MusicMusic Features

How Washed Out Survived the Chillwave Craze

At his house just outside Athens, Ernest Greene is straight-up lounging. After showing off his basement studio, with the dew-dappled picture window that looks out on an idyllic patch of woods (two deer soon arrive; paging Thomas Kinkade), he sits on a comfy couch in his gorgeous living room with its vaulted ceilings, soft-rock titans America barely blaring from the stereo. A swimming pool beckons just outside the back door. This is exactly where one might expect to find Ernest Greene.

Greene’s bedroom-pop project Washed Out began garnering breathless, hyperbolic buzz back in 2009 on the strength of Life of Leisure, an EP of homemade synth-pop recordings, and one track in particular, the druggy, ethereal “Feel It All Around.” The sound, and that of Greene’s compatriots, like Neon Indian and Toro Y Moi, was jokingly dubbed “chillwave” by a music blogger; perhaps unfairly, the term stuck. While many of its contemporaries have slowly faded from the collective consciousness (remember Memory Tapes?) Washed Out has managed to endure.

That fact, Greene admits, is thanks in no small part to the hipster-skewing TV sketch program “Portlandia,” which uses “Feel It All Around” as its opening theme. Greene marvels at the number of fans who tell him they discovered his music via the show. Of course, when his project first began to buzz, he marveled at the number of fans, period. For the reserved musician, a UGA grad who says he was “making songs in his bedroom” during his college years while his friends were out at shows, the sudden rise to indie stardom was the shock of a lifetime.

“I never imagined playing out,” he says, explaining that Life of Leisure came during a post-collegiate period that followed “five or six years of doing it badly” by himself: unsteady beat collages and half-assed Fruity Loops experimentations that never saw the light of day. But the EP was undeniably solid, a sure-footed, lo-fi dance record with little low end but a sneaking hip hop influence.

Greene cites DJ Shadow as having particularly influenced his work at the time. “That record [Endtroducing] is one I can point my finger to and say, ‘Everything was different after that’,” he says, then laughs. “Of course, I was really big into smoking pot back then.”

Regardless of how the stylistic shift came about, Washed Out was suddenly in high demand. In those days, Greene says, he was overwhelmed by the media and fan attention to the point where his shows suffered. Of course, that was the knock on chillwave from the beginning: how would this meticulously programmed, intensely insular music translate to the live stage? Not very convincingly, as it turned out; to the dismay of many fans, Greene and his colleagues were basically glorified DJs.

“I would say for the first year or so, I was not prepared for [the crowds] at all,” Greene says. “The [most frustrating] thing about the old stuff was, because it was a very sequenced, programmed sound, all the drum parts are just a drum machine, and there’s very little swing happening in the beat. It doesn’t make for a great live performance.”

Rookie mistakes were also made. Greene recalls a 40 Watt show in fall 2009 with Toro Y Moi’s Chaz Bundick (who, it should be noted, has also far outlived the buzz, having gone into full psych-funk freak mode, unleashing a fast critical favorite with this year’s Anything in Return), a near-disaster of a performance that arose from blindness to the consequences of sudden success.

“We had this bright idea that, instead of having the 30-minute break in between our sets, we were gonna merge the two, like a DJ set,” says Greene. “And we finished, and it was 11 o’clock. And there were people still coming in the door. And [promoter] Scott [Orvold] freaked out… It wasn’t a great show.”

A period of artistic uncertainty ensued, as pressure mounted on Green, after the 17-minute EP had given him such a boost, to follow with a full-length album. That album, Within and Without, arrived in 2011 via indie giant Sub Pop to decidedly temperate reviews. It was an extension of the vaguely sensual, grayly nostalgic grooves that had characterized Life of Leisure, albeit a slicker effort, having been produced by pop-minded producer Ben H. Allen, an Athens native. It was, by most accounts, the sound of limited vision on a big budget, an artist still finding his way.

The following summer, Greene and a newly assembled backing band opened for The Shins on a handful of dates, a tour of various festivals and stadiums that Greene describes as a surreal and exhausting experience.

“It was really fun, but it was a lot of driving. They were in a bus, and we were in a van, and we were trying to catch up with them. It was a really long tour.”

After Greene returned to his new Athens home—he and his wife had lived in East Atlanta for three years but grew “fed up with the space limitations”—Washed Out’s frontman felt inspired by the experience and also his new surroundings. He itched to refine his sound.

“I had a lot of creative energy built up,” he says. “I was really excited about being back home… I feel like I do my best work when I’m shut off, and can really focus, and can kind of work through ideas.”

The resulting album, Paracosm, released last month via Sub Pop, reflects a newfound confidence. Greene says he laid the groundwork for the record by deciding on a specific sound palette ahead of time, something he had never done before, formerly preferring instead to cut and paste as he went. As such, compared to Within and Without, where the assembly was “much harder of a process,” Paracosm, despite representing a vast departure in terms of Washed Out’s stylistic trajectory, came together relatively naturally.

“I had a pretty good idea of where i wanted to take the songs from the get-go,” Greene says. “With the last record, I felt like I was constantly experimenting and going through this trial and error process. [This time,] having a lot of sounds already there, I could jump into actually writing songs, as opposed to playing with sound design.”

Paracosm is lush and sumptuous, as expansive as Within and Without, thanks to the repeat involvement of Allen, but infinitely warmer, due largely to the fact that it was recorded with and on analog equipment—it’s the first Washed Out record to feel like a profoundly human affair.

“I knew it was gonna be more of a live-sounding record,” Greene says. Of his previous work, he adds, “I always hated how the mixes were too good a lot of the time, and everything was too isolated. Working in a digital environment, things can be so sharp and bright-sounding. I was always turned off by that.”

Lead single “It All Feels Right,” despite its sly titular reference to the track that put the band on the map and sunny, sweet-times-good-vibes lyrics, is a far sonic cry from the claustrophobic shadow-pop of Greene’s early work. Booming live drums spot the song’s verses; an acoustic guitar strums in the distance; a Beatles-esque organ swirls throughout. The title track is a slow-rolling tune that features live piano, steel guitar and standup bass in addition to a cosmic spattering of swirling synth harps.

Greene attributes the change in sound to another lesson learned on the festival circuit. “It was no longer me just making songs in my bedroom,” he says he realized. Instead, “I’m also writing for this live performance we’re gonna spend the next two years playing and traveling [on].”

That mindset has led to a huge improvement in the group’s live show. Worlds apart from his tentative early outings, Greene, backed by a full band that includes his wife, Blair, on keyboards, finally seems comfortable on stage and in his role as indie superstar.

“I don’t feel like there’s as much hype as there was a couple years back,” Greene admits. “And I feel like I’ve learned to compartmentalize what I do… I’ve been working on some new material lately without any thought of ever performing it. It’s a lot more sample-based, and I’ve been doing a lot of DJing. I dunno if it’s the right or wrong way of approaching this record, but Washed Out has become a whole new thing.”

Greene’s sense of texture and melody, what first drew listeners to Washed Out, remains. Paracosm chills, even if the waves are more robust; the album brings to the forefront the latent AM Gold influence that has underlain Washed Out’s music since the beginning. It’s not yacht-rock, exactly, but let’s just say the record won’t convert any naysayers whose objection to chillwave was based on the music’s lack of bite. It should, however, convince skeptics of its creator’s artistic legitimacy—and his work ethic.

“The big passion in my life is making music,” Greene says. “I don’t wanna fuck it up.”

WHO: Washed Out, Haerts
WHERE: Georgia Theatre
WHEN: Tuesday, Sept. 24, 8 p.m.

Win tickets to the show on Homedrone.


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