As 2011 continues to reveal an abundance of new artists and great music, it’s of no surprise that one of the more anticipated debut albums was that of 28-year-old Atlanta based songwriter and producer Ernest Greene, AKA Washed Out. Full of blissful harmonies and arrangements, augmented with hip-hop beats and samples, Within And Without quickly became the preferred summer spin at Webcuts. Static’s Chris Berkley recently caught up with Ernest to talk about all things Within And Without — recording the album, the process behind it, and amongst other things, 10CC’s “I’m Not In Love” and the ‘raunchy’ cover art.
You must be excited and relieved that the album is out?
Yes, very exciting. I started work on it about a year ago, so I’m really excited people can hear it and buy it and come and see us play.
When you were touring here with the band in December, you were obviously working on it, but there wasn’t that much of a temptation to take the live band into the studio to make the album? Is that still your own sacred domain when it comes to Washed Out?
I think so. Mainly because that’s just the way I’ve always worked and the creative process for me is a very mindless thing. I just sit down at the computer and just kind of get lost in the recording and the layering of things. It would be much harder to do that with five other guy in the room, I think. Maybe one of these days I’ll bring’em in, but not yet. (laughs)
I guess taking them out on tour must be enough to stretch your people managing skills?
Exactly. I definitely have to take on the role of the dad of the group. There’s a couple of youngsters in the band, and my wife tours with us as well, so we’re the mom and dad keeping tabs on the other band members.
Was it challenge enough then to bring in the outside producer to help out on Within and Without, ‘cos Ben Allen came in to sort of, help you finish off the record. Was that his role?
Exactly. I had those songs recorded to the best of my ability and I knew that I needed help to sort of take them to the place I wanted, which was much bigger, sort of anthemic sounding songs. I was a huge fan of his work and luckily he had about ten days off inbetween a couple projects he was working on, so we did 12 hour days in the studio here in Atlanta to wrap everything up. He’s an amazing guy and an amazing producer.
It’s interesting to hear you use a word ‘dynamic’ when describing the record because it seems like you’ve probably taken with relish the chance to spread your wings a bit and try some stuff you hadn’t been able to do on those early Washed Out singles and EPs. Did it feel like you had a broader canvas for the album?
Exactly. Having played a years worth of live shows really informed this material as well. Just playing in front of an audience there, a couple of things I picked up that make the entertaining side of playing music much easier and so there are a couple of moments on the record that were written specifically for the live show. So we’re really excited to get out there and start playing again.
The first taste we got of the album was that boy/girl duet of “You and I” that you did with Caroline from Chairlift. Was that a thing you could cross of your list, to be able to do a boy/girl duet?
Yeah, well it’s funny that I never really collaborated with someone on writing a song together and a TV network here in the States, Adult Swim, commissioned us to work on a song and it really opened my eyes to that side of songwriting. I had the chorus structure of the song written and took it to her and she took the song to a completely different direction that I probably would never have thought of and made the song that much better. So I’m excited to maybe work with her again, hopefully, and if not her, other musicians maybe on this next record.
Writing songs like that seems to have brought out a bit of your songsmith side, because another track on the album like “A Dedication” is practically your Billy Joel/Elton John piano ballad.
That’s probably the closest I’ll get to that type of song. I grew up playing piano, so that’s really how I learned to play music and think about music. But I definitely hadn’t used a piano before on a Washed Out track and I sort of liked ending the record on a much different note. It was the last song I worked on so it fit to be the last song on the record.
Are you ready for lighters aloft for that song in the live show?
(laughs) That’d be great. I’d have to work it out. It’d be great to bring out a bunch of horn players to pull off the final section of the song. Maybe if the budget gets a little better we can pull that off.
In amongst the power ballad moments there are the more atypical Washed Out tracks, but I like how disco you’ve also gone on a song like “Soft”. So even with the dancier stuff you’re trying on a few different genres than you had before.
Exactly. That again probably has a lot to do with playing live shows. I really don’t like the idea of boring people at the shows. We try to play more of the upbeat numbers and maybe up the tempo for some of the slower numbers. The live shows are meant to be, I wouldn’t say necessarily a dance party, but it’s upbeat enough to dance and have a good time to.
It also seems that apart from being informed by the live show, the Washed Out album has been a good way to show off all these influences. It’s something that you seem to get asked about a terrible lot.
Yeah, I kind of grab from a number of different genres and that also sort of shaped what the record sound like. I didn’t want it to be a dance record or a hip-hop record. I wanted it to be somewhere inbetween all of these places, so that type of thinking really shaped things. I wanted everything to sound really balanced, and if I used a really heavy kick sound that is really dance music indebted, I wanted to balance that with more live instrumentation to sort of make everything balance. That was a big part of the record as well.
Also telling is this recent BBC 6 music mix that you did. In amongst all the cool stuff, the seminal artists like DJ Shadow, you did have the block of cheese that is 10CC’s “I’m Not In Love”.
That’s a great song through and through. If that’s not cool then that’s the listener’s problem. I love that song and I like to think that my work is sort of in that same mindset of it’s definitely a pop song, but also a song you can get lost in, and so I like that quality about it.
You also said something interesting about that mix, when sampling you’re looking for a noise or a texture, so you’re more informed by the feel of samples than say beats or rhythm.
Definitely. And that came out of just trying to do something different with sampling. When I started out making proto-typical hip-hop songs I quickly realised it had been done a million times before, like sampling old breaks or James Brown songs, so I was really interested in using non-traditional sounds and that sort or led to much weirder either ambient or disco stuff that I was into. I’m always listening for interesting sounds to use.
The other component of the album of course is its packaging. Have many people come back to you about the raunchy artwork for Within and Without? Are you getting sold in a brown paper bag in Walmart?
It’s really funny to me. I never anticipated that, and I can totally understand that interpretation now but to me it was more innocent than that. I wasn’t thinking about it being this provocative, shocking thing. It’s really funny seeing the response and that was definitely the initial response from most people.
You put skin somewhere and people jump up and down. Your response then sounds like you’re in front of the PMRC or something. It sounds as if you’ve already got your response rehearsed.
No, no. It’s a lot of fun. Actually my label in the UK has gotten together an installation at Rough Trade in London and they’re going to have a bed-in, where they have an actual bed in the store where you can lay down and listen to the record, so I thought that was kind of poking fun at that as well.
People are actually going to be recreating that sleeve in the middle of a record store.
Exactly. That’s the idea. That would be great.
Do people keep asking you if it’s your back? Do you have to keep telling people it’s not you?
Yeah, I have. I have been asked that quite a bit and it’s not my back. Maybe it would’ve been a better story if it had been my back, but no, it was just an image I saw in a photography magazine I really liked.
You can save your nude run up for album number two…
Interview broadcast on Static on 14/07/11. Static can be heard on Sydney’s 2SER (107.3 FM) and via the Internet (www.2ser.com) every Thursday evening (AEST).