Washed Out's Ernest Greene talks 'Portlandia,' nostalgic soundscapes and his role in the elecronic music revolution
There is Skrillex. There is Calvin Harris. There is David Guetta.
And then way, way, waaaaaaay at the other end of the spectrum, there is Ernest Greene.
The man behind bedroom-pop project Washed Out trades rave anthems and Top 40 party jams for dreamy, lo-fi indie grooves that have made him a favorite of music bloggers and too-cool-for-school types everywhere. So synonymous is Washed Out’s music with the retro patina of hipsterdom that his song Feel It All Around was hand-picked by Fred Armisen to be the theme song to IFC’s Portlandia.
On Sunday, Washed Out comes to Crowbar in Ybor City (tickets are $10-$13; click here). We caught up with the Atlanta-based artist during a tour stop in Colorado to talk about his role in the ever-changing electronic music landscape.
Looking at your tour schedule, I can’t help but notice that you’re about to play in Portland. Do you have any particular expectations for that show?
It’s a really interesting town, and I feel like we always have a good time. We played in Denver last night, and I think Portland and Denver are similar in that it can be a show on a Monday night and it can feel like a Friday night. People like to have a good time and really enjoy music. Of course, we play Feel It All Around every show, and the last few shows, Evan, the guitar player for Memoryhouse, the band that’s opening up for this tour, comes out to play the guitar part, which is a pretty important part of the song. The past couple of tours, we haven’t been able to play it. We’ve played along with synthesizers, but it doesn’t sound quite the same, so it’s sounding better than it’s ever sounded, I think.
Yeah, I saw you open for Yeasayer a couple of years ago, and Feel It All Around was changed up quite a bit. Why mess with your best-known song?
The Yeasayer tour was the first tour we’d done with the band, and there are a handful of songs where it wasn’t obvious how to approach it with the lineup that we had. Feel It All Around is just kind of a sampled loop. There’s not much else besides the melody, and there’s a couple of little sound effects that I do, so it wasn’t like we could break the song apart. But we have a lot more experience now, and we’ve gotten a couple of new keyboards, and it’s easier to get the sound from that record, so it sounds much more familiar now.
When you conceived of Washed Out, did you ever envision it being a full band?
No, not at all. I had never played in a band before. All the music that I had done was just studio solo recording. It’s a lot of work on the computer, moving things around and editing very minute details. That kind of work doesn’t translate very easily. I’m so envious of rock bands that go into the studio and play the songs the same way they would play them live, and that’s it. But that’s also the charm of the music too, and what might set Washed Out apart. I’m really drawn to very strange textures and strange sounds, and building pop songs out of these strange textures.
Has playing with a band made you want to try laying down live tracks in a studio?
A little bit. I’m definitely a better player now, after playing as many shows as we have. My ear has gotten better about arrangements and stuff like that, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. But again, I kind of see them as two different things. I like the subtlety of the recordings, and using unfamiliar sounds, whether it’s samples or synthesizers or whatever. And what I love about the live show is just the power and the energy of it. I think that’s what might surprise people coming to their first Washed Out show, is that the arrangements are a little more bold, and we favor the songs that are a little more uptempo, and the low end, especially, is much bigger and bolder than the albums. I feel like if people wanted to hear the record, they could stay at home and listen to it. If you’re in an environment with a bunch of people and a bunch of musicians playing off one another, it’s just the power that blows me away. We try to bring that as best we can.
Obviously you can’t drag (Chairlift singer) Caroline Polachek on every tour, but do you play You and I?
We play it. We kind of just skip over her part. I’ve seen bands that would have (her vocals) in a backing track or something, and that would feel really strange to me. If we ever are in the same place at the same time, we might do her version, but that seems to be a very rare occurrence.
It’s sort of like with Gotye. Now he has to take Kimbra on tour for the rest of his career, so he can do Somebody That I Used To Know.
(laughs) That’s hilarious. Yeah, that’s a great song, and I guess that’s great for her, getting all of that exposure.
You could do the Tupac thing — you could have a Caroline Polachek holgram.
(laughs) Totally! For sure! We were just kidding about that — at the venue here, the lighting rig is just ridiculous. There’s lasers and the whole back of the stage is covered in LED panels. We wouldn’t be surprised if they had a hologram machine. It’s insane.
Are you doing a lot of lights and playing around with the mood of the stage now that you’re doing headlining shows?
Yeah, this is by far the most ambitious tour we’ve done. We have a lighting engineer for the very first time, and to me, it’s made all the difference in the world. (For) the arrangements we do live, where we expand the intros and outros, the atmosphere is very important. There’s a lot of drama to the songs, and I think the lighting rig has helped to fulfill that.
Is your goal to quote-unquote “say something” with your music, or just create a mood, an ambiance, an atmosphere?
That’s tough. I definitely think of myself as a producer rather than a singer-songwriter. I’m more interested in sounds and textures — you could call it mood — than anything literal. A lot of my lyrics are sort of stream-of-consciousness, more on the abstract side. I would never write a song telling a story about some character I’ve made up.
How conscious of you of giving your music a nostalgic, retro feel? Like it’s from another era?
That’s tough to answer as well. When I sit down and work on a song, it’s not like an Instragram filter or something, where I’m like, “Okay, I’m just gonna make it sound like the ’80s.” I’ve also been making music for so long that there’s very little thought that goes into it. I just have a style that I’ve developed. I could sit down at a piano or play a guitar or whatever, and it ends up sounding like Washed Out. I actually did a Daytrotter session recently, and all of the songs, I recorded by myself with a piano and a few little organ parts that we overdubbed. To me, even though there’s no synthesizers or hardly any vocal effects, it still sounds like Washed Out.
When you look at how electronic music has blown up all over America the last year or two, do you feel at all like you’re part of that movement? Do you feel any kinship whatsoever to the Skrillexes or David Guettas or deadmau5es of the world?
I think so. I definitely don’t think of myself as an electronic musician. But I do realize that a lot of the time my record is categorized that way, and I think it’s a great feeling, like it’s an exciting time for people to do music that isn’t just traditional rock or traditional electronic or whatever. We’ve sold 70,000 albums, and that’s way more than I ever would have imagined. I started off doing weird, ambient music, and it slowly became more structured and maybe a little catchier along the way. But I still think about it in that way. The fact that we’ve sold this many albums and played the shows that we do, it’s pretty insane.
I imagine that given the type of music that you play, and the circles in which your music is popular, parts of Portlandia must ring true to you. Elements of what Fred and Carrie skewer on the show must hit close to home.
Yeah. It’s funny — there’s definitely something about Portland that they totally nailed. But in most urban, bigger cities, at the very least, there’s a small area of the city that has that kind of feel to it. It has almost become this universal thing. I live in Atlanta, and there’s certainly these same type of bars and bookstores that they’re poking fun at in my neighborhood. We played a show in Brooklyn the other night, and I think that show could have easily been made about Brooklyn. It’s really funny.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*