Drowning Out The Noise: An Interview With Washed Out

Back in 2009, Ernest Greene was an undiscovered producer tinkering with sounds and samples in headphones to avoid disturbing his parents at home. Making music was an insular experience he rarely even shared with close friends or family, opting instead to mull over material in his car and other private spaces.

Eight years later, the Atlanta-native is known as the mighty Washed Out, an artist heralded by critics as a key figure in the rise of chillwave and a sought-after staple on festival lineups across the globe. Led by the breakout single “Feel It All Around” – which many know as the theme song for the hit TV show ‘Portlandia’ – his 2011 EP ‘Life of Leisure’ was scooped up and spread around like wildfire during a formative time for the online music scene, drawing the attention of record labels and offers to tour the world in a whirlwind few months. It was an overwhelming experience for a creative who had always seen music as a solitary, cathartic outlet, but three full-length albums and two EPs later, Mr. Greene has seen his therapeutic method of release swell into a prolific career.

Nearly four years after his acclaimed 2013 LP ‘Paracosm’, Greene has returned with ‘Mister Mellow’, a project that completely reinvents the Washed Out wheel. Dialing it back on the intergalactic hooks and dreamy soundscapes, Greene pastiches hundreds of samples picked and pulled from YouTube blogs, obscure vinyls, classic jazz and soul records and so many more sources across 12 impressively cohesive songs. Greene’s signature otherworldly vocals are still intact, but they’ve been cut and pasted over frantic, wholly unpredictable soundscapes unlike anything we’ve heard from the man behind slowly swirling epics like “Weightless” and nostalgic slices of dance pop like “Amor Fati” or “Eyes Be Closed”.

In line with the collage-inspired sound of ‘Mister Mellow’, Greene also went one step further and acted on his self-confessed obsession with experimental animation by orchestrating unique psychedelic visuals for each and every song. On the eve of his first public screening in LA, we sat down to unpack the story behind both components of ‘Mister Mellow’ and discuss the complexity of sampling, the impact of pressure and the frantic nature of life in 2017.

Best Before: What’s going on in Washed Out world today?

Ernest Greene: I’m actually in Los Angeles for a screening of the visual component of the record! We’re showing it at a movie theatre here. It’s the closest thing we’re doing to a release party, and there’s a little afterparty where I’m going to DJ too.

Nice! Is that the first time you’ll be playing ‘Mister Mellow’ in a public setting?

Yeah! So we’ve got a few screenings of the film that are more internal for press and stuff like that, but this is the first time actual fans are coming out to see it. Tonight is more what I wanted and intended; a lot of the time the press stuff can feel kind of dry. This one’s a bit more tangible and personal.

Are you nervous?

Yeah, a little bit! You know, I’m very jealous of songwriters who can step outside themselves and write from other perspectives – this record is a full reflection of how I’m feeling and where I’m at, so each of these songs feel like a piece of me. It’s like I’m opening up my diary for everyone to read. The fact that there’s visuals to this album too makes that even more obvious. I’ve sat in on a few of the viewings and it’s felt really odd, but the response has been really good, so that definitely eases the nerves.

I’ve heard you describe ‘Mister Mellow’ as your most personal record yet. You also only had one other person involved in the writing and recording of the LP, who was your mix engineer. Can you tell me a little bit more about that individualistic process?

The past couple of Washed Out records have all been very collaborative. Before ‘Mister Mellow’, I’d always have a couple of rough demos in place with other musicians involved and a more traditional producer who shared some of the responsibilities of the songs. This time, I wanted to make it my own unique vision – for better or worse. I’ll be honest: a lot of the time I don’t know what I’m doing in terms of production, but I think the best case scenario is that just makes it more unique. ‘Mister Mellow’ was all about me trying to capture as much of those moments as possible.

It’s amazing to hear that, because the record sounds incredibly full, and there’s so many intricate little details in each arrangement. But a majority of the elements you hear on ‘Mister Mellow’ are actually sampled, right?

Yeah. The whole album is basically a collage. I’ve been sampling for years, but never to this extreme. In all the records I’ve done, there’s always been key sampled elements and then I’ve put an instrumental of my own over the top. But for ‘Mister Mellow’ I wanted to take it far as I could. For the most part, nearly everything you hear is just tiny little pieces of audio cut out of other songs and re-arranged. It’s really fun for me, but it’s also highly annoying! It can take forever to find the right little piece of the puzzle. That’s another reason why the record took a while, actually. But I think through a lot of trial and error and spending hours working at it, the effort really starts to show. It was my intention for ‘Mister Mellow’ to feel like there could be a band in the room, but also create a sound that is so extreme that it’s probably not likely. It was all about really odd juxtapositions, but I was also trying to have somewhat of a unified sound where you could sort of imagine musicians in a room playing it.

The album feels and sounds cohesive to me, but there were quite a few moments on my first listen where I was surprised by certain elements, hooks or changes in sonic direction. That must have been so much work for you to bring it all together in a way that still works so well!

It’s tough – particularly with the drums. Particularly with sample-based music, you just get a kick and a snare going and it’s quite simple from track to track. The challenging part is finding interesting extra loops and parts that make it sound like a real person is playing it. That was a massive challenge, and I certainly learned a lot. I honestly don’t know if I’ll have the patience to do another record like this, though! Ha.

