'It would feel worse not to release music at this time,' the Kentucky-born, Los Angeles-based producer says of his new LP, 'Oddyssey'
Caleb Cornett, aka Amtrac, is looking at a bulk delivery of hand sanitizer. Each tiny bottle is labeled with the title and release date of his new album, Oddyssey. When Cornett’s team placed the order, Miami Music Week was under threat but not yet canceled.
The branded sanitizer was intended for the hands of intrepid clubbers at Miami’s annual bacchanal of South Beach pool parties and downtown raves. “So now we have this huge box of hand sanitizer with my album name on it,” Cornett laughs. “I’m not sure how we’ll get it to people, but we’ll figure something out.”
These are strange days to put out an album. The coronavirus crisis has precipitated a dip in music streaming numbers, with new releases particularly hard hit. Recent data suggests self-isolating listeners are favoring the comfort of music they already know.
Cornett is speaking to Billboard Dance three days before Oddyssey drops via his own Openers label and Sony Music’s RCA Records. Given the circumstances, the producer is admirably sanguine.
The biggest letdown, he says, is cancelling shows. “I was really looking forward to going on a live tour. It’s a bummer I don’t get to test these songs on the road and see how people actually react.”
For now, Cornett is staying home with his girlfriend in Los Angeles, where he’s lived for a little more than three years. “We live in a big loft where I can make music all day,” he says. “My girlfriend is a singer as well, so we collaborate from time to time. It all works out -- we haven’t butted heads yet.”
L.A. is an ideal base for a busy producer and, until recent events, a hard-touring DJ. However, Cornett admits the city doesn’t exactly feel like home. Home is Morehead, Ky., a small town no one’s mistaking for a dance-music hotbed.
Cornett grew up watching The Chemical Brothers and The Prodigy on MTV. The internet facilitated countless more discoveries, including acts on Adam Freeland’s Marine Parade Records, such as Evil Nine and Alex Metric. By 2009, the Kentucky striver was practicing on his first CDJs.
Life in Kentucky, to borrow one of Cornett’s favorite words, is much more “chilled.” In conversation, the producer embodies the chill of his hometown. Even in the face of a global pandemic, his relaxed, polite drawl never falters.
Oddyssey is pieced together from eight years of work. Its songs were created between Kentucky, Los Angeles and various hotel rooms throughout Amtrac’s rise to fame. After his 2011 debut album, Came Along, Cornett switched to a steady drip of EPs, standalone tracks and remixes. Fans never went long without a new Amtrac release. He remixed the likes of Alesso, Axwell & Ingrosso and Zhu, and collaborated with Kastle, Kaskade and his early inspiration Alex Metric.
Amtrac’s melodic, groove-led house tunes "Those Days" and "Hold On" appealed to fans exhausted by mid-decade EDM excess. In 2017, he launched the Openers label with his 1987 EP. 1987 crystallized the Amtrac sound: warm pads, rubbery bass, accessible melodies and atmospheric flourishes befitting the EP cover’s snow-streaked scene. Its standout tracks "Never Lost" and "Piano Boy" each have more than seven million plays on Spotify.
All that time, Cornett held back tracks he knew would fit the arc of an album. He obsessed over the synth scores of horror filmmaker John Carpenter, then went to work on his own Access Virus TI synthesizer. “I’ve had [the synth] for 10 years and it’s pretty much the lifeblood of my whole setup,” he says. “I’m always getting new equipment to tinker with, like guitar pedals and effects, but I don’t stray too far from what works for me.”
Oddyssey’s cinematic scope was no accident. “I used to play movies on mute behind the computer I was working on,” Cornett says. “An emotion or something onscreen would drive the synthesizer patterns. So pretty much scoring a movie that never sees the light of day.”
Recent single "Stratego" lived longest on Cornett’s hard drive. Its simple pulse of guitar and drums is a side step from swelling house. “I was waiting to put it on a body of work where it’d make sense,” Cornett says. “If I put that song out [earlier] as a single, people would think I’m an indie band now.”
Oddyssey shifts moods and textures throughout, from the straight-ahead house pads of "Radical," featuring Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs, to the luxurious and dreamy "Wish I Could," influenced by “a lot of IDM, like Autechre and things on Warp Records.”
Cornett built the album to reflect the peaks and valleys of a live show. He’ll do a three-minute radio edit, but it’s not his natural instinct. “I’m a big Godspeed You! Black Emperor fan,” he laughs. “I’m not afraid of a 15-minute song.”
Live energy is palpable in the deep chug of title track "Oddyssey" and the Soulwax-inspired "Replica," “where you could tweak the arpeggiators [onstage] and get really gnarly and loud.”
Cornett steps up as a vocalist on the album too. “I don’t think I’m a great singer or particularly love my voice,” he admits. Still, he trusts when others tell him a song’s good to go with his placeholder vocals.
The album also features vocal turns from German electro-pop outfit Lali Puna on "No Place," and Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Saint Kenaire on "Teenage Love."
Cornett is particularly proud of convincing Alex Metric to take the mic on "So Afraid." “I would always harass him, like, ‘Yo, I’ve got to get you singing on something,’” Cornett recalls. “Finally I got him in the studio. His voice has a certain cadence that just works.”
Now, the producer is using lockdown to work on the next phase of Amtrac. While he rarely takes time off from the studio (“I have to create in some capacity all the time,” he says), self-isolation has sharpened his focus.
He points to Oddyssey cuts "Between the Lines" and "No Place" as a hint at the “faster, dance-punk vibe” he’s currently channeling. “Those two songs could [indicate] where I’m moving sonically into the next chapter,” he says, then pauses. “But maybe not. I’m making a lot of weird stuff right now.”
As the coronavirus crisis escalated, Cornett worried if it was the right time to release Oddyssey. In consultation with RCA Records, he decided to stay the course. (The album’s first week streaming numbers and digital sales are still being tallied.)
“It would feel worse not to release music at this time,” he reasons. “Hopefully this music can bring a little bit of joy into the world.”