Odawas, whose name was taken from a native American tribe, were formed in Bloomington Indiana by songwriter and vocalist Michael Tapscott (who also plays guitar, keyboards and harmonica) and arranger Isaac Edwards (who handles most of the synthesiser duties, organ and programming) in 2004. That year saw the release of the Vitamin City EP followed in 2005 by the full length album The Aether Eater. These records, which showcased lush keyboards and gentle acoustic guitar along with Tapscott’s reverb coated vocals earned positive comparisons to the likes of Neil Young and My Morning Jacket. It was followed in 2007 by Raven and the White Night which combined folk with drifts into prog-rock and more expansive use of sampled strings.
Moving westwards to Chicago Illinois the duo recorded The Blue Depths. Released earlier this year its focus on ambient old school synths — think Vangelis and Angelo Badalamenti — and majestic, dreamy songs yielded great dividends resulting in Odawas most cohesive album to date. We recently spoke to Michael Tapscott about the beautiful depths of The Blue Depths, the Odawas live experience including SXSW, influential soundtracks and the mystery of the sea.
The Blue Depths is the find of the year for me so far. Did you ever imagine getting your music released in Australia?
It kind of came out of the blue, and we’re pretty ecstatic to be working with Rogue and Inertia, they’re some of the top labels there. We definitely had no aspirations that this would happen.
When you formed Odawas did you have a game plan at all?
No. When we started out Isaac and I were both students at Indiana University. He was a film student and we recorded some songs to be in a movie that he was making, although the movie never actually got made, and we just sort of fell into doing this. We signed a record contract with Jagjaguwar after we had made our first record. We’d only played two or three shows at that point and neither of had been in any bands before. Everything’s been rolling since then.
Did you send your stuff to a lot of labels or just Jagjaguwar?
Indiana University is in Bloomington Indiana where Jagjaguwar are based out of, so we knew a lot of the guys just from around town, working in record stores and stuff like that. We sent it to a few companies. Kranky and a few other small labels were interested, but it just made sense to go with Jagjaguwar and we totally lucked out with having a direct connection to them.
They’ve really grown in the last few years as well.
They’d never put out a record by a local band at that point, and they still haven’t. So it was pretty special for them to put it out. I’m not sure why they did.
I just saw the beautiful video for “Harmless Lovers Discourse” (below) and was wondering if you had any input in that?
No. There were two guys in Chicago who really liked the record and especially that song and wanted to make a video for it. They didn’t ask for any money, they just did it. I tried to be pretty hands off in telling them what to do. They did a pretty incredible job.
Do you know if they used stock footage or filmed new footage for the clip
From what I gather most of the footage was shot around Chicago by them.
Your music obviously lends itself to either film or Television soundtracks. Are you working on any scores at the moment?
We recently did a film score for a friend’s short film. He’s a graduate student at a film school in Chicago. Being in a band that tours around the country just happened to us, our goal is to make music for film, TV and commercials. That’s the kind of music we’re really into and that’s what we’d like to do. Hopefully being in an art-rock band on Jagjaguwar has opened some doors for us to do that in the future. It seems like it could be a much more stable way to make a living.
Well you started out as more of a studio act and with the falling sales of CDs most bands survive through touring. Licensing and soundtracks would seem like a logical choice for bands like Odawas.
We’d love to do more live shows. It’s hard to present things in the way we want to present them with only two or three people. We’d like to have an orchestra there with us but it’s pretty expensive.
How was the whole South by South West experience?
It was okay. We planned everything last minute but we’d never been there before so it was definitely worth going down there to see what it was all about. But it’s hard if you’re not a garage rock band or don’t have loud guitars. You get washed out. It’s pretty crazy too.
It looks insane, bands playing ten times in a weekend etc. You guys played three times right?
Yeah. A band had set the record for playing this year; they had played nineteen shows in four days.
That can’t be healthy.
No, I think that’s going a little overboard.
In a live setting you scale from a two piece with Isaac and yourself to a three piece with a drummer right?
Earlier today we had a second practice with a new drummer from out here; he’s in a band called Cryptasize, who are sort of an off-shoot from Deerhoof. That went really well so we’re going to be starting to play with a drummer again. That’s a good addition for us, it helps when playing bars and live venues it grabs people’s attention a little more.
How do you split the parts live between you and Isaac?
Isaac has two keyboards and I’m usually playing guitar. For the past year we’ve been playing with a drum machine and we just try to fill up as much space as possible and make everything as loud and big as we can. It works, but it’s a little stiff. Playing with a live drummer has more energy and it’s been a nice change of pace after playing with a drum machine for a year.
Drum machines are cheaper though, they don’t drink the rider.
Yeah, they’re not a mouth to feed. We’ve had a rough history with drummers, that whole spinal tap cliché.
Your music uses sampled strings quite heavily, can see yourselves working with a live string ensemble or orchestra in the future?
Yeah that would be amazing. Right before we moved from Chicago we saw Joanna Newsom with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and that blew me away — it’s definitely something I want to do. We just recorded a session with some string players from the University of Berkley and that went really well. The music students here definitely seem more willing to work for free, so that’s nice. I know Joanna was touring around and playing with different symphonies, which would be ideal. Everyone was really quiet when she was playing and it was a really great concert experience.
Who scores the orchestration?
That’s something Isaac would do. He’s classically trained and knows a lot about that stuff. But it might also be fun to work with an outside arranger to get some fresh ideas.
How does songwriting work with the two of you? At what stage do you give it to Isaac for his contribution?
I usually record a song as I’m writing it, so I come up with some demos and build the vocals around that and lay some guitar down. Isaac rearranges things and replays things that I’ve played. I give him the song and trust he’ll make something great out of it. I usually have a knee jerk reaction and hate the first mix or recording he makes of my songs and tell him he’s ruined it. Then I come around and see where he was going.
It’s a real collaborative process then?
We have a kind of brotherly relationship. I kind of always think that whatever I do is better than what he does… Then I have to lose some ego.
We touched on soundtracks before what are some of the influential soundtracks for you?
There are two big ones for us. Blade Runner by Vangelis was a huge influence on this recording and the other one is a more obscure French movie called The Big Blue. The soundtrack by Éric Serra was really the main catalyst for this recording. Obviously the album title The Blue Depths is a reference to that movie. And of course we’re into Ennio Morricone, and all the great spaghetti western scores he did.
Water and the ocean seem to be a constant source of fascination for songwriters and people in general. Why do you think that is?
I think it’s the last frontier for man. We don’t really know much about the terrain of the ocean, what’s in it or the creatures that live in it. It’s the one part of nature that man has realised he has no ability to subdue. You can also relate it to travelling and journeys. It feels like an endless creative source. Now living by the ocean (Odawas are now based in Berkeley, California) it’s pretty captivating after living in the mid-west for twenty five years.