When we spoke, Ernest Greene, the man behind the genial tunes of Washed Out, had a bit of a buzz going. He’d spent the week at St. Simons Island with family before returning to the West Coast for the next leg of tour for his third album, Mr. Mellow, which was released about a year ago by Stones Throw Records. I didn’t know about the beers until the end of our conversation. “Sorry if I rambled at all,” he said. He tells me the weather is mild that day, and the beach is less crowded than usual. The picturesque scene seems suiting for the artist, who has made a name for his signature balmy, dulcet tunes.
It’s been eight years since Greene first made a splash in the music industry. After a couple of extended plays in the summer of 2009 and a performance at the 2010 Pitchfork Music Festival, his song “Feel It All Around” was placed as the opening riff of the hit IFC show Portlandia. Soon after, he signed with Sub Pop, his highly anticipated debut, Within Without, was released, and the chillwave movement was born. Since then Greene has released two additional albums, Paracosm (2014, Sub Pop) and more recently Mister Mellow, which came out about a year ago. “I just started working on new material and the album has been out since last summer,” he tells me. “It takes a lot of focus to come up with this stuff.” Since he’s been on the road intermittently for almost a year since the release, I ask him how he uses his off time productively when he’s touring. “I usually take the time to open up and discover new influences –– listen to a lot of new music. You can do that anywhere at anytime.” He laughs to himself before continuing, “It’s like refueling the tank while the touring is happening, I’m just stockpiling on new ideas so I can jump in when I get back.”
Beneath the subdued, mellow tonality of Greene’s work there are a bevy of musical influences. His love of hip-hop and R&B is reflected in the rhythms and beats he composes. In Paracosm, elements of rock-and-roll, a genre which Greene originally revolted against, can clearly be heard. “My tastes are constantly evolving,” he says. “Those elements in Paracosm I never would have imagined putting on a Washed Out album before.” When I allude to the rock-and-roll legacy of Macon, GA, where Greene comes from –– the birthplace of not just the Allman Brothers, but Little Richard, Otis Redding, and R.E.M.’s Berry Brothers –– he laughs. “I do feel a pride coming from Macon. But what they’ve done has been done before. I try to do my own thing the best I can. New ideas came to me all the time when I was first starting up,” he adds. “It gets harder to reinvent, especially when I get so obsessive with all of the details.”
His attention to detail is fully reflected in Mister Mellow. The album was released not just with twelve tracks and album art, but with a full-length animated film. Greene orchestrated the entire project, hand-selecting animators from videos and pulling inspiration he accumulated during the ‘refueling’ phase of his previous tour. “Just the video component took us six months,” he tells me. “We had done Washed Out videos in the past, but I had so little to do with it, it was more organized by the record label. So this project was a trial-by-fire.”
The video, which is more of a montage of dozens of different, concepted animations, and doesn’t have a traditional plot-arc in the Lemonade-sense, is closer to the fine art world’s understanding of the medium. “There’s a Frank Stella painting that was a big inspiration for a video that’s part of our live show,” he says. He admits that he’s always been casually following the art and design world, but for Mister Mellow, it became a bit of an obsession. “Especially hand-animated work. I tried to emulate that inspiration with the songs, patchworking a lot of samples –– that Terry Gilliam collage effect. In fact, Winston Hacking, one of the animators I worked with, did quite a few animations that felt really similar to that, where it feels really handmade but he uses a lot of digital technology to execute it.”
The resulting album is one that tackles a lot of the heavier issues that America, and Greene himself, were tackling when the album was composed. Greene has said in earlier interviews that music has always been a retreat for him. Mister Mellow was composed solitarily in Athens, GA, at the height of the #BlackLivesMatter protests in Atlanta and around the country, and amidst heavy backlash to the election of President Trump. Mister Mellow acts as a retreat, an aid for the self-care movement that was popularized in the wake of all these civil protests, while simultaneously mocking the notion of self-care itself.
“There’s a very tongue-in-cheek quality to the whole record,” he tells me. “Even the songs that do feel happy-go-lucky, that’s coming from an insincere place.” Greene confesses that at the root of the album is a sense of dischord with the realities of adulthood, the harder truths that he found himself facing on a personal, daily basis, as well as culturally within the world at-large. “So much of what I was feeling had to do with the chaos of what was happening in the world, making me feel bitter and dissatisfied. In the end, the tone of the album is kind of mocking my own slacker tendency to simply drown it all out or ignore it. In reality, that’s a terrible way of handling your problems. In fact, it’s not handling them at all.”
That being said, Greene anticipates the pendulum swaying in a different direction in his next work. He’s not afraid to evolve. “When I said that there was value to writing happy songs, I was at the height of domestic bliss and Paracosm was the result. Mister Mellow is the opposite side of that. But having gone through all of that now, I look forward to trying something different. The tone might be a little different, a little more sincere.” Though none of that sounds like there’s anything disingenuous behind the sentiments of his previous albums, it does lead one to wonder what the next one could lead to.