Jake Webb, the Australian multi-instrumentalist behind Methyl Ethel, was busy working on songs for a national solo tour when quarantine hit.
The band’s new EP, Hurts to Laugh, was released last month, into a world without live music or social gatherings, so gauging the response is an unusual experience. Webb says he’s just happy that ‘there’s a couple of songs that people are (I guess) connecting with’. We spoke over Skype about his approach to writing and recording, as well as what he’s working on now.
The five songs on Hurts to Laugh, recorded during the same sessions as his 2019 album Triage, are more free-form in structure and even more densely textured than his previous records. The EPs release brings a sense of long cycles coming to an end: Triage was Methyl Ethyl’s third album, which he described as closing out a trilogy loosely concerned with relationships, and Hurts to Laugh is the third EP.
I ask whether these two series closing felt like a momentous occasion that called for a new beginning. “I believe that if you say something out loud you kind of have to live up to it,” Jake tells me. ‘So once I said this is it, then it’s kind of a narrative’. The problem with consciously deciding to take a new direction, he says, is having the ‘confidence to tackle bigger things’. ‘Inadvertently what happens is the personal creeps in; because you know you’ve only got your lens to look through anyway’.
As he works now on new songs he’s “poring over things more and more. And spending more time really thinking about what it is that I actually want to say with it.” He started out writing songs for Methyl Ethel using a stream-of-consciousness process. ‘I got used to pouring things out automatically and just making sense of what I’d said that way around’, i.e. backwards.
Webb describes this method of pouring out ideas and figuring out what they mean later as “a little bit of a cop out in some ways.. There’s a risk of not ‘committing’ to something or not really trying to ‘wring something out of the song’. But he points out that this works on both sides – different songs require different approaches. Jake’s ready to come at the new songs in a different way. “Without trying to say that all of my old stuff is lazy, or shit”.
In terms of subject matter, he’s still ‘interested in the same sort of things’. His concerns are ‘not dissimilar from the bigger ideas of the EP’, which he summarises only as ‘not sunshine and rainbows’.
I ask Webb about the genre labels often ascribed to his work – the terms ‘psych pop’ and ‘art rock’ are thrown around quite a lot in relation to Methyl Ethel, and I’m curious as to whether he agrees with them.
“It’s all lazy I think to be honest’, he says. ‘But unless you’re gonna create brand new genres, who’s gonna come off like the ass? Is it the person writing it, or me if I create one? Writing about music is a difficult thing’, The frontman conceded, ‘as is writing about anything.’ When it comes to being put into genre boxes, Jake feels that we’re all pretty safe these days, at least more so than before. “But it would be nice if there were less pressure to come up with new marketable musical identities.”
Webb says his idea of Methyl Ethel’s genre is hard to summarise without access to his own internal network of references. ‘It’s kind of like flicking through the channels. All of it comes from somewhere and from something but the only genre is just that it’s coming out of – when it’s in its purest form – it comes from my brain, so you have to sort of live through my experience, as far as listening to music and those sort of things goes, to really find all the links’.
I point out that the synths on ‘Majestic AF’ sound to me like they were styled to be somewhat futuristic. I wonder whether he designs or manipulates his instruments to produce a certain aesthetic effect. ‘I think the fun I get out of production is – and it’s not future in the Jetsons or the 50s style of futuristic -– but it’s just trying to make something new, or to make something I’ve never heard before’. Certain instruments can reliably contribute pleasing effects – ‘a cello’s always gonna sound really nice, or a string quartet’ – but he sees his project as combining and layering sounds in surprising ways.
Growing up in the stifling heat of Western Australia, Webb was inspired early on by the fuzzy sound of half-melted cassette tapes in a hot car. I ask whether he’s still interested in reproducing accidents or misuses of technology. “The best stuff in that regard happens when you really are grinding away at something and the accident just happens”. Setting up for unexpected occurrences is a way to keep the music moving: ‘Brian Eno had it completely right coming up with those oblique strategies because I think, to use another cliche, you are your own worst enemy when it comes to making music. I always have to do things a different way to do it better. Otherwise I get lazy and play the same shapes or make the same sounds’.
As he’s started to reflect more on his songwriting before the fact, Webb has also delved further into music theory. He doesn’t take it completely at face value; he claims “I do and then don’t study it completely. Its purpose for me is just to give birth to the thought”. These studies feed into his songwriting obliquely, instead of informing his whole approach. Given that he plays all of the instruments on the records, Webb also has to spread himself across several different channels. ‘If I wanted to just be a piano player, for example, it would take me a very long time… and so rather than just practicing how to play someone else’s song I try to learn the skills that I need to do something more interesting myself’.
As with Triage before it, Hurts to Laugh features more electronic elements and more complicated, shifting rhythms. Though there is a pop sensibility, it’s most often set against a dense, elaborate soundscape. Asked whether he comes up with the skeleton of a song and then fills it out, or whether he builds up the composition in layers, he says it’s ‘all of the above’. The song ‘Honest’, he says, was ‘definitely a return to just sitting down and strumming out a song’. Webb finds that this approach can make songs ‘come out pretty organically because you just sort of let it go without being on the grid. That’s the problem I think with using computers, is that a lot of times you can just see the grid or hear the grid in the song. It’s locked straight in to the metronome which I think you sort of need to fight against’.
While working on the EP he got interested in spectral synthesis, which he describes as “taking found sounds and carving away at them to find their fundamental tones”, and in other words ‘good nerdy fun’. He’s quick to say that it’s not an original tactic but it does add ‘a good amount of texture’. A lot of the EP was recorded in London, so there are recordings of moored barges smacking against the Thames and of a wall of radios in the Tate lodged throughout the background. It rewards re-listens and repeated efforts to unpick the various layers of sound.
In terms of getting back out there, Methyl Ethel’s immediate future is uncertain. In the past Webb has written and recorded Methyl Ethel albums mostly on his own. After Triage came out he said he was open to widening out Methyl Ethel and involving more people in the writing process. But given the virus situation he’s holed up in his studio, ‘back to the old isolation’. Webb’s approach is to experiment all he wants now and then to iron out the details with the four other musicians who form the live incarnation of Methyl Ethel: ‘It’s always a fun challenge to make music that would be more and more impossible for the band to play and then think about how to do it later’.
Methyl Ethyl’s EP Hurts To Laugh is available now.