Washed Out might be the most perfect band name ever. In two simple words, it captures the gist of Ernest Greene's music. Bright, explosive hues could have easily ruled his synth-driven pop, but he takes a different tack, toning down his songs by immersing them in liquidlike reverb. His sound is wrapped in a chewed-up, low-key feel that turns sunny melodies blurry and ambient. All those muted hues give it a sense of sleepy, distant nostalgia. Washed Out is such a fitting name, in fact, that if you added “pop” right after it, the phrase could be a good substitute for chill wave, the blog-bred subgenre Washed Out and contemporaries such as Neon Indian, Small Black, and Toro Y Moi have been linked to since late 2009. But whether or not it emerged as part of a trend, Greene's material is fascinating.
Back when he was in high school, the now-Georgia-based musician messed around with jazz, doing such experiments as creating a backing track, looping it onto a cassette, then playing over it. In college, he tinkered with instrumental hip-hop. Eventually, he landed on more structured pop, which aped such personal favorites as Radiohead. Then, in 2009, he made some songs in his bedroom using a mic and electronic equipment, posting them on MySpace under the name Washed Out. His initial profile boost came when a London-based blog titled No Pain In Pop spied Washed Out on the MySpace friends list of Toro Y Moi (another band it was very interested in) and decided to cover Greene's bedroom baby. That inspired other bloggers to do the same, and soon, email after email tumbled into Greene's inbox. “Over the course of a month or so, I went from relative obscurity to having blogs write about the songs on a daily basis,” he says. “I had maybe, like, 80 friends on MySpace, and within a month, it was probably 1,000.” Soon, the buzz translated into invitations to perform live. He turned the shows down at first, but that changed as his self-confidence increased and the offers became too good to deny.
Greene is in a different place now. While he doesn't feel “established,” he's not exactly a fledgling. He has toured extensively with a backing band, signed to Sub Pop Records (who released last year's Within and Without), and lent “Feel It All Around” to IFC as the theme for Portlandia, the channel's hipster-mocking TV series. He has even flirted with making hip-hop instrumentals again, thanks to an offer from a producer searching for some weirder beats for Jay-Z. Although Greene has not taken said offer, he still seems interested in the possibility.
His first full-length, Within and Without is a different beast from past Washed Out releases. This record is more about a singular vision, says Greene, in contrast with EPs Life of Leisure and High Times, which were simpler collections of songs. The EPs were also largely sample-based, drawing from what he calls “cosmic disco” of the late '70s and early '80s; only some 5 percent of Within is rooted in samples. Most of the album has come from Greene sitting in front of a synthesizer or piano and writing songs traditionally. His goal was to condense more obscure ambient and dance-heavy sounds into straightforward pop structures; “Soft” exhibits this idea. Greene could have made the track “soundscapey” and 10 minutes long, he says, but the final product stretches about half that time. “I felt a little pressure,” he says of the record, “and was just generally a little bit more analytical and probably overthought things a little bit.”
It's tough to gauge where Washed Out will go from here in terms of commercial success and stylistic direction. And Greene is still trying to discern his own ambitions. “I know there is sort of a general kind of concept around Washed Out,” he says. “When I started writing this new record, I was trying to do some things that were a lot different. I really liked the material, but it really just didn't sound like Washed Out. With material like that, I've always considered putting it out under a different name or something like that.”
In the end, however, he decided against it. “For me, it's just [about] embracing where I'm at [at] the moment,” he says, ” and hoping that people understand it and are along for the ride.”
This article appeared in print as “Riding the Chill Wave: Washed Out swims against the currents of hype and growing pains.”