.”

I can usually tell I’m listening to an Odesza album by the first track – the signature openings for their debut album Summer’s Gone (2012) and last September’s A Moment Apart include voiceovers that set the table for the rest of the experience. I wanted to know where these choices originated:

“It’s usually whatever is connecting the whole album. So for A Moment Apart, it’s this quote from the film Another Earth. The whole premise here is that we were looking for something that reflected the notion of just stepping back and looking at things a little differently. We’d actually love to score the soundtrack for a film one day. I loved the soundtrack for Inception, so something like that would be really exciting. Or any project with Trent Reznor and Sci-Fi – sign me up.”

Two days after A Moment Apart’s release last September, Odesza visited Seattle’s KEXP (Where the Music Matters!) to perform what was one of their most personal and ethereal renditions to date. I had been following local DJ legend (and A&R extraordinaire) Cheryl Waters’ show for years and was familiar with her championing of local artists, including Odesza. I was eager to hear what it was like performing for her:

“[KEXP] does a great job of musical education and promotion for local artists – Cheryl and KEXP have been an incredible resource for me since the very first days and they’re just so in touch with Seattle and the Northwest and its musicians. It was both surreal and a privilege to be able to do that with them.”

Clayton also touched on designing and playing A Moment Apart in a more intimate, non-stadium setting at KEXP:

“‘Corners of the Earth’ is a great example of a song that would work well in that setting. Thematically, it’s very tame in comparison to the rest of the album. For large audiences, songs like that can kill the energy of the crowd, so to compete with that, we’ve had to bring out the drum line. For other songs with a similar intimacy, we’ve had to remix them. It’s all about the venue – it’s got to be the right place, where a more intimate show is expected and possible. Ideally I would love a place featuring a line of horns and string quartets.”

An aspect of Odesza’s music not mentioned often enough is the sense of unity it evokes among their audience. Having been to several of their shows, the feedback I’ve most commonly heard amongst their fanbase is “they get it – we’re all in this together.”

While that admittedly sounds like something your drunk-ass friend would shout in your ear at 3:00 AM, that doesn’t make the sentiment any less accurate. Life is experiential. We form memories and feelings based around those experiences, and sometimes those experiences are shared; other times, we are utterly and completely alone. But every one of these experiences is a gift and this series of gifts flows in and out of each other… not unlike organic instrumentation.

This emphasis on community extends beyond their fan base. I could hear it in Clayton’s voice when I asked him what it meant to have Waters’ support over the years, but it was especially apparent when I spoke to him about Odesza’s label, Foreign Family Collective. FFC boasts a lean house of 13 artists (Jai Wolf, Rufus Du Sol, and Chet Porter, to name a few) and they’d like to keep it that way:

“When we first started, Soundcloud was huge. Our label was supposed to give these artists a foothold. [I think he had more to say here?] When it comes to what we look for in new artists, I think the two most important factors is that the production needs to be there and it has to have a unique feel to it. Foreign Family is actually in a really exciting place – we’re doing singles now, looking towards full albums. We’re also working with younger kids who really don’t have much experience. We would like to incorporate more visual artists, as well. Really the goal is to curate and build an art house of sorts, where we have a marriage of A to V and collaboration across the mediums.”

Odesza, Big Wild, Chet Porter and Jai Wolf just… messin’ around!

I was able to keep my inner fanboy at bay for 40 of the 45 minutes Clayton and I chatted, but for 5 minutes I kind of lost professional control – I had to ask him about the rumors I had heard regarding Odesza’s interest in collaborating with arguably my favorite band, Tame Impala. I asked which songs Clayton was interested in remixing if a short partnership was in order:

“Wow, that’s a tough one. I think if I had to choose it would be ‘Cause I’m A Man.’ Getting to work with the vocals when Kevin Parker hits that high note – that high E, I believe? I just think could make for a really powerful and evocative. Either that, or ‘Feels Like We Only Go Backwards’ – that’s just such a jam too.

“As for our songs, I would love to see what those guys could do with the Leon Bridges feature in ‘Across the Room.’ In general, Kevin just has the 60’s sound so down-pat, I would love to see how he would approach a hip-hop style, or something with a heavy snare, or bass focus.”

Someone please tweet that quote at Kevin Parker.