A few years ago, Ernest Greene received an email from Fred Armisen, then on the cast of "Saturday Night Live." They had never communicated before, but Armisen had a question: Could he use one of Greene's songs as the theme song to his new show?
"Without seeing any footage, I said, 'Sure, take it,'" Greene, who will perform as Washed Out at Virgin Mobile FreeFest's Dance Forest on Saturday, said. "I knew it would be funny."
Armisen could not have selected a more on-the-nose song than Washed Out's "Feel It All Around." The song, originally released in the summer of 2009 on MySpace, had quickly become the signature sound of "chillwave," a new genre embraced by many tastemaking blogs and mocked in other corners of the Internet as "hipster music." Armisen's new show, "Portlandia," lovingly skewers the hipster stereotype, and using Greene's song was a knowing wink.
"I think it's funny. I'm definitely aware of the connection to like, hipsterdom," Greene said. "That's really what the show is about: kind of embracing that lifestyle and at the same time making fun of it."
The 30-year-old Georgia native maintains a sense of humor about the "chillwave" label and its associations, but that doesn't mean he's fine with "Feel It All Around" defining Washed Out's sound.
So when it came to write and record his sophomore album, August's "Paracosm," he looked to push back against preconceived notions that he was a gimmick artist simply relying on computer programs in his bedroom. On "Paracosm," Greene — whose live show has morphed from a DJ to a full-band setup over recent tours — blends his trademark synthetic sounds with live drums, bass and guitar. The result is a noticeable-but-not-jarring addition of depth and texture to Washed Out.
The live show "started to lean a little bit more towards a rock feel. It just made sense with this record to explore that side of it more," Greene said. "I don't think it'll be like what every Washed Out record from now on sounds like, but for right now, it's made our live shows a lot more fun."
Washed Out's evolution on "Paracosm" wasn't limited to the sound. Greene, who still considers himself more of a producer than a singer/songwriter, improved his lyrics by writing with fewer abstractions and more "concrete" memories. For the first time, Washed Out's lyrics were included with the album.
"I think [the lyrics] just changed, just like how the music has changed," he said. "I guess my taste as a songwriter has changed a little bit more. I want people to make sense of what I'm talking about."
For an artist who came to define a genre seemingly overnight, Greene seems to gravitate toward new sounds all the time. After his touring ends in early December, he plans to begin work on a new Washed Out EP. Greene is already heading away from "Paracosm's" sound.
"I've been doing a lot more DJing recently and it just feels fresh," he said. "Some of the stuff I'm [working on] is a little more dance-y or sounds more like club music, but it still sounds like me."
Looking back at a few years ago, when the strength of "Feel It All Around" thrust him into the Internet spotlight and onto tours he may not have been ready for yet, Greene remembers the chaotic time as a learning experience.
"I think I learned so much through that process, kind of trial by fire," Greene said. "Over a year's time, I felt like I squeezed in five years of touring experience, which was a really huge help moving forward. I don't think I would change anything. I think we've done a fairly good job of remaining sane and making the right decisions."