Washed Out on the Sensual Escapism of Purple Noon (KEXP Interview)

Interviews
08/13/2020
Jasmine Albertson

It’s wild to think that it’s been over a decade since Washed Out appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, with the Life of Leisure EP. The brainchild of a Georgian Library Science student named Ernest Greene, Washed Out’s lead single “Feel It All Around” simultaneously soundtracked a beloved TV show and launched a brand new genre called chillwave.

Now, in 2020, Greene’s latest release under the project, Purple Noon, returns to its melodic roots after 2017’s Mister Mellow’s sample-heavy deviation but adds bright, sheeny ‘80s production for his most opulent record yet. Heavily inspired by a trip to Greece with his wife, the album integrates evocative tropical flourishes that conjure up images of balmy evenings near turquoise seas. Combine that with the sensual lyrics that deal with love in all its forms and you’ve got one seriously sexy record.

Below, KEXP spoke with Greene about the sexiness of Purple Noon, music as escapism, and where Washed Out may be a decade from now.

 


KEXP: You're releasing Purple Noon next week. The week before has got to be a big week right?

Ernest Greene: Yeah. I mean, it's been quite interesting this go aound. We've been doing a lot of like at-home, on our own, work which on one hand, it's kind of nice because, you know, we have complete control of how everything looks and sounds. But, we've been doing it completely DIY, as well. So it's just like two or three times the amount of work. But, yeah, it's been interesting for sure.

I mean, it's probably nice in some ways to have your hands involved in every aspect of it.

Yes, and I'm pretty bad with that. I'm a bit of a perfectionist, so that doesn't help by any means--trying to shoot and direct and all that. Just completely DIY.

Oh, absolutely. Where are you? Are you in Georgia right now?

I am. I'm in Atlanta, Georgia. I have a small, little studio space here at my house. We actually just finished a rehearsal with the band, like literally two minutes ago--I just popped up here and we rehearse in my basement. And, yeah, nice and hot here in Atlanta.

It must be nice to be taking an interview from home rather than on a tour bus or a green room

Sure. Yeah, like I definitely enjoy that side of things. My studio is right next to our living room and kitchen. And, so it's nice--just pop in and grab a drink or whatever. So, yeah, certainly not missing the tour bus right now.

Although not touring behind the new album has to be a bummer. Are you guys making plans for that right now?

Yeah, I think we're on like version four or version five of the tour-routing. Initially, we were gonna be touring, you know, right now. I think the tour is going to start in like mid July. And, then it got pushed to October and then February, and then I think the current version is in April. So, fingers crossed there.

As you can imagine, there's quite a lot of competition when it comes to putting a tour together. And everyone's trying to look into the mirrorball and figure out when live music might be a thing again. And everyone is either sitting on a record that they've already finished, or probably working really hard on finishing a record to come out next year. So, there'll be no shortage of live music, that's for sure--whenever it does come around.

I hadn't thought about the fact that all these delayed tours means everyone's going to pretty much be touring at the exact same time once they can.

Exactly, yeah, yeah. I think we have a pretty good routing for April, so hopefully that holds up.

Fingers crossed. How have you been, personally, during quarantine?

Pretty good. I mean, I'm like a bit of a homebody anyway. You know, the fact that I work here means that lifestyle-wise it isn't super different outside of a little bit of the touring and DJing I do. So, I'm used to being here. I have two young kids, and that certainly can be a headache at times. But again, I've been there, done that. They do a pretty good job of leaving me alone during, you know, nine to five work hours.

That's good. I got a puppy during quarantine. He does not do that for me.

[laughs] There are certainly times of drama that pop up here and there.

Absolutely. So, let's talk about Purple Noon. It's your fourth studio record and, I have to say, I am completely in love with it.

Oh, thank you.

 

 

Yeah, it's so lush and gorgeous. And I love albums that transport you to a specific place--which, you've kind of set as the coastlines of the Mediterranean, but I think it could be anywhere balmy and beautiful and romantic. I'd love to know more about these experiences in the Mediterranean that inspired this record.

Sure. Well, I was lucky enough to take a trip with my wife last year, last summer. And I was kind of halfway through writing the record, and had some rough ideas about kind of what I was shooting for. But, that trip, I really felt like... I read about some of my favorite authors, you know, they'll go research a setting for a story. They'll go visit and…[connection break]...get like tons of photos and videos and stuff that, you know, I had a feeling would be used in the art work and some of the promotion stuff. 

