Note: This article is also included in our year-end creative wisdom round-up.
The interpersonal dynamics of a band can get kind of nasty. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, for instance, have reportedly despised each other for years. Over time, too many competing visions and egos in one recording studio can make for a muddled, subpar sound and a lot of hurt feelings. Of course, none of that matters if you forgo the whole “band” thing and make music entirely on your own. It seems to be working out well for Ernest Greene, in any case.
The first Washed Out EPs came out in 2009. Back then, a twentysomething Ernest Green was making songs from his bedroom at his parents’ house. One of these songs would go on to become the theme for hit IFC show Portlandia and basically lay out the entire blueprint for the hazy genre known as “chillwave.” Greene’s proper debut arrived in 2011, amid a storm of hype, and its rapturous reception turned him into a highly sought live act and a fixture on the festival circuit. Although Washed Out needs more people to fill out its live-instrumentation-packed concert incarnation these days, and although Greene works with a producer, the band still only has one member.
Ernest Greene grew up playing the piano from a young age, and later learned to pluck a guitar string, but it wasn’t until he started working on his laptop that he began to find the sound he wanted to hear. Through years of experimentation, the musician taught himself how to make songs–and eventually how to make incredibly good ones. With his sophomore album, Paracosm, now available–a sunny about-face from the nocturnal rhythms of his debut–Greene talked to Co.Create about teaching yourself to make music in your bedroom that sounds arena-ready.
My first laptop in college came with GarageBand and I was able for the first time to do everything myself. I could layer each part piece by piece with the multi-tracking software. I never was that good of a collaborator. Back in those garage rock days, whoever I was playing with, they just didn’t share the same vision for how I thought the song should go. All of a sudden, with a laptop, I could kind of do everything myself. From that point on it was entirely a solo thing.
Around the time when I got my first computer, I was really into guys like DJ Shadow–guys who had a hip-hop background, only weirder and more psychedelic. I had the simplest equipment, just my computer and a little keyboard, and that was pretty much it, but I could take sounds from other records and kind of mess with them inside the computer. I manipulated them and built songs from scratch that way, instead of the more traditional way of recording a piano or a guitar. I didn’t feel like I had the microphones or the nice compressors to do that right, so using samples helped me immediately start making pretty decent-sounding recordings.
I’m entirely self-taught, which I think is both a blessing and a curse. A lot of the things I was doing on the first couple Washed Out releases was very naïve. Because I didn’t have the background, I was doing things the wrong way, and that’s what the sound was about in a lot of ways. I’ve picked up a lot over the years and I feel more confident with a mixer and on the engineering side now. But in some ways, I want to stay naïve about other things.
I’ve been DJing recently, and one time this engineer in the booth with me said “You realize you’re doing everything completely wrong.” With DJ-ing too, it was a self-taught kind of thing and I was never really shown how to do it. But because of that, I have kind of a unique spin on how I DJ. It’s the same way with production.
I started making instrumental hip-hop-inspired stuff and quickly kind of ran into the mini-cliches that are involved with making hip-hop beats. There’s not tons of variation within that world. There’s a lot of people sampling the same things. So I tried to start doing things a little different. I was sampling much stranger kind of stuff, outside of that ’70s funk thing that most hip-hop producers pull from. I was listening to a lot of disco and that lead to a lot of ’80s synth-pop music, which I never heard before. That was kind of the big influence for the early Washed Out stuff, sampling stuff from that era. The songs started to become more pop songs rather than hip-hop. A little more influenced by electronic music and dance music rather than the hip-hop thing.
I naturally like that dreamy, shoegazey sound on my vocals. A lot of reverb helps, and so do a lot of delay effects on everything. The reverb thing and my vocal style just go hand in hand too. In a more practical kind of way, though, I was a reluctant singer to begin with, so the idea of singing very softly and layering the vocals made me feel more comfortable doing it. It was kind of a practical thing. It developed over a couple years time and now it just is what it is. I can’t imagine making any other kinds of vocal performances.
The entire making of Within and Without was a series of experiments and trial by error. When I started writing, I didn’t have a strong idea of what the record was going to end up like. It was really just working 9 to 5 on a daily basis, just sitting in front of a keyboard. It ended up being a very synth-heavy record. I think of it now in hindsight as pretty nocturnal. But I didn’t have any idea of that when I started. Just all of the different texture type of stuff that’s happening in the background is all just stuff that I was–it’s almost like a collage in some ways, the way I made that record, where it’s kind of piling up a bunch of sounds and then stripping them away.
With this new record, Paracosm, I had a very strict set of sounds I started with. The first single “It All Feels Right”, pretty much how that turned out in the end is how I pictured it right from the beginning. I was able to work a lot faster because of that. Having the limitations of having the palette already figured out. You can jump straight into the songwriting instead of the production side of things.
The feeling of suddenly sort of clicking is almost an emotional response for me. I don’t know exactly what it is. It’s not a flashback to a particular memory or anything; all of a sudden a melody or something will touch a nerve. At that point it’s just fine-tuning the song for that feeling. It’s not until the song is really progressing or the chord progression is really happening. Once that feeling happens, there’s something there and you can move forward and really work on it.