Samples, blissed-out beats and disorientating vocals… Ernest Greene's new album is more leftfield than previous offerings Paracosm and Within And Without. This time, Greene has let his penchant for samples run wild, and the results are glorious.
Billed as a ‘visual album’, coming as it does with an accompanying film, Mister Mellow, sees Greene grapple with life’s complexities in a most elegant fashion while never once forgetting to court the dancefloor. Just as well, really, given Washed Out’s new home at the beat-centric Stones Throw label.
Standout tracks such as the sumptuous Floating By, opening single Get Lost or the European house (with a twist) of Hard To Say Goodbye all benefit from Greene’s willingness to experiment in the studio and, as it transpires, even in the mastering suite. Having decamped from his previous home-cum-studio in Athens, Georgia, we caught up with Greene at his new studio space in Atlanta and very much enjoyed the opportunity to find out more about what makes Washed Out tick, musically.
Mister Mellow seems to be yet another reinvention of your sound; is that a conscious thing you do with each album?
Washed Out: “Yeah, I guess so. At the same time though I’m constantly listening to new things and wanting to try different things when I’m putting together new songs. It feels kinda natural and not too self-conscious. This new album… because I had such a long break in between, I feel like I’ve changed a lot so the album reflects that, hopefully.”
Is it exciting to be with a label like Stones Throw for this new album?
“For sure. I’ve been a massive fan of Stones Throw for years and they’ve put out some of my favourite records and influenced the way I put together some of my songs since the very beginning of Washed Out. It’s a little bit of a left turn for some casual listeners but some of my earliest releases have a shared sensibility with this new record and were more influenced by hip-hop production so, for me, it’s kinda returning to that style a bit.”
We know you’ve previously been a Cubase and Reason user – is that what Mister Mellow was fashioned on?
“I did this new record entirely in Ableton. I started using it for live shows back in about 2010 and it’s so flexible, particularly with its MIDI-routing. Our live show is kinda insane on the programming side! There are hundreds of samples and they’re all routed to a bunch of different controllers with program changes and everything so I’ve found no better program than Ableton to give you that flexibility to pretty much accomplish anything you want. The previous couple of records I’ve done, some of the demos were built in Ableton then I’d take that into a proper studio and work with a producer on a more traditional Pro Tools rig and some tape. This time around it was just me and Ableton so we mixed in Live too.”
Does using different DAWs and software make you do different things with your music?
“Without a doubt, yeah! I’ve been considering buying something new, moving forward, for that very reason. You can’t keep falling back on your normal little tricks. I know, in Reason, I used quite a few things over and over, which, in some ways, became the sound of some of my early records. There’s this distortion/tape simulation called Scream 4 that I’d use quite a bit but maybe you’d fall into the pattern of using it a little too much. That’s the cool thing about trying out something new and figuring out new tricks. The nature of this record is that there’s a ton of samples – I’m playing bass or keyboards underneath things but the samples are very much front and centre. Again, Ableton is one of the better programs I’ve found for manipulating audio, stretching it or reversing it.”
Ableton has a very intuitive workflow…
“Totally. I feel like half the time I might even be doing things completely wrong or in a way the designers didn’t intend but that’s the cool thing about it, that it’s so flexible and if you have a problem you want to solve then there’s generally three or four different ways of going about it! What’s exciting is it also leads to happy mistakes, which, for me is often where songs begin – where you accidentally do something that leads you in a direction you wouldn’t necessarily have thought of. That’s exciting for me and particularly with this new record. I felt like some of my previous records were possibly a little too clean and over-edited in some ways so the idea with Mister Mellow was to take it to the opposite end of the spectrum and pile a ton of different layers while not worrying too much about things lining up perfectly all the time. Just embracing some of the rawness or the sloppiness.”
With the recent passing of Pierre Henry, it’s comforting that artists like yourself are still paying respect to the spirit of musique concrete and the ‘collage’ way of building songs…
“Sure. This record, for me, was a case of trying to seek out the strangest sounds I could squeeze into a four-minute pop song. I get really inspired listening to a lot of experimental music and texture is a very important part of putting records together for me. I think that’s one reason why the last couple of records have had that kind of narrative arc where the songs flow into one another. I think the textural stuff somehow brings the listener more into the world of the album. The musique concrete stuff, even if it’s street noise or whatever, is a useful way of informing the listener about some of the themes I’m talking about. That stuff is really exciting to me.”
