Washed Out
Some Great Reward
by Luke Winkie

Two years ago, nobody knew who Washed Out was, let alone the man behind the music, Ernest Greene. It’s a tale that can be written about quite a few projects in the internet era, but for Ernest it bears repeating. On the back of a couple of tracks, Washed Out became something of a sensation, gaining the sarcastic reverence of Hipster Runoff and the adoration of Pitchfork. Releasing a couple of EPs, he unintentionally became chairman on an aesthetic (chillwave, hypnagogic or whatever you want to call it) while inspiring sweaty dancefloor romps by kids hip enough to buy tickets to his shows. It’s been such a condensed trajectory that backlash and acclaim hit nearly simultaneously.

You wouldn’t know that Mr. Greene is the focus of such scrutiny from talking to him. The Georgian native speaks in a thoughtful, molasses drawl. He’s married and wrote his first songs mainly for fun. He seems genuinely enthused by all the attention, and in our chat, he kept mentioning how he was new to this sort of thing. Greene talks about his songwriting process in incredibly unassuming terms and the happenstance of his story is not lost him; he’s quite endearing. But when you put on Within and Without, his debut album, the mystique that he creates within the warm electronic rushes of his songs comes flooding right back.

So you’re debut record is on the brink of release. Are you anxious about that at all?

Ernest Greene: If you asked me that maybe a month ago, I’d probably be a little more nervous. There was a ton of logistical stuff that needed to get worked out. It was a little head-spinning, but once that stuff got out of the way, I’ve been feeling really excited. I just came back from a week of press out in Europe and now it’s just two weeks of rehearsal before we start playing shows.

It seems to me the press copies of the record were out pretty early. How long have the songs been around?

EG: It’s funny, I started writing around this time last year and actually had a pretty finished version of the record in early December. It was like mid-December when we took the songs into a studio in Atlanta to finish everything, and by the end of that month, it was done. So it’s been finished for a while, with a couple of hitches along the way. But that’s given us time to get our shit together. My wife and I handle all the business of Washed Out as well, so we were working on both sides.

Were those delays frustrating or just part of the process?

EG: It was a little bit frustrating because there were talks of the record not coming out till August, which sounded crazy to me. It’s the first time I’ve ever been through this, so there’s definitely some traditional timing and marketing that comes with releasing through a label that I wasn’t used to. It all makes sense now, but initially I was planning on having it out in the spring. It’s all worked out great, though.

How did Sub Pop get in the picture?

EG: They were one of the first labels to really reach out to us back in early 2010. At the time, I didn’t have any new material, just a lot of touring scheduled. I wanted to take some time to finish the record and then look for a label because I didn’t want the pressure of a timetable. It took me a lot longer to finish the music than I expected it to, and they were pretty much the only label to stick around through the whole process. They showed that they were big fans of my music.

Was it a strange moment when you ended up with an organization as big as Sub Pop? Did you feel starstruck?

EG: Yeah, I pretty much learned how to play guitar to Nirvana. There was a moment in April of last year when I went to a show up in Seattle and that’s when I first met a bunch of the Sub Pop guys. We went through their facilities and they had all this memorabilia and artwork from all these huge records from the ’90s. I’m such a big fan of them, but it somehow feels normal now that I’ve gotten to know everybody.

Do you think you were a natural fit within the label’s family?

EG: Yeah, definitely. I did a tour with Beach House last year, and I talked to them a lot about the label and they’ve had a good experience. Sub Pop is obviously a proven record label, and since we’re so new to this, they made sure we wouldn’t have to worry about the internal process of actually releasing an album. We needed an establishment with more experience to do what we wanted, so it was kind of a no-brainer.

You keep mentioning that you’re new to this, and it does seem like things have happened quickly. Certainly a lot more people will be listening to Within and Without than anything else you’ve released. Has that affected the way you’ve made music at all?

EG: In a way. It’s certainly affected the way I’ve thought about my music. That was the beautiful thing about my older material: none of it was written with an audience in mind. A lot of the songs were written in a couple of days, so I wasn’t analyzing anything. This time, there was a lot more of picking the songs apart and composing and such, so that’s definitely changed. Also, with the idea of a live show, a few of the new songs were written with an emphasis on performance. There was definitely a template of what a Washed Out song was—I was working from a pretty concentrated idea—and that’s changed.

I’ve noticed that the album tends to lean on a purer form of dance music than some of your earlier stuff. Would you agree with that?

EG: Yeah, that was another thing. I was pulling from a pretty wide array of influence, but I wanted to keep the songs sounding like Washed Out. There’s a balance. A few songs that were cut had a beat that was just too bold, too clubby, but not enough like Washed Out, and we needed to keep that balance. So I’m pretty happy about how things turned out.

Would you ever consider releasing that more club-oriented stuff under a different name?

EG: Yeah, that’s what I kind of figured out. I mean, I had material that was probably the direct opposite of that club stuff, some really mellow piano stuff that I was really liking, but it became clear that people wanted Washed Out songs. So whether it’s through mixes or free on the internet or releasing it properly, it’ll probably see the light of day. I work on music all the time and my taste is all over the place.

Was this your first time in a studio?

EG: Yes, which was a little bit nerve-wracking at first. I had some pretty good demos going in and I knew my goals, but I didn’t want to clean things up to the point where it sucked the life out of them. Luckily, my producer had a pretty strong understanding of what I wanted, and we got the songs down in an elegant way. That was one of the things I didn’t like about the early songs: when they were played through a big sound system some obvious flaws shined through. I wanted to have a very even mix that also sounded like what I’ve done before.

Are you excited to record again in a studio?

EG: Not so much. I figured out all I want to know about the engineering side of things, I’m kind of a self-taught producer, and I quickly learned that in a big state-of-the-art studio there are so many concerns that are just outside my songwriting. I found those to be a distraction to the simple idea of “does this melody work?” and started worrying too much about the EQ of individual sounds.

Let’s talk about the tour. I saw you in San Diego last year, and for a guy who only had a few EPs to his name, it seemed like the audience really responded to your music. There was a lot of dancing and people knew your songs, which I guess I found surprising just because the scale of the project at that time was a lot smaller. Was that surprising to you?

EG: Yeah, looking back on that tour, it was such a whirlwind. We basically had a crash course in performing. I was pretty comfortable making music, but not performing live, so it was kind of fun in a manic way. But this time we’ve definitely taken a lot more time to really prepare the live show, so I’d expect things to be a lot bigger.

Lastly, Within and Without will be scrutinized a lot more than anything else you’ve done. Are you ready for that?

EG: I think so. I try not to think about it too much. I mean, I read stuff on the internet and I’m pretty aware of that sort of thing, but I’m happy with the record. I know some people might not understand that it’s a step forward and that I don’t want to make the same songs over again. But I’m super-psyched about it and I’m super-psyched about the tour. That’s all that matters.