Luke Tanaka’s Double Life

Pro skier by winter, stage lights for Odesza by night

Tanaka's Light Show. PHOTO: Courtesy of Luke Tanaka
Tanaka’s Light Show. PHOTO: Courtesy of Luke Tanaka

After spending last summer hauling commercial fishing nets, pro skier Luke Tanaka was trying to figure things out. Three years out of graduating college, two from quitting a stable job as a graphic designer at an ad agency and then hitting the road to pursue the ski dream, Tanaka was at one of those all-too-familiar life crossroads. Then, last December, the phone rang.

On the other end of the line was Tanaka’s college buddy, Harrison Mills, who is half of one of the most popular electronic music acts of 2014, Odesza. Mills needed help with Odesza’s visuals on their upcoming tour. He wanted to know if Tanaka was their guy.

“Luke was always the kid in design class who figured out new programs and software before anyone else. When we decided we wanted to do visuals on the next tour he was my go-to man.” —Harrison Mills, Odesza

Nevermind that the 25-year-old skier had never produced concert visuals or anything close to a light show—when that call comes in, you answer it, and you do whatever it says.

“I dropped everything and hopped on,” explained the ON3P skier and Alaska native. “I was skiing in Jackson Hole in March, had never touched a visuals program, and had to learn all of it in a week before we went on tour.”

Generally speaking, skiers are good at dropping everything and showing up. Who hasn’t called in sick for a pow day? The same goes for Tanaka. After a couple years of chasing storms for skiing, and the last-minute flights and long, thankless road trips that come with it, Tanaka knows how to adapt on the fly on a daily basis. Mills and fellow Odesza member, Clayton Knight, met Tanaka while attending Western Washington University in Bellingham in 2008. They knew that the skier spent much of his winters on the road traveling across the country. The correlation between that and touring seemed apt enough.

That first spring tour lasted eight weeks and 31 stops. Odesza followed it up with another this fall, 33 more shows (including the Teton Gravity Research Almost Ablaze premiere after-party) across 24 states that wrapped up in early November. All the while, Tanaka has been learning the graphic elements necessary to keep up with a big name production, and Odesza has been dominating the international electronic scene—like debuting at #1 on Billboard’s Dance/Electronic Albums Chart for their second album, In Return, released this September.

“It’s awesome to watch these boys take it where they have,” says Tanaka, an Alyeska, Alaska, skier who grew up racing competitively before he realized his passion for skiing broader terrain. “We’re all really stoked on what they’re doing.”

The chance phone call from Odesza was not Tanaka’s first lucky break. Before jumping in with the musical duo, Tanaka used the unique terrain at Alyeska to meld his personal style of park and big mountain. With the help of a few sponsorship videos filmed by him and his friends, he eventually caught the eyes of Bern helmets and ski manufacturer ON3P.

“Luke is just awesome to be around and hang with in the backcountry,” says ON3P creative director Trevor Woods. “He’s fun to ski with—that’s what you want when you’re building a factory team.”

Soon Tanaka was traveling as far away as Japan for product shoots and movie segments with 4bi9 Media and Toy Soldiers Productions.

While Tanaka pursued his professional ski aspirations, Mills and Knight linked up in 2012 to form the group the world now knows as Odesza. The crew stayed tight throughout school, and when Tanaka moved back to Alaska to work and ski in 2011, he stayed in touch with Mills and Knight. Then came the faithful call last December.

“Luke was always the kid in design class who figured out new programs and software before anyone else,” explained Mills. “When we decided we wanted to do visuals on the next tour he was my go-to man. Not only is he one of my best friends, but also, now, one of the most talented visuals artists I know.”

Even though Tanaka does his work from the back booth, it’s hard to deny that he has become an integral part of the Odesza experience. His visuals give the duo a larger-than-life appearance on stage, turning a platform of speakers and turntables into a world of moving graphics, bright flashes, and laser beams cued up precisely to every track.

Luke Tanaka
Come winter, Luke Tanaka drops the rock star lifestyle and heads back to the mountains. PHOTO: Trevor Woods/@DoWorkDontSleep

And while Mills and Knight aren’t exactly winter sports enthusiasts, it was actually a chance connection made by Tanaka that may have been one of the early breaks Odesza needed. Calling upon some of his ski industry connections, Tanaka introduced Mills to Hennie van Jaarsveld at Camp 4 Collective, the production company responsible for some of the most captivating action sports footage of the last half-decade. Hennie liked what he heard, and brought Mills (then recording as solo artist CatacombKid) in to do some commercials for The North Face, including the Denali Experiment with Ingrid Backstrom and Sage Cattabriga-Alosa.

That was enough to get the music-crazed ski world’s attention, and over the past few seasons, Odesza’s music has been featured by Faction, TGR, Unicorn Picnic, and just about every other self-produced ski edit on the Internet.

“It’s crazy, I’ll be watching a ski edit on Newschoolers or something backstage and their song will come on it will just be like, ‘damn, they’re everywhere,’” says Tanaka.

The music world hasn’t been too far behind, and by the release of their debut album, Summer’s Gone, Odesza was already dominating Internet forums and getting invites to big name music festivals like Sasquatch, Coachella, and Burning Man.

Still, for Tanaka (who missed the summer festival season to return to his commercial fishing boat job) things haven’t changed too much in the tight-knit Odesza camp.

“It doesn’t feel all that rock star yet,” explains Tanaka. “We’re still in a Sprinter van driving across the country. Maybe when we graduate to a bus it’ll feel different.”

He admits that tour seems more like a ski trip than anything else—eight dudes, one van, a different destination every night.

The comparison is apt for someone who never lets the mountains stray too far from his mind. In fact, Tanaka is already plotting out his upcoming winter, including a multi-week excursion to Revelstoke and the surrounding backcountry.

But he also appreciates the change of pace from the often all-consuming ski lifestyle, and hopes this won’t be the last time he gets a chance to live this unique pro skier/rock star double life.

“It’s a pretty big departure from skiing, which is nice,” says Tanaka. “I’ve spent my whole life on this one-track skiing mindset, so it’s really great to have something else to care about and push myself for.”