In 2012, Harrison Mills and Clayton Knight were just two twentysomething undergrads, helplessly barreling toward graduation day with a mix of anxiety and reluctance. In an attempt to make the most of their remaining time at Western Washington University, the two Seattle natives began spending their free time producing intricate soundscapes under the moniker Odesza. At first it was a hobby, with no grand career aspirations attached. Mills viewed the project as an opportunity to beef up his graphic-design portfolio with band logos and album artwork. Knight welcomed it as a reprieve from his demanding schedule of physics classes. Neither could anticipate that their homebrewed EDM would resonate on a global scale, garnering them more fans and fame than they know what to do with.
Odesza's 2014 sophomore release, In Return, debuted at Number One on the Billboard Electronic Music charts, and the two college buddies have been riding a wave of success ever since. Backstage at New York City's Terminal 5 in November, Mills, 26, and Knight, 27, took a quick break from their massive world tour and sat down with Rolling Stone to discuss their unexpected success, the debt they owe to winter sports and how they overcame their fear of flying.
Do you think your success represents a general evolution of American electronic music, away from the pulverizing, intense build-up-and-drop-style EDM and more toward a glossy, intellectual style of producing?
Mills: I think so.
Knight: I hope so. I hope we can go that way. And the future is bright. We love Sigur Rós and all that ambient kind of stuff. We're big fans of that, so it's a huge influence on us, and we love all those different elements and would love to kind of be the ambassadors, I guess, in the U.S. that would try to bring this into the U.S. crowd. Because there's definitely a market for it, and people want to hear it.
Mills: I think a lot of pop music is ... Like you'll hear this really interesting, weird beat on SoundCloud or something and then that will get really popular online, and then you'll see a popular, mainstream song come out that feels like someone showed them that beat and said, "Make this a Katy Perry version." You know? So I think that's what's really interesting, and I think that's really good because it actually forces all these people that would maybe not listen to that music at all get a taste of these weirder, more exotic sounds. So I think that that's why [electronic music] is pushing that way — it's getting pushed in the mainstream, which is great.
You sold out shows in London, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, New Orleans and Detroit, as well as multiple nights in New York City, Los Angeles, Seattle and many other cities. Since you guys started making music not too long ago, are you just completely flabbergasted by this intense success you're experiencing?
Mills: We are [laughs].
Knight: Definitely. It's pretty humbling to see how the response has been so positive. We're just happy, you know? Everyone seems to be liking it, and we get to keep doing what we're doing. It's fantastic.
Mills: We're trying not to think about it too much because that'll ruin it.
I read in a previous interview that you both used to be afraid of flying. Now you're jetsetting around the world.
Mills: When we first started, I remember one of the first shows was in Montana. ...
Knight: Oh, God. This tiny little propeller plane.
Mills: It was the worst
Knight: And we were both pretending like weren't afraid.
Mills: But yeah, we've slowly gotten over that.
Was that the Montana show where two people were allegedly having sex in the crowd?
Knight: No that was a later Montana show [laughs].
Mills: Yeah, a lot of weird Montana shows.
Knight: We did a lot of Montana shows early on.
Mills: Our beginning live show demographic was purely skiers. Like, ski towns and stuff was kind of how it started. Going back even farther, our music was being first used by extreme sports stuff.
Knight: That fan base is just so loyal and strong.
Mills: Also really open-minded, which is the cool thing.
Knight: It's funny. We actually met our lawyer because he skied. He heard one of our tracks while skiing and had a mind-altering experience. He was like, "I gotta talk to these guys!"
Mills: His babysitter put [the song "Today'] in his phone, and then it came on shuffle when he was skiing down a mountain. When he got to the bottom of the mountain, he looked us up and called our manager.
You guys recently got a private tour of the White House. What was that like?
Mills: It was so cool.
Knight: We were gonna meet Obama's dogs, but the caretakers wouldn't let us. It was really disappointing, but we got some cool pics.
Tell me about the day you met, and your first impressions of each other?
Mills: It was kind of like a week, because we hung out so much after.
Knight: Western Washington University is not a big school. It's pretty small. Like, a very tiny liberal arts college, and we were kind of the only people into electronic music. All my friends were into indie.
Mills: We bonded over liking all of these weird albums. It was right at the beginning of SoundCloud. And we were exchanging all these weird beatmakers we were finding that had 12 followers, and we bonded over loving so many different style of music. We like funk to soul to world music to everything, and I think that shows in a lot of our music. We take sounds from around the world. But yeah, when we first met it was probably at your house.
Knight: Yeah, it was in the basement.
Mills: [Clayton's roommate] wanted to hear some new music I was working on because he wanted to do a music video for me. I was playing him some stuff and Clay came downstairs while I was playing it and we started talking. Originally, we wanted to do a remix album or something, but it ended up just us jamming and going so well we made three songs the first time we started making music together.
And those songs ended up on your first album, Summer's Gone?
Knight: That was Summer's Gone, basically — us dicking around in the basement of my house, in some shitty studio. It was a cool setup, though. A lot of creativity in that room.
"That was Summer's Gone, basically — us dicking around in the basement of my house, in some shitty studio." —Clayton Knight
You released that album for free. Are you advocates of free music?
Knight: Yes, very much so.
Mills: All of our albums are on SoundCloud for free.
But you have a record label. How does that work?
Mills: It's kind of like the way everything is changing. When we signed up with [Counter Records] it was something we talked about right away from the beginning. Like, "This is how we see music changing. If you're on board with this, we think we should be a part of it rather than trying to fight it the whole time."
Knight: Streaming is the future. Buying albums and stuff will always be around, but the youth these days, they don't download. They just have Spotify, SoundCloud, YouTube. You can find anything and stream it. And the networks are so fast now, you have 4G everywhere.
Mills: They consider it more of a disservice if they can't get it for free. Like, I don't think [record labels] even realize that anymore.
It seems like you guys are a prime example of this new, Internet-savvy generation of music makers.
Knight: It's very true. It's a new world out there. The whole streaming thing is changing everything. The record labels, this is all very new territory and they don't really know how to handle it, how to approach it. So it's uncharted territory. ... There's a lot of old-school people, record labels in particular, who want to run it the way they've been running it for years.
Looking at streaming from a financial perspective, a lot of artists aren't happy getting fractions of a penny per stream. Do you guys wish that would change, or are you just happy people are listening?
Knight: I get it when people are smaller acts and have small cult followings, they're not going to get tons of plays. So, in that way I see it being sort of an issue, but I'm happy with what we get. ... With the amount of music that's out now, if people know your name, that's beyond powerful.
Mills: Yeah, it's a weird world. A weird music world right now.
Hopefully, you guys are creating a new frontier.
Mills: We'd love that.
Knight: Let's hope we don't fuck it up.