Washed Out might be the most perfect band name ever conceived: It captures the gist of Ernest Greene's music in two simple words. Bright, explosive hues could have easily ruled his synth-driven pop, but he takes a different tack, toning down his songs by surrounding them with liquidlike reverb. His sound is wrapped in a chewed-up, low-key feel that turns otherwise summery melodies blurry and ambient. These muted hues give a sense of sleepy, distant nostalgia. Washed Out is such a fitting name that if you added "pop" right after it, the phrase could be a good substitute for "chillwave," the blog-bred subgenre Washed Out and contemporaries like Neon Indian and Toro Y Moi have been tied to. The fact that Greene's project carries some name recognition is at least partly because of the hype that accompanied the rapid rise of chillwave in late 2009 and early 2010. But that's not to say that the material isn't fascinating in itself.
Back when he was in high school, the Georgia– and South Carolina–based musician messed around with jazz, going for experiments like creating a backing track, looping it onto a cassette, and then playing over it. In college, he tinkered with instrumental hip-hop. Eventually, he landed on more structured pop, which aped personal favorites like Radiohead. Then, in 2009, he made some songs in his bedroom using a mic and electronic equipment, posting them on MySpace under the moniker Washed Out. His initial boost in profile came when a London-based blog called No Pain in Pop, which had become interested in Toro Y Moi, spied Washed Out on that band's MySpace friends list and decided to cover Washed Out. That inspired other bloggers to do the same, and soon, e-mail after e-mail was tumbling into Greene's inbox. "Over the course of a month or so, I went from relative obscurity to having blogs write about the songs on a daily basis," he says. "I had maybe like 80 friends on MySpace and within a month, it was probably a thousand." Soon, the buzz translated into invitations to perform live — and while he turned them down at first, his self-confidence increased and the offers got too good to deny.
Greene is in a different place now. Established may not be the right word, but neither is fledgling. He has toured extensively (eventually gaining a backing band), signed to Sub Pop (where he'll release Within and Without on July 12), and lent "Feel It All Around" for the theme to Portlandia, IFC's hipster-mocking TV series. He has even flirted with making hip-hop instrumentals again, having received an offer from a producer looking for some weirder beats for Jay-Z. Although Greene never took up the guy's offer, he still seems interested in the possibility.
His first full-length, Within and Without, is a different beast from past Washed Out releases. This record is more about a singular vision, says Greene, in contrast to EPs like Life of Leisure and High Times, which were simpler collections of songs. The EPs were also largely sample-based, drawing from what he calls "cosmic disco" of the late '70s and early '80s, whereas only some 5 percent of Within is rooted in samples. Instead, most of the album has come from Greene sitting in front of a synthesizer or piano and doing traditional songwriting. His goal was to condense more obscure ambient and dance-heavy sounds into straightforward pop structures. "Soft" exhibits this idea: Greene says that he could have made the track "soundscapey" and 10 minutes long, but the final product lasts about half that length. "I felt a little pressure," he says of the record, "and was just generally a little bit more analytical and probably overthought things a little bit."
It's tough to gauge where Washed Out will go from here in terms of commercial success and stylistic direction. When one artist emerges within a cluster of others, he or she seems to have an equally good chance of falling by the wayside as an also-ran or being remembered as part of a striking phenomenon. Greene, it seems, is still trying to figure out his creative ambitions. "I know that there is sort of a general kind of concept around Washed Out," he says. "When I started writing this new record, I was trying to do some things that were a lot different. I really liked the material, but it really just didn't sound like Washed Out. With material like that, I've always considered putting it out under a different name or something like that." In the end, however, he decided against that: "For me, it's just [about] embracing where I'm at [at] the moment and hoping that people understand it and are along for the ride."