Importance of being Ernest
For the record, Ernest Greene has never owned a retro bicycle with a massive basket at the front, doesn't habitually wear skinny jeans and probably won't be dining at Crack Bird when he hits Dublin next week. In other words, he isn't -- and has no intention of ever being -- a hipster. Which is probably just as well considering the song that made him famous did so by soundtracking a US television comedy that pokes merciless fun at zeitgeisty urban types trying -- and tweeting -- that little bit too hard.
"I definitely know some of the people that show is making fun of," Greene, a purveyor of ethereal, loop-based electro pop and leading member of the so-called 'chillwave' scene, says. "It's pretty funny. Not me. I live a simple lifestyle. All it revolves around is playing music."
The track in question is Feel It All Around, three woozy minutes of super-saturated vocals and synths that have the bittersweet, faded polaroid quality of a dimly recalled childhood memory. It plays over the opening credits to Portlandia, a close-to-the-bone satire. Though nobody in Europe has heard of it, in America Portlandia has turned Greene, Washed Out's sole permanent member and songwriter, into an alternative rock cause célèbre (ironically among exactly the sort of people Portlandia good-naturedly tears to tatters).
Just how big a deal Washed Out has become was made clear with the recent release of his debut album, Within and Without. In its first week, the record shifted three times what Greene's label Sub Pop expected (and their hopes were high to begin with). Ultimately, it ended up one place behind Beyoncé in the iTunes charts. Softly spoken and intensely introverted, Greene is in imminent danger of becoming a pop star.
"It's pretty mind-blowing," he says in a gentle Alabama drawl. "I would never have dreamed first-week sales would be that high. Sub Pop knew what they were doing leading up to the release. They've been at this a long time and have a handle on it. And even they were surprised."
Not that Greene wants to focus particularly on the marketing side of music. He worries that if he thinks too hard about selling Washed Out to the masses, he'll lose sight of why he got into songwriting in the first place. "I had some suggestions in terms of the visual element and such, but that was all. I try not to think about it -- if you do, that mindset will seep into the creative side."
His biggest contribution was the striking record sleeve, an image of a naked couple entwined and shot from above. It sounds like the kind of thing you'd expect to find adorning the front of an 80s metal album. However, the photo, which Greene stumbled upon while leafing through an art magazine in Australia, is oddly haunting and not in the least vulgar. This hasn't stopped it becoming the object of some controversy in the US, where, according to Greene, it has already been banned from Facebook (if so it would appear to have subsequently been reinstated).
But the disapproval of Mark Zuckerberg is as nothing compared to the backlash he fears he will receive in his home town of Perry, Georgia, one of those corners of the American South where locals proudly describe themselves as 'God fearing' and the absence of a Stars and Stripes from your front lawn can lead to suspicions you are a communist or (worse) an Obama voter. He hasn't been home in a while. To tell the truth, he's a little nervous about the response that may await.
"It was never meant to be provocative or overtly sexual," he says. "Maybe I was naive. I saw it in a romantic light. The sensationalist aspect has played into the hype a little bit. Then again, that's the great thing about art -- different people have different readings."
Not that this argument will impress the proud citizens of Perry, he acknowledges. "It's a fairly conservative part of the US. Definitely some feathers have been ruffled. People have said to me, 'man, you could have used any image -- why use something so provocative?' My answer is that it simply worked. I didn't try to analyse it from any other direction."
Greene is relaxed about the 'chillwave' tag. For sure, it's frustrating to have your music pigeonholed, he says. But, on the other hand, he's good friends with another chillwave artist, Toro y Moi's Chazwick Bundick, so it isn't as if he's insulted by the association. Besides, as a way of turning a spotlight on your music, the 'c' word has its advantages.
"I think being associated with chillwave has sort of made my career what it is today," he says. "Of course, I never set out to create 'chillwave' music, especially on this album. As time goes by, I think you'll see that the artists who are associated with chillwave today will be making records very different and it will become less of a concrete thing. Gradually, we will leave the word behind."
One consequence of sudden success is that Greene has started to attract online detractors, often the very people who loved him before Portlandia and chart smack-downs with Beyoncé. He knows he shouldn't pay much attention, that the internet gives petty people licence to be vicious and cowardly. That doesn't make it hurt any less, though.
"The best way to deal with it, I've figured out, is to have a short memory. That's the one thing I would say to young musicians in this bloggy world of ours, just forget it all.
"With the internet and hype, nowadays you can be writing a song in your bedroom one moment, playing a sell-out show the next. In the indie universe, if you get too popular, people are going to react against you. It's hard to work in that kind of environment. You spend five or six years on something... for it to be dismissed quickly is crushing. I'm sure the people who write these things don't see it that way. From a musician's perspective it's very different -- it's hard."
Within and Without is out now. Washed Out play Grand Social, Dublin, on Saturday, August 13
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