Rock n’ Roll history is sewn together with stories of authentic creative partnerships that blossomed into successful careers – people who struggled and came up together and the art that arose from those shared experiences. Today, we still have plenty of those romantic tales, but they can be easy to forget among the industry plants and reality shows. As a genre, electronic music has been especially subject to criticism due to rapid growth and heavy commercialization. This narrative can shift when acts like ODESZA have the chance to tell their story.
Under the name ODESZA, Harrison Mills and Clayton Knight released their first album, Summer’s Gone, to underground electronic acclaim in 2012. They then dove into a long period of touring that would heavily inform their 2014 album, In Return, their foray into the more vocally-driven style they are now known for. Singles “Say My Name” and “Sun Models” accelerated their rise to fame. In 2016, when “Say My Name (RAC Remix)” received a GRAMMY nomination, they had their first sign that their music was reaching industry taste-makers. Their music features prominent, soulful vocals over a plethora of organic percussive samples, expertly layered to create an equalized, full sound. Acapella vocal shots perfectly punctuate their uplifting tracks. The overall effect is dreamy, emotional and transporting – and it’s gained them quite a following.
Mills and Knight were college friends at Western Washington University with different educational interests. Knight studied physics and mathematics while Mills was studying graphic design. The two didn’t begin collaborating until their senior year of college; but the roots of ODESZA, now based in Seattle, go back further when you start examining the entirety of their creative team.
Creative Director at Foreign Family Collective, Sean Kusanagi has known Knight since high school. “He was the class jock and I was the nerdy kid eating lunch in the library alone. We somehow ended up being friends,” says Kusanagi. In college, he met Harrison for the first time and introduced what would become the future duo. During this time, they also met Luke Tanaka, Live Creative Director at Foreign Family Collective, who sculpts the impressive animations for their shows. “They immediately started making music in our basement with a couple of laptops and I just remember thinking ‘it would be fun for this to be our job someday.’ We all sort of laughed about it.” Six years later, it’s a dream job for all of them.
“We are like family. It all stems down from the attitude and way that Harrison and Clay treat the people that work for them,” Tanaka says. “They’re so selfless and have no ego. Everything trickles down from there.”
Mills and Knight are involved in the creative through every step of the process while also acting as a source of inspiration and encouragement. “They built their team around feeling important, loved and being appreciated,” says Tanaka. “From the beginning that’s been their emphasis. When you welcome people with open arms you bring out the best in them.”
“The best part of the job is seeing people’s faces when they’re having the time of their lives and knowing that you played a part in making that happen,” says Bryan Aiello, Tour Manager at Foreign Family Collective. “It’s very fulfilling and why I still do it after being on the road for 15 years.”
In October 2017, the team began to gear up for the launch of their A Moment Apart Tour, which included multiple dates at some of America’s most famous arenas, including the STAPLES Center in Los Angeles and the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Aiello realized they needed to bring on added production support to scale up. He found it in Motion Music’s JB Blot and Shane Crowl, who have been with the team ever since.
“This last fall tour we had primarily been doing 2,000 to 3,000 cap rooms. So, when we were told ‘Hey you guys need to design something for Barclays and STAPLES Center for 12,000 people - that’s a huge jump. How do you design a show for an arena tour and then also have it fit in clubs in Providence, Rhode Island for 2000 people; and then the next day at Barclays?,” Kusanagi muses. “Our crew loves being at different venues but it’s important to make it adaptable for different places.”
And adapt they did. They built their story archs higher, gave the entire show a more cinematic feel and grew their lighting rigs to help accommodate the larger venues. What could have been a very difficult transition was accomplished smoothly. “The entire team comes from a place of humility with collective goals in mind,” says Crowl. “Everyone is willing to learn from one another without egos getting in the way.”
Kyle Keegan with Voyage Productions has been doing the lighting design for ODESZA for about a year but says it feels like it’s been much longer due to the closeness of the group. “Lighting design doesn't just stop at lighting,” Keegan explains. “The video elements, scenic design, choreography, special effects and overall creative now play such an integral part together. From the smallest to the largest technical shows, you can never stop learning new ways to put all these pieces together.”
Fresh off their impressive main stage Coachella 2018 performance that utilized a drone show, 3D animations sculpted in Oculus, and live instrumentation including a 12-person drum line, the entire team agrees that they couldn’t have imagined this level of success and access. “It’s crazy. I’ve seen this go from tiny projectors and lights at small venues to second from closing at Coachella,” says Tanaka.
The ODESZA team has gained a reputation for experimenting with technology in ways that awe audiences. “We’ve checked out AR, VR, 3D LED tiles, laser products.” Tanaka says. “There’s so many things to play with, but in the end, it’s back to the fundamentals. What story are you trying to tell? What moments are you trying to make?”
“We aim to provide an experience for people to lose themselves,” explains Kusanagi. “I guess it’s broad, but what we’ve realized is that in order to have a great show, like a great movie or great book, you have to go through the lows to get to the highs. All of those experiences are special in their own right. How do we help make the low moments of the set be just as impactful as the high moments?”
While he appreciates the accessibility to high-end technology, Kusanagi acknowledges the need to be discerning. “We’re very conscious of not using something just because its new or innovative. It has to match the music and the story we’re trying to tell. You can’t throw money at something and expect it to be creative or work with the band. You have to think about what concept or technology fits this show, in the correct way. How does it enhance the moment and the journey we’re taking the audience on?”
“We are so fortunate to have these tools at our disposal, especially as these projects keep building,” says Tanaka. “Most people in the industry are so supportive and they take the time to show us these things, PRG included. We just want to keep learning and keep playing and just feeling out new ideas for the next one – it’s a pretty exciting time.”
One of the biggest technical challenges for their current tour came along when the team decided to construct the biggest blow-through LED wall Red Rocks had ever seen. Because ODESZA is known for their amazing visuals, showcasing them at the iconic venue was a priority. The challenge laid in the fact that the LED tiles had to be lightweight while also letting enough physical light through to feel the full impact of the upstage lighting rig. “It’s the mixture of the visuals on the screen and the hidden upstage lighting rig that deliver some of the best moments in the show,” explains JB Blot, the Production Director with Motion Music. “We worked with industry veterans Nick Jackson and Russell “Rusty” Wingfield to find this solution, and thanks to this collaboration with PRG, we were able to deliver.”
“I watched The Moody Blues at Red Rocks on VHS when I was 3. They were my inspiration,” Kusanagi gushes, his excitement contagious. “Being there and performing to two sold out crowds was full circle for me. Obviously, it’s so much fun to play with the friends you grew up with.”
While they manifest their greatest dreams, their hope is that the show provides a form of escapism for the audience. “Our main goal is to bring people on this wave of emotion and feeling,” Kusanagi says. “Hopefully most people forget the stress in their life and walk away feeling like they got transported to a different world, if only for a moment.”
ODESZA’s Creative Team:
Harrison Mills, ODESZA
Clayton Knight, ODESZA
Sean Kusanagi, Creative Director – Foreign Family Collective
Luke Tanaka, Visual Artist & Creative Director – Foreign Family Collective
Bryan Aiello, Tour Manager – Foreign Family Collective
JB Blot, Production Director – Motion Music
Shane Crowl, Production Manager – Motion Music
Kyle Kegan, Lighting Designer – Voyage Productions
All photos by Julian Bajsel
PRG proudly provided LED and video solutions for ODESZA’s A Moment Apart Tour and Coachella performances including the center stage flown icosahedron video element.