Life, Leisure & Loads Of Reverb: An Interview With Washed Out

Lev Harris chats to Washed Out about new album Life Of Logic, photography and working with a live band

This time last year, the sound rather hastily pinned down as ‘chillwave’ – an offshoot of the Ariel Pink school of lo-fi bedroom pop, all breezy vocals, synth and half-hidden drum machine beats – was the genre du jour. As is so often the case with blog-hyped genres, it has slowly receded to a peripheral role over the last twelve months, during which time one of its main practitioners, Washed Out, aka. Ernest Greene, has been busy writing Within & Without, the full-length follow up to his accclaimed 2009 EP Life of Leisure.

While perhaps not as bold a shift as friend and fellow chillwaver Toro Y Moi’s second album, Underneath the Pine, Greene’s debut full-length still displays a measured expansion in his sound. It maintains the unabashed, pop-friendly accessibility that characterises the sound he helped to define, but any quibbles about the EP being too languorous or self-consciously slow moving have been ironed out. Having worked with a live band for the album, its songs have a greater sense of depth and studio polish than the hazy, self-recorded feel of his earlier tracks. The most notable addition to his set-up is a drum kit. Where Life Of Leisure tracks like ‘Feel It All Around’ moved at a heartbeat’s pace, with clarity sacrificed in favour of an emphasis on mood, on Within & Without it drives his music forward with a far more direct, dance-oriented sense of purpose than before. Like the clattering disco of Toro’s Underneath The Pine, the development of Greene’s sound beyond simple bedroom pop offers further proof that there’s a great deal more depth to chillwave’s major artists than its critics might have originally suggested.

We met up with Greene to chat about the album and development of his sound.

How are you feeling about the release of your debut LP? Excited? Anxious?

Ernest Greene: A little bit of all of that I think. I’ve just been super busy getting ready for the tour, it’s a little bit of a challenge. I’m heading out to LA now and it won’t be for a couple of months until I get back to Georgia. It’s a pretty busy tour.

The interview cut out here, as our interviewee had to dash for a flight from Georgia to the West Coast. Having just made the gate in time, we picked up again a few days later, with Washed Out now sitting comfortably in New York.

EG: We did a show at the Bowery last night.

How did it go?

EG: Yeah it was a blast. People already know the words to a handful of tracks, which is pretty amazing.

I read in an old interview that you felt that groups were more equipped to release albums than solo artist like yourself. After two EPs, what was it like and what did you do differently in preparing a full length album on a major label?

EG: I guess with my previous work I was only thinking song to song, there was never any kind of big picture. When I started work on this record I knew it was a forty-minute piece that needed to have a beginning and an end and a nice kind of narrative that would have an actual flow to it. It was really something that I struggled with, it didn’t necessarily suit my style of writing because I would get a bit lost in the process. But things soon started to fall into place. Overall, it was a very positive experience, there were definitely moments of ‘Can I do this?’ and ‘Is this good?’, there was a lot of self-doubt, and that was one of the biggest problems of working by yourself – not being able to bounce ideas off others. That said, I was very lucky to work with such a good producer later on in the process who gave a fresh take on things.

Did you have any tracks already penned or did you start from scratch? How long was the overall process?

EG: I released a track ‘You and I’ around this time last year, and the chord structure for ‘Eyes Be Closed’ was done, but apart from that I was starting from scratch. I started this time last year, the writing took 6 months. Then 10 days in a studio in Atlanta in late December but it wasn’t mastered until the beginning of January.

How were you sure that you had finished it? Did you have a set number of tracks you were going to include?

EG: It was actually a struggle to work out which songs would go where and how they would fit together. There were a handful of demos that rose above the rest, it was easy to place them, but for some of the slower numbers and tracks that weren’t single-type tracks, it was hard to pick those out. And at the end of the day it was all about the flow of the record and the songs that made the most sense. Ben, the producer, helped me with figuring that out. The last track on the record was actually the last track that was written, and it was recorded after the album was mixed. I’m glad that it made it on, because it sounds different to the rest of the record, and was written six months after the others.

You mention the last track, ‘A Dedication’, which is a piano ballad. It signals a more stripped down change of pace for you. Can you explain the decision behind this?

EG: I knew we had finished the record but the ending didn’t feel right. So I started playing a lot more piano and more traditional instrumentation, and I came up with a melody and laid it up really quickly in my studio in my house, and somehow it felt right. I was kind of scared that it wouldn’t make sense with the rest of the material, which was recorded in a proper studio, but at the end of the process I liked the idea of it sounding different. It was an indication of maybe where things will go and serves as an epilogue and a complete, final feeling to the record when it fades out.

