Washed Out is Ernest Greene, a rural Georgia-based electronic musician.
So how long have you been making music? I know it’s kind of boring but if you could just give me the chronology of the project. Sorry about that, there’s just not a lot of information on you yet.
I’ve already done a couple of interviews today and they were pretty standard. I’m kind of getting used to talking about myself. It’s all really new. But I grew up taking piano lessons when I was young and when I was probably ten or eleven I discovered grunge—I grew up in the ‘90s—so I started playing guitar, learning how to play guitar by playing Nirvana songs. I’m sure the classic scenario. I don’t know how familiar you are with Georgia but I went to the University of Georgia in Athens for undergrad and played in a few bands, really didn’t play out much, really just for the fun of it. It was a lot of improvisation and not much traditional songwriting at all. Around those college years I downloaded a version of Fruity Loops. Have you heard of it? It’s mostly like, hip-hop producers, crunk stuff.
You still hear a lot of Fruity Loops sounds in stuff.
So that was really eye-opening. I never really worked with anything like it before, and for me personally, it was just really cool to be able to control everything. I guess I had recorded stuff before but I just didn’t have the resources to add a synth line or a crazy bassline; stuff before that was guitar-based and really simple stuff. That opened my eyes to production in general. It just built from there. I just enjoyed controlling everything myself, holing up in my bedroom basically.
The lo-fi label…slapped on unfairly? How does your creative process happen?
I never really thought too much about the aesthetic, just the atmosphere. I feel like there’s an “atmosphere” that’s the Washed Out sound. I feel like the lo-fi thing is secondary. The way to accomplish the sound I was going for was to degrade the sound a little bit, if you will. Just kind of blend everything together, especially when bringing samples and stuff in, just that general haziness.
You put some of this stuff out on cassettes. Why did you decide to do that? I’m a big physical object junkie.
Me too. It wasn’t something that was really conceptualized at all. I grew up buying cassettes. I remember buying singles in the cardboard sleeve thing. I thought that was really cool. But I guess I really wasn’t into cassette culture; there’s definitely an underground scene, lo-fi stuff. That was kind of pointed out to me online. These guys in Charleston were starting up a label to put out cassettes. I think it actually came out today, officially. At the time, when they approached me—one of the guys is a good friend with my friend Chaz who does Toro y Moi—this was basically before any of the press and he mentioned my name to them. But they pretty much do it all themselves. You supply tapes and they do all the legwork. But at the time they were doing a run of 100 and I was thinking, “Oh wow, that would be cool, maybe I could sell like 50 to my friends.” Now it’s completely taken off and I believe it’s sold out already today. I haven’t really talked with them but I checked the site out today. They ended up doing 200 I think.
I really feel like it’s a really democratic time for music. Good stuff, like the Washed Out stuff, can rise to a level of consciousness pretty fast. What do you make of that?
I think you’re right in that it is democratic and that it can level the playing field, but at the same time, and I feel this way about my stuff and I’ve seen it before with other bands, once one site puts something up, all of the other blogs feel like they have to keep up and post something, and at that point it can get blown out of proportion a little bit. I feel like that might have happened a little bit with me. But I try to reflect on it. From week to week, I feel like it’s gotten bigger and bigger. I’ve only played a couple of shows before and I feel like I’m leading up to a huge disappointment (laughs).
It’s just an interesting landscape because people want music more than ever, and it’s going to sort itself out on the money side, but it’s inspiring that people are still so excited by music. Nobody’s going to pay you to make a record where they might have done that ten years ago.
Exactly. And that’s the thing. I’m going to end up playing a handful of shows but I don’t ever think it’s going to be big tours or anything. I’m definitely more comfortable recording songs. I don’t really have the ambition to do some huge concept album or some huge thing in a big studio. It’s very much going to be a small-scale type of thing, at least I’m going to try to keep it like that. I’ve taken it as it comes, at this point.
I’m sitting out by the pool and it’s actually really nice. And I’m locked out (laughs). My phone might run out of battery life soon and it’ll start beeping.
No worries. We have like, so many mediums to connect with each other with, so we can be flexible.
I kind of like the GChat interview because I can throw hyperlinks in. It’s been a lot of fun. I feel like you can kind of reflect a little more.
Is they’re anything in particular you’re trying to communicate through the music?
For the most part, it comes naturally. I definitely don’t think too much when I’m writing stuff. That’s what I enjoy about it. It’s nice to get lost in the work. Though at the same time I definitely made an effort to keep…most of the songs are in major keys, most of the songs are fairly upbeat, so that was definitely what I was shooting for? Have you seen the cover?
I took that of my girlfriend. That’s definitely the vibe I was going for.
I really dug the cover shot. Nice typeface too. We’re typeface geeks.
I wish I could take credit for that but I have a graphic design friend who did that. I’m normally pretty good with stuff like that but I’d never used InDesign—I can do anything in Photoshop—but I was thrown for a loop there so I asked her to help me out.
With these songs, it was in the summer and I moved back in with my parents. I hadn’t lived here in eight years or something and it was a really peaceful place. A lot of things were going on this summer, it was a lot of fun—I was trying to capture that vibe.
And I understand you’re getting married.
Thanks a lot!
I always try to grasp the mindset or place that the music comes from, and it doesn’t seem like your music comes out of malaise or stress or something like that.
