Isaac of Odawas

MJT of Odawas
Photos: Kayla Krut, edited by Isaac Edwards

Odawas, the combination of Michael James Tapscott and Isaac Edwards, took a brief hiatus starting in 2011, but they are now back and in fine form with the release of their new LP, Reflections of a Pink Laser, available now from French label Bookmaker Records. Like previous Odawas releases, it’s a studio-intensive combination Edwards’ expansive synth arrangements that somehow take nothing away from Tapscott’s intimate songwriting style and vocals. They make a nice team.

Odawas have been making music in some form for about 10 years now, and were featured on a Bay Bridged podcast in 2009 where they were already discussing their impressive longevity – it’s worth a listen if you want more back story on the band:


Odawas will perform at a Mutiny Radio Fundraiser June 8 and Hickey Fest June 20-22. Check out our conversation with Michael James Tapscott and Isaac Edwards below, where they talk about how they collaborate, why they took a break, and sailing with The Bay Bridged’s cofounder:

TBB: How did Odawas begin?

Michael James Tapscott: Isaac and I met while we were both aspiring journalists, our hands covered in ink, the ink of the fabled Indiana Daily Student. I was an editor there and kept hearing about this guy who was “the best writer at the paper,” this guy being Isaac. I cold-called Isaac and asked for a meeting. Since I assumed I was the best writer at the paper, I needed to sized this fellow up.

At the time Isaac was also a film student and thinking about getting back into music, something that was a very big part of his childhood. On our epic first night together, we discussed making films, records, books, magazines, everything and anything. I also played for him a song of mine called “The People of Idaho,” variations of which we still play these days. I believe the hook is still in his cheek.

Isaac Edwards: As Michael has laid out, Odawas was born pretty much the moment that I heard “People in Idaho,” and then proceeded to show me a wondrous and personally unknown piece of equipment called A Digital 8-Track Recorder. I was working on a short film and had heard that Michael played/recorded some original material. I explained the setup for the film and that I wanted the music to tell a completely different narrative from what was actually happening in the film. The music would be situated in the same space and time as the film’s narrative, but following it’s own characters and arc.

When Michael played me his song and let me loose on the Boss 8-Track, it was a complete sea change for me, culturally and personally. I had basically become completely disillusioned with the university’s film program and its inherent bureaucracy. Realizing what could be done with an 8-track and a keyboard, the immediacy of those endeavors, carved through my veins and allowed the creative blood to flow afresh and anew.

The hook has long since rusted and fused within the flesh of my cheek.

TBB: How did Odawas break up and then get back together again?

MJT: Odawas originally broke mid-record. We were recording at Hyde Street with Scott McDowell, things were going well, we had a really interesting country-rock version of the band going. Then the pedal steel player left town, the drummer quit, I got divorced, Isaac gave up on the proceedings spiritually. It was a complete bottoming out.

I don’t believe Isaac and I thought (or at least I know I didn’t) that we wouldn’t be making music together anymore. He was still helping me with my solo records and we played some shows here and there. What we needed was a break, a break from this thing we had done for 8 years without the sort of cultural and economical breakthrough Isaac and I really believed we could obtain. We also needed a break from each other and our musical habits. We needed to fall in love with each others sounds again.

IE: Yeah, I don’t think either of us was really looking at this period as Odawas splitting up. Odawas is and will always be Michael and myself making music together. But that current incarnation of us just began to fall apart and then our lives quickly followed, for various and different reasons. It was more like finding yourself lost in the wilderness, or perhaps even drowning. It took some time before I recognized my surroundings, remembered that I still knew how to swim.

With all of that going on, we certainly needed a break, and needed to explore things on an individual level for a minute. Michael had been doing some work with Donovan Quinn and he played me some material that he was planning on releasing as a solo album, quite a bit of it being songs we had recorded at Hyde Street, which he had just stripped down. I offered to mix it for him, and then once I got involved, my vision of the material started to take form and I realized we had a new Odawas album on our hands. It was the strongest material I had gotten from Michael, period, and I had a very direct line of sight on where it could go, which would even incorporate using some of the recordings from Hyde Street. So it all started to come back together and recoalesce from the ether.

However, that is a different album.

We also had this material that was originally intended as a split release with Brad Rose of Digitalis and I felt it was far too good to just sit in the digital crates collecting pixelated dust. So I began revisiting that material, remixing and rearranging it. We added some new material, polished the older material, and Reflections of a Pink Laser went from being a split EP to the return of Odawas and our official fourth LP.

TBB: Any fond memories or your podcast with Ben and Christian? What’s changed most about you guys since then?

MJT: Ha, we had been in California less than 6 months. Ben and Christian were some of the first people in the community that we met when we arrived. The last Odawas record, The Blue Depths, had just come out and the two of them were incredibly supportive of us. They put Odawas on the bill of one of their festivals, promoted everything we did, let me write a short-lived column for the website with my friend Josh Rampage, and Christian even took Isaac and I sailing!

IE: Ben and Christian were amazingly supportive of us and we did have an amazing time sailing. I think what’s changed the most from then to now, is both of us simply figuring out where we fit in and how we make that work for us out here.

TBB: Does your approach to songwriting change when writing an Odawas song vs. one of your side projects? Was this album written similarly to previous Odawas albums?