There are some great beats alongside the samples on Mister Mellow… Are you using any external drum machines or samplers?
“I just have a collection of samples that I’ve been stashing away since about 2007. I’m really bad at organising them so it’s almost a free-for-all and a bit frustrating when I’m trying to find stuff! I do love layering sounds to beef things up a bit. I wasn’t so concerned with that for the record but it’s something we’re doing a fair bit in the live show. We’re playing big rooms so there’s a lot more sub content than there is on the album.
"There was a funny story with the mastering when I got the guy Dave Cooley who mastered some of those J Dilla records. We had a talk beforehand and I mentioned how I wanted it to sound unique and impressionistic so he could feel free to take it to an extreme place. So, he did his version and it wasn’t extreme enough! I told him to push and compress it even more so he ended up taking quite a bit of the low-end out. To me, the whole idea of this album was to almost overwhelm the listener with all the layers. That’s kind of how I was feeling at the time – a bit exhausted with the internet and the speed of things. I have a phone in my hand all the time and can’t ever seem to turn off the constant stimulation. Sensory overload!”
Your vocals occupy a pivotal place in proceedings… Are there any special mics or effects you prefer?
“The way I approached this record was to do most of the music on my own with rough/scratch vocals then I worked with an engineer in Los Angeles called Cole M.G.N. (*Cole M.Grief-Neill) who’s worked for Beck for a few years and mixed a lot of great records by Ariel Pink, Julia Holter and others. So, I did all the vocals at his place in LA where I used a Gefell UM70, which is similar to a Neumann but it just seems to suit my voice. Cole has a simple set-up there so we ran it through a Neve clone preamp and a Urei 1176 limiting amp, an Aurora Audio GTQ2 preamp, and that was pretty much it. We did quite a lot of effects in the box… I’m partial to the convolution reverb in Ableton.
“One of the things we used that gave the album a lot of its flavour was the Waves Reel ADT, which we pretty much put on everything. It’s a really kind of subtle double-tracking vibe and it widens things a bit. With Washed Out I’ve always been fighting against having a ‘normal’ sounding vocal. [laughs] I personally don’t like the sound of my natural voice so I go for any effect that makes it slightly synthetic or ambiguous. There’s a lot of Waves’ H-Delay going on too.”
How does Cole contribute to things when you’re in the studio together?
“The cool thing with Cole is that he’s open-minded and open to using any and every tool… not just the super high-end outboard gear! He uses things like iZotope’s Nectar 2 on vocals a lot and we’d also use things like Audio Ease’s Speakerphone and even a freeware Max-for-Live effect called Crap Cassette, which we’d use in place of manually running things through reel-to-reel or cassette machines. Cole has worked on Beck records with Nigel Godrich so he’s used the best equipment, so I thought it was funny when he pulled up some of the lower-tech stuff. That was our approach, really… not shying away from using anything and everything. A lot of the samples were ripped straight off YouTube so there’s that shitty YouTube compression that degrades the audio, which somehow sounds more wonky and interesting when you sit it in beside things that are more hi-fi.”
So, you’re a fan of the sound of tape in amongst the pristine digital of the DAW?
“I think that maybe goes back to the Stones Throw thing with, like, a J Dilla record or whatever and the way he would manipulate the sound by bouncing down to tape. I know some of his classic instrumental stuff, all they had was the cassette tape that he would print his demos to and that’s what they cut the record from. So, there was a certain quality to that you wouldn’t get if you went to a hi-fi mastering studio! That’s kinda the inspiration and the vibe we were going for.”
Are you going through actual tape at any point in the process or do the software emulations suffice to achieve the desired effect?
“I’ve experimented in the past… I’ve got an old reel-to-reel machine and various old cassette decks where I’ll run things through then back into the computer. More recently I’ve found a handful of plugins that make that process a whole lot easier. So, you can just throw it all onto Master Buss then print it all down. I do use that freeware Crap Cassette Ableton effect a lot on things.”
