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From jam sessions at Western to a national tour: A Seattle electronic music phenomenon

Seattle electronic duo ODESZA started as a Western Washington University mash-up, but has topped the charts and toured internationally with a little help from the internet.
Clayton Knight (left) and Harrison Mills.

Clayton Knight (left) and Harrison Mills. Bronson Snelling

Harrison Mills and Clayton Knight are serving up some sweet electronic beats on their first North American headline tour.

Harrison Mills and Clayton Knight are serving up some sweet electronic beats on their first North American headline tour. Katherine Kwan

Harrison Mills and Clayton Knight bob their heads with the crisp beats of their electronic music in a smoothly synchronized fashion. Their sound is a waterfall of cascading vocal loops and distinctive rhythmic syncopation, which has received over 4.7 million streams on SoundCloud, hit No. 1 on the Hype Machine popular chart eight times and unexpectedly allowed them to devote all of their time to their passion for music as the Seattle electronic duo known as ODESZA

After completing a large-scale tour with Emancipator, they launched their first North American headline tour earlier this year — an accomplishment that went quite well. The 26 performances, to showcase their "My Friends Never Die" extended play recording, included sold-out shows at the Echoplex in Los Angeles, The Independent in San Francisco and Neumos in Seattle. They just finished a five-show tour in Australia and will return to U.S. touring next week. They will be back in Seattle to appear at the Capitol Hill Block Party late this month.

Mills and Knight have developed a strong following in the music world since forming their duo two years ago by independently recording their music and releasing it on the Internet. ODESZA is hardly alone in finding a footing without outside help. With the help of programs like GarageBand, SoundCloud and countless others, musicians can record and promote their music all by themselves, without the guiding hand of a record label or an agent. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics analyzed by Techdirt, in 2003, there were only 300 independent musicians, but last year that increased to 1,830.

One result has been musicians taking more risks with their sound or even the instruments they use. They are increasingly free to make the music they want to make, as opposed to simply the music that is going to sell, which has spurred the creation of groups like ODESZA.

The founding of ODESZA was very informal. Mills and Knight didn’t first meet until their senior years at Western Washington University in 2012, at which point they both had plans for a very different future — especially Knight, who had his sights set on studying science in graduate school.

Although they both had backgrounds in music, it was very much a hobby rather than a career plan. Knight was trained in classical and jazz piano, and started recording guitar and drum tracks while in college. Mills had some training on trumpet in middle school, but the majority of his music making took shape in college. “I messed around with samplers and keyboards I bought at Goodwill; making instrumental hip hop and ambient music,” he explained. “I was 19 and just kind of experimenting and what not.”

Each of them had an affinity for electronic music production but didn’t know anyone with the same passion. So, when they finally met two years ago, they wanted to learn about each other’s process and production techniques. “We were jamming one day, and kind of showing each other what we’d been working on, and it just kind of went from there,” said Knight. “It was pretty organic.” Their work together led to the creation of their first release, "Summer’s Gone." They were able to record it and release it to the public on their own. And when two of its tracks made it to No. 1 on the Hype Machine Popular chart, their music career simply spiraled out from there.

Knight said that it has been great getting to travel to new places as touring musicians, but the highlight for him was performing at Sasquatch. “I go pretty much every year, and I’ve always been a big fan of the Gorge and the whole festival,” he said. “So being able to perform there was really fun.”

Since its independent beginning, ODESZA has acquired its own management team to help with the non-music side of the career. “When we jumped into the music thing, we kind of thought it would be just focused on music,” said Knight. He said it’s been a challenge to understand the business side of being music performers, so he is happy to have a strong management team to guide the way.

Today, Mills and Knight are working to complete a new album in the fall, and they have plans for a performance tour across Europe. Their organic, informal start has opened the doors to what is shaping into an extraordinary music career — a feat that’s been a surprise for the duo. “It’s all been really surreal,” said Knight. “We had no expectation of where this could go.”

Crosscut's arts coverage is made possible through the generous support of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.

Hallie Golden is a freelance journalist based in Seattle. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Economist, World Policy Journal, and Seattle Magazine.


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