Interview Washed Out: ‘People Think I Have Mystique, But I’m Just Bad At Phone Calls’

Washed Out tells us about his new album.

It has been two years since the ambient musical explorations of rural Georgian native Ernest Greene’s emerged from bedroom project anonymity to form the more established Washed Out moniker. Now, as we find ourselves in 2011 with the chillwave summer of 2010 well and truly behind us, Greene is planning to release his debut album. DIY caught up with the man himself to discuss what he’s been up to since releasing his ‘Life of Leisure’ and ‘High Times’ EPs, his newly formed band and exactly what he didn’t want ‘Within and Without’ to sound like.

So I heard you on Jack Shankly’s Domino Radio show the other week…
Oh god, honestly, I’m not a radio person at all.

You sounded like you had fun though, had you done anything like that before?
Oh yeah, it was great fun. I actually did an interview for 6Music as well, that was pretty sloppy! Talking face to face is one thing but when there is a headset and a microphone involved and it’s live - a very different thing.

Was it exciting to witness first hand some of your new material being premiered in the UK?
Yeah, it was definitely exciting. I wasn’t sure how the track was going to mix in with the other stuff Jack was playing but it turned out really well. We have pretty similar tastes but this record is a little more polished than my previous work and a little more polished than some of the stuff Transparent pushes. I do think it was a nice fit in the end though.

Your musical creations first kind of sprung into the conscience of critics and fans alike seemingly overnight - have you had any kind of rapid-fire reaction to the songs you played last week?
Yeah, I got some positive feedback straight away. I mean they monitored twitter the whole time, which was kind of funny.
I’m sure they’re going to be streaming it at some point and I’m guessing someone is probably going to rip it and put it online but that is just a different way of leaking my music into the world I suppose. ‘Echoes’ is not a single or anything, and then we played a remix of the first single ‘Eyes Be Closed,’ which is like an 80s Miami Vice version of the song.

Everyone needs a Miami Vice version of their songs right?!
Yeah, exactly! I mean it’s pretty amazing. It’s by this New York based producer and he can just totally nail that sound, it’s really authentic so I was really happy with that.

And of course your record is coming out on Domino’s new imprint Weird World which is being run by Jack Shankly. Was the fact that Transparent Records had released some of your earlier stuff a factor in you deciding to go with Weird World?
Yeah, definitely. I knew that Jack had good taste and I felt that his heart was in the right place. I also felt like Weird World balanced well with having Sub Pop in the states as they’re a much older, more experienced label but I feel like Jack has his finger on the pulse a but more, and then of course he has the resources of Domino on tap. It was kind of an easy decision.
Well actually, it’s funny because a lot of labels were reaching out to me as early as 2009 but I wanted to make sure I finished the record first. I didn’t want to have to deal with getting weekly phone calls asking “is it ready… is it ready?” Sub Pop and Jack were in constant contact, in a nice way not a pestering way, but many labels just stopped calling and lost interest when I didn’t get back to them.

Hah, survival of the fittest then?
Haha, no it wasn’t like a master plan or anything! I’m just really bad with scheduling and I procrastinate pretty badly. People think I have this mystique but it’s like no I’m just really bad at answering phone calls and replying to emails and stuff.

So you didn’t have a specific label in mind then?
Nothing specific. I am a fan of a lot of records on Domino and I really like the Smith Westerns who are the only other guys on Weird World. It’s actually kind of weird because Smith Westerns was the first record Transparent put out, and then I was the second so it just feels really familiar.

How has the transition been from small-scale bedroom project running limited edition cassette releases to creating a full-length album?
It has definitely been a little bit scary. Not only was it kind of intimidating working in a proper studio but even just like approaching writing a full record was scary. Before I’d only written just individual songs and even when I made my EPs they were just a collection of these songs - I wasn’t thinking about having any kind of narrative or anything. I definitely wanted this record to have a natural flow that made sense and that kind of freaked me out at first. My process of writing is kind of mindless and there has to be at least a little bit of planning involved when you’re filling in the pieces of the puzzle. I feel kind of like I’m just starting to figure it out now, I feel like the next one might be better.

