Washed Out’s Ernest Greene is just fine with his 9 to 5 existence, thank you. When I catch up with him in suburban Atlanta he’s busy wrapping up another day.
“I don’t know if people realize I’m married and lead a very simple life,” he says. “My wife plays in the band and handles the business end of things. When we’re at home we have a pretty normal domestic life where I do my creative things in one room while she’s in the other scheduling the year for us.”
Despite being dubbed a leader of the hipper-than-thou “chillwave” movement, the Georgia native says he gets his fill of trendsetting megacities like LA and New York, and that he’s happier living close to family. “Atlanta has a bustling music scene anyway,” he quips, “so it’s the best of both worlds.”
Not that there isn’t any romanticism to his music. Greene paints lushly textured soundscapes that ooze emotion—and if there was any doubt, he’s erased it with the photograph of a naked couple locked in a tight embrace against an all-white background on the cover of his new album Within and Without.
“It’s so different from my other covers,” he explains. “My past artwork had very saturated colors, and I liked the idea of stark white, it kind of mimicked some of the sonic changes I was making. And I had the same feeling about the music—that it was very intimate.”
A quiet youth spent in Georgia’s peach fields followed by several years of literature and libraries at the University of South Carolina segued to a career in music when growing internet fame led storied indie-rock label Sub Pop to sign Greene last April.
“They were one of the first that reached out, and one of the only that stuck around,” says the 28-year-old. “It was clear they were passionate about working together and I’d been a fan for a long time. I liked the idea of putting the record out on a traditional indie rock label. I feel like the world I’ve come out of, although my music has a strong electronic element, is from that tradition.”
Greene’s music applies DJ Shadow’s dreamy downtempo pastiche approach to an ’80s vocabulary of synth-pop keyboards and impassioned vocals. Songs like 2009’s “Feel It All Around” put him on the musical map as an architect of the budding chillwave scene.
“The synth-pop influences are definitely there,” Greene admits. “But I had a roundabout way of getting to the ’80s. I started off making hip-hop, and came out of the sampling world. The classic formula for a hip-hop sample-based song is taking material from ’70s funk, but I got tired of doing that and started exploring other music. I was listening to a lot of disco, which led to more mainstream synth-pop from the ’80s, when analog synths were really big.”
Life has been turned upside down since Greene signed with Sub Pop. “A lot of attention came fast, and I wasn’t sure how to approach it,” he says. “But I’ve been around long enough now to see how quickly bands can get a lot of attention and then slip off the radar. I try to just do my thing and not think about it.”
Hitting #6 on the US rock charts, Within and Without sees Greene moving in some new directions, building off the last year of touring as a band after launching as a solo act. “A lot of the early recordings were sample-based and I wanted to move away from that,” he recalls. “Having more time and money allowed me to sculpt these sounds in a way that I’d never been able to. And I was able to bring in some musicians to play on it, which was really exciting. The first recordings were done with just a computer and keyboard, so it was an expansion in a number of different ways.”
For a taste of the long future he has planned for himself as a musician, consider the last song on the album, “A Dedication.”
“We’d finished the other songs but the ending just didn’t feel right so I wrote it to close the record,” Greene says in his deliberate, considered style. “I wrote it sitting at my piano, which was the first time I’ve recorded with a clean piano tone.
“My music is known for soundscapey synth sounds and very little organic sounds. That was one of the first times I’d done that. It’s just a very simple song and something I really enjoyed and see as a bridge to what the next record might sound like.”
Liquidroom, Jan 24 (listing).