Notes from a Quiet Life: an Interview with Washed Out

Discussing New Album, World-Building, & Interdisciplinary Art

Ryan Gaston · 06/28/24

Ernest Weatherly Greene Jr. is perhaps best-known to the music-consuming public as Washed Out. Described by Pitchfork as "the godfather of chillwave," Greene's work grew to prominence in the 2010s. His series of highly-regarded EPs and full-length albums explore the blissful, expansive, timeless, and even ecstatic possibilities of popular styles electronic dance music. The song "Feel It All Around" from his EP Life of Leisure is the opening theme to TV series Portlandia, and indeed, in his 15+ years of activity as Washed Out, his music has spread throughout many corners of popular culture.

Despite the ubiquity of much of his work as Washed Out, though, music is not Greene's only focus. He is also a photographer, a sculptor—a well-rounded creator whose continual curiosity leads him to explore all manner of artistic media.

Recently, Greene and his family moved away from his home city of Atlanta, Georgia, relocating to a 20-acre former horse farm. He has since named the property Endymion, after the John Keats poem of the same name. He has gradually developed the property into a home and creative haven—a place designed to act a conduit for his creative energies. And while this new space does allow him to focus on certain aspects of his creativity in new ways, it also encourages him to take a step back from the bustle of touring, of life in the live and work slowly, peacefully, thoughtfully. For an artist who has referred to his own musical practice as "world-building," this environmental shift seems especially notable.

Of course, the change in environment and personal focus has also impacted Greene's musical output. Today marks the release of the newest Washed Out album on Sub Pop Records, titled Notes from a Quiet Life: a reflection on how one's environment and personal circumstances shape the course of one's existence. Looking to late 20th century and contemporary visual artists for inspiration, and influenced by his own work in other media, Notes takes on an almost sculptural form, itself: its soundscapes feel vast, timeless, placing the listener in a sort of sonic suspended motion. At the same time, they feel comfortable, familiar, and almost pastoral—a unique sonic experience sure to captivate, calm, and promote self-reflection.

We had the opportunity to speak to Greene about the new album, the shift in priorities that led him to Endymion, his artistic influences, and more. Scope out the full interview below—and of course, head to the Washed Out website to get your own copy of Notes from a Quiet Life.

An Interview with Washed Out

Perfect Circuit: So, first things first, I've got to say, I'm really thrilled to talk with you about Notes from a Quiet Life. It feels like there's so much to dig into—not just on a musical level, but on a conceptual level as well. I'm sure a number of our readers are familiar with your music generally, but I want to talk about some not-explicitly-music-related stuff first, if that's alright. It feels like this album was significantly impacted by your physical setting; despite being largely electronic, parts of it have an almost pastoral feeling, if that makes sense? You used to be based in Atlanta—but you've since relocated to a more rural area. I'm curious…what prompted that move?

Ernest Weatherly Greene Jr. / Washed Out: There were a few different reasons that all were sort of coalescing at the same time, but the main reason was that I wanted more space. As a child, I grew up in a secluded rural setting so I think I wanted to get back to that in a lot of ways. I also have a young family and I thought they would flourish better in a slower paced environment. I still miss a lot of the great amenities that larger cities give you, but I travel quite a bit through touring so I can still get a taste of that fairly regularly.

PC: Did it feel like a big change moving away from Atlanta?

WO: I’ve been a city dweller for most of my adult life and in a lot of ways my taste is built for that lifestyle. My favorite thing to do is to visit museums and special exhibitions. But as I’ve gotten older my lifestyle has slowed down, and with that my priorities have changed. I’m very much a “home-body” so what I value most now is a comfortable home environment. My wife and I have renovated a midcentury modern style house, and it's the first time we’ve really catered everything to our particular tastes. It feels like our “forever” home.

It was a big shift in a lot of ways, as the lifestyle here is much more focused on family. But at the same time, I grew up pretty close to this area, so I understood what we were getting into.

PC: I understand that the property you moved to was previously a horse farm, is that right? How did you wind up there, specifically? And…what has it been like living there, on a practical level? What has it been like getting to know that place, turning it into a place where you can live and work?

WO: You’re right, it was a horse farm years ago. I certainly wasn’t looking for a horse farm [laughs], or even a property this big. However, it checked a lot of the boxes we were looking for. We knew that we wanted space that had a lot of privacy. And I was also holding out for a separate building that I could turn into a studio space. Endymion had both. The previous owner had built a cabin in the mid '80s that is on the opposite side of the property from the main house. So it's the first time I’ve had a studio space that was separate from the family (and the craziness that comes along with that).

On a practical level, it's been a major lifestyle shift. Twenty acres is a lot to upkeep, so I spend a lot of time doing various chores. It can be very hard work, but it's ultimately been a good thing for me, as I spend a lot more time outdoors away from the computer.

