Following extensive touring of his 2013 sophomore Paracosm, producer and songwriter Ernest Green a.k.a Washed Out seemed to be laying low in recent years. But now the fruits of his labour have come to light with the release of Mister Mellow, the third full-length record as Washed Out that boasts a mesmerising and immersive visual counterpart. We met with Greene at a private screening of the visual album in East London to catch up.
Much like its floral artwork, 2013’s Paracosm felt like Washed Out’s most vibrant and hopeful record, with uplifting tracks such as ‘It All Feels Right’, ‘Don’t Give Up’ and ‘All I Know’ twinkling with a summery bloom. It seemed a shame then to see its brainchild Ernest Greene go off the radar after riding this optimistic wave, but, as Greene explains to us when we meet during a recent trip to London, getting inspired to write again required a healthy dose of change: “The touring for Paracosm lasted a couple of years, and generally when I spend so much time on a project the first instinct is to take a left turn and to try something different, so I knew on a technical level I wanted things to feel a little less polished. I wanted to be ok with some things being imperfect, and embrace chaos and experimentation.”
If welcoming imperfection and experimentation was the only benchmark for starting a new chapter of Washed Out, naturally things took time to fall into place into a presentable package, particularly given the characteristic sound Greene has earned himself. “I had a few different visions of working on this album”, he tells us, “and these songs were really casual; I was working on them for fun and never really envisioned them being Washed Out songs. But after a while they started growing on me and I could see some things connecting in a way that made sense”.
Though Greene’s vocals still soar over the tracks that make up Mister Mellow in the way they always have done – comforting in tone, bordering on melancholy in melody – every song on this release seems to have a different direction, from the breezy, Mr Scruff-esque beat of ‘Hard To Say Goodbye’ to the trippy curiosity of ‘Burnt Out Blues’. One of the most distinctive elements throughout is Greene’s play with samples, mainly a range of speakers with seemingly unconnected spiels. “You’re sort of waiting for magic to happen”, he explains, “waiting to grab this little piece of audio and put it over something completely different. The starting point was to grab the weirdest and most random things that would fit together and make sense in some way as a pop song”.
Indeed, producing alone in his room and spending hours sifting through streams of media to find rare nuggets of usable content, Greene identified with his providers, diligent but solitary in their digital presence: “There are a lot of interludes where there’s these voiceover moments happening, and that audio is pretty much straight off YouTube vlogs – guys in their bedrooms, completely alone talking into the camera.”
These interlude moments, such as ‘Time Off’ and ‘Down and Out’, have a certain prominence in Mister Mellow, colourfully piecing together a kaleidoscopic tumble of his familiar bath-time ambience (‘Million Miles Away’) with some of Greene’s most dance and hip-hop oriented compositions to date. At their core, though, Greene insists, these latter styes are very much connected: “I’m a student of sample-based music. I started with obvious hip-hop production, and have always casually listened to dance music, and it’s certainly influenced some of the Washed Out stuff in the past, but I had never really made the connection that a lot of dance producers put together their work the same way that say, Mad Lib or D Dilla, would. It’s the same mentality and even the same equipment that they’re using.”
“I never want to do anything that’s such a hard left-turn that it doesn’t sound like Washed Out anymore”
It’s an apt comparison, given that Mister Mellow marks a departure from Sub Pop/Domino Records to the historically influential independent label Stones Throw.
But how important was this new signing for Greene? “They’ve been one of my favourite labels since way back when I first started making music, and informed my approach from the very beginning. Actually, how the label has grown over the last five to ten years, it hasn’t moved away from hiphop but it has opened up, and they’re signing bands that don’t fit that pocket, which I really love and represents that wide range of things I’m influenced by”. Though the label’s roster has long influenced Greene’s work, he happily admits that “with this record it’s the first time where there’s a front and centre Stones Throw aesthetic”.
