Ernest Greene of Washed Out on how drums bring a different energy to the live show
Washed Out (due Thursday, April 26, at the Bluebird Theater) started out as a bedroom project of Ernest Greene when he was living in Perry, Georgia. As with many artists in the last decade or so, Perry connected with other independent musicians through the Internet, where he posted music to MySpace, and from there, Greene's highly textured, synth-driven pop songs quickly caught on in the blogosphere. Greene capitalized on the buzz, releasing two EPs (2009's High Times and 2010's Life of Leisure) and developed an evolving live show that now includes a full band.
Greene's latest record, Within and Without, released last year on Sub Pop, reveals a richer and more fully realized sound, with songs that resonate with the great era of '80s synth-pop -- born of post-punk, but with a decidedly modern sensibility informing the composition. We recently spoke with Greene about his leap to the full-length album and the development of his project since its inception.
Westword: In some relatively recent interviews, you talked about how you really struggled with the writing of your latest record. What about the production end of things? Did you feel you needed to develop to make the kind of record you had in mind, and what about the songwriting proved the most challenging?
Ernest Greene: I think the biggest thing was that leading up to the point of starting to work on the record, I'd never done a full-length, forty-minute piece of music before. I'd always written individual songs, and I hadn't thought too much about the big-picture feel of things. That was a little bit intimidating, because I knew I wanted the album to be a piece of work on its own that had some kind of vibe that was happening from beginning to end.
The other thing, on a more technical note, I've always used tons of samples, and I was wanting to move away from that a little bit for a number of reasons. I knew I was going to be performing with a band this go-round, and it's kind of hard to re-create stuff that happens on the computer with samples. It's much easier to kind of come up with a synthesizer part or something that can be re-created. So that was another big thing. It was quite a process, and it took a couple of months to even really get started with the songwriting because I wanted to learn more about traditional recording techniques and also figure out how the sounds would work.
By samples, do you mean what you're playing live or pre-recorded samples?
Most of the drum sounds I've used in the past were taken from old records, and that was a big part of the aesthetic -- using a lot of vintage sounds. Ideally, it would be a drum loop or a single drum snare hit completely isolated on a recording, so you could pull out that tenth of a second, or whatever, piece of audio and you can use it in a drum machine. If you're good enough at it and you take enough time you can make it sound natural. I would do that with a lot of the other instrumentation too. Most of the bass and the texture stuff was sample-based. The record has a lot more synthesizers and a lot more live playing. Most of the bass and drums are musicians playing them.
Oh, yes, when you played here at Rhinoceropolis a couple of years ago, your band wasn't with you.
We were touring with Pictureplane at the time. That was the first tour I had done, and the way I approached it was it was Pictureplane and Washed Out and Small Black, which is a band from Brooklyn. I became friends with them, and at first, it was just me playing by myself, and then as the tour went along, I would do half a set by myself and then they would come up and we'd play as a band. I believe, that Denver show, we were driving from Seattle or something, and it was a really long drive. They had some car trouble and weren't able to make it in time for the show, so I did the set by myself.
It's come a long way since then, and the music is quite different live than it was then. I guess it has a lot to do with the constraints of working up there by yourself, and the equipment I was using was more loop-based. I felt like back then it was more like traditional dance music and very repetitive. It's much more...I wouldn't say a rock band, but the live drums bring a different kind of energy. There's a good bit of improvisation, give and take, that happens on stage with a group of musicians.
In the band now, do you still do most of the writing?
Yeah, I still work by myself, but I have the band in the back of my mind. I can play most of the instruments that we use so I can do a demo version of the song. But at the same time, when I write new material, I'm trying to make the best music I can do. I don't want to think about having constraints and really trying to pull it off exactly like the record sounds live. That's the balance that's always in the back of my head.
You've toured with Small Black. How did you meet Josh Kolenik, and what have you learned from him about the way he makes his music and gets it out there that you've applied to your own work?
I put some songs on the Internet back in 2009 -- that's kind of how everything started with Washed Out. I had never really planned on being in a band or anything like that. It was kind of a hobby I did on my own, just recording music. I had heard one of their songs online and reached out to them. It was a similar aesthetic. They e-mailed me back and wanted me to remix one of their songs. So that remix, in particular, was a really big deal and got a lot of attention.
I got a lot of offers to do tours and it made sense to ask them to come along because they were just starting out as well. For me it was a huge help kind of learning the ropes with another band. I really love their music and I think the most inspiring thing to me when I met them and when we were first rehearsing together was that all four of the guys are really passionate about music and they're constantly working on stuff. Juan [Pieczanski], for instance, the bass player, produces lots of stuff. There's an amazing work ethic about it and I thought that was cool.
You probably grew up listening to hip-hop. Who were you favorite artists when you were a kid, and how has that music subsequently influenced what you do as a musician?
I think some of the notable ones that still have influence on what I do, in the hip-hop world, I think OutKast is the first group that comes to mind. I grew up in Georgia, and on a mainstream level they were pretty big, but before that they were big in Georgia, so I was aware of them for a long time. I really loved how there was this originality to [their music]. You hear ten seconds of a song and you know it's OutKast. There's a strangeness about it, because it's catchy but it's not just pop for the sake of pop. They're pushing the envelope.
One of the other ones would be DJ Shadow, which is more instrumental. When I first started making music on the computer, I was probably seventeen or eighteen, and that was the first time I heard his music. It was a really big deal for me because it was music I was always looking for. It was psychedelic but had that amazing hip-hop feel in the low end. I still feel DJ Shadow is a big influence on my approach to making music with the sampling, like I was talking about earlier.