I got home from our trip and just had all of these very vivid memories that in a lot of ways I felt like I was, like, doing a film score or something. I've always kind of worked like that, where I have like a very rough image in my mind of the tone I'm trying to set, or whatever. But, this was, like, literally pulling up photos from my phone, you know. It was very specific.

But, yeah, my wife used to play in Washed Out in our earlier years, and we traveled all over the world. But we had never been to Greece. And it just felt so exotic, especially compared to anything here or in Mexico. There's just this very kind of charming, kind of European, sophisticated feeling to everything that I really got into. And, again, I was trying to channel that a little bit into the music.

Absolutely, it does--it feels a little bit like escapism. I feel like, while political music and protest music, and all that are incredibly important right now, it's also important to have music that's a form of escapism to kind of ease the burden of living in this wacky world.

Sure. Sure.

Do you view your music that way?

Yeah. I mean, I feel like for some people, escapism is like a dirty word or something but I've always connected my music to that idea. In a lot of ways, my favorite music, that I keep returning to, has that effect of like just transporting you somewhere. I can't think of...maybe films...I'm trying to think of other art forms. I think music just has a way of...I think has something to do with, attaching music to memories or something.

But, yeah, I'm full-on trying to embrace that and fill my music with little sonic cues that might even help the listener go there. I didn't quite go full-on with the waves in the background sound effects, but there are like steel drums in one of the songs--stuff that has maybe a slight tropical touch to it.

Yeah, I can feel that. It feels balmy and like...sexy, honestly.

[laughs] Yeah, I was really into this photographer early on. His name's Herb Ritts. He was a very famous ‘90s fashion photographer. And, yeah that’s the one word I would say that sort of categorizes his work-- it's just very sexy, very clean. I actually have a number of his photographs hung around my studio to just sort of, again, try to channel some of that energy. I don't think I've specifically ever written a song about sex, where there's a song that's very clearly about that. So, yeah, trying new things.

 

Each record is obviously very different. After finishing my last record, which is very sample-based and kind of like a collage. I really like the idea just sitting down at the piano writing the song before really diving into the sonics and the production and all of that. So, that was kind of a big change and it was a focus a little bit more on like traditional songwriting, I think. Which, again, was slightly new for me.

In the past, you said you tend to write from a personal perspective where whatever you're dealing with somehow finds its way into your songs. Is that the same with Purple Noon, or did you have different characters you were working with?

Yeah, I mean, I think there are a couple of songs that are very much about me right now. I would say most of them are me from maybe 10 or 15 years ago. I'm getting quite old now, so there's a lot of looking backwards. [laughs] But, you know, in my early 20s was a time where, romantically, I was just all over the place. And so, I feel like I was kind of looking back at a lot of those times to channel some of the stories for the album. Some of the songs are just about maybe something a friend of mine is going through, or just something I've heard like secondhand. I can easily turn that into a song sometimes, as well.

I feel like because every song deals with love in some form, it does sort-of feel like you're following a specific person or character as they go through the ups and downs, of like, maybe not one particular relationship but it does feel like it's from the perspective of one person, even if that's not the actual case.

Sure, yeah. I mean, I feel like a concept record means there's a beginning, middle and end, as far as like a narrative or something. It's definitely not that...There was actually a review that I read, very early review...The record was delayed a couple of times so there have been a few reviews that have come out that, you know, weren't really supposed to come out. But, it used the idea of a song cycle, which, I'd never really thought of like that.

When I think of the songs I think they're generally dealing with a very specific theme, but it's a little bit more loose around any sort of narrative. So that's kind of the way I think of it. You know, it certainly has a lot to do with relationships, but I think it's just viewed from different angles and different points in time over the course of a relationship.

 

 

You kind of mentioned this before, and perhaps this question exposes my naiveté about serious long-term relationships. But, you've been married for a long time--as long Washed Out has existed. How do you continue to find new ways to write about love from the vantage point of one relationship?

Yeah, it's funny, I forget the quote exactly, but it's something about, as an artist, you should have like a really boring life for your everyday life but creatively be very adventurous. And, I feel like that's becoming more and more true, particularly now in the Covid era. I rarely even leave the house these days. I mean, I've just been so busy. But, like I said, I think it's a lot of, um...I've been off and on with my wife for like, oh God, it's like 20 years or something. So, through that, there's been some ups and downs and so I might look at a memory from twenty years ago or fifteen years ago, or whatever. So, it’s fertile ground. Believe me, we've been through a lot. So, yeah, sometimes it's just kind of looking backwards.

