Washed Out, Vividly

Published September 19, 2013

ABOVE: ERNEST GREENE

Washed Out is the stage name of Ernest Greene, a Georgia musician plucked from his bedroom four years ago to play a CMJ showcase—his first-ever show. Now, having established himself at the forefront of a movement towards beachy electronic pop music, Greene has released a sun-drenched and dreamy follow-up to 2009’s Within and Without. Paracosm, a word referring to imaginary worlds, is music to listen to in Morningside Park while eating ice cream and watching a kickball game. We caught up with Greene over the phone while he was outside of his van on the way to Las Vegas and discussed playing live, outsider art, and Fleetwood Mac.

MICHAEL HAFFORD: Playing with a live band, do you feel a sensation of covering your own music?

ERNEST GREENE: Oh, yeah. We joke about that all the time. We’re the best Washed Out cover band in the world, I think. That mainly has to do with some of the older material that was never written to be performed. A lot of the earlier Washed Out songs were stuff that I just sequenced on my computer or programmed, so there’s not much performance that can really happen. Inevitably we have to add different parts to make them more interesting. That does come across in a slightly weird way. I think mostly people are open-minded about that, that we’re expanding on the songs in some way. That said, this new record was written with a lot more organic instruments, so it made that transition a little easier. I think the performances actually sound a lot like the record, which hasn’t really happened so much before.

HAFFORD: Do you feel like that was a conscious choice: that you knew you would be asked to perform more live to add instrumentation?

GREENE: Yeah, I started off the first couple months of doing shows by myself and just never felt comfortable. I think at the most basic level, the songs are pop songs, really. Very simple pop songs. Verse, chorus, verse, very simple melody. It’s not flashy enough to do the real DJ style of performing. So the band thing made a lot more sense. I do think there were some growing pains having never played in a band before, just figuring that part out. Now I think it’s the right balance. Having a few more bodies onstage is just more interesting to watch. That sounds kind of simplistic, but there’s a vibe that happens when you’re playing together onstage and the audience feeds off of that. I never wanted to just press play on some DJ set and let the lights do all the work. I value old-fashioned performance a little more than that.

HAFFORD: I wanted to talk a little about the album title, Paracosm. When did you come to that? Is it something that was added on at the end or did you arrive at it early on in the process?

GREENE: I had rough ideas starting out, that I wanted to use more organic stuff. Kind of acoustic, orchestral-sounding instruments. I knew that I wanted to make a very powerful-sounding record, uplifting and summery-feeling. I started working in November, I knew that there was a very small window to get it done and out for the summer, which was really important. I was working super-fast. I would say about halfway through the process, as I was finishing up the music side, I read about this artist named Henry Darger. He’s definitely worth checking out if you haven’t heard of it. No one discovered that he was even doing these paintings until he passed away. It’s really interesting, bright colors. I was reading about his life and the word “paracosm” came up discussing that type of personality that creates these alternative realities with their imaginations. It really appealed to me, it made sense with those sonic ideas that I was playing with. I was imagining these hyper-color realities that were slightly hyper-real. It just made sense, it fit, and a lot of the lyric ideas came after that, so I kind of discovered it at an important part of the process.

HAFFORD: Do you identify in any way as an outsider artist?

GREENE: I do. I really drew a lot of connections to even his personal life. When I’m not touring, I hardly ever leave my house. Part of it is I get to do what I’m most passionate about, which is work on music and make new songs. Just the power of the imagination, that’s all you really need in your creative life. And then, just visually, the look of his paintings is amazing; bright colors and idiosyncratic, because he never had any training. That’s totally how my style developed. I was doing things completely the wrong way, doing things on my own. That’s why the earliest Washed Out records sound the way they did. I wasn’t using the same shit everybody was using or doing the traditional thing. I really like reading about his life. There’s a really great documentary about his life called In the Realms of the Unreal (2004) that’s definitely worth checking out.

HAFFORD: That leads me into an idea that I’ve had that an electronic musician is closer to a painter or a novelist than to a rock musician.

GREENE: I’ve always felt that. I definitely agree with that, 100%. I really think that a painter’s perspective is really interesting. Any musician—I would say 99% of musicians—needs some help along the way. Most people, even if they’re self-produced, have someone else mix it, or they’ll have someone else master the record. Inevitably, it’s like somebody else’s personality being put into your art. With a painter, it’s all them. Having to deal with that pressure of making those final decisions—I definitely identify with it, I can imagine it’s even harder as a painter. There’s nothing to lean on.

HAFFORD: Are you a big fan of Fleetwood Mac?

GREENE: Definitely. I’ve listened to that stuff so much more over the last couple of years, more than I ever have. It’s interesting that you would bring that up.

HAFFORD: You were on that cover record, Just Tell Me That You Want Me.

GREENE: Yeah. That was actually a big inspiration for working on the record. It gave me a lot of confidence. I had never used acoustic instruments in a song and I recorded a ton of acoustic guitar, which is obviously very Fleetwood Mac-sounding. I produced it all myself and I thought it turned out really well, a fresh take on some of the stuff that I do. It gave me the confidence to make the leap with my own record, working with some of the same ideas.

HAFFORD: One of the interesting things to me about Fleetwood Mac is that their entire career with Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham is songs about that relationship, which has been over for 40 years but they’re still performing them. Do you feel like that introspection is something that you respond to in their music or look for in your own music?

GREENE: I think so. For me personally, I’m always writing from what’s happening in my emotional life. Even without thinking about it a lot of the time, it comes out in the songs that I’m writing. I think one reason why this record is kind of uplifting is that I was in a really good place making it, which is a lot different than Within and Without and my previous couple of EPs before that. I hope that I would eventually grow and write from different perspectives but right now I don’t think I’ve changed that much since college or since I was a young adult. It started from a very personal place.

PARACOSM IS OUT NOW. WASHED OUT IS CURRENTLY TOURING THE U.S. FOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT GREENE’S WEBSITE.