A funny thing used to happen to the ODESZA guys. Back in the Washington electronic duo’s early days, before the online buzz blossomed into packed concert halls and Grammy nominations, it wasn’t uncommon for local fans at some of their first shows to be a little confused about the Bellingham-formed, Seattle-based group’s geographic origins.
“It was funny,” Harrison Mills recalled in 2019, “in Seattle, people all thought we were from Australia. We would get asked all the time after our show, ‘Where are you guys from?’ I live six blocks from this venue.”
Yeah, that hasn’t happened in a while.
Over the past decade, ODESZA has grown into an electronic music juggernaut defying categorization — a ticket-selling, dance music force that raised the live performance bar for electronic artists while flourishing outside of the mainstream. In the process, the indie-electronic stars have become Seattle music ambassadors to a new legion of fans who may or may not care for the various rock waves the Northwest is more closely associated with.
Now, Mills and his partner in cinematic beatcraft, Clayton Knight, are on the precipice of the biggest moment of their careers. In recent weeks, the cerebral producer duo have been holing up in Everett’s Angel of the Winds Arena rehearsing for the most ambitious tour of their careers — one cementing their place among Seattle’s top tier of musical exports. Of our active homegrown heroes still based in Seattle, only Pearl Jam, a legacy band with its own ecosystem, routinely draws larger crowds than ODESZA will face on much of its upcoming run.
This spring, the college buddies since their Western Washington University days made a splash when they announced “The Last Goodbye,” ODESZA’s first album in five years, arriving July 22. The group’s post-lockdown comeback tour would get a jump-start with a Climate Pledge Arena date, but as tickets were quickly gobbled up, two more shows were added.
A single night at the sparkling new arena would have been ODESZA’s largest Seattle headliner to date. Instead, the three-night blowout (July 29-31), which is nearly sold out, will be the city’s biggest hometown stand since Pearl Jam’s 2018 Home Shows, recalling Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ three-nighter in the old KeyArena at the height of their popularity in 2013. It will also be the biggest run in Climate Pledge’s young history, with sold-out after-parties taking over the Showbox after the Friday and Saturday shows.
And it’s not just a Seattle thing. ODESZA’s already sold 90% of the tickets across the entire tour, according to trade magazine Pollstar, with most of the dates at amphitheaters and arenas completely sold out. (The tour’s sales and ambitious amphitheater slate, a dance music rarity, recently earned the group a spot on the trade magazine’s cover.)
Not bad for a couple of Western kids who started making beats together in a “leaky” Bellingham basement that “smelled really bad.”
“It was definitely a bit of a shocker, you know,” Knight says. “Three years not doing much, never released music in a while. There’s a bunch of question marks, so there was definitely a little nervous energy around how these ticket sales would go.”
“Yeah, I think they were talking about trying to do four” Climate Pledge shows, Mills adds. “We were like, ‘That’s insane. Our bodies can’t handle it.’”
Fortunately, the two beatsmiths, known for incorporating live instrumentation, and the tour’s 90-person production crew will have some downtime after the hometown stand. The rest of the tour, which has ODESZA doing multiple nights in most of the larger markets, won’t resume until Aug. 11 in Los Angeles, an unusual gap created by an affection for their home city.
“Originally, Seattle was not the first stop,” Knight admits. “It was planned for a little later. But we felt like being so long off the road that not doing a hometown show to kick it off would be a mistake. So, we actually changed the routing to do this. That’s why there’s a gap between Seattle and the rest of the shows. … There’s no better way to kick something off than at your hometown with your hometown crowd, right?”
ODESZA’s music — a heady blend of house, downtempo, future bass, synth pop and myriad other genres — and live show have continuously scaled up since their first performance in 2012, opening for local favorites Beat Connection at Bellingham’s Wild Buffalo. Elaborate tour productions replete with sprawling drum lines and widescreen visuals rivaling big-budget sci-fi flicks have become a hallmark for the group as they’ve graduated to larger venues.
Helping Knight and Mills shape these increasingly grand visions are another pair of friends from their Western days, Sean Kusanagi and Luke Tanaka, who have been with ODESZA since the beginning. (Tanaka used to rig projectors when they were still playing tiny clubs and it was Kusanagi who introduced Mills and Knight in the dorms.) The tight-knit college friends form the creative nucleus overseeing a tour Kusanagi says is also their biggest from a production standpoint, despite supply chain issues that have hampered the concert industry like many other sectors.
“Trying to get a laundry machine delivered to your house is difficult,” says Kusanagi, who went to high school with Knight on Bainbridge Island. “So as you’re having trouble sourcing a couch in your living room, imagine that times a thousand.”
Without giving too much away, the new tour features a beefed-up everything: more lights and pyro, a bigger drum line and video wall, plus a custom-built stage, riser setup and LED drums. For Kusanagi, rehearsals have brought several pinch-me moments in disbelief of how far they’ve come since huddling in Mills’ and Knight’s bedrooms back in the day, checking out their new tracks.
“It’s definitely one of the most incredible experiences,” he says, “and to look over and be like ‘Hey, we’re not in the college basement anymore, we’re here in Climate Pledge to three sold-out nights.’ I don’t think it will hit me until after the shows are done that we did this.”
