DJ Discourse: A Conversation with Ernest Greene of ‘Washed Out’
Washed Out's Ernest Greene, recently played a packed out show at Midtown's trendy restaurant and bar Little Trouble on April 5th. Writer and staff member Jordan Neal got the opportunity to catch up with him before the show to talk about some recent changes in his life and some of his musical influences! Check out our full discussion below.
Plasma Magazine: I see that you are signed to Stones Throw, which is one of my favorite labels. Do you get to dive into more hip-hop influenced stuff?
Ernest Greene: Yea, I mean Stones Throw has definitely been my favorite label since I started making songs. When I was 18 or 19 years old all of the greatest hits from Stones Throw’s old school artists, like Madlib and J Dilla, kind of formed how I put my songs together. Stylistically, my stuff can be a lot different, but just the mindset of how they put their songs together, I was kind of mimicking that in a lot of ways.
So yeah, I’ve been a fan of that. Obviously, the label has grown and evolved over the years and put out a lot of different indie rock and R&B stuff. For the most part, even though it’s wide-ranging, it still encapsulates a lot of what I love. In a lot of ways, I wrote the album Mister Mellow like a love letter to Stones Throw. I've always dabbled in sampling but just had the background with stuff that I grew up listening to. I wanted to make a record that’s entirely sample-based like a Madlib record was. So Mister Mellow was about 90 percent samples. I hoped, and in the end, I felt like it fit pretty well in the Stones Throw world.
PM: It’s amazing man. I can definitely tell that you layered some of those, like you said, Madlib and Dilla, samples and techniques and it works out perfectly. One question: was Peanut Butter Wolf involved in any aspects of the album?
EG: Yeah, it’s kind of a long story, but I have a manager out in L.A. and he is in amatuer basketball leagues throughout the year. The team is mainly music industry type people. So, he was on a team with the General Manager of Stones Throw and he flowed the idea that I was a big fan and I was writing this (Mister Mellow) record. So he played it for everyone at Stones Throw including Peanut Butter Wolf. Of course, they are pretty tight-knit and they all have to sign off on everything. But, then I hung out with him a handful of times and we had a big party in LA the day before the record came out. We rented out this movie theater and played the visual album and there was an after party where I DJed back to back with Peanut Butter Wolf. That was an all-time-high because I was such a huge fan but also I was nervous because he was such a dope DJ. So, I was trying my best. Luckily, I managed to somewhat save face. He was so good and he’s like completely vinyl only. But, yeah it was cool. We email some.
PM: So by the time you got on Stones Throw the album was mostly done?
EG: Yeah, I had already finished it.
PM: Who’s your favorite hip-hop producer?
EG: Right now, especially on a stone throw tip, someone like Knowledge but I’m into a few people.
PM: Knowledge is crazy!
EG: Yeah, it’s just weird in the best ways - I like his stuff a lot.
PM: What about older producers?
EG: I mean, my all time favorite is DJ Shadow. Again, on the weird tip. I just love how psychedelic it is and it’s obviously rooted in Hip Hop beats. With sampling, he was just going at stuff that no one else had thought to touch. Again, I’m super into weird sounds and instruments. That’s the one person I’d point a finger at. I mentioned Dilla, Madlib, and Premier.
PM: What is it about their process, specifically, that you like the most? You know how like Dilla will sample a bunch of stuff and just take the baseline out of the song, remove the top end and use just that. Do you ever experiment with that kind of stuff?
EG: Oh yeah, sure. I mean it’s funny, different songs and different eras of what I’ve done, it’s like stealing from different people. I’ve always admired Dilla, but I never used any of his techniques until Mister Mellow. I feel like there are some things that I took directly from influence. I have a hard time doing the same thing over and over again. So, I’m just constantly trying to listen to new things and try different and new techniques.
PM: How do you feel about the differences between your DJ sets and your live performances with your band?
EG: It’s quite different. With the band side of things it’s just a lot more complicated, we’ve got a lot more gear. The shows we’ve been doing for Mister Mellow, we have a projector with visuals. So that’s really expensive and really complicated. The cool side of that is that it’s all-encompassing and such an experience for the viewers.
The DJ side of things is obviously way simpler. I just show up with a jump drive in some cases and I really enjoy it. The other thing with live shows is, for the most part, it’s the same show every night to make the visuals and stuff work. When I show up for DJ gigs, it’s just like whatever vibe is in the room and it can go any number of ways. So that’s super fun. I mostly play other peoples music when I DJ, and I obviously love that because I’m a huge collector of music.
PM: You get to experiment with other sounds...
EG: Yeah, it’s always interesting to hear what gets people going.
PM: Which one do you prefer?
PM: Is that a hard question?
EG: Yeah, it is. If I‘m touring with the band, I just want to DJ. And if I do too much DJ stuff, I just want to do the band.
Probably the DJ thing is the most fun because you never know what you’re getting into.
PM: Is that because of the instant gratification you get from the crowd?
EG: Yeah, because they are a foot away. So it’s easy to know if people are vibing on it. A lot of times with the live show we prefer to have the projector behind the screen but sometimes, if the stage isn’t deep enough the projection will be in front of me, so it’s blinding and I can’t really see. You don’t know what’s going on and can’t tell if people are into it or not.
PM: I read that you went to school in Athens, specifically UGA. How would you compare the music scene in Athens to what we have here in Atlanta?