Can we expect the next album to include more piano or more traditional sounding instruments?

EG: Maybe not Billy Joel ballads, but that’s sort of where I’m at now. A lot of what I do in the writing stage is on the computer and editing. Right now I’m into more performance-based stuff. It’s hard to tell where I’ll be six months from now, but that’s where I am right now.

Could that be a natural reaction to the chillwave label that you’ve been given?

EG: Somewhat a reaction on a conscious level, but even more than that, I personally get tired of how I do things and want to switch things around and change the way I do things.

What is it about the heavy reverb and blurred out lyrics that appeals to you so much?

EG: The melody is definitely the most important part of the song and that normally appears in the really early stages of coming up with an arrangement and a chord progression. There’s always a scratch vocal take where I’m just making up vocals off the top of my head. A lot of the time in those first takes there are a couple of moments that I really like that naturally happen, and I try and build the song around what happens in that moment. It’s not much of a conscious thing at all – it’s just sort of the way I do things, I like having vocals a little bit lower in the mix. I don’t write songs about characters or storylines, it’s more about feeling and what that represents.

There seems to be a certain emphasis on hi-hat drum beats on some of the songs such as ‘Echoes’, ‘Soft’ and ‘Far Away’ that wasn’t present on Life of Leisure. Why have you made this change?

EG: It’s funny listening back to the older material, people would always reference dance music. But to me it wasn’t. I certainly have listened to a lot more straight ahead dance music since then and that has seeped into the record, so a lot of that hi-hat driven ‘for the floor’ beats, but at the same time I came in knowing I didn’t want to make a dance or electronic record while still referencing them. I wanted to carve out my own little place somewhere in between, while maintaining a sense of balance. If there was an obvious dance beat, I’d balance it out with live instrumentation.

What does it do to the live set up or is it still through Cubase or Reason?

EG: There was some stuff that was sequenced, but I was lucky to have a really good drummer come in and play. He would take the simple parts I’d written and make them so much better. There are a number of moments on the record where I was able to bring in a bunch of musicians to collaborate with, which opened my mind up to doing that more. I have a band together now, and I was definitely thinking about the performance side of things when I was writing the record, it’s much easier to translate the songs into a live setting than sequenced beats. We played together for the first time last night, we had a good reception and we try to speed up the tracks a little bit.

You didn’t find it so easy to work with people in the past. So what’s changed?

EG: One part is realizing my limitations. The songs were much more dynamic and I needed help to pull that off. I previously found it difficult because of compromise but it’s much easier when you’re around people that you respect and that have valid ideas. I can’t stress how important that was in the writing of the new record.

Could you describe the thoughts behind the name of the album and how that relates to the artwork?

EG: I’m an amateur photographer and I look at photography magazines. The image I used was an advertisement, and I was immediately drawn to it on a few different levels. I really like the stark white background, different to the bold colours of my previous artwork. The record sounds a lot different and I wanted the artwork to mirror those changes. The content of the image represented an intimacy that had this weight to it, and that kind of played into the title. I try not to go too deep into explaining its meaning, I like to leave it open to interpretation.

You take photos as well? Does your music inspire your photography or vice versa or is it completely separate?

EG: It’s pretty separate, that’s actually what I like about it. Music for me at this point has turned into this calculated and thought-out thing a lot of the time, and the process will go on for a long period of time when I’m thinking about songs. The beautiful thing about photography is that it’s instantaneous, especially the style of photography that I do, it’s more about recognising a moment in time, it’s always just one click and that’s it.

Could you see this being a profession after you’re doing with composing music or is it purely a hobby?

EG: I like the pure aspect of documenting my life. I really respect photographers who can step into a situation where they know nothing about the setting or the person they’re meeting and they have ten minutes to get really interesting shots, I don’t think that would fit my style at all.

Why is it that in the past, you have chosen the DIY route and released material on cassette?

EG: At the time, there was not much of an audience for my music, and from a DIY standpoint it’s much easier to record that way in your house. At the same time, aesthetically, I think that format really fits with the style that I was writing at the time. I wrote most of the material on the computer then dubbed it onto the cassette. Every song found on the internet is ripped from the cassette, and I like the idea of how the song changes when the cassette is played more and more.

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