So is there a defining narrative in ‘Within and Without’?
As far as any themes go, even if there was I don’t think I’d want to deal with that or talk about because I like leaving it open for interpretation. In general, when I write music I think less about particulars and more about - I don’t want to sound like a hippie - but feelings and flow. There are definitely a couple of tracks that are kind of the most dynamic things I’ve done as far as the arrangements go. Also the last track on the record is the only one I’ve ever recorded with just my voice and a piano, which was a little naked feeling.

You obviously have a lot more people involved than before – both at the recording stage and at your live shows - but let’s start with the recording process: how was working with Ben Allen? Was he someone you specifically sought out to work with on this record for his reputations [Deerhunter/Animal Collective]?
I was definitely a fan of his work. I’m a huge Animal Collective fan but it wasn’t like I really sought him out. I mean at that point there wasn’t a label or a plan, and I don’t have a manager or anything just this very small network of people I can reach out to.
I live in Atlanta Georgia and it just so happens that Ben has a studio in Atlanta. So he got in touch in 2009 as my stuff was taking off. He grew up in small town Georgia and I think he liked the idea of some kid from the country making this weird dance music.
I didn’t have enough material at the time but when I finished the record I knew I needed help wrapping a mixing everything and luckily he had two weeks free. I mentioned I was kind of scared about working in a sterile environment where you are just paying by the hour and I was worried that he might try and shape things in his style but actually it was really easy, he got what I wanted from the record.

How long did it take to put the record together? Where did you write most of the material?
I toured a lot for the first half of last year and had planned to write it on the road as I really wanted to have something out as soon as possible but that didn’t happen for a couple of reasons. When I got back to Georgia my wife and I moved to this small beautiful little house in the middle of nowhere on a lake.
It took a while to really get started because I had learn a lot during that six month touring and I knew coming in I wanted this record to sound different and bigger. I really wanted to expand my palette so I spent at least a month or two experimenting with different things not even thinking about structure. Then eventually everything came together at home.

On the whole the record sees more purposeful and considered…
Well yeah, I’m not sure thing or not because I definitely was probably a little too analytical and stressed too much over the songs. Some of the songs I had demo versions that I was just constantly listening to for about 4/5 months which is kind of the opposite of how the two EPs happened as they were just recorded over a couple of days. They were never meant to be a proper record, so I definitely think there was a more a messy, naive feeling to those.

Would you say the changes are partly in reaction to the demand to see your work performed live?
Definitely. The problem with older material was that almost everything was heavily sequenced and there were a lot of sampled loops, which can be a bit of a challenge to re-create live in an interesting way. I guess that is the reason why I chose to have a lot of live drums and bass guitar throughout the record as it gives a more organic feel. The live thing definitely informed the changes but playing live is still going to be a bit complicated which is what I’m going to be stressing out about over the next few weeks.

So you used to basically have The Small Blacks as your backing band, but you have formed your own kind of unit now haven’t you? Do you want to tell me a little bit about that?
Yeah I have a new group with a couple of old friends really, one of the guys I grew up with and then a couple of them are musicians that I met in Atlanta. We have a drummer, a bassist, a synth player and actually my wife has just joined the band as an extra pair of hands. She played her first ever show a couple of months ago in front of 3000 people and she nailed it.

Have you played much of the stuff live already, how has it gone down?
We’ve been playing a couple of tracks from the record for a while now but some of the bigger songs we’ve been saving because they’re a bit complicated and I’m still figuring out exactly how I’m going to do it. We played the single at a festival a couple of days ago and that went over really well.

How did you first get into music?
I started playing piano, my parents made me take piano lessons, when I was like 5/6 years old, which I definitely didn’t appreciate at the time. I did that for probably five years and it was like classical piano. Then around 11/12 years old I started listening to punk/grunge and so I started playing guitar and I quit piano. I mean I never really played in bands but I played like really loud guitar.

