Washed Out Interviewed

Posted July 5, 2011 in Music Features

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Ernest Greene began his Washed Out odyssey in when he was fresh out of college in 2009 when his lo-fi tracks were thrown into the relative limelight by powerful American music blogs in the initial wave of what came of to be known as chillwave. Influenced by J Dilla and Panda Bear, this wonky, woozy sound tapped the nostalgia of Polaroid photos and long summer days, kissed with tape hiss and sunshine. The first wave of popular exponents of the genre is now producing their records as full time musicians rather than bedroom adventurers. In a broad Georgia drawl Ernest spoke with Totally Dublin about the travails of making his first full-length release, Within and Without.

Where are you now? You’re in the States?

I’m in Atlanta at my house. The band is here and we’ve been rehearsing all week and played a couple of shows this weekend and are leaving for tour the following weekend.

Are you full time in Atlanta now, out of the countryside and into the city?

Yeah, I recorded the record about an hour and a half east in a very small town and then I guess it was December, my wife and I moved here to Atlanta.

Is it just a consequence of having to work more at music?

Yeah, its quite different. Where we’re living in the small town was 30 minutes away from any sort of civilization at all, which was a very isolated feeling and now we live in the heart of Atlanta. We’re doing a show this weekend its two blocks from my house and its definitely nice to be more involved with whats happening here as far as going out to shows but I think I still prefer the isolation and getting outside the city as far as the writing goes.

So Ben Allen’s studio – is that in Atlanta too or somewhere else in Georgia?

Yeah it’s in Atlanta, about ten minutes from my house so we actually moved into our house here the day before we were starting on the record with Ben so it was a crazy time. He only had 10 or 11 days free and so it was 12-hour days for all of those.

Was that the first time you’d work ostensibly with another producer on your music?

Definitely. And it was something I was a little skeptical about coming in. I started work on this new record around this time last year and from the beginning the songs were turning into much bigger sounding songs than I’d written before. I wasn’t confident – my production skills just weren’t cutting it. And so, I’d met Ben before and reached out to him, luckily he had the time. He had emailed me to tell me he was a fan and I think he liked the idea that I came from a small town in Georgia, that we had similar backgrounds. He grew up in Athens, Georgia. It was a great experience.

I read an old interview with you where you referred to yourself as being very stubborn and selfish about your music and not being particularly good at sharing it.

Exactly. That was the other thing that I was worried about, that someone else would come in and clean things up to the point where they would take away the magic that was in those more raw recordings that I had done previously. I basically recorded the songs on the record to the best of my ability so they were probably 80% done, most of them, and I had a very strong idea of what I wanted them to sound like. Actually we spend tons of time where I would be playing youtube videos for Ben referencing what sounds I wanted, whether it was a drum sound or a bass sound or whatever. Because I’m not classically trained, when it comes to engineering and production, I really don’t have the terminology or vocabulary to describe anything. Ben’s great at interpreting vague or abstract descriptions that I would give him. He understood where I was coming from more than anything else and I was happy with how everything turned out.

Is the reason you’re very protective because you have a very clear idea of how you want to make music as Washed Out?

Definitely but at the same time I’m trying to open myself up to collaborate more. There’s actually one song on the record called You And I that was written with a musician in New York called Caroline Polacek and that was a perfect example of when collaborations can go right. I had written the core structure of that song and had an idea of where I wanted to take it and she stepped in and took in an entirely different direction which ended up being much more clever and the right way to take the song. So I’m trying to remain open to that. It was definitely a collaboration [working] with Ben, he brought some things to the table that I hadn’t necessarily thought of. A lot of the percussion that is on one hand very simple, shakers and tambourines and cymbal swells – those things ended up making the record so much more dynamic and that was pretty much all his doing.

I often find that really simple percussion can lift up a drum loop.

Yeah, yeah. Especially with drums, my style is to keep things really simple and it adds a little colour and variety that makes songs flow a lot better.

So for your basic working practice are you still using Reason and Cubase [two computer music production platforms] together?

I started out using the same set, mainly because I didn’t want the record to sound too different from what I had been done before – and I think the end product sounds quite different – but the idea was to use the same set up so it might have a connection.

I have a quote here from you where you’re describing your own music and you said “it sits in a weird place between traditional dance music and traditional indie rock, not upbeat enough to rage at a party but beat-driven enough to turn off people” – so is Washed Out just one element of Ernest Greene’s music, or is that pretty much exactly what you want to do, confined into that space?

It wasn’t necessarily a conscious thing but I sort of created a little space between the stuff that I really look up to and I definitely try to serve that sound and that idea of Washed Out and that’s really what shaped this record than anything else. It was less about having a particular sound in mind and more [that] I knew what the record shouldn’t sound like and so I knew the space in between all of these things would make sense. That was one of the big decisions of using more live instrumentation on this record – to maintain a sense of balance. What would have been there if there would have been a lot of sequenced drum machine parts and sequenced bass lines that I had in the previous work, they would have become too electronic or too close to traditional dance music. So that was definitely an idea of mine to have the electronic elements there but balance it with some more organic sounding instrumentation.

