BYT Interviews: Washed Out
Jose Lopez-Sanchez | Aug 30, 2017 | 9:00AM |

Ernest Greene’s music may sound hazy, but his perspective is certainly not: making music for a living is an absolute privilege and a luxury.

“I don’t think that sense of awe about the whole thing has worn off yet. I certainly love music and to be able to do it all day long is a pretty amazing thing,” he says, wonder and humility resonating over the line.

As the principal member and founder of synth-pop outfit Washed Out, Greene has spent the last eight years steadily building a reputation as a compelling performer with a flair for faded, shimmering sonic aesthetics, reminiscent of a sweltering summer day – which has earned him plenty of accolades and devoted fans. Greene’s understanding of his fortune was thrown into particular relief for me as I was transcribing the audio recording of this interview, conducted in early August over the phone while Greene was in Houston, Texas to kickoff his tour – a city thrown into chaos over the last five days by Hurricane Harvey, a storm that has claimed over 30 lives and  displaced thousands and thousands at the time of writing.

The erstwhile librarian goes quiet briefly, before finishing his thought, his voice much heavier than expected given the distant, semi-falsetto qualities of his singing.

“I mean, I certainly never intended on doing this as a career.”

Washed Out is playing the 9:30 Club Thursday, August 31.

You’ve been making music professionally for a while now. How has your perspective shifted about making music as a career? How have things changed for you, personally?

Having a bit more experience… I’ve certainly learned a lot about performing and the technical side of writing and recording music. So, yeah – the stuff that I’m starting to approach and struggle with now is just what direction do I want to go? I’ve put out three records and obviously a lot has changed over the last five, six, seven years I’ve been doing this. The question is always how to keep moving forward: should I be incorporating newer, trendier elements? Or should I continue doing what I’m doing? That sort of thing is probably the most challenging part. But at the end of the day, I normally pursue what I find interesting.

How do you feel about being so intrinsically tied to the chillwave sound for so long? It seems like you’re exploring different textures and styles on Mister Mellow – was that a deliberate shift?

Yeah! [Emphatically] Definitely. I never want to make the same album over again, so I’ve always wanted to bring in new ideas into the mix. I think with this record in particular I wanted to playfully toy with some of the stereotypes of chillwave sound, or whatever – what that means is somehow embracing it but trying to flip some of those ideas on their head at the same time. Or that’s at least what I was trying to do.

I think the tone of this record is quite different from what I’ve done on the last couple. My perception is that it’s almost a comedy – it’s very playful and tongue-in-cheek. With that you can kind of get away with doing more exaggerated things, which was much more appealing this go-round. I mean, the chillwave thing is a blessing and a curse. Obviously, it’s helped the profile of the band, but also put the band in a box that can sometimes be a bit restricting. I’m hopeful that the audience is open-minded and willing to along with me on this journey to try new things.

I’ve been familiar with your music for a while, as I also enjoyed other bands in that space. I hate to necessarily call it a genre, but the truth is that chillwave was a moment in time and a state of mind – that late 2000s lo-fi psychedelic vibe – and it was great.

I would venture to guess that a lot of people’s first exposure to your music was through Portlandia using “Feel It All Around” as its theme song. Obviously there are great financial benefits to having your song prominently featured on a popular and well-regarded television show, but did you ever feel like that boxed you in? Did you ever have second thoughts about licensing your music to a TV show?

No. That’s the great thing about Portlandia. While it is maybe slightly niche in terms of the type of personality that might gravitate towards it, it’s certainly a lot wider than what I consider the core listener base for Washed Out – which is maybe into weirder electronic music, or whatever. I find that it [the show] is bringing in so many people that otherwise never would stumble upon the music, which is a great thing. I can’t think of any way that it’s been restrictive. I certainly feel really grateful.

When I was initially approached about it, [Portlandia] was considered to be this pet project – this small time thing – that was going to happen for one season, and that was it. I think everyone was really surprised by how big it has become and how many seasons they’ve done now. It’s amazing.

Have you received any perks through this collaboration? Does Carrie (Brownstein, co-star of Portlandia and Sleater-Kinney bandmember) hook it up when you’re trying to catch Sleater-Kinney live?

Yeah! [Laughs] It’s funny. I’ve met Fred (Armisen) on a couple of occasions – he came to a Washed Out show a few years ago, but I’ve never met Carrie. They’re great on shining light on the song and Washed Out with some of the promo stuff they do. They’ve both just blossomed into even bigger stars, and it’s a trickle down effect which was only been awesome for us.

You’ve talked about hip hop influencing the way you write songs. I know you’re from Georgia, and are based in Athens. Which hip hop artists, specifically, would you say serve as reference points for you?

As far as Georgia-specific acts, I’m getting older. The artists that were the most foundational in setting up my taste and sensibilities was Outkast. I was a fan of theirs early on – the Aquemini era stuff – and it felt like this lightyears sized jump from that to Stankonia. I was a freshman or sophomore in high school, and it sounded so out there for the time, for the sounds of hip hop at the time. It incorporated elements of dance music and stuff like that. It completely blew my mind. That’s the first band that I think about with regards to Georgia-specific stuff.

