Washed Out’s Happy Delusions
While the currents have significantly calmed, it was only a few years ago that the chillwave genre seemed to be perpetually cresting. A focal point of that movement was Ernest Greene and his wistful sample-based electro-pop project Washed Out. The movement’s already been declared kaput by some bloggers, while others argue its most central players – Toro y Moi and Washed Out, namely – didn’t really identify as such from the start.
Regardless of the Internet hullabaloo, the term really was never that appropriate for Washed Out. The Perry, Georgia, native’s sound is wholly idiosyncratic, no matter how derivative acts it may have spawned. His just-released sophomore LP, Paracosm, stands as proof. Just as its title suggests, the album is the sonic manifestation of a fantasy realm, a mindset Greene’s been consistently visiting and shaping all along. And it also marks a pinnacle in Greene’s effort to define himself as an artist.
“I’ve always kind of dabbled in this nostalgic kind of escapism with the Washed Out stuff,” Greene notes. “Conceptually I feel like I’m still doing the same thing [with Paracosm], I just feel like it’s a little bit more defined and thought out. This entire record is definitely not a full-blown concept record like Dark Side of the Moon, but it does kind of represent kind of going into a daydream, going into this alternate mind-space, and trying to tell a story from beginning to end. It’s all very thought out that way. I guess I’m getting a little more detailed in the process than I have in the past.”
Chirping birds, twinkling chimes and glorious harp signal the transfer into Greene’s dreamy land before his signature echoing vocals sway into the shimmering, pastel-hued picture. The aesthetic having been established on the Life of Leisure EP, his second offering and the impetus for Washed Out’s initial momentum, Paracosm is sluggish yet danceable. The dusted-off, gently warped by time sound remains – it still functions like the soundtrack to an ’80s nightclub in slow motion paired with drawn-out, almost druggy vocals. This work is a tinge different though, and it’s not just because it was better planned. Instead of working solely with electronics, Greene made a decided shift in favor of actual instruments.
“It was kind of a natural growth. When I first started with Washed Out there was a lot of programming happening and sequencing stuff on the computer, which meant that I wasn’t ever really playing anything, for the most part. So for live shows you’re expected to really play and perform, and it was a struggle at first – like, I hadn’t played, you know, in years,” he confesses. “I think I’ve grown quite a bit over the last few years as a performer and as a technical musician. So it just made sense to showcase that a bit more with this record. There’s just a ton of actual live performances from beginning to end, instead of manipulating things with a mouse on the computer. I think that brings kind of a human quality that hasn’t really been there as much before.”
In the recording process Greene employed more than 50 different instruments, several of which will seem obscure to non-gear heads: a Mellotron, Chamberlin and an Optigan, among others. While those keyboard instruments aren’t exactly archaic, they’re not standard by any stretch – and the dusted-off, sometimes warped quality they produce is in keeping with the vintage feel that underscores the Washed Out style. Some are sounds he’s been replicating electronically until now. Green refers to his last LP, Within and Without, as “icy and cool,” and explains he was shooting for a different temperature this time around.
“With this record we definitely wanted to change it up, definitely wanted to get away from doing everything with a synthesizer and do some more organic sounds. The rough idea that I started with was that I wanted to make a daytime sounding record, a soundtrack to a daydream or the feeling of being outside,” he says. “The instruments kind of had a natural warmth to them, and it really played into that. [They were] an obvious place to start. I still consider myself an electronic artist, but [Paracosm is] kind of a weird mix of some electronic and organic stuff happening all at the same time.”
The album is sunlit for sure, and glowing and subtly glittery, too. But it’s not flashy – any danceable disco nods are on par with a motionless mirror ball, not a fast-spinning one. The songs frequently sound far away, and even in clearer crescendos the quality is intentionally water-logged and blurry. And while previous records had obvious standout singles, like “Feel it All Around” on Life of Leisure and Within and Without’s “Amor Fati,” Paracosm is a start-to-finish work. It’s so cohesive that no track outweighs another, notwithstanding the instrumental “Entrance.” The bittersweet love song “It Feels Alright” could stand alone, but sounds better sandwiched between the aforementioned opener and the next track, the funk-tinged “Don’t Give Up.” Another potential single is the faster-paced number “All I Know,” but still, it’s set up as belonging to the rest – a feeling already built upon, an idea already in motion. Unlike older material, “100 percent” of the tunes were written specifically for the collection, Greene points out.
“I was just doing an interview where we were talking about how bad it is, the reality of how much people just download the one or two tracks that they really like and will rarely listen to the record from beginning to end,” he says. “But yeah, starting out I had a lot of ideas about the transitions between songs. It was really important for me. I had a couple of the songs that I felt like were really strong and were placed early on, and at that point it’s really easy to kind of fill in the gaps, you know, like, ‘Well, I have a couple fast songs, I need a couple slower songs to balance that out.’ I guess that’s the fun part for me in the album-making process – kind of putting those puzzle pieces together in that way.”
Why Greene is so fascinated with the idea of retreating from reality is hard to ascertain. Maybe in his immediate post-college days, during the futile job search era during which he first began to fiddle with sampling, it would make sense that he’d want to evade the everyday. But lately, the stability of a series of successful releases and well-attended tours has allowed him certain luxuries, like a personal studio in his new Athens, Georgia, home. His personal life is (presumably) solid as well: He’s able to constantly be with his wife, the woman featured on two Washed Out covers, because she’s joined the live crew. (Greene has affectionately dubbed her the “keyboard queen.”)
Maybe it’s not a downcast existence that Greene wants to escape from, though. Fantasizing doesn’t necessarily denote any sort of depression. There is such a thing as daydreaming for the sake of it.
“I was probably halfway through writing the record and I had some vague ideas about what I thought the record representing. I definitely had this optimistic thing with the major keys and I had a lot of the instrumentation in place, the kind of warm sounding stuff. I saw this film about [outsider artist] Henry Darger, which is definitely worth checking out – I believe it’s called In the Realms of the Unreal,” Greene says. “I was just really inspired both his personal life and his creative life. He was this reclusive guy who was a janitor for most of his life but in his free time created this reality all for himself. After he passed away it was found there were tons of paintings and drawings. I definitely draw some connections to what I was doing with this record…I would clock in nine to five and I’m almost living in this other space and kind of building it piece by piece. I just love the idea of a paracosm of sound. It really made sense and it all tied it together.”
Greene’s rosy intentions don’t exactly match the plight of that troubled creative, but that doesn’t mean the output isn’t similar. He also finds similarities to the late Georgian Howard Finster, a likeminded artist whose plight was also quite singular, but not so rife with pitfalls. Finster even received some recognition before he died.
“The thing about both of those guys is they’re not doing it for money or fame. It’s so unique in that way. Which again I’m not a classically trained musician or producer, and I love that kind of unique quality about their work,” Greene says. “That’s what I’m kind of trying to do with Washed Out.”
Photo by Shae DeTar.