I have a massively vague question for you next about what you’re looking for when you’re sampling a record. Is it a timbre of the instruments or the groove of the drums?

More than anything it’s just the texture. There’s no doubt there’s a certain thing that I’m listening for. It’s really hard to describe! I generally prefer more lo-fi sounding samples, just from a practical point of view, when you’re using loads of clean synth sounds if you throw a little bit of texture from organic or analog sounding synth from the 70s for instance, it shapes the sound in a way where it makes it feel more authentic when you’re talking about referencing a certain era. So that was definitely a huge part of what I was doing on my previous work. I’ve got away from sampling a bit. There’s definitely some sampling on this record, but its just small little pieces and again its mainly just texture to dirty things up a little bit, for lack of a better phrase.

There’s a bit at the start of the track Far Away, I really think, sonically and in terms of texture, it sounded like Four Organs by Steve Reich with the really brittle shaker sound.

Well I love that! That’s actually one of the most organic songs I’ve ever done in. There’s a string part and we used xylophone for a section. I actually sampled a Rhodes keyboard sound and then manipulated it a bit. Its hard to hear, its not very loud in the mix but it gives it a certain kind of colour [whereas] if you were playing a straight normal Rhodes keyboard it would sound entirely different. That’s one of my favourite tracks on the record.

I want to ask you about the influence the environment had on how you write and the music in general. I think there’s this image that gets associated with your music constantly of summer time and beaches. 

Yeah, yeah!

So for a record that comes out in the summer, when was it written and recorded initially? Was it last summer, or during the winter?

I started work around this time last year, for the first couple of months I was experimenting with different sounds and trying to school myself on more traditional recording concepts. I didn’t start really writing until late summer and most of the fall so to me, thinking back on making the record it doesn’t feel very summery at all. I think there are a couple of tracks, the two singles where I get that but most of everything else, to me, is more melancholy and feels more like autumn. I’d say it was a bit of strategy with putting the record out now because I think people really do associate my music with summer. I totally get it and it’s a natural thing for me, when I sit down and write, these are the types of songs I write. It’s not a conscious effort to do that. If I sit down at a piano, or I sit down at a guitar it’s gonna sound like that for the most part.

Do you still start the songs at the piano or guitar or do start at the computer?

This record I did a lot more sitting down at the piano and writing but I still mainly do most of the writing at the computer because its much easier to move through ideas. I would loop a keyboard part and start adding layers to it and its very mindless, over the course of a few hours I’ll get lost in doing it. If something is strong, normally a melody will appear and I’ll record a version of that, then I’ll come back at a later time and edit everything and structure it so it’s all very mindless. So it’s very challenging, for this record I wanted it to sound like one long piece where everything flows together. Its hard when you’re writing in a mindless way to shape the songs to go in a certain direction, it took a lot longer.

You were in Georgia when you were writing? Do you live by the beach or is it inland?

It’s about two or three hours from the beach. My wife’s family had a house, its right on a really nice lake, just a cottage. So we spent of time in the summer on the lake, her parents have a boat. So I think subconsciously that might have seeped into some of the material. That was a great time. Although it’s really hot here in Georgia in the summer so I was inside most of the time.

How are you playing live? I initially assumed having a read interviews and knowing that it was a one-man project that when I checked out performances on youtube that it would be you with a laptop but a lot of the time its you playing with a drummer and bass player and maybe someone else as well.

Yeah, the line-up we have now is more of a rock set up. It’s a drummer and a bass player and a Rhodes keyboard and a couple of synthesizers, so it comes out sounding quite different from the records since we’re limited to a handful of keyboards sounds and we try to maybe up the tempo a little bit to make things a little more fun, so it sounds quite different. To my ears it sounds more like cosmic disco – that’s the reference I’m using. We’ve been listening to a lot of old seventies stuff from that era because it has the dance quality but it also feels very live.

What were you into before you came across this sound that really defines what Washed Out is?
As far as music goes I come from a hip-hop/sampling background. DJ Shadow was one of the big influences early on. I really liked the mood of his records, the sounds were just so insane and that definitely still shapes the way I put songs together. Like when I mentioned about how when I’m writing it’s a loop-based thing or I’m creating layers of loops on top of one another. I think that’s shaped by hip-hop. Moving more from there, I discovered more ambient music, like Boards of Canada, that shaped my approach too, dirtying things up in a way, experimenting with using more non-traditional sounds. I guess nowadays, some cosmic disco stuff is big, because of live playing it’s become more important. I’ve definitely gotten a lot better at playing, whereas before at the computer there was more editing and using a mouse. And recently it’s been more playing and that’s great.

And do you have an inclination to keep move in that direction in the future?

Yeah I’m working on stuff all the time. The last song on the record is just piano. I’m playing more piano and, as I mentioned, the Rhodes keyboard. That’s definitely shaping things. I mean, it might not be a full-length record or anything but I’m definitely working on songs without a computer, just straight to tape with the keyboard that I have and definitely sounds a lot different. It might not even be a Washed Out sound, but it’s a lot of fun for me.

Within And Without by Washed Out is out on July 15th. Washed Out plays The Grand Social on August 13th, tickets costing €15.

Words Ian Lamont

Illustration Kathi Burke



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