EG: It’s quite different. I mean, I’m a bit older now so I don’t really get out much. But I lived here about 6 or 7 years ago, and at that point, I was going out to shows a lot. There was alway this kind of grimey vibe in Atlanta verus in Athens. Especially at that time - I’m sure it’s still the same.
PM: It’s still the same!
EG: Garage rock bands, like The Black Lips, were kind of in their heyday. So, that would be the first thing. The other thing is because Athens is so tied up with the University, which can be really cool for a music scene. Generally, students have a little more freedom and there is always a new year of kids moving to Athens which can breathe new life into the scene. I think that’s really cool. Maybe Athens is a little more close-knit because of that.
PM: Do you still have your studio space in Athens?
EG: No, I moved here a year and a half ago. I still have a home set up here.
PM: After traveling all over the world, what made you want to settle in Atlanta? I know you’re from Perry, GA. Is it because of family being close or do you just enjoy the south?
EG: Yeah, it’s both. I’ve bounced around a little bit but I couldn’t imagine not living in the south. I love it here. I lived here around the time Washed Out kicked off and I lived in EAV. I really liked it but I had this super small house. It’s the only thing I could afford which was a small studio space. My house was overflowing with gear - I needed a bigger space. Having gone to school in Athens, I know it was cool and a lot cheaper.
PM: It’s still commutable. You can drive back.
EG: Exactly, but the drive back and forth to the Airport was killing me. I realized how much of a city person I was. I realized after living in Athens for a while that I really enjoyed...more options. I really enjoy Atlanta. It’s only a couple hours from where I grew up and I have a lot of family there, so it works out.
PM: Are you thinking about permanently staying here?
EG: Yeah, of course!
PM: I read in an interview with the Guardian, I think it was before the release of your album ‘Within Without’, that you longed for a nine to five lifestyle. Do you still feel that way? Has your life become more normalized?
EG: Definitely. I feel like I’ve written some of my best music when I was working nine to five, when I was in school, working, and I was only doing music on the side. It has a lot to do with I was just starting out with music. Ideas came out easier then, like the longer you do it that harder it is to come up with new ideas. It becomes a challenge when you’re doing it full time. It’s just a different sensation. It can be harder at times. I think that’s what I meant but it’s definitely become more normalized. I mostly work on Washed Out 9 to 5 and I have a two year old son. So, I’m up pretty early because he gets up pretty early. I try, for the most part, to keep pretty normal hours. I was reading this book; I think it’s called ‘Daily Habits’ or something. It’s basically profiles all these famous artists, musicians, and writers and it talks about how they plan their day and their workstyles. It was really surprising how many of them worked normal nine to five hours. A lot of my friends think I’m just sitting around smoking weed all day and maybe working on music for a couple hours, but it really is, at least for me, showing up everyday and grinding through it. That’s how I work my way into ideas.
PM: Does it feel like work?
EG: At times. Finishing songs is the only time it feels like work for me and doing non-music related stuff.
PM: The beginning process, when you have that idea, is great because you’re excited but finishing it is another thing.
EG: I’m terrible at finishing ideas. I have so many songs in my Harddrive that are almost there. I don’t have the willpower to finish them. I’ve been trying to get better with that.
PM: I know that you also enjoy photography. Are you still shooting?
EG: Yeah, sadly it’s more often with my phone.
PM: They say whatever you have is the best camera.
EG: Exactly, the best camera is the one that you have with you. I used to be more into film stuff but it’s bulky carrying it around and it’s obviously a lot more expensive. So for the most part, I do stuff with my phone. You know, traveling is really great for photography because you’re in a new place. So most often when I’m shooting stuff is when I’m on a trip.
PM: Would you ever do anything with your photography work?
EG: I’ve gotten more into, just on pure creative levels, shooting weird videos on my phone and I have a couple of apps where you can layer them on top of each other. I’ve been thinking of more ways to sync it with music because the videos are so weird. I feel like I need to come out with some really weird music to pair with it. Maybe someday I’ll pursue it a little more seriously.
PM: Do you have any local bands that you’re into?
EG: The first things that come to mind are the massive hip-hop stars from here. But for the more underground stuff, I’m sadly out of the loop on that.
PM: Do you have any advice that you’d give to local musicians?
EG: Sure. I would say just make, write, and record as much as you can. That’s the way that I did it. I was much more of a producer first. I didn’t play any shows until I had a record out. For me, it was just trial and error of making a ton of really shitty songs for years until I figured out my own vibe. I would say just work as much as you can and not get bogged down in writing the perfect song. It takes the repetition of making a bunch of songs before you can do your own thing.
There are obviously idiot savants who can stumble into it and the first song that they write sound like them. But for me, I was emulating people for years until I gradually stumbled into my own style.
PM: What’s next for washed out?
EG: I’m doing a handful of DJ stuff here and there and band stuff throughout the summer, festival stuff. I’m starting to work on new stuff. I had a new song come out as part of this adult swim thing. It’s just back to the drawing board. Like I said earlier, I like each album to be different. So I’m actively trying to figure out what the next step should be.
I’ve been doing a lot of ambient music just as a hobby or for fun, so idk if that’s the direction or something I might leak out on the side. It’s just been super fun doing improvisation. Washed Out stuff generally takes forever. First I write the song. I figure out the sounds and production and it take a while. So this ambient stuff is cool. I just start looping stuff and I enjoy that because it’s so different.