Chillwave Hero Washed Out Masters the Not-Quite Concept Album With 'Paracosm'
After years of careful rebellion against his origins, Ernest Greene's inner country boy is starting to come out.
The synth-pop singer/keyboardist, aka Washed Out, was raised in the sun-kissed climes of Macon, Ga., on an actual peach orchard, where his parents and their friends baptized him in the Southern, blues-inflected rock of the Doobie Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd and, the pride of Macon, the Allman Brothers Band. Or at least that was the idea.
"The young version of myself only saw the kind of redneck blues guitar player side of that-it felt too old-school, or something," Greene says from his home in Athens, Ga., a Southern lilt still strong in his voice. "That's why I stayed away from guitar."
As Washed Out, Greene, now 30, helped pioneer a genre of music as far from his parents' rock'n'roll as his synthesizer could take him. His debut EP, 2009's "Life of Leisure," crystallized a movement toward hazy, bedroom-produced daydream pop and aligned him more with hipsters in Los Angeles and Brooklyn than the good ol' boys in his hometown. Breakthrough single "Feel It All Around," which oozes languorous chords and gauzy vocals, became Exhibit A in the blog-hype genre known as "chillwave," eventually reaching a cultural zenith as the opening theme song for "Portlandia," Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein's social satire show on IFC. "Within and Without," Greene's critically acclaimed 2011 full-length album, refined and enhanced the formula, and solidified his status as an important new voice in independent music. (It debuted at No. 26 on the Billboard 200 with 15,000 sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and has sold 89,000 copies to date.)
But before writing and recording his new album "Paracosm," which Sub Pop will release Aug. 13, Greene pivoted. He picked up a guitar for the first time, occasioned by a cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Straight Back" recorded for the tribute album Just Tell Me That You Want Me, and took a long-delayed step toward reconciling with his own musical heritage.
"That was probably the most eye-opening experience I had," Greene says of making "Straight Back." "It was the first time I had played acoustic or electric guitar on a track, and it just felt really fresh for me."
Greene scouted eBay and Craigslist for other sounds and instruments that could perpetuate that feeling. He found them in the vibraphone (a cousin of the glockenspiel), the mellotron (a kind of '60s-era tape-relay keyboard) and more than 50 other instruments-including guitar-never before used on a Washed Out recording. The result is warm, expansive and often acoustic. Where Life of Leisure and Within and Without played like the hypnogogic reveries of an artist retreating further and further into himself, Paracosm is music that fully engages with the outside world-including Macon.
"It's funny how I've sort of come full circle and hear things so differently now," says Greene, who adds that he actually sampled some of his parents' '70s Southern rock records on the new album.
I'm sure if my 15-year-old self saw what I was doing, he'd probably think I was a sellout.
A paracosm is defined as an imaginary world, usually invented by children, complete with its own geography, language and history. Greene's Paracosm incorporates several field recordings captured outside his house in Athens, where he lives with his wife, Blair, four miles removed from town. The album opens and closes with an early-morning symphony of wind and birds.
To capitalize on "Paracosm'"s outdoors motif, Sub Pop moved quickly to get the album out in summer after receiving it in May.
"When you listen to that album you feel like you wanna be at a barbecue or on the beach, and we definitely wanted to build on that vibe," Sub Pop director of marketing Carly Starr says.
The label teased the album with two lyric videos featuring floral animations, and is planning to release at least two proper, pastoral-themed videos for the songs "Don't Give Up" and "All I Know" in August and September, respectively. The "All I Know" video will be a co-production with apparel brand Urban Outfitters and premiere exclusively on its website.
Though Greene shies away from the term "concept album," Paracosm draws on specific visual and conceptual ideas that it shares with the phantasmagorical work of Lewis Carroll and noted outsider artist Henry Darger. Darger's subdued watercolors, painted to illustrate his 15,000-page, prototypically paracosmic novel "The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal...," serve as the inspiration for the album's artwork.
"He was a janitor and lived this very normal, reclusive life, but in his down time he created this incredibly imaginative space both visually and in his stories," Greene says of Darger. "I found that very inspiring and drew some similarities to what I was doing while making this album. The longer I spent on the record, the more clearly I could see this world I was creating."
Bringing a new world to life had the additional benefit of giving Greene an ideological rudder that was missing during the recording of Within and Without. At the time, pressure to deliver on the hype that attended his first EP and a basic discomfort with albums as a format left him feeling frustrated and adrift.
"These expectations were hovering over me and the idea of simply writing 40 minutes of music and hoping it would all make sense together, but still have maybe a couple of singles that were catchy, that was so different than the way I had thought about making music in the past," Greene says. "But this time it was much easier and it all came really, really quickly once I started writing. I think part of that was because I knew exactly what kind of record I wanted to make."
When Washed Out embarks on an 18-city North American tour in late August, including stops at the Bumbershoot festival in Seattle and FYF in L.A., the act will expand to a five-piece ensemble, a prospect that partially inspired Greene's decision to reduce his reliance on synths and other preprogrammed instruments for this album cycle. With a bigger budget than he's been granted on previous tours, Greene is planning a stage production for Paracosm that includes floral set pieces. Bridging the worlds of fantasy and reality on the road will be his wife, who tours with him as a member of the band.
"Escapism or nostalgia for me is not about having a terrible life and trying to get away via imaginary ideas or something," Greene says. "I'm very happy in my life, but I do feel that music has a power to transport you to places or to beautiful moments in your past. I tried to do that a lot on this record."