For Harrison “CatacombKid” Mills, one half of the the journey into music production started with a hip-hop show. Then in his late teens, Mills caught the group Subtle live in Seattle. More importantly, though, he saw Subtle member Jel open with a solo set played on an intriguing electronic gizmo. Mills recalls jumping onto the stage to get a closer look and writing the name of the machine — MPC 2000XL — onto his hand. He mowed lawns until he could save up the money to buy a similar piece of gear for himself.
Today, Mills is one-half of the electronic duo Odesza. Along with music-making partner Clayton “BeachesBeaches” Knight, Mills specializes in slow beats and dense, moody production. As remixers, they brought out the drama in Charli XCX’s single “Break the Rules” and cut-up Sia’s track “Big Girls Cry” into something barely resembling the original, but nonetheless intriguing. More recently, they added a Nineties shoegaze/trip-hop vibe to Porter Robinson and Amy Millan’s tune “Divinity.” Their original productions play like beat-driven scores — think of the late Nujabes’s work for the anime series Samurai Champloo — made for festival dance tents. It’s the kind of sound that could only emerge when two artists with differing influences come together through happenstance.
Mills and Knight barely knew each other when they formed Odesza. Both were studying at Western Washington University in Bellingham, near the Canadian border, and while the two students had an interest in electronic music production, their backgrounds and tastes differed. Mills points out that Knight learned piano when he was young and had more of a classical education behind him. Mills, on the other hand, had picked up a keyboard from Goodwill and messed around with it after school.
Where Knight had an interest in dance music, Mills was more into “cinematic music” and hip-hop. They bonded over left field artists like Boards of Canada and Four Tet and indie bands like Animal Collective. Mostly, though, they found a mutual interest in unearthing gems on Soundcloud. That got them talking about collaboration. “The first time we ended up jamming was about a week later after we met,” says Mills, “and we made three songs in our first sitting.”
They spent a summer getting to know each other while working in Knight’s basement. “It was something we had never done before,” says Mills. “We had never really collaborated with this style of music before.” The results landed on their 2012 album, Summer’s Gone.
“I was just really excited,” Mills says of the early recording sessions. “I never collaborated with someone and felt, without ever having to talk whatsoever, we were completely on the same page with each other.” Others were excited when they heard the fruits of Mills and Knight’s labors as well. A turning point for the duo was when they opened for electronic music producer Pretty Lights in 2013. “It really gave us inspiration,” Mills recalls of the shows. The two up-and-comers noticed how Pretty Lights drew arena-sized crowds without a radio hit. “That was mind-blowing to us,” says Mills.
For Odesza, that strengthened their belief that the duo could make waves on their own terms. “We always did everything ourselves,” says Mills. “We wanted our hand in everything. We didn’t want someone to take control of what we were doing.” Although their team has expanded over the years, they are still cautious of who they will bring onboard. “I think it really is important to make sure that people around you understand your vision and want to be a part of it instead of wanting to change it,” he says.
That need to follow their own instincts extends to the music too, particularly when they’ve moved away from what fans might expect. Mills says that they were concerned that fans might not dig their most recent album, In Return, since it emphasized vocal tracks as opposed to instrumental ones. “We were really worried that our fans would say, I only listen to your music in the background at work, I don’t want to hear lyrics,” Mills explains. That wasn’t the case though. In fact, the RAC remix of Odesza’s track “Say My Name,” with vocals from Zyra, was recently nominated for a Grammy.
Mills points out that he has used the word “genuine” frequently in our chat, but there’s a point to that. “I think that’s the key to creating an audience,” he says. And it’s particularly important in the trend-centric world of dance music. For Mills, the surge of fans Odesza could gather for grabbing onto the hot sound of the moment isn’t worth it in the long run. The idea of “timeless music” is an end-goal for Odesza. For Mills, it’s simple logic: “make good music to make good music.”
Odesza DJs on January 1 at Inception NYE After Hours with Chrome Sparks and Julia Niko.