Washed Out Interview: “A sustained note.”

21.06.10

I first listened to Washed Out seven months ago now. Ernest Greene’s dream pop made sense to me at two AM in my bitter house by the sea. Winter was befitting. So, it came as a surprise when the sun started rising earlier and I was still listening. These hazy pop songs shifted in meaning and, as summer approached, I felt a cadence in the way that I listened to them. I was blown away because every song felt relevant at every moment throughout every season. Ironically, it was the clarity in these hazy compositions that struck me as so extraordinary. It just all made sense.

In the past year Ernest Greene has found himself thrown from bedroom producer to a musician perceived to be at the heart of a new musical tradition. Following his first ever UK shows, The Life of Leisure EP was finally released in the UK on 14th June on Mexican Summer, nine months on from his debut 7 on Transparent. Recorded in his parents’ house in Georgia, the six songs found on that record seem to express both heartbreaking nostalgia and an overwhelming sense of hope; inaudible, reverb-heavy vocals and straight up 4/4 beats. I was lucky enough to spend half an hour talking with Ernest about treasure hunts, his friends and the ‘philosophical mindfuck’ that is “good” music.

How are you? How’s the tour been? You’re about halfway through now, right?

Correct, it’s been good. Flew into London last week and we’ve been playing a show a night ever since. I did a tour in the US with Small Black and they’ve been backing me up. We hadn’t really rehearsed much since the US tour, so the first few shows were a bit of a challenge, but I think we’ve settled back into the groove now.

You’ve said that, rather than learning in the studio or at home with these guys, the tour itself has functioned as a very steep learning curve. You’ve been working things out on the spot.

Totally, it can be a bit of a struggle when there’s very little time to do that sort of thing and a lot of times there are changes being made on the spot; sometimes it works and other times it doesn’t. The tour we did in spring went really well. Then I did another tour, by myself this time, with Beach House. So I was doing forty-minute sets alone, which is very different to what I’ll do tonight. So that’s kinda changed my approach a little.

Am I right in saying that you use sampling in all of your songs and you write stuff as well?

Yeah. An average Washed Out song goes like: I’ll pull a small little piece of maybe like a sustained note that’s isolated in an old seventies disco song. I’ll take that little bit out and transpose it on my keyboard, so in essence I’m playing that synthesizer. It’s just as easy as creating a song with a normal whatever.

But I guess an aspect of it develops into a treasure hunt for beats and sounds?

Oh yeah, totally. I’ll normally start with a beat and then find a bass line and four chord progression and then just work from there.

It’s funny. Timbaland became renowned for something similar. Finding that one snippet of sound and then rinsing it.

Yeah! Exactly. I mean, I grew up listening to Hip-Hop and I write my songs probably like a Hip-Hop producer would.

Would you class yourself as a producer then? Or as a musician, an artist or is that a differentiation that’s meaningless for you?

Yeah, I don’t really consider myself to be a producer because… I mean, I have a way of doing things. As I’ve become a little bit more experienced doing the studio thing and collaborating with other musicians, I’ve realised how much I don’t know. I’ve been writing songs and recording songs the way that I’ve done it for so long and it’s never…I was never formally taught how to do it, I mean I do things completely wrong all the time.

Where did you start out with music, was that formal?

I went from piano music to starting to play guitar and then…I couldn’t write particularly good songs just picking up a guitar and therefore I just starting playing around with other things. Around the same time I started using software to create songs.

So how old were you when you found technology?

Probably like 19 or 20. The program was called Fruity Loops.

Yeah, the program’s synonymous with bad 16yr old producers.

Totally, it was really bad. It was probably a couple of years of just fucking around with that before anything substantial happened. Just figuring it out. You definitely have to go through that.

I think it’s kind of hard to deal with that process of making shit before you can make something great. You just expect to piss beauty.

Yeah [laughs], a lot of people just assume that I had this a-ha moment and these songs were a complete concept the entire time. In reality, it’s been a work in progress for years.

What would you say the key influences in Washed Out are?

It’s kind of all over the place. To me, the vocals have a very shoegazey influence and I’m definitely into a lot of those older, nineties bands like My Blood Valentine. But also more modern stuff like this girl from Portland called Grouper. Then, the music has some hip hop –dating back to how I used to write – and older eighties stuff. Have you heard the compilation ‘Minimal Wave Tapes’?

Yeah, actually Dummy Magazine did something on Cold Wave a while back as well. It’s a bundle of music I haven’t listened to but the scene itself, its motivations, sound interesting – everyone’s fucking terrified about nuclear war so…pop songs.

Yeah, it’s pretty crazy. I was writing Hip Hop songs and the classic approach is to sample old seventies funk records. My thought was to try different sounds and I was just led into a lot of disco. So it eventually led to stuff like the songs on the Minimal Wave compilation.

As you’ve been at it for so many years, how do you feel about being picked up off the back off an incredibly hyped sound? Bro-fi/Lo-fi/Chillwave etc….

I dunno, I guess I was trying to do something different. But, because it’s been such a long process over years and years, the sound didn’t feel particularly new to me. In a weird way, I was trying to emulate other people when it came out like this.

The future, then. What’s the plan?

Well, I’m trying to figure it all out. There have been a lot of meetings and offers. Just dealing with the business side of things.

How’re you finding that? Do you have a manager?

No, I’m doing it all by myself and there’s only so much time in the day. I do all the art direction and music and business and everything so it’s been a challenge. But I think that’s part of the appeal of it; it’s an entirely singular vision.

Absolutely, great pop stars don’t seem to be able to leave anything alone. These guys who have just released a single over here, Hurts, arrived to the table with an image, a sound and it’s all been carried through. Kate Bush, Gaga…they all seem to know what they want. If you were just bedroom producing before, what else were you doing?

Not much, I graduated from college two or three years ago. I studied English Literature and I realised I didn’t want to teach so I was kind of directionless. I was just doing odd jobs and luckily this music thing took off because I’m not sure what I’d be doing otherwise.

Which three acts epitomise the glo-fi vibe for you?

Neon Indian’s really good and he comes across to me as someone who’s going to be around for a long time. It might not be this particular sound, but he’s a very talented guy. He has another project called Vega, which I think is incredible. Toro Y Moi is really good and he’s the same way as well. He knows his stuff and is one of the only people I know who can infuse his own style into any sound.

Like his most recent EP? He switched from Glo-Fi to straight up Lo-Fi.

And it’s still great! I think he’s going to do really well. Also, there’s this guy who hasn’t really got much press who’s awesome – Emil & Friends?

Yeah! I loved that 7” on Transparent. I preferred the b-side, Josephine, but the a-side was great.

Yeah, Downed Economy. I love that song.

Being involved in this trend, what do you feel is the next logical progression?

I’ve always worked with different styles and in January I started on new material and it’s started moving in a slightly different direction. I have a plan that I’m shooting for; I still don’t think there has been a record that represents my sound entirely yet.

How do you think a more comfortable environment is going to affect that sound?

I’ve had a few conversations with people about it. The Beach House guys, they’ve been around for a while now and I really look up to them. There’s a certain pressure to write another hit single and their best advice has been to just trust your ear. So, whatever the sound, if it sounds good, odds are other people will like it as well. It’s a challenge balancing what you want and what your audience want.

Life Of Leisure is out now on Mexican Summer Records.