When it comes to this new record and a bigger picture take on my tastes and the way I put together songs, guys like J. Dilla and his record Donuts – stuff that is a bit more experimental and left-field, counter vibe [has been a big influence]. I’m really big into sampling and collage, and that’s almost a perfect record when it comes to that style of making music, so I’ve certainly stolen some ideas from him.

Athens has such a deep musical history, and remains a hotbed for indie, left-field, and electronic acts. How do you see this city continuing to grow musically? Are there any trends you’ve observed?

Athens is essentially a really big college town, and if you take the college out it’s quite a small town. What’s cool about that is that colleges move on a four year cycle, and you see most of the interesting music happening and emerging from these eighteen, nineteen, twenty year old kids and it can cycle through their four year tenure in Athens. I wouldn’t say electronic music in particular is super strong, but there is rock music and traditional instrumentation is very prominent there. But it’s still the same as it was in the R.E.M. years – it’s this little pocket of open minded people in an otherwise red state people pushing the envelope on the creative and artistic side of things, so that breeds interesting work and interesting musicians. None of that has changed, I don’t think.

What is it that keeps you there? Obviously it’s affordable and liveable relative to major cities, but did you ever consider making a move to New York or Los Angeles?

It’s funny – I actually recently moved back to Atlanta about six months ago. And that was mainly just because I was missing a few more of the bigger city amenities and being closer to the airport with the new record out. I spend so much time traveling that it just made sense.

But I really valued my time in Athens. It was a sense of moving at a slower pace, and I certainly enjoyed that, but I have definitely considered moving to bigger cities. You mentioned LA – I did a lot of the record out there. I go back and forth about it. It would certainly open a lot more doors when it comes to collaboration or getting into some varied projects, but in some ways it would make a lot more sense if I were like five or ten years younger. But I have a family now and a pretty boring life. I don’t get out much. I don’t know if I could stomach the rent rates of LA or New York if I wasn’t out there and really enjoying it. [Laughs]

A lot of the music on your first two records sounds like the soundtrack to people doing psychedelics.

[Laughs] Sure, yeah.

Mister Mellow seems to be slightly different. I feel like the theme that keeps recurring for me as I listen to it is that we live in an era where we’re bombarded with information, and we’re constantly stressed out by it. Having music that sounds really pleasant on the surface level – but still has substantial depth – it’s nice, but there’s also an inherent tension and cognitive dissonance. 

Yes, and that’s the challenge, really. At its core the music is pretty simple pop songs – sure, I try to squeeze in a lot of weird sounds in there and some experimental production techniques, but they’re all three-to-four-minute long pop songs. The challenge is to squeeze in these little moments and underlying sensations.

You mention people taking psychedelics or whatever; there’s moments when you’re in that mindset of a transcendent understanding. But also there are those situations where there’s…[pauses] the opposite of that. [Laughs knowingly] You’re questioning your place in the world and it’s making you feel weird and anxious. That’s what I wanted: little bits of that underneath of everything. I didn’t want to make a stereotypical surface level thing; it’s so much more complex than that. Oftentimes you talk about experimenting with drugs or whatever, and that’s kind of my mindset, I guess.

The cover art to the record has some fascinating details: Big Bird, the hat with “CHILLWAVE” emblazoned across it, several different motivational slogans, a Xanax bar. Can you talk to the decisions behind including any of these things?

It’s meant to be very tongue-in-cheek – obviously there’s this motif of smiling, happy faces in a lot of the promo for the record, and all of it is meant to be ironic. Underneath all of that and underneath a lot of the themes on the record is this kind of unsettled feeling. We talked a bit about the chillwave thing earlier – there’s this surface-level perception of me and a few of the other artists that are grouped in the category as though it’s just fun-loving, stoner music without much depth. The idea was to flip that on its head a bit and have more of the reality of where I’m at.

I’ve been doing this for quite a few years now, and a lot of the newness has worn off. It’s quite hard being a career musician; to have a family, and be constantly on the road, and all of that. Those little clues are giving the listener and viewer some clues about the themes I talk about on the record. It’s definitely meant to be super playful though.

You created an accompanying visual album – and that was mostly done in claymation, right?

Yeah, there were quite a few different styles of animation that we used, and claymation was one of them, as well as more traditional hand-drawn animation, some stop-motion, some cut out collage. It was all across the board, but the one thing that tied it all together was the idea that it had this handmade, “human” feel to it. You could see indications of the process – the anti computer photoshop sort of thing. And I feel like the music was put together in that way and sounds like that, so it made sense to make that connection with the visual side of things.

Basically I just got really into a lot of weird experimental animation, and again, saw so many similarities in the way I was putting together the songs and really wanted explore that as far as I could. Even with the live show, there’s this massive projection screen behind us and all of these weird videos playing. For me, it makes the experience even more immersive. You’re sucked into this world of the record.

Funny you bring that up – I noticed while listening to the album and watching some of the videos that the humanity really shines through. You can “hear” the seams and imperfections, and the fact that they remain seemed purposeful. It adds a dimension of empathy to the listening process.

Yeah! I hoped that’s the connection people are making. So many of the clips and the audio I put together was just time intensive, really meticulous process. There’s parts of me that really enjoy that people aren’t consciously even thinking about that. But like you said, when you start noticing the seams as you live with the record for a little while, hopefully you begin to see the complexity of everything. And I’m hopeful that empathy you mentioned shines through even clearer once you realize those sorts of things.