How Washed Out became the poster boy of electro's chillwave movement - 3/23/2010
From the peach trees of Perry, Ga., Ernest Greene reaches blog star status
In June of 2009, Ernest Greene moved in with his parents. He was an unemployed, 26-year-old college graduate holding a degree in library sciences. With the economy in a free fall, looking for a library job while trying to save money for a wedding was turning out to be harder than he expected.
Greene's parents live in a house a few miles outside of Perry, Ga., set among seemingly endless rows of peach trees. As the summer heat blazed outside, he focused on e-mailing resumes to prospective employers and looking for leads on job openings. Late at night after his parents went to sleep, Greene would stay up in his bedroom recording tracks of distorted synthesizers and programming beats on his laptop. He would play back the tunes on a pair of headphones, the house otherwise quiet and his hopes slowly sinking.
"I don't think it's an exciting thing to move back in with your parents," Greene says during a phone interview he managed to squeeze in while hanging out backstage at one of his recent shows. "It wasn't exactly depression, but it was some level of failure that I was dealing with. The melodies, those lyrics, they're reminding myself to remain positive. I really didn't have much going for me."
Greene uploaded a few of those songs to MySpace and changed his profile name to Washed Out, but "never planned on releasing anything," he says. He didn't try to book shows in nearby Macon or Atlanta. He didn't mail demos to record labels. "People have asked me what plan I had to promote myself," he says, "but that never really happened with me."
Instead, something else happened — something major. Over the course of a few weeks last July, Washed Out was discovered first by a blog based in London, No Pain In Pop, and then by Gorilla vs. Bear and the all-mighty Pitchfork. Instead of promoting himself by cobbling together a tour or angling for local shows, Greene played it cool, doing a few interviews by e-mail or phone and flying up to New York for a single, sold-out CMJ showcase last October in Brooklyn.
"He kept saying how he wouldn't tour because he was trying to get settled into married life," says Ben Ellenburg of Mirror Universe Tapes, the cassette label that eventually released High Times, the follow-up to his debut EP Life of Leisure, last September. That reluctance didn't last forever. Six months after getting married and scoring interviews with Rolling Stone and the New York Times, Washed Out has finally hit the road to tour for a few months this year. That library job never worked out, but the academic Library Journal interviewed him anyway, calling him "(probably) the library world's most successful musician."
Washed Out's Life of Leisure is dance music without being quite danceable. It's shoegaze without guitars. It's disco without the smoothness. Something is always wrong in these songs.
The first track on Life of Leisure, "Get Up," ends suddenly and without explanation after three minutes. The single "Feel It All Around" is layered in a warm static reminiscent of dusty, overdubbed cassette tapes. The synths that populate these songs often sound warped, as if they were left on the dashboard of a car to melt in the summer sun. Greene's vocals are often layered and reverberated to the point of sounding like unintelligible, ghostly mumbling.
There's an influence of shoegaze in these flaws, an emulation of the orchestrated mess that My Bloody Valentine or Slowdive would create from heavily effected guitars, but Washed Out is, in the end, a bedroom artist. These songs inevitably sound like what they are — a single person in his room trying to recreate the vibe of music made years ago in expensive recording studios. Instead of a recreation, it becomes something entirely new.
As the blog frenzy started to erupt around Washed Out last summer, his lo-fi style earned the tag chillwave. The ironic blogger who originated the term, Carles of Hipster Runoff, suggested a number of alternate names for the genre, among them: shitwave, blogrock, chillgaze, gazewave, forkshit, wavewave, no-gaze, blowgaze. "You've got to kind of laugh at it," Greene says. "That all came out of blog culture. I don't really think about it."
That sort of unfazed response is typical of Greene, who speaks with a slight Southern drawl that suits his relaxed vibe. Trying to get him on the phone, which might take a week of missed connections and voice mails, speaks volumes to what Greene admits is a total lack of a plan. His laissez faire attitude is mirrored in the laid-back beats of his songs. Ernest Greene just isn't in a hurry to get anywhere.