PC: I also didn't realize this before starting to research for this interview—so forgive me if I've been missing out!—but I didn't realize that you're a visual artist as well. I know you've done work with painting and sculpture; were visual arts and music both always a part of your practice?

WO: I’ve been interested in photography for 20+ years now, and that naturally led into putting my album artwork together. I’ve done about 95% of the album artwork, design, and photography for the albums over the years, and so my visual art practice has sort of blossomed out of that process.

It’s been in the last four or five years that the art practice has moved out of just being a specific WO-related thing to creating for the sake of creating. I compare it to my ambient music practice—which I make a lot in-between WO albums. There is no commercial goal, and there isn’t even a plan from the start. The beauty of the practice is that it's like riding a wave. You never know where you’ll end up—you’re just along for a ride.

So with painting for instance, it's just about arranging colors and shapes on a canvas. Plain and simple. Which is so much the opposite of a WO song—which normally works within a really tight, structured songwriting format.

PC: When creating visual art, what media do you use most often?

WO: I’m quite good with computers, so recently I’ve been designing a lot of shapes and molds in the computer and then experimenting with 3D printers to help “build” the end product. I work a lot with concrete, as it's cheap and easy to source.

I guess it's a lot like my music practice. For this new album, there was very little “playing,” as most of the performances were programmed. It’s more about ideating in a way that is faster and more efficient and that also allows for as many “happy accidents” as possible.

But with stuff like drawing that is more hands-on, I use both an iPad and physical formats like paper or canvas.

PC: How do you feel that your work with visual media influences your work creating music? For that matter, does your practice as a musician influence the way you think about creating paintings or sculptures?

WO: I’d compare the process of making a WO album to something like a highly detailed, highly realistic portrait of an object. It takes a lot of technical skill and a lot of really focused attention to the details. I’m less interested in that level of detail with my visual work, and as I pointed out before, it's more like my improvised ambient music. It’s more like a flow state where one mark leads to another and you eventually end up at some place you would have never conceptualized from the beginning.

As for how that relates to my music practice, I think there is a time and place for both ways of working—technical vs. free-flowing—depending on the particular project and its intent. Some of my favorite music that I’ve made was pretty much generative work that felt more like abstract painting than "songwriting."

PC: In the press release for Notes, there's a quote from you—and I'm paraphrasing—that you see each of your albums as being a "world-building exercise." I really resonate with that idea, but it's a sort of huge proposition, and potentially a big responsibility. I'm curious…when you start a new album, for instance, how do you know what world you're about to step into? Do you go in with an idea about the experience that the listener will have? Or do you intuitively experiment until the this new "world" reveals itself?

WO: I think my biggest strength as an artist is my curiosity. I’m always looking for a new discovery that could inform my work (whether that is audio or visual or whatever), and it's almost insatiable. So each new album is basically just a combination of a lot of different things I’m interested in at the time. In a lot of ways, the albums are like a diary in that way.

But my main concern is that I never want to make the same album twice, so I’m starting out looking for a new way to “reinvent” my sound while still retaining whatever defining characteristic that makes it a WO album. For this one, I wanted to use a minimal amount of layers and for everything to be captured in a modern, bright, hi-fi sort of way. And the visuals sort of followed from there. I wanted the album art to have nods to nature, but in a more minimal, conceptual type of way. As for design, I was influenced a lot by concrete poetry and the Fluxus movement of the '60s and '70s.

PC: How do you know when the world you've established is complete?

WO: There are always limitations (mainly budgetary) that create restrictions about how much detail is possible (mainly on the visual side with stuff like music videos). But I’m pretty obsessive about each part of the process. I could likely keep working and fine-tuning forever, but eventually you just run out of time. I feel like I do more preparation with each new album, but at the same time my expectations get higher and higher. So this creates a situation where things are never fully realized.

PC: This idea of world-building—how has it been impacted by your setting? And if each album is its own sort of world, how do you think of the "world" established in Notes from a Quiet Life? Is it very different from prior releases?

WO: Each album is sort of wrapped up in whatever is going on in my life at the time. Sometimes it can be more fantasy-based. Sometimes it can be based more on a particular setting. My last album Purple Noon was written specifically to capture the feeling of exploring the Mediterranean for the first time—and how exotic the beaches and people felt.

Notes from a Quiet Life is more about my current lifestyle and home. I have this private space where I can create whatever I want, and I’m perfectly happy with the simplicity that comes along with that.

PC: As I understand it, Notes is the first album that you've fully self-produced. Why did you feel that now was the right time to take on a project like this more fully on your own?

WO: I produced my early EPs by myself in a very novice sort of way, and everything since has been a collaboration where I finish about 80% of the songwriting and production and then have another collaborator help “finish” things (whether that means mixing or re-recording parts).

