As Washed Out, Ernest Greene —a 28-year-old native of tiny Perry, Georgia— makes music evocative of his chosen handle. A mix of slippery-sounding electronics and half-mumbled, sleepy vocals submerged in an aquatic haze, the Washed Out sound was immediately identified as one of definitive examples of chillwave, a micro-genre that erupted in the blogosphere in 2009.
Interview: 12 November 2010
How did Washed Out get started?
"I had moved back in with my parents to save money, and that's when I started writing a lot of the songs that were on my [Life of Leisure] EP. I didn't actually have a job before that, so once things started happening, it was literally me moving out of my parents house to live my life on the road. I really haven't had a home for a while now. I've just been bouncing around."
Is this something you've fallen into?
"Definitely. I've always loved music, and it's always something that I've done. But it never seemed like anything attainable, so I never seriously considered doing this. I'd planned on having a normal career, but this was an obsession, though. I spent all my time doing this. It made it hard to have some other career around it. And, it really came down to this: music's really the only thing that I'm good at."
What started your musical obsession?
"My dad had a big record collection, a pretty diverse one. He had a lot of jazz records that I listened to when I was in high-school. I grew up in a pretty small town, so I really wasn't turned on to underground stuff. A lot of that grunge stuff was happening when I was at that special age, 12 or 13. Getting your first guitar, learning to play your first Nirvana songs. It was only when I moved away that I discovered more experimental music, and that was a huge influence."
"I was doing hip-hop, sample-based stuff on cracked software. It was instrumental and leaning towards the psychedelic. After the more hip-hop stuff, I moved towards ambient soundscapes. The Washed Out sound is kind of mixing those two things together, utilizing pop-song structures, adding guitar and piano, then smudging my singing style over the top. I spent so much time developing my style over the last three or four years."
Did it take a long time for you to feel like you had your own unique sound?
"Certainly. I get asked that a lot, especially from younger people. They ask me how to develop your own style. It takes years. I still have lots of embarrassing songs I wrote when I was a teenager, and they were just so derivative of the stuff that I was into. It really has taken this long for me to do something that's really just original. It's a hard thing to get to."
What was it like having that sound so swiftly embraced?
"I'm still wrapping my head around it. At first it was amazing to just see my name. When the album came out, there were a lot of reviews, there were even some mainstream music magazines writing about it. It was exciting. But it wasn't very healthy. I was spending more time reading reviews than anything; was way too concerned with what was being said. It took me a while to get back into the groove of writing and recording."
Did it feel different writing and recording knowing people had expectations of you?
"It's a lot different now. I've been working on this record for a while, and it's really strange writing songs knowing there's a huge audience there. Before, it was just me in my bedroom, for my own enjoyment. It definitely changed the dynamic, the way I think about things. I'm a lot more critical, which is probably not the most helpful thing. I try to distance myself from it, I've stopped reading any reviews."
How did you feel about being made a part of the chillwave movement?
"I guess it's inevitable that you're going to put into some kind of genre classification. It's definitely been to my benefit. The amusing thing is that 'chillwave,' the term itself, is universally hated. And a lot of people must hate the genre, too, just because everything happened so quickly. I feel like, in the US, there was a period of a couple months where it was all anybody wrote about. I think when that happens, almost out of principle there's a backlash. I don't think there's been too drastic of one, but it's there. And that's just part of having my name out there."
What amazes me with new genres is that they always pick the worst name. There were lots of names floating around, like hypnagogic or dream-beat, but now we're stuck saying 'chillwave' for all eternity. I remember feeling the same when freak-folk was settled on. And, before that, electroclash.
"I guess the worst ones just jump out at you a lot more. I try not to think about being 'chillwave' too much, and I certainly never mention it. Because of the internet, you have to tread so carefully. Anyone with an opinion can express it, it's rarely nice things that they're saying."
Has that influenced the making of your debut LP?
"I tried to ignore it. There was an opportunity for me to spend more money, go into a big studio to do this next record, but I have a very simple way of writing and recording that I've always used. I wanted to keep things controllable. I'm about 85% of the way through, just finishing things off. The hardest part was really just figuring out the direction. My instinct was to change, keep people on their toes. But, at the moment I only have two EPs out, and only one of them people are really aware of, so it didn't make sense to have this drastic change already. I couldn't really pull some MGMT-type swing when I didn't even have a full-length out. So, it's definitely going to sound like an extension of the Life of Leisure EP."
Were you into the idea of making an album as whole work?
"That was another thing I struggled with. In the past when I was writing songs, I was never thinking of this overarching conceptual thing. The EPs are just collections. I'm best at writing really simple melodies and really straight-forward songs that you can just get on an immediate level. I think there's a possibility that a lot of people will like it. I considered taking it in a weirder, more experimental direction, but I was just more excited about making a simple, accessible record that I think people will be able to enjoy pretty easily."