I've done it for so long and listened to that type of music for so long, it's kind of shaped the way that I think about music. Even though I might not be sampling anymore, I still think about coming up with really exotic sounds. Texture is very important. Just the feel of everything. It's not always about recording everything in pristine quality and having everything mixed where it's absolutely perfect. It's more about a vibe. That's definitely something that I take from his music.
What did you learn from using Fruity Loops that you've applied in using other programs?
That was the first software that I used. The thing that's good about music-making software like the DAW kinda systems is that they're all generally the same; the kind of interface is normally laid out in a similar way. Depending on the program, the sounds might be quite different, but they tend to all have a drum machine or synthesizer or a sampler. Since Fruity Loops I've used a number of different programs, but I still kind of approach it the same. I don't know if it's still available for free, but at the time it was a shareware type of program, so for some kid it's pretty great.
What do you use these days?
I used Reason for a long time. Recently I've been using Ableton pretty much on everything. I started using it for the live stuff and learned it, and it's gotten to the point where it's just faster to work in Ableton because you can kind of set up the workflow and you can kind of customize anything and everything, and I really like that.
What is your connection with EMA, and how did you become involved with that project?
We played a couple of shows with those guys, probably in the fall of last year. We recently did a tour in Australia called Laneway, and it was a big traveling festival. I forget how many bands but it was quite a number of American and British bands. We ended up traveling with EMA, and we were sharing a lot of the same gear, sharing vans here and there and staying at the same hotels.
We got to become pretty good friends with them. There were a lot of days off, so we would go to the beach and grill out. They're just really fun. It's always nice when you're in a foreign country for the first time and you're experiencing it with another group of people. We didn't get to play with them or anything, but we're definitely good friends.
Are you still based out of Perry, Georgia, and if so, what is it about that environment that you feel is more conducive to your creativity than other places you've been, if at all?
I live in Atlanta now, so it's about an hour and a half away. I think the good thing about when I was living in Perry and working is that it's kind of isolating. It's a very small town. There is really not much else to do except for coming up with something on your own. I guess I respond to that. I really feel like I could probably do what I do anywhere if I had the space and the time to do it.
But that said, I've lived in the South for most of my life, and it's just kind of normal for me. Just the pacing and everything. It feels comfortable, and we don't have any plans to move around too much. We travel so much when we're touring that we want to get back to normal when we're here.
A lot of people probably think that if you get any press outside your home town that you're financially successful. What have you had to do to sustain yourself before you signed to Sub Pop and since? That's assuming you're not a millionaire from your music at this point.
No, not at all. I'd done music for a long time and it was a hobby. But I went to school and worked part time at the university library. After I graduated I worked there full time up until the point where the Washed Out thing started to take off. That was my first serious full-time job, although it wasn't that serious.
Nowadays we've been quite busy touring, so we've made a decent amount of money. We're not rich, but we're comfortable. I can sit here all day and kind of work on new stuff or work on the live show, and that's really great. We've toured with bands that are much greater live bands, and they're also working nine-to-five jobs when they're home. I don't know how they can fit it all in. It's pretty comfortable, and I'd be happy if we could sustain this for as long as we can. I wouldn't care about making any more money; it's just being able to do what we do and not worry too much about working part time or anything like that.
How did you end up on that tour with Cut Copy? Did Battles tell you why they asked you to play the All Tomorrow's Parties event in December?
We spoke with the guys in Battles, and they were really nice. I thought they did a great job of curating that festival; that was an honor to be asked. The layout of the festival was really interesting. I'd heard they were fans, but I guess that was the official confirmation -- being asked to play.
Kind of the same with Cut Copy. I have been a fan of theirs for a long time and never would have imagined that they even knew what Washed Out was or anything. But they had been fans for a while, I think. The scheduling worked out.
We learned a lot from those guys that have been doing it for a long time. It's quite complicated doing live electronic music. There's just so many things that can go wrong. We learned a lot technically about how they lay out things. There are steps you can take that kind of prepare for the worst, and also you can lay out things so it's more efficient. When I first started out, I had a bunch of these electronics, and when you play on a three-band bill, if you're headlining, you have maybe ten minutes to go up on stage and set up your stuff.
I would have all these pedals and all these samplers all over the place, frantically trying to plug them all in. You can lay the stuff out and have a rack, or you can bring it on stage ready to go. It sounds really simple, but it can get quite convoluted. But it's simple things like that that make us much more professional now, having learned from them.
We have a computer on change that kind of routes patch changes to synthesizers and some of the effects happen in the computer. If everything isn't plugged into the right place, nothing works. So I've become much more OCD after a couple of years touring with this stuff.
What are some of the most interesting and/or most amusing comparisons you've seen or heard about your music of late?
That's tough. I think the stuff that's really stuck with me is meeting some musicians that I look up to and them telling me they've been listening to the album and that they're a fan. That's pretty huge. I'd definitely say Cut Copy and Battles are an example of that. Three or four years ago, when I was just making music in my bedroom for fun, these were the bands I was listening to and considered them to be a world away.
I'm guessing there are thousands of musicians across the country who are making really interesting stuff that just hasn't gotten heard yet or they haven't gotten lucky and gotten a break. I think it's pretty interesting those people could be on Pitchfork or whatever and traveling the country playing shows. I mean, it's not an impossible thing to get.
Follow Backbeat on Twitter: @westword_music
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.