I basically didn’t feel confident enough in my own engineering and production skills to do everything myself until this record. I think I finally have enough experience to capture performances in a way that I want. However, the trickier part when you’re working alone is remaining objective throughout the many stages of getting an album over the finish line.

PC: Can you make any generalizations about your approach to this album? Was there a particular way in which individual tracks started, or came together? Did those workflows differ significantly from past releases?

WO: I figured out the palette of sounds fairly quickly—which were mainly modern-sounding synths and bright, punchy drums (with some guitar and piano sprinkled in). But it took longer to settle on the tone in terms of melody and harmony. I ended up gravitating towards chord progressions that were more modal that felt somewhere in-between major or minor keys. There is a nice sweet-spot where things can feel optimistic with a tinge of sadness (or perhaps the opposite).

That place felt uniquely appropriate for WO and the type of melodies that I write. I’ve probably done similar things in the past, but in a more naive way. This time I thought more deeply about things like music theory.

PC: Can you share any details about your engagement with the tools you use for music-making? I think it's fair to say that many musicians develop a sort of symbiotic relationship with their preferred tools—maybe a synth, or their DAW, or a guitar—and that their compositional ideas unfold through interaction with that tool. Does that idea resonate with you at all, or do you think about things differently?

WO: I try to switch up my ways of working fairly regularly in order to keep things fresh. Earlier in my career I was more interested in sampling, but this album was built in a more traditional way—mainly just starting with a chord progression and building up from there. However, the sonic palette of each album is normally heavily influenced by a single instrument or synth. For Paracosm that was the Mellotron. For Purple Noon that was Omnisphere. And for this new record it was probably Arturia’s Pigments synth.

My ambient work is much more dependant on specific tools. I use a lot of generative sequencers on iOS mainly, but I’ve started incorporating some modular stuff as well. The Stochastic Inspiration Generator is a new module I’ve enjoyed lately.

PC: What sorts of challenges did you encounter making this record, technically or aesthetically?

WO: I think there were two main challenges. The first is that I’ve made quite a few records at this point, so it becomes harder to break new ground. The other challenge is that I’ve started to hold myself to a very high standard in terms of songwriting. There is so much new music coming out every day—so I constantly question whether or not I have anything truly new to add. A song must feel special to consider releasing—so it often takes a long time stumble upon those moments.

PC: Given that you are a visual artist, it shouldn't be so surprising that many of the influences you've pointed out in relation to Notes aren't musicians. You've specifically pointed toward Jean-Michel Basquiat, Cy Twombly, Donald Judd, Barbara Hepworth, and Henry Moore. What about these particular artists has been so inspirational to you?

WO: On one hand, I find inspiration from a purely biographical perspective. I see a lot similarities between myself and someone like Donald Judd or Henry Moore. They both built these remote, creative environments for themselves that extended from their work through the design of their homes through the way they lived their lives. It wasn’t about any sort of cosmopolitan glitz and glamor. Instead, it was just about being inspired and making good work.

But in terms of style, they each have very specific aesthetics that connect very closely with their personality and view of the world and there appears to be very little outside influence in the work they make. They all make pretty timeless stuff and that’s ultimately what I aspire to do as well.

PC: I recently traveled to Philadelphia, and I sort of stumbled into the Philadelphia Museum of Art. They had an enormous collection of Twombly pieces on display. It's one thing to see those pieces in photographs, or to read about them; but their sheer scale is…I hardly know what word to use? Astonishing? Imposing? Engrossing? In any case, I do feel like I can hear echoes of that sort of scale at work in Notes—there's a sort of timelessness or vastness that's hard to describe. Anyway, I've heard that you've also been planning some large-scale visual art projects…can you share any ideas you have on that front?

WO: I’ve seen his work in Philadelphia and I agree. I’d say seeing the Twombly Gallery at the Menil Collection in Houston was one of the more moving visual art moments I’ve experienced. The scale of the work combined with seeing how tactile the mark making often is was really special. And it is very much “experience” based. I’d argue that his paintings were very much about embracing the irrational, or at least experiencing the paintings in more visceral way that is far removed from rationalization.

As for my home, I love sculpture gardens (like Storm King in upstate NY), and I’m slowly adding various sculptural elements to the grounds. I just built a large reflection pool and plan on introducing a section of Japanese garden elements.

PC: Well, it's been a pleasure talking with you. Before we wrap up…what's next for you? Are you planning a tour? Sculpting? Making new music?

WO: Playing some festivals this summer and then starting a US tour in August. However, I look forward when that wraps up, so I’ll have more time to pursue some of my other interests.

Notes from a Quiet Life is out now on Sub Pop Records!