In an era where we’re exposed to more stimuli than ever before—there’s always a notification to check, a timeline to refresh, another Facebook video of someone being hit in the groin to watch—anxiety is at an all-time high and the ability to sit down and relax feels not only like a lost art but a literal impossibility. Unwind? In this economy? Mister Mellow, the third full-length project from chillwave pioneer Ernest Greene aka Washed Out, is a tongue-in-cheek look at the malaise of young adulthood and its hyper-stimulated claustrophobia.
It’s also a visual album—accompanying the album, which runs a little over half an hour, is a complete set of visuals that mirror the music’s focus on not being able to focus. “Music plays a big part in keeping me happy and keeping me from flipping out” proclaims a disembodied vocal that Greene weaves into his sunscreen-smeared psychedelia, offering one possible method for combatting the madness. Where previous Washed Out music focused on good vibes, the sun-soaked sounds here feel like a conscious attempt to hold an ever-encroaching darkness at bay—stressful subjects are sung about calmly, imbued with a sense of serenity and grace. It might be the Washed Out record with the most well-developed perspective, and not just because it actually has a perspective. Jetlagged and fresh off a trip from Europe, I spoke with Greene over the phone from his home studio in Atlanta, Georgia.
VMP: You’ve parted ways with Sub Pop after releasing two records with them. Mister Mellow has been released by Stones Throw Records, a label famous for its beat-oriented artists. How did you link up with them?
Ernest Greene: I’ve been a huge fan of the label for a long time. Their artists have been a big influence of mine over the years, and some of my favorite records have been released on Stones Throw. On some level, it’s always been something of a dream to work with them, and Mister Mellow felt to me like it had characteristics that aligned it with their aesthetic and the records they tend to put out. Once I finished with my previous record deal, it just felt like the right fit. Even though it’s predominantly known as a hip-hop label, in more recent years they’ve put out records that are quite diverse. For me, they release a lot of music that I’m a fan of, and I felt like this record would be a good fit there.
What was it like to be a free agent again?
I put the record together myself, and after it was finished I played it for Stones Throw. I played it for a few other labels too, but Stones Throw was always at the top of the list for me. The strangest part of finding the record a home was based on the fact its sound is a little different and perhaps slightly more out-of-the-box than previous Washed Out records. In a lot of ways, it’s much more experimental than anything I’ve done before, so I wasn’t sure how it was going to be received when I started to play it for people. It might’ve been different if it was a straightforward pop record—labels could just talk about market potential or whatever. I feel this is kind of a weird record, so I wondered if labels would be interested or not. Thankfully the response was positive, and that was a big relief. But there was a period of time that was definitely a little nerve-racking.
What was the inspiration for making Mister Mellow a visual album?
From very early on in the process, visual art and certain kinds of animation were really influential for me when I was putting the music together for the record. In particular, there was some vintage experimental animation from the ’60s and ’70s that has this raw, collage-y feel which has been really inspiring for me. Looking back at the previous records I’ve made, they were scored in a traditional way in the studio, where I tried to get the audio recording as clean and pristine as possible but also produce a sound that was as wide and full as possible. With this project, the idea was to do the complete opposite of that. I wanted it to feel like a rough sketch that took five minutes to draw, to feel raw and spontaneous. I led that sort of vibe lead the way with this record. It was a fresh approach for me, and I liked the idea of being a little sloppy when I was putting these songs together, maybe a little out of time here and there, adding to the slightly chaotic feel of some of the tracks. Once I got deeper and deeper into the process, I had the “A-ha!” moment where I realized I should just put the sounds and the visuals that were inspiring them together.
How did you find the collaborators for the visual portion of the album?
I had a list of animators whose work I was a big fan of that I had been following for a while on social media. I reached out to them and got a really great response. The beautiful thing is that while they all have very distinct styles, and even work in very different areas of animation, all of their work shares this handmade quality, this human quality, that I felt paired well with the music I had made. And I think both sides of the project amplify the other in an interesting way.
What sort of guidelines, if any, did you give the artists who worked on the album’s visuals?
I had a rough sequence for the album by the time I had started to reach out to people and ask if they wanted to be a part of the record. I also kind of had a gut instinct about which songs would work with which animators, based on their styles. I assigned them a song and then we had a brief discussion about what the song meant to me and potential ideas for approaching the visuals, because I had a general idea of how I wanted the album to flow from a visual perspective. There’s no real linear narrative, there’s more of a feeling that ties everything together. And the cool thing is that each of the artists have such a unique style, and since I was such a big fan of their work, I was cool with just basically letting them run wild and do whatever they wanted. I think they appreciated the freedom they got. Usually when they’d be commissioned for a commercial or something, it’s rare that they get to do their own thing, and I think the project ended up getting some real special visuals because of they had room to stretch out.
What was your reaction when you first got back the visuals from each artist?
I’ve made videos in the past in a more traditional way, where there’s actors. And in those instances, there’s a certain amount of leeway in the editing of a project like that. You might go through multiple rounds of editing where lots of different perspectives give their opinion and things can change. But the kind of animation used for the visuals here are so time-intensive and process-oriented that there’s very little feedback that you can give along the way. The finished product is pretty much the finished product in a lot of cases. It was really exciting and also a little nerve-racking waiting for these videos to be finished and see what the animators had come up with. And I was happy that in all of the cases I was blown away and surprised with what these artists were able to come up with, and I feel like they add a lot to the music.
There’s a recurring theme throughout the album about being overstimulated and overloaded by constant sensory input.
“Sensory overload” is a phrase I’ve been using quite a lot lately to describe what goes on in everyday life. Between family, friends and work, I feel like we have very few moments to spare, and on top of that, with social media and news feeds, our brains are always working. I loved the idea that the music and the visuals could mirror that sensation. There are so many layers to both. And I think it’s kind of funny that this is my shortest album ever—just a little over half an hour—because I feel like if it was any longer than that, it would’ve been too much! You’d have to take a break. With the visuals, there are very few moments of pause, since it flows like a mixtape. You never really get a chance to catch your breath.
How do you personally deal with the hyperstimulation of today?
Luckily for me, music is helpful on that front. The process of making music, I’ve been doing it for so long, so when I sit down and start work, I get into a zone where you’re not even thinking so much as doing in real-time, and that’s been extremely helpful for me to block out the rest of the million things vying for my attention. But just unplugging from the world has been important for me. Whether it’s weekends or nights here and there, I try to lock myself away and read a book or do something to try and help me take a step back from all of the stimuli we have constantly bombarding us.
Renato Pagnani is a writer based in Edmonton. He's written for Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Spin, Fader, Edmonton Journal.
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