“Do you want to sit in the sun?”
In retrospect, it’s unsurprising that this is the first question Ernest Greene – aka Washed Out – asks us when we meet him in London. His brand of sun-flecked ‘chillwave’ (a label, we discover, he’s not entirely comfortable with) has soundtracked lives and stoner parties for almost a decade. You wouldn’t blame him for wanting to bask in it a little bit longer.
What is surprising, however, is his countenance. It’s thoroughly at odds with his latest record Mister Mellow, a visual album that sees his electronic style step out of reverb smoke and into sharper focus. The man in front of us? Slightly shy, endearingly awkward, largely avoiding eye-contact as his measured Georgia accent – for want of a better phrase – washes over us. He doesn’t seem or indeed sound like hipster darling Washed Out.
Greene laughs at the observation. “For the single Hard To Say Goodbye we were at the playback and my mix engineer said “this is great’… and I’m like no, you can hear my southern drawl coming through way too much, we have to re-record this!”
That self-awareness and self-deprecation certainly shine through, both in person and on the new record. Mister Mellow is a tongue-in-cheek treatise on millennial ennui, all bright colours and samples mixed with that typical Washed Out ethos. It’s a sign of the times record, an overgrown child when a very example of this rules his home nation, but one that takes its politics inward instead of at the world around it.
“I’m a little bit jealous of songwriters who can step outside themselves and create a character to write a song through their eyes,” he explains, referencing people like Sufjan Stevens. “I’ve never been able to do that. However I’m feeling that day seeps in; everything is filtered through my perspective.
“I’m on the older side of the millennials, my interpretation is there’s this feeling of never wanting to grow up and be an adult. I was personally struggling with that and it was bringing me down in some ways. It made me realise how funny it is and how spoiled we can be in some ways. It’s a humorous play on those worries, and the exaggerated nature of the music and visuals really play that up.”
“I really reached a moment where I thought, does the world need another Washed Out record?”
That humorous side takes numerous forms on the album, be it the childlike beat of Burn Out Blues or samples from YouTube vloggers. Wait, what?
“There is a magic to the spontaneity in how these kids speak their minds which is really interesting!” rationalises Greene. “I was hoping for a playfulness. Some of the last Washed Out records have this seriousness and earnestness that came through. I liked the idea of doing something a little different.”
Which explains the need to do a visual album as well, we venture, as Greene relates how it came about. “Being a solo artist it’s sometimes hard to step back and hear the music with fresh ears, so sometimes I’d pull my favourite animated clips and mute the audio then put my demo on top. So it’d feel more like a real music video & I could immediately see it in a fresh way. The idea at first was commission a couple of videos. But I tend to obsess over connecting the dots on a project like this…”
Those dots certainly connect on the album. With song titles like Instant Calm, Zonked, and Floating By, is this Greene’s way of reclaiming a bit of peace in the madness… or just a kaleidoscopic trip to the pharmacy?
“It’s a little bit of both,” he smiles. “I really reached a moment where I thought, does the world need another Washed Out record? There’s so much music out there happening all of the time. I had this really jaded feeling – what can I possibly contribute that hasn’t been done before? Some of those feelings definitely seep in and the cynical nature of it all. I keep going back to this sensory overload thing. When you’re bombarded with stuff all the time, nothing stands out.”
There is an element of thinking that some of this jadedness could have been from his old label. After years at Sub Pop, Greene is now with Stones Throw – a transition, we imagine, couldn’t have been easy. Greene measures his words here more than ever.
“It really helps when you see eye to eye, it helps the entire process. That was the problem…” He pauses again. “I wouldn’t say problem, Sub Pop’s an amazing label but there were a few people… I was just the electronic act on a generally indie-rock label.”
So is this new record a statement of rebellion too? “When I think about the last couple of records it was my attempt to write for a band because with the music business the way it is, live music performance is generally where you’re making your living. When I first started out I was just making songs to make songs. That caused a problem so the last couple of records was writing for the musicians.
“The limitations set in place with that I wasn’t completely comfortable with, so the idea with this new record was to set all that aside and make songs with no limitations. So it’s come out in a unique and natural way, but it’s re-opened the problem of how to do it live.”
“Sub Pop’s an amazing label but there were a few people… I was just the electronic act on a generally indie-rock label.”
More dots start to connect. A new label, a new home, visuals to distract a crowd and acres of vocal obfuscation from day one. It seems pretty evident that Greene is out there but very much protecting himself.
“I would say so. I’m not a trained singer. The plan was to bring someone else in for the vocals,” he reveals about the Washed Out sound. “I’m not a natural performer, especially on the live side of things. So for me it feels more comfortable and more natural to have the audience less focused on me. When I first started and the first handful of interviews I did, there were all of these crazy stories about who I was, whether I was a woman… The craziest story was that I was a 40 year-old guy with kids. I do like that the vocals and the music have this unnatural, not-human vibe. It just adds to the ambience of the anonymous feeling.”
Anonymity seems key for Greene. He’s married now, he largely eschews social media (we remind he follows precisely zero people on Twitter, a fact that amuses him greatly). The truth is he was the last of those kinds of stars, the kind above internet expeditions to unearth a story and identity, and resolutely refusing to lay everything out on the table.
His view on it all is unsurprising. “It’s completely unnatural for me, something like Snapchat. There’s certain things I love about Instagram, but the whole over-sharing is all a bit much for me.”
“Whenever I pass away, that’s going to be my obituary: ‘the guy that invented chillwave’. That’s going to be haunting me for the rest of my life.”
Yet he shares a little bit more on this new record. Hard To Say Goodbye is, according to Greene one of the only love songs. It was written in a ‘very fertile’ period for songwriting after he fell out with his then-girlfriend. She is now his wife, but the emotion on it is more open than he’s ever been before.
And there’s the title, of course. Is Ernest Greene actually Mister Mellow? Again, he laughs. “Yes. It’s all meant to be tongue in cheek. The whole chillwave thing, people just imagine me sitting around smoking weed all day. Whenever I pass away, that’s going to be my obituary: ‘the guy that invented chillwave’. That’s going to be haunting me for the rest of my life. On one hand that pisses me off, but I wouldn’t be here without it. It’s also ironic that I don’t really do drugs any more and I’m not mellow most of the time.”
Mellow or not, Greene certainly seems to have his head back in the game, and he admits to having so much material that another album might not be far off. A welcome result for us all, we note as we say goodbye – it’s only through the chill of Washed Out that the rest of us can slept easier at night, and it’s heartwarming to see Ernest Greene finding some of his own.