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.