There is a ton of extremely usable freeware to be found out there these days isn’t there?
“It’s incredible, isn’t it. I’m personally too lazy to go multi-sampling a synth or something to put it out there. We used to tour with lots of vintage analogue synths and they’d constantly break down so we got some newer synths, like Dave Smith synths. For this tour, this is the first time we’re not taking any hardware synths out at all; it’s all VSTs in the computer. A lot of it is random things we’ve found online where people have taken the time to sample the Pro One, which I’ve got some incredible samples of that we use all over the show.”
So, was the new album all created in your studio here?
“I actually put this new album together at a different space where I was living in Athens, Georgia. I had a basement studio set-up there but my wife and I have moved to this new place in Atlanta now. It’s a relatively small room as I don’t feel like I need too big a space. It’s not acoustically treated although I do plan on getting it done at some point. The ay I approach it is that if I need to do drums then I’ll go to another space for a couple of days.”
You seem to be bucking the current trend and shifting from hardware to a more software-centric set-up?
“I seem to be moving more and more into plugin land, really. I recently got an endorsement with Waves so, on the road, we’re using the LV1 system, which is incredible! My background has always been working with digital audio workstations, plugins and stuff, and the hardest thing has always been then translating that into the live show working with outboard gear at the venues as we haven’t had the opportunity to travel with a huge rig. This is the first time I feel like we’re actually capturing the vibe of the record. I’ve approached it like I would a studio project. You can do virtual soundchecks with the LV1 so the live show is sounding real close to the album, which is the first time I’ve been able to accomplish that.”
How exciting is it for you to be taking everything up a gear with your audio/visual live shows?
“There are a few minor bugs so it’s still a little scary at times… computers crash, as we know. The potential of all the crazy things we can do with the new system by far outweighs any worries. I definitely see things like the LV1 as the future of live production. There won’t be any gap soon between a studio production and a live production, which is amazing. We take out a big projection with a back projector that’s behind us and we have some motion-sensor cameras positioned in front of us that are capturing our movements in real time that can project our silhouettes and do all sorts of crazy effects to it. It’s quite an immersive experience but all tied together. Ableton is sending out cues for the audio and the video side of things and some of the effects are automated with the motion-sensors. It’s quite a complicated set-up and we’re still fine-tuning everything but it’s a lot of fun.”
It’s certainly a great future we’re all living in, is it not?
“[laughs] Oh my god, absolutely! I’ve always had dreams of trying out some of the things we’re doing with this set-up but computer processing was just never fast enough. We’ve got a $7k desktop machine running the video side of things with the SoundGrid Extreme servers running all the Waves plugins. The LV1 only runs on Windows so we’ve got a compact desktop running it and I have one of the newest MacBooks for running Ableton.”
We find it hard to single out any one track on such a good album but could you maybe talk us through the evolution of Get Lost?
“I think it probably started with those piano stabs and I like how it’s set up where the triplet rhythm maybe throws the listener off a little bit. I love using something like that with the more dance-influenced tracks. There are three or four different drum loops that have been cut up and re-assembled and at various parts in the song things will drop out and back in.
"The bass is one of the only live parts for that track, and I used this really shitty Hofner Club bass from the sixties, which is a great bass but it’s just in terrible shape! Because of that it has a vibe about it. I bought a new model of the same bass but it doesn’t have that ‘lived in’ feel to it. So, I played the bass and a little bit of vibes from a vst on there and the rest is layers of samples – anything from people talking at a club to more sound-effectsy stuff. That was really exciting for me, to have all that swimming around in the background. If you listen to the track loud on headphones then hopefully some of that stuff sticks out. My wife hears a lot of my music as I put it together and she walked in while I was working on the initial loops for Get Lost and said, “it sounds like some kind of fucked-up carnival,” [laughs] which I thought was cool. I think this album is definitely a headphone record.”
Do you think some artists possibly forget about the vastness of the spatial field available to place things in when mixing their music?
“It’s exciting for me as it all helps make it that much more psychedelic or at least takes you off-kilter a bit and that’s something I wanted to play around with on this album… that sensory overload theme.”
Mister Mellow is out now on Stones Throw. Find out more info on Washed Out and keep up with tour dates at the Washed Out website.