Methyl Ethel Embraces Solitude on ‘Triage’
To create Methyl Ethel’s latest album, Triage, bandleader Jake Webb holed up like a musical hermit for four months in his Perth home studio. He treated music-making as a 9-to-5 occupation during the day, unsuccessfully trying to keep it from clouding his thoughts at night. Sometimes he didn’t see another human being for days at a time.
“When I say that, last year, I hardly left my house, it’s not an exaggeration,” Webb tells TIDAL. “It’s the God-honest truth. … I’d go to someone’s house for a casual occasional drink or something once a week, but yeah, it wasn’t very often.”
With this self-imposed isolation, Webb returned to the band’s roots, the solitary sessions that produced the band’s 2015 debut, Oh Inhuman Spectacle. The result is a bittersweet pop album that’s seemingly open to glam, sophistipop, synthwave, R&B, modern electronica and the vintage reverb of their label, 4AD.
Since their inception, Methyl Ethyl – now expanded to full band – has been selling out shows in Australia and hitting festivals worldwide thanks to their insular psych-pop sound: adjacent to locals like Pond and Tame Impala, but with a home-brewed, dreamlike, synth-heavy swirl of melancholy all their own. The sparkly “Ubu,” from 2017′s Everything is Forgotten, became an Australian hit, certified Gold and broke the Top 5 of the listener-voted Hottest 100 of Australia’s Triple J radio.
Webb talked to TIDAL about digesting a hit, writing in isolation and surfing the waves of buzz. Triage is out now.
You say you worked on the record from roughly nine to five. What did you do with the rest of your night?
I’d go to the beach, maybe, if it was warm enough. Sometimes I like to make bread. Just watch films or read a book. But when I’m in the mode, it’s hard to switch off from thinking about it all. Sometimes I just can’t sleep and I’m thinking about things too much as well.
I know my dad’s the same. When the head hits the pillow, it’s almost like that’s a good time to just think about what you have to do the next day.
For the launch of Triage single ‘Scream Whole,’ you said it was like ‘when midday movies dredge suppressed memories that scream for closure.’ Was there a real moment that inspired that?
Big things like that I always see as so universal, but when I get a chance to talk to people about these ideas, often they’re not as universal as I think they are. ‘Midday movies’ are just the sort of movies you watch on airplanes. When you’re on an airplane, when you’re allowed enough time to think about your life, sometimes it’s like a melancholic kind of a headspace.
You have these very melancholic lyrics, but your melodies can be very happy. Why are you drawn to that particular combination?
Why is it that some of the most cheesy pop songs are the ones that can bring you to tears — and it’s not even about anything that’s sad, you know? Those ecstatic moments.
Like when you take a long flight and a TV commercial makes you cry.
Yeah, stuff like that. There’s gotta be so much going on in people’s lives for that to happen, yet everyone has the same experience, you know?
What is the weirdest thing about having a hit song?
I don’t know. You’ll have to tell me.
Well, ‘Ubu’ is pretty big in Australia.
Well, it’s weird talking about having a hit song. It’s weird hearing the words ‘hit song,’ because it’s something that I sort of have been joking about my whole life. … I guess maybe I’m just a cynic, it can feel like a misdirection or something. Like you sort of don’t trust why people enjoy it.
Maybe I don’t let myself be really excited about the fact that a song becomes really popular. I would just go the other way and just think, ‘Yeah, but it’s not real; people are just excited about it, because it is popular. They don’t really like the song.’
So it’s safe to say you haven’t fully digested this yet?
Sure, yeah. As a matter of fact, you asking the question is, uh, forcing me. Forcing it down my throat [laughs] or, like, making me digest it.
Did having a hit affect how you approached this new record?
It’s in there, but it’s like a parasite that I try to push out of my brain. I would never want a popular song to dictate what I do with new music nor make me feel like I have to do it again.
There are moments on the new record that do … have a similar feel to that song in particular. It’s just because that there are compositional elements in there that I just like doing or groups that I enjoy playing. It’s not in order to chase the dragon or something.
You say you write your songs using fragmented bits from dreams. Can you talk about some of the dreams that inspired the new record?
It’s not so much bits of my dreams, but it’s like thinking of the songs as dreams. Like, when I think of the way that narrative works in songs. … Kind of like something that ties something loosely together, but kind of jumps all over the place, and it sort of exists out of a linear time and space. Sounds really psychedelic but that’s not my intention at all [laughs].
Are there filmmakers that evoke that for you?
Anyone from a Wes Anderson film, to really deep Andrei Tarkovsky films. I’m a big fan of Orson Welles.
Tarkovsky is one of the ones I was thinking of.
Especially in Nostalghia, there is kind of an ecstatic point where, like, God appears, but not in that Christian sense. Like, trying to articulate a feeling without being too direct about it.
But, at the same time, this is just my lofty ways of talking about my music when it’s really just a bunch of pop songs. When I’m in it, I’m chasing the ecstasy of the song and trying to hone down on what feels the best. I don’t know. Maybe the pretentious trickster in me is trying to throw all of this meaning at stuff that’s potentially just an empty shell.
There are a lot of eyes on the state of Australian psych-rock. How does that affect you?
I’ve sort of gotten over that being a thing, and I kind of just made peace with the fact that the eyes are looking in this direction for some pretty clear reasons. And to think I’m in a privileged position all on my own is kind of ignorant. I know there’s one particular band from Perth who has helped to get the rest of us some attention, and I guess I’ve just become grateful for that.
We’re talking about Tame Impala, I assume?
Ah, yes. There we are, yeah [laughs]. Yeah, of course. But I think in Australia there have been cycles of a band that kind of breaks out and then the world pays a little more attention, and guess I’m just part of one of those cycles. I’m just grateful for it. Because it’s allowed me a stack of opportunities. Ordinarily I feel like it would’ve been a longer road.
So this is like a new version of the INXS/Midnight Oil era.
Yeah, exactly. Like just another wave. I guess, like any good oscillating wave, they have smaller and bigger peaks and troughs, and it just so happened that this most recent peak was and potentially is one of the biggest ones to come out of Perth. Just riding that wave, baby! [laughs].
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