It’s funny you say that because there’s also a very peaceful feeling I get when I’m writing. There has been a little bit of stress, and I think that’s mainly just uncertainty. I moved here initally only planning to stay a couple weeks, I was interviewing for different jobs. All of that ended up falling through and I’ve been consistently interviewing for the past couple months or so and it never worked out. It’s been a weird feeling, I wouldn’t say stressful, but feeling like I’m taking advantage of my parents, like I’m old enough - I shouldn't be doing this…the music helped me remain positive. People keep saying, “You can’t hear the lyrics” but must of the lyrics are actually about that feeling, that everything’s going to be OK, you might feel bad now but it’ll end up being fine, that optimistic feeling.
It’s just such a hard time for people trying to do anything halfway creative. Nobody’s going to give you any money up front to do it at the beginning.
I had an interview with Rolling Stone and I’m telling my friends about this, and they’re like “So are you going to be doing this full time?” I haven’t seen a dime of anything! (laughs) I know some money eventually is going to come through, record sales or whatever, but it’s nothing substantial enough to make anything work. It’s definitely weird. The past few years, I hadn’t even begun to think about it, the money. It’s been a labor of love, I know that’s kind of cheesy to say.
It’s kind of bittersweet. Nobody’s doing it for the money, but it’s a lot of work and you’re the only person that can give the project the energy it needs.
That’s what I think of when people argue about what’s going to happen when the music industry crashes. People are still going to be making great music. So I definitely agree with that.
I always like talking to people outside the NYC scene because it’s a scene so concerned with posturing. I can tell that’s not quite what you’re about.
There’s not a lot of posturing in rural Georgia. I’m in the middle of nowhere right now.
Do you anticipate putting more tapes out? What other things do you want to keep doing?
I very much like getting the songs out there as quickly as I can. I write songs all the time and generally I have a really good feeling about certain songs. I’m really excited about them and want to get them out. And I definitely love that about the Internet. I had a blog for a while that was just, whenever I had a song I would just put it up. I guess I write so fast - and the sound evolves so quickly that I’ve never entertained the idea of doing a full length album, that it would take too much time. I like writing singles. I’ve talked to a couple labels about 7’’s and I’m going to do a 7’’ and a 12’’ next year, just these four or five tracks per little record.
So do you feel like it’s a coincidence that these formats that really complement your sound are now the really popular thing?
It’s gone back to what you mentioned earlier, having something physical to hold on to. I’ll eventually probably do more cassettes. Right now, the songs are given away for free. Your average listener will download the song, listen to it, and move onto the next thing, whereas people that really really like it, it’s almost like a keepsake. That’s what the vinyl record is for, I feel like. The average consumer is OK with just having it digitally. I can’t remember the last time I bought a CD. I carry around my iPod or whatever and for the stuff I really really love I have it on vinyl. That’s how I think about it. I definitely love the artwork for a record and I love having a cassette, something to hold on to, and the sound quality is great.
I wonder if that’s the new model, putting out these four or five track releases, as opposed to full-lengths.
I think there’s inevitably a lead single, or a couple of tracks that stand out. Everything else gets lost in the mix. For instance, like Grizzly Bear’s new albums, there’s a couple tracks I really like that I’ll listen to over and over and those capture the sound of the album. I guess that just goes back to pop music; a single song will, at least in my mind, create the vibe for that group.
I think some groups are better set up for full-lengths, though. Like a Grizzly Bear.
And I think that’s great. I just don’t write songs like that. They’re really quick ideas. It’s a group of songs rather than an album as a whole.
What kinds of things do you emphasize when you’re writing a song?
A strong melody is super important and that’s definitely the hardest thing when I’m writing. I might crank out chord progressions for the music side of songs, or the instrument side of songs, I can do that all day long but it’s rare that I find a melody that can complement that in a really good way. Those are basically the ones I put out. I have all these tracks that I’ve done this summer that didn’t work. Something that comes naturally at first has been a basic melody and then I’ll just add weird harmonies. That’s the fun part and I try to make that as interesting as I can. Outside of that, I’ve always listened to sample-based music, I loved hip-hop back in the day so that was very influential, it’s very beat-driven. I like a good beat. It’s a weird place, I feel like, with these tunes because it’s upbeat enough that you could possibly see someone dancing to it. Also very bedroom sounding, you can listen to it on your headphones. I’ve been slowing things down a lot, moving into the bedroom. Have you heard “Feel It All Around”?
The vibe that would be perfect for that song is just sitting outside right now, it just surrounds you. That’s the vibe I’ve been going for. I’ve been doing a couple remixes, one of which should be coming out next week, I’ve given the track over. The group is called Small Black, and I’ve given it off to them. It’s slow and reverb-ed out.
I sent “Feel It All Around” to one of my friends who lives out in the mountains who’s pretty disconnected from the scene and he loved it. So that tells me there was something pretty universal about it.
I have some similar friends who don’t keep up with new music like I do or you do, but I respect their tastes. I’ve played a bunch of songs for them, and the ones that stood out seem to be the more popular songs. I don’t try to make it universal. It’s pretty naive.
But you mentioned you do a lot of major key songwriting.
It’s definitely traditional song structure. I do love pop stuff.
Do you see yourself as a pop musician?
I do definitely think about structuring the songs more traditionally, versus and choruses. But when I think of pop songs I think of super catchy and bouncy. Surface level music is maybe kind of pop music. What I try to do with the vocal melodies is really more laid-back. It’s not as “poppy,” the atmosphere. A little bit of both. I don’t know.
Washed Out Interview
Photo By Grant David Keyes