According to Knight, the core four’s close bonds create a give-and-take dynamic that allows the best ideas to rise to the top, even if it’s a difficult process at times. “Having that family-type scenario with all of us creates a dialogue that you can’t get from any other relationship where you can be really honest — and brutally honest, at times — with each other about what’s working and what’s not.”
Says Mills, “I honestly don’t know if we could have done it any other way. I can’t see how we could have. Those people mean everything to us. They’re a part of that sentiment of the [new] record.”
That sentiment Mills refers to is a unifying theme across “The Last Goodbye,” ODESZA’s fourth album jointly released through London’s Ninja Tune — a renowned indie label known for its left-of-center electronic artists — and their own Foreign Family Collective.
For many people, the pandemic ushered in feelings of isolation, but for Mills and Knight, the forced reprieve from the tour-life grind offered a chance to reconnect with family and friends, and rebuild relationships neglected due to the rigors of the road. They also each got married — “Both backyard weddings, COVID-style,” Mills says.
The album is sprinkled with home recordings that give one of their more dance-forward projects an intimate feel. That familial focus became intertwined with thoughts about mortality when a friend’s father got COVID-19 and was given slim chances of survival.
“We kind of took solace in this idea that someone’s impact that they’ve left on you is always with you and in a way, you’re always carrying those before you,” Mills says of the album title. “So really, the conversation about ‘The Last Goodbye’ is: Is there ever really one? We’d like to think there isn’t.”
The title track and lead single, which samples Bettye LaVette’s 1965 tune “Let Me Down Easy,” is pure house euphoria, a hands-in-air get-down with a funky bridge befitting a post-lockdown release. Along similarly upbeat lines, “Forgive Me” showcases the duo’s dance-pop sensibilities with twirling, disco-kissed escapism.
Leaning into ODESZA’s dancier side was partly a lingering effect of their BRONSON side project with Australian DJ/producer Golden Features, as well as a subconscious yearning for live shows, Mills explains.
“We really wanted this record to feel hopeful and feel like people coming together again,” he says. “Dance music does that really well, so it felt like the right music for a lot of what we were trying to say and the things we wanted to happen.”
For all the dance-floor rejuvenation, “The Last Goodbye” certainly isn’t without the epic soundscapes that are another ODESZA signature, from the ominous “Behind the Sun” to the trip-hoppy daydream of “Healing Grid.” The album crystallizes some of the widescreen dynamics that came into 4K focus on 2017’s “A Moment Apart,” even with a less-is-more approach at times. Some of the buildups in particular are granted more breathing room for dramatic effect.
“We love to layer stuff, which is great,” Knight says. “It builds these big sounds. But at the same time, we have so much on top of each other they can kind of take away from other elements. … Giving the room and time and space to things we wanted to really pop was something we consciously did on this round.”
ODESZA’s music and live shows have come a long way in the 10 years since self-releasing their “Summer’s Gone” debut in the twilight of their college years. But even early on, their genre-mixing style and love of organic sounds — informed by live sets they caught at the late Sasquatch! and Decibel festivals, and clubs like Neumos — was something entirely their own, says Austin Santiago, who booked their first Bellingham show.
“They really did sound like themselves only,” says Santiago, now an artist manager and marketing head with an LA venue group. “I would say a genre has kinda sprung up around them in a lot of ways.”
On the surface, ODESZA’s rise stands in contrast with much of the guitar-driven rock movements that define Seattle music in the minds of many outsiders. Some of the tools might be different, but on some level, that sonic maverick spirit isn’t that dissimilar from the one that coursed through some of Seattle’s guitar-wielding history makers, whose hard-to-classify, rough-edged strain of rock was only captured in a made-up word.
Despite the number of stars and acclaimed indie artists to have sprung from the region in the last 30 years, there’s a sentiment in some corners of the scene that artists need to move to Los Angeles or New York to make it. According to Santiago, ODESZA’s success — while staying in Seattle, surrounded by collaborators they came up with — proves “it’s still true that you can become worldwide successes and still live in your neighborhood and still hang out with your same friends.”
ODESZA’s spotlight also directly benefits Seattle artists like idiosyncratic producer Chong the Nomad, whom Santiago reps, with their success putting the city on the map for a different demographic.
“It reestablishes Seattle as a global talent hub in a new genre, because this is a kind of music that’s successful all over the world,” Santiago says. “So, if you’re associated with that city that ODESZA came out of or somewhat related to that scene, it’s proof that you’re in a world-class city regarding the type and the quality of music being created.”
Genre differences or no, Mills and Knight have always felt part of the same Northwest lineage that produced bands they grew up on like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Death Cab for Cutie, teaming with the latter for a 2019 Bellingham show that pulled around 12,000 fans. Chong the Nomad was tapped for support. (“Death Cab was, like, my entire college” years, Knight says.) Until now, that was the largest home state crowd ODESZA had drawn.
“There’s just some unspoken thing that we’ve always felt extremely connected to and I think a lot of the artists that come from [the Pacific Northwest] share that,” Mills says. “Seattle has always been our home and we have a lot of pride in that.”