Working with the same art director who worked on J Dilla’s Donuts, Greene found the biggest blessing from his new label to be time, and their understanding and trust that it would be a worthy investment into Greene’s new project. Accompanying the songs and interludes of Mister Mellow is a visual counterpart, collating the very different styles of several artists into a seemingly chaotic and suitably psychedelic blend. It had been a long ambition for Greene, he tells us. “In the past I had the idea of doing single animated videos, but it was always too expensive and took too long for the schedule we were working with. So as I had a bit more time with this it was always in the back of my mind. It sort of turned into a labour of love where I never would have really anticipated taking it to the degree that it is. But it’s certainly a dream come true because when I’m writing I have these rough pictures in my head and to see that come to life is pretty special”.
Though diverse stylistically and technically, all of the Mister Mellow videos seem to vaguely concern the modern, intense-stimuli urban experience. In ‘Get Lost’ Harvey Benschoter amusingly animates cut-outs from 80s adverts and catalogues with the dazzling impression of driving around a city, whilst in ‘Floating By’ Drew Tyndell colourfully depicts a dazed Greene distorting and morphing with every geomorphic shape that passes him by.
It’s a direction at odds with the pastoral aesthetic of his previous record, so where was Greene going with this move? “Paracosm was inspired by this rural vibe, and for me it was important to shift and try something new, and this is very much influenced by urban life. I’m super envious of songwriters who create characters in their songs, but for me it’s just how I’m feeling in that moment. It can be as macro as how fucking crazy the world is right now, but specifically a lot of the things I’m taking about is getting older and not being super comfortable with that on a lot of different levels: being a musician, making a living being a creative. The older you get, the harder it is to have a go at it. All of those thoughts were creeping in and informing the process, for better or for worse, but in the end, from my perspective it was better to be playful with it and hopefully people will identify with it”.
Though when we meet Greene is as affable and chill as you would expect the creator of ‘Washed Out’ to be, he is open about some of the anxieties and boredoms he experiences at 34 in today’s world, and as such Mister Mellow is a deeply personal record. Certain videos bring this to the forefront, as in ‘Burnt Out Blues’, a slideshow of photos of Greene growing up – school, sports, prom – but with his face removed in them all. More mesmerising though is Canadian artist Winston Hacking’s fabric distortions of Greene’s face. Hacking is particularly adept at playing with faces, providing a similar example for Canadian singer/songwriter Andy Shauf in ‘The Magician’, which greatly impressed Green. “He did a video before Andy Shauf for this Canadian band, Soupcans, after I saw that I thought ‘this is my guy’- the obvious connections of the collaging made so much sense to me. So I was thinking about approaching him, and then I saw that Andy Shauf video and I was like, ‘hands down: this is one guy we have to get’. It’s time consuming enough just making the collages, then to print them on to the fabric and then the whole other process of animating them. A couple of weeks ago he actually sent me all of the fabrics, it’s insane, loads of weird, fucked up versions of my face.”
Despite exploring the anxieties of urban and adult life, the music of Mister Mellow is still as blissful as you would hope from a Washed Out record. Finding this balance was the hardest challenge, Greene admits: “I never want to do anything that’s such a hard left-turn that it doesn’t sound like Washed Out anymore and that was from my perspective the challenge: can I be playful and ironic and it still land as the way it needs to land? The way I see it is like brief moments of real sincere emotion, but then there’s also moments that are completely meant to be tongue-in-cheek”.
Coinciding with the run up to the record release, Greene was also asked to curate the sixth music festival from revered music blog Gorilla vs Bear held in Dallas, Texas in August. “They were really helpful early on getting Washed Out music out there, so I feel really honoured to be asked to do it. Some of the stuff we’ve come up with is, like with this record, what you wouldn’t quite expect, but if you’re there and experience it you kind of understand the connections”. Since we spoke the festival has announced that as well as a Washed Out headline performance, the lineup features the likes of Jessy Lanza, Jacques Green and She-Devils, all of whom have a noticeable influence on the new record.
Greene has a modest but noticeable sense of pride as we talk about Mister Mellow tonight, smiling as still breathing a long sigh of relief. “So much about this record was the big picture and having that defined from the start so that everything would tie together and make this impressionistic view”, he tells us, “so in order to do that, at least at the level I’m at, takes some time. That’s been a luxury, I don’t know if I’ll get another opportunity like that in the future”.
For now though at least, with an integrated visual element in the works for a summer US tour and a UK tour later in the year, all the focus is on Mister Mellow.