Makes sense. So, before the making of Purple Noon you had a brief stint writing for other artists and recently credited working with Sudan Archives, who we love very much at KEXP, as being a bit of an influence on how Purple Noon turned out. I'd love to know more about the relationship and how it affected your work.

Sure. Well, I was initially not really into the idea of the L.A. writing-session scene of, like, people who have never met, sort-of meeting up in an afternoon to write a song. You know, it took me almost two years to put together the music for this record--10 songs. The thought of just miraculously coming out with something good in an afternoon--that just felt so foreign to me. But, I was a big fan of hers. And, I think the most important thing was that I really liked her sound, and then I kind of felt like I had some ideas that could work really well--kind of like we could meet in the middle, I guess. And she was super cool.

She had like a little project studio in L.A. when I was out there at one point a couple years ago, and we met up and...Yeah, she's just super relaxed and works super fast, has very little like... She doesn't overanalyze anything, which, I'm really bad about that. So, we just wrote the song super quick, and that definitely opened my eyes to that style of working. 

I think the biggest thing that I took into my record was just sonically working with her...I was sort-of stepping outside of the normal sonic palette that I used as Washed Out. And I felt like I could get away with using some stuff that I would never think to use, which generally had to do with just more modern kind of pop and even hip-hop elements of, like, 808s and very bright, like high hats and stuff. I'd never really played with that before, and it just, again, felt like fertile ground. And, I think in the end, this is by far the brightest sounding--most kind of muscular-sounding production I've done. And, I think it was mimicking a lot of the ideas that we were working on with her. It just felt really inspiring.

 

 

You're right. It's big, it's sheeny with kind of an 80s vibe to it. Ah, love it. So, you're now over a decade into this career as Washed Out, and you previously said that you kind of fell into it without any intention of music being a career. Is that something you think about and look back on often like, “Wow! How the heck did I get here?”

Sure, yeah! I feel extremely lucky, mainly because I didn't do much work, like promoting myself or anything. I have a lot of young fans that ask me all the time like, "Can you give me advice on how I can break through or get my music heard?” And, for one, a lot has changed since then, that was quite a long time ago.

But still, I just got very lucky that the right people just stumbled into my music, hearing my music, and it got passed around really quickly. I've never sent a demo tape or anything... I mean, I hear stories of, like, people handing cds out at shows, or whatever. I never really did any of that, mainly because it just felt so far out of reach, honestly. But, I feel extremely lucky and I'm still super-grateful. And, you know, it's something I think about every day. I just try to work as hard as I can to sort-of honor that privilege that I'm given.

Yeah, absolutely! A decade from now, do you think Washed Out will still be going strong?

Ernest [laughs] I don't know, that's tough. Honestly, every time I start work on a record, I have this moment where I think, “Does the world really need more music?” You know, there is so much music happening and I'm not interested in just putting something out that's just for the sake of it, or whatever. There needs to be meaning and I need to feel really inspired or whatever. I would say the last couple of records there's been a very real moment of, “Do I need to even do this, or do I have anything new to say?” Luckily, I keep coming back and the ideas keep flowing. But, whenever that stops, I guess I'll just have to hang it up.

 

 

What do you think you would do?

[laughs] I have no idea. I am completely unskilled in anything outside of the music business. So, who knows? Maybe work at a venue? I have no idea.

Well, don't worry about it, you'll be fine! And whatever new music you make, I'll be here for it.

Awesome, thank you!

No, thank you! For releasing this gorgeous and sexy as hell record. Definitely gonna be bumping it all summer long. I feel like it could end up being one of my favorites of the year.

Awesome! Oh, thank you! I appreciate that.

Yeah, absolutely. I know we only have limited time so I'm just gonna ask you one more quick yet semi-loaded question. Since KEXP is a station where the music matters, why does music matter to you?

Wow! I can't imagine my life without music. To some degree, the fact that I do music as a profession--there's some moments where I feel a bit overwhelmed. On tour, especially, I feel like it's soundchecks and shows, and then there's music playing in the van or bus all the time. But, I've been doing it so long that I feel like I would probably have withdrawals if I didn't work on music after a week or two. So, it's as much who I am, you know, my identity is so closely connected, it's hard to even answer that. But, yeah, I love the station.


Purple Noon is out now on Sub Pop. Below, watch Washed Out's recent Live on KEXP At Home performance.

 

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