I wasn't sure if I was going to actually get in to the show, or rather, the "listening party" for Washed Out's newest album, PARACOSM. In truth, it was more of a free concert, but because of the nature of chillwave (and any instrumental studio composition album) perhaps "listening party" was more appropriate. The venue was Sonos Studio, a small soundproof art & sound gallery just a few miles from LACMA. The lack of ticket fees meant hundreds of leeches like me would be in line, yes, but it also meant there was potential for a special night.
In my on-going quest for once-in-a-lifetime concert experiences, the free show is a high value target. The rarity of the event plus the open access compels artists to put a unique performance together — or at least, as fans, we believe they will. They're not required to do so in any way, but if ever there was a time for it, it would have to be under these unique circumstances, right? That's the hope. Even I, a mere mid-level Washed Out fan, was excited for this night and the show that might happen.
But first there was the line and other fans. I arrived 45 minutes before the listed start time with only 20 people ahead of me in the general admission/mere pedestrian line. Across from us there was the VIP line which held 10 or so people that deceptively looked just like me. The first thing I noticed is that Washed Out's fanbase runs a little older. Maybe it was the promise of an interview with NPR's Nic Harcourt that skewed the demographics, but I was surprised at how many 30 and 40 somethings were down with "chillwave" or whatever replacement label we've decided to use without shame.
It was an hour before they decided to let the VIP line trickle in. The GA line stood firm for 30 more minutes, and even when our kind started getting through the doors, it was at a slow trickle. I knew nothing about the size of Sonos Studio, and so I had no idea what the capacity would be. For all I knew, it was a small closet and they'd turn us away after 30 people. These fears were realized when, as I shuffled to the front of the line, we were told that the room was at capacity and they would let new people in as others left. Apparently the fire marshall was present and was very serious about the rules.
It was strange. By then, barely any of the GA line was let in. That meant the room was 90% of the VIP line (friends of the band & the studio) and the rest of us plebes would have to rely on pure dumb luck to rub elbows with them. It was dumb luck that the velvet rope would be raised right as I was next in line. It was dumber luck when I made a joke about life being hopeless, causing the gatekeeper to take pity on me.
"Just you two?" she asked.
"Okay. I'll let you in."
And with that, the rope was lifted, and I was given entry to the promised land.
Sonos Studios is small even for an art gallery. It's essentially one big room, maybe 50 feet long, with white walls and a soundproof ceiling. The only exhibit featured is "Light House," an arrangement of hundreds of hanging fluorescent tubes that blink on and off in conjunction with the music. Created by SOFTlab, they were set on cruise control to give the waiting audience something to wow at. As a backdrop, it's simple and exciting. Some shorter tubes formed a kind of cave where the artist sat so that they could be enveloped by the lines of white light while performing. At the time, only Washed Out's unmanned gear occupied the space.
The sight of the gear piqued my interest. I expected more from Washed Out than a press-play-on-the-laptop show, but definitely not full on instruments. Electric guitars, a keyboard, a synth pad and even a stand-up bass were going to be played indicating that this would be a live live show. I don't know what that meant to Washed Out's music, and I was excited to see. I was also excited for the open bar, and secured a Newcastle to bide the time in the fashionable shoulder-to-shoulder crowd.
Before long, Nic Harcourt & Ernest Greene maneuvered their way from the back, through the people and onto the stage for the pre-show Q&A. I imagined Harcourt with longer hair and a perennial black sportscoat, but no, he's a short crop & denim jacket type of dude. The interview was short and revealed a few fun details: the influence of DJ Shadow, the impact of Portlandia on his career, the e-mail address of Fred Armisen. It wasn't even 10 minutes before they wrapped it up and dimmed the lights.
Greene & his backing band were there to play and promote PARACOSM, the third Washed Out album. He described the idea of dreamlike optimism, something that you would think was already present in the rest of their work. But he's right — there's a notable lightness to his new songs, which is saying a lot to his already light track record. Songs like "Feel It All Around" were marked by a feeling of retro coolness, but none of that is essential to a song like "It All Feels Right." The flash of a genre that is chillwave had been characterized as a nostalgic dream; PARACOSM is a dream, too, but in the rays of an afternoon sun.
Only "It All Feels Right" benefited from the live instruments. Greene took up an acoustic guitar to strum and sing (just like a regular band!) but most of all, he got the audience involved with the percussion instruments. He distributed a few tambourines & maracas to the crowd, and we took to it like they were free t-shirts. They did a serviceable job and the song was made more special when you're surrounded by the gentle chisshh chisshh chissh of the maracas.
It was a short set, no more than 5 songs. He finished on a slowed down "Feel It All Around," and the Light House took on the pace of a slow gleam. It started to shimmer. In this downtempo ambient form, the song was unrecognizable, especially without that definitive bass note that gave the song its groove. This new rendition was reflective, relaxing and a little hypnotic. It brought to end a night that wasn't once-in-a-lifetime or even unusually special outside of the visuals. But it made sense. Washed Out isn't for tearing a hole in the stage or punching out epics. It's for cool nights and fashionable venues, brief distractions and pleasant cruising. I was glad just to make it inside.