by Brennan Wise Hamill
Back in 2009, I was a DJ for an Indie Night and an avid subscriber to BIRP! For those uninitiated, BIRP (Blaylock’s Indie Rock Playlist) was a downloadable (possibly illegally) monthly compilation of tracks from all over the world. While the featured artists varied in genre and notoriety, the playlist was always well-curated and the secret weapon of many DJs. It was in November of 2009, by way of BIRP, that I first heard Washed Out.
At that time, “Chillwave,” as it would come to be more widely known, was little more than a passing trend in the minds of many. The phrase was getting passed around in music circles to brand the influx of nostalgia-inducing bands that blended vintage synths, reverb-laden-shoegaze-esque vocals and lazy beats to create the lush, dreamy pop that had taken over dance floors that year.
There were many bands that fell into the sub-genre and many of them haven’t been heard from since. But even in the rising tide of reverb-rinsed-repeated artists, Washed Out immediately appealed to me with a particular brand of pastiche that spoke directly to my inner child. As a product of the 80s, I was caught reminiscing the soundtracks of my childhood, like Saturday morning cartoons and ice cream trucks, by way of infectious melodies and toe-tapping beats that would stick with me for hours. Despite my affinity for Washed Out, had you asked me then, I’d have guessed that Chillwave, like most of the micro-genres of the previous years, would fizzle out. Little did I know, 8 years later, Washed Out would be one of my most anticipated shows of 2017.
Washed Out announced a new album, Mister Mellow (released June 30th on Stones Throw Records) earlier this spring. In support of the album, they also announced a national tour. That tour brought them to Maverick’s at the Jacksonville Landing on July 14th. While the juxtaposition of Washed Out, a hip, indie act playing at our local country western bar might seem odd, it did little to deter the energy in the room.
When I arrived, local pop mavens Tom Boi were just beginning their opening set. The crowd was already packed tight in front of the stage as their first beat crunched in the P.A. system. The swell of swaying and dancing bodies held throughout their set. As opening acts go, Jacksonville couldn’t have done better.
The touring support act was DEGA, a husband and wife electro-pop duo, hailing from Washed Out’s own hometown of Athens, GA. Heather Mitchell Nash, who for years has recorded and performed as Aslyn, and husband, Kalen Nash, formerly of Ponderosa, formed DEGA in 2013. Little of their music is available online however, the glam-jammed production, complete with digi-timpani rolls and synth-string hot-licks will be a sure groove for any electro-pop fan.
Washed Out was up next. Washed Out is actually Ernest Greene of Athens, GA. Born in 1982, almost a year to the day after myself, I imagine Greene grew up on the same diet of 80s music and movies that I did. It’s not hard to understand why his music stuck with me. Due to disappointing job prospects after college, he moved back in with his parents and started making music in his bedroom. As a one-man-band, on previous tours, his stage set up consisted of only a laptop and mic. While this remains the de facto standard among electronic artists, for this tour, Greene brought on two additional musicians. As the trio took their positions; a percussionist behind his drum set and MIDI percussion pads and a multi-instrumentalist surrounded by guitars and synths, Greene headed to center stage behind a mic and MIDI controller.
While a “band” is largely irrelevant to electronic music as computers and pre-recorded tracks can do most of the work without human help, the live show was markedly improved by the ensemble approach. Not only did the other musicians bring energy to the stage, the sound was more dynamic. The acoustic drums blended with the compressed, semi-distorted drum samples to create a more vibrant percussive sound and the addition of stringed instruments to the synth-orchestral foundation of the songs added an organic quality. And it allowed for uniforms – each member wearing all white – which was notably kitsch but of the perfect amount.
As the first synth tones wavered over the crowded room, the huge video screen behind the band ignited with blazing day-glo video loops that all but silhouetted the band and illuminated the ocean of faces in the crowd. Each song in the set was accompanied by it’s own video, some only oscillating geographic patterns while others were pop-culture collages choreographed to each song and evoking early MTV ident bumpers.
Over the hour or so that they played, Washed Out brought the crowd a sampler of everything they have to offer. More ambient tracks like “Burn Out Blues,” off the new record Mister Mellow, were followed by dance-floor anthems like “New Theory” off 2009’s Life Of Leisure EP (and BIRP! Nov 2009) and smooth-grooves like “It All Feels Right” off 2013’s Paracosm. While the band swayed behind their gear to the shimmery tones and head-bobbing beats, the audience did the same. The crowd favorite by far was “Feel It All Around,” also off the Life of Leisure EP, and most noteworthy for it’s use as the opening credit song on IFC Original’s Portlandia.
In the years since I heard that first track, Washed Out has released 3 full-length albums, 3 EPs and a handful of singles – a discography that has contributed to film and television soundtracks, DJ set lists and feel-good playlist the world over. While not particularly prolific, Greene’s influence on electro-pop music is without doubt. It was my first time seeing Washed Out live and the show exceeded all my expectations. I highly recommend checking them out. Washed Out is on tour for the rest of summer 2017.