You said that you spent a lot of time searching for the perfect samples. Where were you looking?

I started with a lot of blogs that put up rips of obscure old vinyls, but it takes a long time because you’re downloading whole records and going through every track to find the good stuff. Eventually I ended up trawling YouTube – you can just move so fast there. I found the key was firstly locating really interesting users that had good taste and a lot of playlists, and then scrolling through those and highlighting interesting sounds. I wish I could have kept count of the amount of clips I watched – it’s easily in the thousands. I feel like I developed a sense where I could listen to just a couple of seconds and know whether there would be something good to pull out.

Did you ever have an idea of what you were looking for before you started looking?

Not really, no. That’s the beautiful thing about it – the unexpected stuff is often the best. But it’s difficult to go in without at least a slight general idea about what you want – YouTube is such a massive library. You definitely have to limit your searches in some ways to make it all manageable. For a while there, I was deep into a lot of Brazilian music, so that was what I was searching in that period.

When did you notice that you were moving toward this new sound and approach for Washed Out? ‘Mister Mellow’ is wildly different to your last album ‘Paracosm’.

I actually had a few… I don’t want to call them ‘failed’ attempts, but I started making a follow-up to ‘Paracosm’ with a similar sound. For about a month I worked on a bunch of songs that were heading in a different direction, and I was happy with a handful of them; they had some promise, but to commit to a full record takes a lot of time and energy, and it just didn’t feel right.

Were those songs in the same vein as what you’d made on ‘Paracosm’?

It was actually kind of new age music, with lots of nods to early ’70s new age stuff that I was re-contextualising for now. It ended up not feeling right – it’s hard to take that sound and translate it into four-minute songs.

During that time, though, I found myself working on a lot of the stuff that actually ended up on ‘Mister Mellow’ just for fun. I would just be sketching out tracks, but because I wasn’t ever intending any of them to be Washed Out songs, they just had this spontaneous vibe that didn’t feel overthought. So I was doing that in between some of these other attempts, and I quickly realised that some of the tracks I’d been making before I was “discovered” and had an audience came from a place where there was no pressure. I was just doing it for myself, not an audience. I felt like this material started like that – it just felt uniquely me. I continued working on those instead, and it became what we have on ‘Mister Mellow’ today. There’s actually quite a lot of stuff left over, too – some more jazzy stuff – but I’m not sure if that will ever come out.

‘Mister Mellow’ looks into the way well-off millennials live with such privilege but throw themselves into the fast lane, relying on vices like drugs, alcohol and various vain pleasures to deal with the physical and mental overload. When did those ideas and observations start coming into the picture?

The thematic stuff for ‘Mister Mellow’ started filtering in naturally as the music started to take shape. For me, producing and writing are kind of the same thing, so generally the way it goes is that I’ll sit down and start with the music, and then a melody will start to appear over that. Often when I record the melody, I’ll just make up the words as I go; a lot of the time it’s just trash, but certain key words or phrases will come out spontaneously that mean something to me or remind me of something. I’ll run with that, and the song will begin to take its final form from there. Whatever I’m feeling or thinking will often subconsciously leak out.

And this time, you were pissed off with millenials!

Ha! No, it actually sort of started when I started to realise that a lot of people’s perception of me is that I probably sit around and smoke weed all day and write music as this super chill guy. But to be honest, a lot of the process behind this record looked like the complete opposite of that. It was a super complex project with a lot of moving parts. I spent a lot of time stressing about it. A lot of the imagery and the visuals are poking fun at that perception; there are some obvious psychedelic ‘stonerism’ vibes that were meant to be tongue in cheek, but underneath it all is the serious message that a lot of people use things like drugs and alcohol because they’re bored, or scared, or whatever it may be that is difficult for them to deal with. It’s just such a weird time right now, too. A lot of it is just the natural growth of becoming an adult and what that entails, and ever other generation has dealt with that too, but now we have so much at our fingertips on a daily basis. It’s so hard to turn off. I feel like my brain is functioning all the time. It just adds to the anxiety and pressure a lot of the time. I just felt it was quite a unique place where we’re at right now. Hopefully the lesson after walking away from ‘Mister Mellow’ is that it’s time to take a step back and unplug for a minute.

In terms of tying the visuals in with those themes, was that something you had to communicate directly with a team of artists? How did that side come together?

I’ve always been a visual thinker, and for the last couple of years I’ve been pretty obsessed with a lot of experimental animation. I couldn’t help but see the similarities with the collage-style approach behind these new songs. Basically, I wanted ‘Mister Mellow’ to be a visual representation of these collage-based animations I was watching. The fact that you can see all the jagged edges where they’ve cut stuff out – that inspired me to take a different approach and stop perfecting every little detail on each song. There’s a bit more character and spontaneity on this record because of that.

That eventually led into the idea of the idea of pairing visuals and music together. Of course, I’m quite a perfectionist, and I always have to connect the dots and complete the package. That’s when we ended up doing visuals for the whole record. In the end, it was a lot of fun, but it was also a lot of fun. I was working with ten different animators, and my main role was as an art director who was overseeing the process and making sure that everyone was aware of what the other animators and contributors were doing. I had worked really hard on the music for the year-and-a-half before, so it was really cool shifting into visual mode and tackling that. There’s always so, so much to learn.

Washed Out’s incredible album ‘Mister Mellow’ is out now – catch the full visual experience here.