Washed Out is just beginning his day when he picks up the phone for our interview, his light Southern drawl still honeyed with the dulcet tones of a recent slumber. The artist born as Ernest Greene has only just emerged from his tour bus, still groggy after a gig the night before, one of the first live shows he has played in years.
Greene is fresh from releasing Mister Mellow, his third full-length as Washed Out. It is handily his most ambitious work to date, one aided by such accoutrements as a full visual component, one created with 11 different artists and brought to vivid life at each live performance thanks to an immersive multimedia experience created in partnership with Microsoft. Suffice to say, our interview's focal point was what lay beneath the bells and whistles, in addition to his background in hip-hop, the mechanics of puppet animation, and (of course) his relationship with that TV show.
So this is your first set of live shows in quite some time. Does it feel super different this time around?
It does. It's quite a different show. I think the last couple records were structured more like a traditional rock band set up with drums and bass, guitar, keyboard, that sort of thing. This feels much more like, I guess, an electronic show. Then there's obviously the visual component. It's so heavy. We've got this massive projection screen which adds quite a lot of complexity to the mix. That's been the nerve-racking part. It's not even the performing that's made me nervous. It's more like ’Is everything going to work like it's supposed to?’ because it's so complicated to set up. But it's been going really well.
Well on that note let’s talk about the visual component. What inspired you to create a full visual album? Beyoncé’s Lemonade, perhaps?
Ha! I think the whole layout of that record was super cool, without a doubt. It actually started quite simply and not quite as ambitious as what it ended up turning into. I've always been a big fan of visual art and got really obsessed with a lot of handmade experimental animation and it started to influence the way I was approaching my music. What I was seeing in these animations was this spontaneous feel of stuff maybe being a little messy and crazy, and that shifted into the way I was trying to make the music.
After putting most of the record together on the audio side, I had this "aha" moment of why not combine the two disparate influence on one another. I think the visuals could really play up what's happening on the audio side of things and the audio could really work well with the video. It just made a lot of sense. Originally it was only going to be a handful of videos, then it sort of snowballed. It's a dream project for me personally. I always imagined what the world of the album that I'm creating might look like, and to actually see fully come to life is pretty amazing.
And stop motion in particular is insane. That is an intense process.
The thing that really amazed me, at least in the very beginning, was just the sheer amount of time and energy it takes. Nowadays it's, I think, 24 frames per second is what the normal approach is for animation. When it comes to that stop motion stuff, it takes hours and hours to just get a handful of seconds. It's so many times you're moving and stopping.
Many have said with the timing of Mister Mellow being so close to Toro y Moi's latest that this is the 'chillwave revival.' How do you feel about that? Are you sick of being tied to chillwave?
I will never really outlive that tag. On my obituary it's probably gonna be... that's gonna be the lead sentence. Which is really funny and a bit sad. Because obviously the flip side is that it very much puts you in a box. At the same time it maintains some sort of connection to the work I've done in the past. I would love there to be this through-line, where you could connect the dots between the records.
Is there a through-line?
Yeah. I think there is. There's some qualities about any song I write that unite them simply by the fact that I wrote it. I'm such a naïve song writer. I can only do a handful of things.
Why do you think you're a naïve songwriter?
I was self taught with producing and everything. I always felt like when I would work with other producers or other engineers, they would be like, "You know you're doing that completely wrong the way that you're recording that vocal or doing this or that." I always really embraced that and wanted to hold onto that. I feel like that's where a lot of the unique character will come through. Songwriting is the same way. I feel like I can never ... I think of the great song writers like Bob Dylan or whoever. They'll just create these amazing characters and speak through their voices. I have a hard time with that. That's why I've never really written for other people, that would be really strange. Hopefully, again, all of that means that it comes from this very real place and that it's unique. I do still feel very naïve and want to hold on to that.
I remember reading an interview around the time of your first album that hip-hop influences the way you write songs. Does it still? If so, how?
Yeah. Definitely. When I was 18 years old, when I first started writing songs, I was emulating a lot of hip-hop producers from the ‘90s. At first it was DJ Premier, DJ Shadow. Later it was more J Dilla. I saw the limitations of making straight up backpacker hip-hop stuff. The idea was always to take those production ideas and try to do something a little different with it.
Do you see yourself ever producing a hip-hop record for someone?
I think it would be fun and interesting. That's a hard thing. I don't know what I could add that's ... I feel it's already been done before. I think it would be the right rapper that would be essential, want to try something new and different. Maybe one day. Actually, I honestly struggled with just making another Washed Out record. There's just so much music happening all the time. I have to really settle on an idea that I feel is unique to me to really dig in to make a full record or whatever.
What do you think was one of the biggest challenges making this record for you?
Probably finishing it. I had a lot of challenges figuring out what I wanted to do first. Someone asked me recently "Was it a fun process?" I had to honestly say, "No. It was not fun at all." Maybe the first six months of working on it, the initial stuff was great, but finishing it was fucking terrible. I was very frustrated and super nervous. To actually see it through, I think, was really big. Perfectionism was really driving me insane. Hopefully the next record will come much quicker than this one.
I'm sure you get this a lot, but I have to ask... What's it like having your music as the theme song to 'Portlandia' for seven seasons now?
It's still one of those weird moments in my career that I can't quite understand how it happened. When I was just starting out, literally months into the process of my music leaking out online I got an email from Fred Armisen. I still don't know how he got my email address. I seriously thought for a day or two that it was just somebody fucking with me or something. Initially he didn't even mention the show. He was just like, "I'm a big fan. Just wanted to say, 'What's up,' and can you send me a record?" So I sent him a record and a week or two later he was like, "I'm putting a show together." It was really funny actually because I could tell that in his eyes it was this pet project and that maybe they would have one season and that was gonna be it. There was definitely no intentions of it being what it is now.
For more of our interviews, see our chat with Flying Lotus ahead of his new film 'Kuso' right here.