In June of 2009, Ernest Greene moved in with his parents. He was an unemployed, 26-year-old college graduate holding a degree in library sciences. With the economy in a free fall, looking for a library job while trying to save money for a wedding was turning out to be harder than he expected.
Greene's parents live in a house a few miles outside of Perry, Ga., set among seemingly endless rows of peach trees. As the summer heat blazed outside, he focused on e-mailing resumes to prospective employers and looking for leads on job openings. Late at night after his parents went to sleep, Greene would stay up in his bedroom recording tracks of distorted synthesizers and programming beats on his laptop. He would play back the tunes on a pair of headphones, the house otherwise quiet and his hopes slowly sinking.
"I don't think it's an exciting thing to move back in with your parents," Greene says during a phone interview he managed to squeeze in while hanging out backstage at one of his recent shows. "It wasn't exactly depression, but it was some level of failure that I was dealing with. The melodies, those lyrics, they're reminding myself to remain positive. I really didn't have much going for me."
Greene uploaded a few of those songs to MySpace and changed his profile name to Washed Out, but "never planned on releasing anything," he says. He didn't try to book shows in nearby Macon or Atlanta. He didn't mail demos to record labels. "People have asked me what plan I had to promote myself," he says, "but that never really happened with me."
Instead, something else happened — something major. Over the course of a few weeks last July, Washed Out was discovered first by a blog based in London, No Pain In Pop, and then by Gorilla vs. Bear and the all-mighty Pitchfork. Instead of promoting himself by cobbling together a tour or angling for local shows, Greene played it cool, doing a few interviews by e-mail or phone and flying up to New York for a single, sold-out CMJ showcase last October in Brooklyn.
"He kept saying how he wouldn't tour because he was trying to get settled into married life," says Ben Ellenburg of Mirror Universe Tapes, the cassette label that eventually released High Times, the follow-up to his debut EP Life of Leisure, last September. That reluctance didn't last forever. Six months after getting married and scoring interviews with Rolling Stone and the New York Times, Washed Out has finally hit the road to tour for a few months this year. That library job never worked out, but the academic Library Journal interviewed him anyway, calling him "(probably) the library world's most successful musician."
Washed Out's Life of Leisure is dance music without being quite danceable. It's shoegaze without guitars. It's disco without the smoothness. Something is always wrong in these songs.
The first track on Life of Leisure, "Get Up," ends suddenly and without explanation after three minutes. The single "Feel It All Around" is layered in a warm static reminiscent of dusty, overdubbed cassette tapes. The synths that populate these songs often sound warped, as if they were left on the dashboard of a car to melt in the summer sun. Greene's vocals are often layered and reverberated to the point of sounding like unintelligible, ghostly mumbling.
There's an influence of shoegaze in these flaws, an emulation of the orchestrated mess that My Bloody Valentine or Slowdive would create from heavily effected guitars, but Washed Out is, in the end, a bedroom artist. These songs inevitably sound like what they are — a single person in his room trying to recreate the vibe of music made years ago in expensive recording studios. Instead of a recreation, it becomes something entirely new.
As the blog frenzy started to erupt around Washed Out last summer, his lo-fi style earned the tag chillwave. The ironic blogger who originated the term, Carles of Hipster Runoff, suggested a number of alternate names for the genre, among them: shitwave, blogrock, chillgaze, gazewave, forkshit, wavewave, no-gaze, blowgaze. "You've got to kind of laugh at it," Greene says. "That all came out of blog culture. I don't really think about it."
That sort of unfazed response is typical of Greene, who speaks with a slight Southern drawl that suits his relaxed vibe. Trying to get him on the phone, which might take a week of missed connections and voice mails, speaks volumes to what Greene admits is a total lack of a plan. His laissez faire attitude is mirrored in the laid-back beats of his songs. Ernest Greene just isn't in a hurry to get anywhere.
The town of Perry, where Greene was born and raised, looks like a preserved moment from the past. The center of downtown is dominated by the Houston County Old Courthouse and a tall statue dedicated in marble letters, "To Our Confederate Dead." Across the street sits the New Perry Hotel, built in 1925, and a large lot filled with bright orange tractors for sale. At the last census, Perry counted a little less than 10,000 residents.
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