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Washed Out’s latest album and live tour merges modern technology and raw rock ’n’ roll

When he was writing Washed Out’s most recent album, “Mister Mellow,” Ernest Greene was dealing with a lot of big life milestones. He was expecting his first child (now almost a toddler), touring and becoming a new homeowner.

“Every generation has these same feelings, of having more real-world worries. I was a little stressed out and overwhelmed with responsibility. In our modern age, when the world moves as fast as it does, it piles on even more,” says the Atlanta-based Greene. At 33, he admits he’s on the older end of the millennial spectrum, but still feels in touch with that generation’s sense of upheaval. “I had a feeling of uncertainty about making a living and being creative. Every morning when I checked the news, I was afraid of what’s going to happen next. Anxiety piles on top. In communicating all that on the record, I wanted to be more playful. It can feel like a downer, so I feel like the best way to deal with struggle is laugh at it, poke fun at it. With this album, the idea was to bring some chaos to the mix – and to try my best to make songs out of the strangest sounds and textures I could find.”

Inspired by hand-made and vintage art, the 12 songs on the album are tied to 12 videos that incorporate Claymation, puppetry and more hands-on styles. He says he worked with visual artists to bring to life some of the themes he had in mind, so the album has a more collage-feel to it, with bits of live recorded audio, YouTube and sounds recorded on his phone “mish-mashed” together.

“I love music videos and animation to amplify the craziness of the song in a caricature way as a jumping off point,” Greene says. “It’s all over the place, but all are informed by the same idea of imperfection and messiness.”

That spirited approach drives the live show Greene is planning for the upcoming “Get Lost” tour to promote “Mister Mellow.” While he is Washed Out’s one-man singer-songwriter, he’s performed with a traditional backing band (that includes his wife) for his previous three albums. In this tour, Greene will perform with only two others bandmates, who will handle percussion and keyboards. Three Kinect sensors will track their movements in real time and project infinite repeating patterns reminiscent of live video feedback behind them.

“These are crazy psychedelic effects happening in real time, reflected in mini-layers in patterns completely based on what we’re doing,” Greene says. “It’ll be a combination of live music and samples, so it feels less like a rock band. It’s quite a bit more chaotic, hard to categorize.”

To help Greene achieve his vision, visual artist John King took the inspiration of the videos and using Kinect and worked with creative technologist Charlie Whitney to build a cohesive aesthetic.

For Los Angeles-based King, aka Timeboy, it was the first time he’s done a project with Greene, but he has worked on shows for Kendrick Lamar, The Weekend and Flying Lotus.

“We tried to figure out many creative ways to expand on the concept of the human silhouette as an extension of yourself and for the music videos,” King says. “One of the dreams Ernest and I talked about was to have something that didn’t feel digital, something that felt analog, not too clean. That was part of the challenge with Kinect, to bring out a non-digital quality. Fans will find it feels a bit otherworldly, psychedelic, very colorful and a bit mind expanding. We saw it all gel together.”

Washed Out Live (Photo by Nils Erik Vogth-Eriksen)

King says the key aesthetic and overall theme was going back to Greene’s musical roots, but also taking a tongue-in-cheek perspective on how funny being an adult can feel.

“For me, I knew I was going to be doing this real-world stuff, so I was thinking about the physicality of this, and how we capture that,” says Whitney, who worked with audio so he could time the effects to the music. His background is in programming for interactive installation work.

For this project, he came up with the graphic effects and camera work, as well as creating effects in C++ using Kinect to augment videos. He says a lot of the challenges came in organizing the workflow and content for a live show, where the timing is non-linear and much is unexpected.

“I had to program more flexibly, more in real time,” Whitney says. “We could have used other 3D sensors, but Kinect you can buy in a store, and it’s more robust and been around longer. The nice thing about it is it has infrared with depth to filter out noise on stage.”

Greene had seen Kinect used in other live performances, and decided it was the last piece of a puzzle in how to present his work in the best way.

“It’s a nice marriage in the end,” he says. “I think it’s really special, providing the quality of feeling sort of analog and vintage, and being able to accomplish these effects in a cutting-edge way.”

Washed Out live (Photo by Nils Erik Vogth-Eriksen)

This collaboration is the latest in an artist series featured on Music x Technology, an initiative that celebrates forward-thinking artists who are using Microsoft technology to transform the way people create and experience music. With artist collaborations, the program seeks to empower artists to craft one-of-a-kind experiences for their fans.

“Each time we get to work with an artist who has a unique creative vision and finds a way to use the technology to help bring that vision to life, it pushes the possibilities forward for how musicians can use technology,” says Amy Sorokas, director of strategic partnerships for Microsoft Brand Studios. “Each artist brings a different spin and emphasis on what the technology can help them do. Washed Out didn’t want to replay the amazing videos that were produced for the album and perform standing in front of them. The tapestries that both the music and visuals create were a perfect place to add a tech-driven twist to the performance. Ernest wanted to use the tech to effect the production with real-time movement and achieve a subtle expression that will surprise the fans. It’s exciting to see our tech help bring together such an intricate and bold vision for Washed Out, and further demonstrate its potential in the creative space.”

Lead photo of Washed Out by Nils Erik Vogth-Eriksen.