ODESZA is Harrison Mills and Clayton Knight, an experimental electronic duo from Seattle, the kind that doesn’t consider itself an EDM act. Maybe that’s fair: the acronym (Electronic Dance Music) has been stigmatized by artless knuckle-draggers only interested in their next hasty bass drop. A more nuanced, creatively ambitious act like ODESZA does not deserve this company: their music flickers and lurches in unexpected ways, the voices they coat across their fields of pecking noises sound protohuman as they howl in the throes of a kind of pre-speech, words chopped into loops of a single, manic concern that evades the comfort of language. Amongst the myriad producers across the world putting their music on Soundcloud, ODESZA have stood out. But there are structural forces at work, the strictures of “dance music,” that ODESZA do not buck. You can hear these forces when ODESZA plays live, when they “really just want people to have a good time.” They give the crowd their drops. “But we definitely want to try to cater to all the different things we like. So there’s slower songs that we like… but maybe we’ll speed those up live.”
Cater is a curious word to use when referring to one’s own desires; what the artist wants and what the audience demands are at odds, but ODESZA positions what the artist wants as that which is “catered to,” obliged – the inferior want. It’s a worryingly entrepreneurial notion, that a musician is on stage, first and foremost, to give the audience what it wants, to make sure the paying customer is having fun. When ODESZA plays what they like, they are serving themselves. Self-serving. Is that what music is if nobody is dancing to it? Is that how ODESZA sees their slow songs? Well not if they’re sped up, no.
They’ve been touring with Pretty Lights (Derek Smith), an electronic artist who, unlike the Soundcloud-acolytes in ODESZA, put himself on the map via big tent festivals like Coachella. There is an intoxicating sense of physicality to the kind of music that bands (hardly an apt term anymore, but, alas) like Pretty Lights make from behind their computers. Even when EDM is sparse or spectral, it necessarily floods the ear, erases everything around it. The bass sounds that thunder out of all of the modern technology are inhuman, grotesque in a way that used to make me afraid. I could feel the music underneath my ribs as it took control, and I’d get panic attacks. But, apparently, there comes a point in a boy’s life when he simply needs to let himself get pummeled.
That’s what people seem to be there for, anyway. ODESZA’s most recent EP, My Friends Never Die, is the duo’s heaviest release, and their most danceable. They wrote this music specifically for crowds, but their entire first release, Summer’s Gone, is, in Mills’ words, a “mellower” affair. He says of their live shows: “So we’ll play songs from both albums during a set, building with our mellow stuff and then ending with the big dancy tracks from the last EP. I think sometimes when we first start playing people are confused because we’re opening for Pretty Lights and we’re playing this really mellow stuff. I think that’s kind of cool because otherwise nobody would hear that stuff -” the stuff ODESZA wrote because they love it, the stuff during which the audience has to stand still and acknowledge the artist on stage, the stuff that reminds the audience that they are not there to be served, they are there to watch a musician perform his music, and that those are two different things.
There is something selfless about the kind of thing ODESZA and other dance groups do when they end with the big dancy tracks, the bangers. They stand trapped behind the knobs that rupture them from the automatic euphoria sweeping through the crowd, bending the boys and girls in the audience like so many stalks of wheat underneath a stiff wind. ODESZA isn’t cooled by it.
A danceable electronic song needs to make unexpected shifts in dynamics seem fated and natural, like a brittle stiletto that falls down a flight of stairs only to land on the foot of the prettiest girl in the room. Drum patterns knock around in seeming haphazard, a keyboard or a voice sample coos a swooning melody; all of the parts seem on the verge of interrupting each other until they fit together into a stunningly logical stomp. If this sounds formulaic it’s because it can be. Sometimes when I listen to EDM for too long the songs can blur together. I get the sense that each track is being pulled towards the same breakdown by some awful, blind inertia.
“If There’s Time,” the track ODESZA identifies as its favorite on My Friends Never Die, opens with a chorus of pitched-down vocals spilling all over each other, some truly thundering flushes of bass, and small, crackling percussives floating about. Everything gets pulled together by another voice, this one pitched-up over the noise. This voice slurs a cogent melody, and suddenly the background voices start breathing in time. The bass kicks are now perfectly off-kilter, a synth swoops into the mix unnoticed, and then everything falls away and what is left of the noise is placid and stunned. Then the noises come back. Then they go away again. Then they come back. The timing of the entries and the textures of the sound may vary, but there comes a point when you just want the noises to stay away.
For talented musicians like ODESZA, this formula must be limiting. When I ask them if they have ambitions to be playing huge, muddy festival crowds demanding to be moved and beaten, they answer without an “Uh.” No. Flying Lotus is an aspirational figure, not Calvin Harris. Flying Lotus is Steven Ellison and his record label Brainfeeder, founded in 2008, has “created its own music culture,” in so far as a culture can exist without any sort of physical space where culture-members may meet. Ellison is more or less responsible for determining experimental electronic music’s sound. He is the cutting edge, which pretty much means a lot of found-sounds, non-intuitive drum programming, and a zealous resistance to danceable time signatures, anything the muscles can predict. You have to pay attention to get his shit. You might even want to learn his name.
Basically Flying Lotus can do whatever the fuck he wants because, as Mills says, he has “a very open-minded audience,” a crowd that gets off to ambition and innovation, a crowd of people like Mills and Knight. ODESZA never explicitly says that they want Flying Lotus’ audience (which would mean ditching at least some of theirs), but they do say that they would “love to score movies, do a ton of different things,” do anything to expand their breadth of creative opportunity, maybe do things that rolling teenagers might not want to dance to.
The My Friends Never Die EP is full of good ideas, accents and wisps of the unusual, but, make no mistake, it is a build-drop enterprise, be it a subtler one than Skrillex fans might be used to. Not once do ODESZA insinuate that they are unsatisfied with the material, but from the way they talk of their future, it’s clear that they want much more. They played a lot of stadiums while touring with Pretty Lights, the cold, gusty mountain top of EDM venues. But Mills and Knight were most excited to tell me about their show at Bardot in LA, a tiny club, maybe 150 people, just three rows of crowd. A performer can know the faces of the audience in a place like that. A performer likes this.
ODESZA’s live material is meant to seamlessly transition between songs, to never interrupt the impregnable glaze of sound, and I’ll bet it gets frustrating, maybe even a little lonely, to be standing on stage, anonymous and still, silent, staring out over the undulating aggregate of darkness that fills those stadiums. ODESZA’s Soundcloud page has over 30,000 likes and I’ll bet a lot of those likes showed up to the stadiums and lost their shit at every drop. But at Bardot, ODESZA could see their eyes.