MJT: This particular record, Reflections of a Pink Laser, was started in 2010, I believe. There really is no difference in the way I approach songwriting from project to project. Isaac is such a unique architect that I’m not really concerned about it sounding like anything else once he gets his hands on my songs.

IE: Our method of working together really has not changed that greatly from the inception of Odawas. Essentially, Michael presents me with the raw materials and I begin to construct the world I hear and believe his music to inhabit. This world is then passed back and forth between us, terraforming as we go.

TBB: Who was involved with recording the album – just the two of you?

MJT: It was mainly the two of us, in two rooms like Elton John and Bernie Taupin. One of my favorite things about this record is that our tendencies and tastes – Isaac’s electronic and aggressive, mine folky and calm – are able to stand in stark contrast and be interwoven seamlessly. We did have help from Connor O’Sullivan, a stalwart of the Odawas players since the first record, and Michael Carreria.

IE: Of the albums we’ve recorded thus far, this one is the most minimal in terms of who we worked with. It was primarily conceived of and created by Michael and myself.

TBB: How difficult is it to create (what seems like) such a studio-intensive album into a live setting?

MJT: It’s really just impossible. We can play the song portions of the record, but this album was intended to be a studio creation, a piece of art. The live act is a different thing, and really just a completely different band at this point.

IE: While I do not exactly follow Mr. Tapscott’s idea that recreating our/this sound into a live setting is “impossible,” our live act really is currently a very different beast, so to speak. And, as with all of our albums, this album and our sound really is conceived of from a place that is intended to take listeners on an immersive journey usually relegated towards headphones.

TBB: Your “first listen” page on dying for bad music was accompanied by some pretty sweet visuals, – whose concept was that? How much influence do you have in the overall artistic vision for the release?

MJT: The visuals were designed by the Bookmaker Records boys. They have really blown me away with their presentation of the album and its release. The only input we gave them was the record, they imagined the rest themselves.

IE: Yeah, Valentin Féron and the Bookmaker boys have really just done an outstanding job with the art direction of everything around this project. We basically gave them the prompts, the reference material, and the music and then let them run with it. And run they did.

TBB: How did Oakland (and all the other places you mention) let you down?

MJT: That particular song, “Flow My Tears,” came from a dark place and time. I was contemplating leaving the Yay Area and having a really hard time staying healthy and happy. It’s never the city’s fault though.

IE: Never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down.

TBB: You mentioned you’re also planning an album for release later this year on Bookmaker – are the two releases connected in any way (other than obviously being yours)?

MJT: Yes, we have another record in the can, Black Harmony. They are really not connected by anything other than it being us again. It was started about three years later than Reflections and was intended to be my solo follow up to my previous LP on Bookmaker, Good Morning, Africa. I handed it over to Isaac to do the mixing and about a month later he called and said we needed to talk – a typical dramatic move by Isaac. We sat down together in the back of the Missouri Lounge in Berkeley and he laid it out for me – “this needs to be an Odawas record, Mike, if not for any other reason than I’ve done too much work on it for it not to be.” I was happy to have my partner back.

IE: I see Reflections as the end of a particular sound/song-cycle that started with The Blue Depths and is reaching its logical conclusion with Pink Laser. Black Harmony will be turning the page on a new chapter, one that both looks back on our beginnings, and one that takes us further into the future.

TBB: How did you end up on Bookmaker, and what do you miss most about jagjaguwar?

MJT: Jagjaguwar gave us an incredible opportunity that we didn’t earn and we didn’t deserve and we didn’t make the most of. We made a goofy psych record (The Aether Eater) that they loved for some reason, we had played about two shows at the time we got signed and we had only intended to make records in house with an eye on scoring television, movies and advertisements.

Frankly, we didn’t know how to be a band. We were pretty good live, but rough shot and our first tour was a total disaster during which we nearly killed our drummer with our shitty, bumptious attitudes. Somehow, Jagjaguwar let us put out three records and any residual notoriety we have is due to that association.

That said, we didn’t get a whole lot of advice, promotional help, money or touring assistance. We were the low man on the totem pole, and not undeservedly so. They had a large roster with two other labels (Secretly Canadian and Dead Oceans) and we didn’t have the commercial appeal on the level they needed their bands to be. We were and still are a boutique act, and I like it that way.

The Bookmaker boys wrote me out of the blue one day and asked Odawas to make something for their new label. I told them that Odawas wasn’t really available at the time, but I would gladly make a solo record if they would agree to release it on vinyl, which was a bold proposition because I would have made it if it came out on cassette or internet only. They agreed to all my demands.

They also need to take a lot of credit for getting Odawas back on track. Valentin, Clement and Thomas heard the skeletons of Reflections of a Pink Laser and encouraged us to finish it, then encouraged (well, they told us) to make it longer, since it was originally only 20 minutes.

I’ve spent some time in Paris with these guys and I consider them friends, but not family. They are like a really great, challenging boss for Odawas. They have an endless amount of enthusiasm for our work, make constant suggestions, give us much needed deadlines, and seem to be extremely thoughtful in their presentation and production of our work.

IE: Yes.

TBB: Any predictions on how long Odawas lasts this time?

MJT: Nothing ever dies.

IE: I am forever.

The Five Eyes, Odawas, Dirty Denim
Mutiny Radio
June 8, 2014
4-8pm, $5 donation

Odawas, many, many more
Hickey Fest
June 20-22, 2014
TBA, $75