The town of Perry, where Greene was born and raised, looks like a preserved moment from the past. The center of downtown is dominated by the Houston County Old Courthouse and a tall statue dedicated in marble letters, "To Our Confederate Dead." Across the street sits the New Perry Hotel, built in 1925, and a large lot filled with bright orange tractors for sale. At the last census, Perry counted a little less than 10,000 residents.
For Greene, going to high school in Perry meant that there wasn't a local music scene to explore or learn from. Instead, he discovered his father's collection of jazz and rock LPs from the '60s and '70s. "Stuff like the Grateful Dead, you know? I just ate that shit up in high school," he says. "I was the only kid listening to John Coltrane records at home." As Greene was finishing high school, the sounds of Atlanta's burgeoning rap scene began trickling into Perry. "It wasn't like today. I guess we had the Internet then, but it wasn't like it is now, with people trading everything you want to hear."
Moving to Athens for college and, five years later, to Columbia, S.C., for graduate school, exposed Greene to thriving music scenes that were foreign to Perry. "I move through phases," he says, explaining how he'd obsess over a particular genre — indie rock, shoegaze, ambient — for a year or two and then move onto the next. "For the past couple years, it's been dance music."
While studying for his graduate degree in Columbia, Greene fell in with a small scene of musicians, including Chaz Budnick of Toro y Moi. Budnick and Greene started playing music together, but there wasn't a large enough scene to play to. "Our scene can't get bigger because bands don't come here," Budnick explained over the phone from Colombia. "But bands don't come here because it isn't big enough." Instead of playing shows or forming a band together, Budnick says, "we just jammed at each other's houses."
Michael Azerrad's Our Band Could Be Your Life tells the story of a few bands that bridged the gap between punk and indie rock in the 1980s. While explaining the rise of such acts as Hüsker Dü or Dinosaur Jr., Azerrad writes about long drives to play for five people, local scenes so tight-knit everyone knows everyone in the room, and bands formed by a sheet of paper tacked to a wall. That network of culture persisted long after most of those groups broke up and, in many ways, is the same scene that Washed Out belongs to today. Bob Mould of Hüsker Dü is even reported to be a big fan.
That similarity exists, of course, with one great difference. The story of Washed Out is impossible without the Internet. Instead of gravitating around a single geographic scene such as Minneapolis, Minn., in the '80s, Washed Out's chillwave peers — Neon Indian, Nite Jewel, Memory Cassette — have gravitated to spaces on the web (MySpace, No Pain In Pop, Gorilla vs. Bear) from such distant places as Denton, Texas, and rural New Jersey. The act of recording massive, layered songs in a bedroom for free gives a new, unexpected context to the "econo" ethic that the Minutemen championed so many years ago.
There is a certain perversity in comparing Washed Out's story to the punks of that era. Those days of local scenes, long drives, and paper fliers seem completely foreign when a band can get a record deal based on a MySpace profile. Keith Abrahamsson of Mexican Summer, the record label that issued Life of Leisure, "became obsessed with the tunes on Washed Out's MySpace page," he says. "I was literally going back to the songs two to three times a day. It was at that point that I decided to write him and ask about releasing some material."
Greene didn't drive hours through the night to play for a few lonely people. He was met in Brooklyn by a sold-out show and a reporter from the New York Times. That said, it doesn't take much of a logical jump to realize that blogs and MP3s are functioning in the same ways that fanzines and cassette demos worked 25 years ago. Washed Out's tunes certainly don't sound like Hüsker Dü's thrashing guitars, but they're governed by the same do-it-yourself aesthetic.
Now that he's finally (and no longer reluctantly) on the road, Greene is facing those more traditional concerns. Getting his mix to sound right in a new venue every night isn't easy. His schedule at SXSW — seven performances and one DJ set in four days — was overpacked with the same breakneck lineup of showcases and parties that new artists typically prove themselves with.
But he's still conflicted about the future. He'll probably have the resources to make a produced, studio record next time, but he's not sure if that's what he wants. He might just make another record on his laptop. After thinking about it for a moment, Greene says, "I really don't know what the hell I'm doing."