To your parents delight of course!
Yeah yeah, of course! I think maybe they were kind of glad when I started making music on my computer because at least I could use the headphones. That was kind of the turning point, when I went off to school/college and began writing and recording things on my computer. I was into hip hop and stuff at the time, which I guess is surprising to people. I used Fruity Loops, like all the dirty south hip hop guys do but then I started using Reason. I have always relied on software, it is only recently that I started collecting older vintage keyboards. I didn’t want this record to be too big a leap away from my previous stuff because I see full length records as a real strong artistic statement so I didn’t use much of the new stuff that I have been collecting, it’s all still mainly done on computer. The live show has older analogue keyboards, which changes the sound quite a bit; it’s a much richer sound in a live environment.

You talk about your early hip hop references, would it be fair to say that they still kind of come through in the music?
Definitely. I still even write songs the way I did back then, which is never like writing a song from beginning to end on a guitar, it’s like layering and loops, which is how I think most hip hop beats are made. I guess the most hip hop stuff, at least in terms of the beat, can be found on ‘Before,’ which has a really heavy kick. That was something that Ben was actually a massive help with, I never had the technical ability to get that big drum sound.

I guess a lot of what gets said about your output mentions chillwave – was that ever a real thing for you?
For probably a large majority of people it was a jokey thing but it definitely identified this sound that was happening. I will say that this record, while I didn’t have many concrete goals about what I wanted it to sound like before I started, I did have quite a few things that I didn’t want it to sound like. And well there were a fair few big chillwave signifiers that I wanted to stay away from.
I feel like I just want to keep moving forward while still having a connection to previous stuff. A lot of the sounds aren’t as fresh now, so yeah the over 80s reference you want to avoid and yeah I had this long list of things I didn’t want the record to sound like. It’s really funny actually, like no really sequenced stuff, make sure it’s not a dance record so it’s not overly remixed for the club and I wanted to avoid having one particular influence be the most apparent. It was important to have a balance.

So I noticed there are some female vocals on the record, is that just from sampling?
Well actually ‘You and I’ was recorded with a friend of mine Caroline Polachek who plays in this band called Chairlift in New York. I was commissioned to write the track for Adult Swim and it was there idea for me to collaborate with something. I mean I had most of the track done already but she recorded about a 100 different vocal melodies for me and then I arranged everything. It was my first real collaboration. And erm apart from that yeah there are a very small number of samples that I used, or actually it might just be me – I have quite a high vocal range.

The vocals on the record seem to be more of an extra instrument rather than a conduit for specific lyrics. How much do you think about lyrical content?
I definitely think about lyrics but normally during that process of laying down the songs instrumentals a melody will magically appear for the vocal line and I always try to record it straight away, even if I just made up so I won’t loose the line. Sometimes words just happen, or like I’ll build the song around a nice turn of phrase. It’s very rare that there is a concept from the beginning. I definitely think about it more in terms of an instrumental thing, yet again some more hippie-isms about vibes and less about there about specifics.

Is writing and recording a cathartic process for you?
Definitely. It is really something to get lost in I really enjoy it. I know a song is working when it strikes a nerve in someway. I was quite hard on myself when putting everything together, I threw away a lot of songs and ideas that 2/3 years ago I probably would have turned into songs. I don’t know if that is good or bad everything is just different now. I guess everyone goes through it but my previous work was just written alone, for me and there was no expectations then this time around it’s weird knowing that I’m going to have to talk about it, it’s going to be reviewed etc.

People use the word ‘nostalgia’ when referring to your music a lot. How would you describe your sound?
Well nostalgic or reflective I guess I understand. The best way I can describe it is not like a specific memory but it’s just an emotional response to the music. I suppose my music is just a simple melody, a simply structure pop that conjures up some kind of nostalgic and emotional thing.

What kind of influences musically do you think have had a big impact on your work?
A few lesser-known artists like Grouper, I’m really into her stuff. I think there are a lot of similarities between my music and hers. I might have borrowed some layering, vocal and weird harmony ideas from her. When I was younger I was obsessed with DJ Shadow and that kind of down tempo era Boards of Canada.

What do the next few months hold for you?
Well we’ll be rehearsing probably everyday until the first run of shows. We’ve got a run of shows in the US then we’re heading to the UK, then Europe and then Japan so yeah a lot of air mileage.

Washed Out’s debut album ‘Within and Without’ is set for release via Sub Pop/Weird World Records on 11th July.

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