From the start, Ernest Greene has been a sonic craftsman—an expert in evoking specific moods from texture and production. Five years ago, he defined the entire chillwave movement with his breakout single (and current Portlandia theme song), “Feel It All Around,” an ethereal groove built on disintegrating synthesizers and stoned vocal harmonies that evaporate into reverb.
But Greene never set out to become the poster boy of one particular style, and he ripped up the playbook with his second Washed Out album, 2013’s Paracosm . With its nostalgic, summery atmosphere and emphasis on organic instrumentation (guitar, pedal steel, live drums), that album proved Greene’s malleability and his staying power—even at the risk of pissing off closed-minded hipsters.
“Any time you do something a little different, it might offend some fans and bring in some new fans,” Greene says from his home near Athens, Ga., during a month-long touring break. “There’s a little bit of that. There are a few songs on the new record that don’t have much dance influence at all and that might offend people who’ve only heard the synth-heavy stuff.
“But I get kind of bored as a listener hearing the same thing over and over again. The whole idea was to mix it up a bit. The first record was so synth-heavy—we were all huddled around a keyboard the entire show. This newer record is much more rock-influenced, and there’s more energy and more of a rock vibe on stage, which is cool.”
Where “Feel It All Around” (and, later, Greene’s debut album, 2011’s Within and Without ) conjure images of late-night pot smoke wafting through a college dorm, Paracosm calls to mind an opposite scene—a breezy, early afternoon backyard barbecue. That immediacy was intentional. From the start of the writing process, Greene wanted to move toward a “more optimistic” album, filled with instrumentation that could prompt nostalgia in its listeners.
“I had this rough idea about it sounding like a daytime record,” Greene says. “And, for me, that means a lot of bright sounds—ringing string parts, harps, and stuff like that. So that was kind of the palette I started with, and I discovered that there were a handful of sounds that have loaded meanings—and anything like that, I think, can be used to tip the listener off to some of these concepts I had without putting it out there in a very concrete way.”
One specific example is Paracosm’s intro, which transitions from the ambience of “Entrance” into the strummy, sugary daydream of “It All Feels Right.” Greene compares the effect to Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, describing this section of the album like a director at a table read.
“The music is sort of coming to life at the same time the day is starting, kind of like this entrance into the world of the record,” Greene says. “Backwards droning sounds, this huge kind of hard glissando thing comes in. That always makes me think of a dream sequence in a movie, and that’s meant to tip the listener off to the fact that’s it’s this dreamlike place.”
Another source of inspiration for the album’s style was more practical: After touring for Within and Without with a five-piece band, Greene decided to craft his follow-up specifically so it would translate well for the stage.
“The biggest influence was playing for a band for a whole album cycle,” he says. “I’d never had the experience before, so for this new record, I was kind of writing for a band, which was a new thing for me. We have a five-piece set-up, so if I took things too far out, too complex, we wouldn’t be able to perform the songs. So that was always in the back of my head—writing parts simply and for each member of the band.”
That approach worked well on Paracosm, but Greene—whose upcoming Knoxville date will kick off another round of touring to support the album—is already starting to feel boxed in by stripping things back.
“It’s good and bad,” he says. “It definitely made the transition into playing the songs much easier, but it can also be a limiting approach to writing. I’ve been writing some stuff recently that’s kind of the opposite mentality of that—trying to come up with the craziest songs I can. If it’s 100 parts or whatever, that’s what it’s gonna be, then we’d figure out the live form later.”
Just as he pushed away from the chillwave tag, Greene’s already drifting toward a new musical vision. He’s still in the early stages of writing the next Washed Out album, but he’s already arrived at the seeds of a new direction, one he describes as “a lot wackier.”
“It’s definitely a little darker-sounding,” he says. “After making the last record, which is all sunshine and happy thoughts, maybe it’s time to try something a little weirder and more experimental. It’s definitely not as tidy. I think Paracosm is as traditional a record as I could imagine doing, so I’m definitely trying to get away from that.”
WHO: Washed Out with Small Black
WHERE: Bijou Theatre (803 S. Gay St.)
WHEN: Monday, Aug. 25, at 8 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $18-$20
MORE INFO: knoxbijou.com