METHYL ETHEL The X-Press interview

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Methyl Ethel released the biggest sounding, most world-beating sophomore album by a WA band since Tame Impala’s Lonerism last week, called Everything is Forgotten. HARVEY RAE caught up with the band’s frontman and all round musical genius Jake Webb to discuss working with super-producer James Ford, getting darker, sexual fluidity and that album cover…

Let’s start with latest album Everything is Forgotten, which is exceeding my expectations big time. Congratulations on the record, how is it different to the debut in your eyes?

A lot of people said the first one drew on a lot of different influences, or it maybe referenced other things. Like it jumped and changed gears a lot. I think whether or not it was at the forefront of my mind when making a record, I also feel like this one is a bit more cohesive, even texturally or the sound of it. So I’m pleased with how it turned out. I think I can do better. That’s why I’m still – like I recorded some vocals just then, at home, for some new stuff. It’s the fun of it, the pleasure.

From the outset the production is next level…

See, I love it. I get to talk to people about the record now that I don’t know so, you know, it’s really good.

I really like how sophisticated it is. I think it’s really ambitious. Who did you work with and what inspired this hi-fi direction?

I got the record to the same kind of stage that the first one was. As soon as 4AD came on board, I think our A&R at the time was just like “hey we want to put you with a producer, we have those powers, so tell us who you’d like to work with.” At first we gave them a short list, or at least they gave you ones and you said “yep, yep, yep.” It’s kind of like the producers who’ve done a lot of albums that I’ve really loved over the years. People like John Congleton [St Vincent, Angel Olsen]. And just getting to chat to those guys on Skype was amazing. They threw James Ford [Florence and the Machine, Arctic Monkeys] into the mix but for me I didn’t have the context – I know obviously the bands that he’s worked with, but I’m not a huge fan, personally, of the records or anything.

So after speaking to all these guys we thought that, for me, James was probably the one that was the most opposite. I love all the records of those other guys, but James might be able to bring something that ordinarily I wouldn’t go for. So, that being said, it was so easy and pleasurable, and we spent eight days or something together finishing off the album. Essentially building it out a bit bigger. I re-tracked all the drums. I re-amped things and then James, being the wizard that he is on the synths, we kind of got in there. I hear that it’s quite a big honour for him to have even been keen to work with my shitty little songs, I think he was working with Depeche Mode at the time, and I think he was working with potentially Little Dragon after we’d finished.

With that in mind, what helped him to choose you? Did he hear new demos or did he hear the first album?

First record. And I think he thought, initially when we first spoke, that the first record was the demos…

I can imagine him saying, “We could do so much with this Twilight Driving track…”

Yeah, he was a legend.

The record was pretty much made by you and him?

I would say that I made most of it [but] the album gets over the line for me because of his work. He mixed it in house, which got built while we were doing it, so it was a fresh new set up. I think this sort of music is exciting for people to work on because there aren’t many boundaries. So they can go the wrong way sometimes because people think they can really go throw in as many plug-ins as they want and liven things up, and go completely off the wall with it.

And the rest of the band is more of a live entity than a studio entity still at this point?

Well we’ve recorded together recently. When we’ve got some down time, 4AD have a little studio downstairs from their office. D.D Dumbo did his record, all of it, in the studios in London. So we can book in for free when we’ve got downtime, which is amazing. So we’ve recorded kind of as a band, or at least been in the studios together in that capacity. I just like to get home, get into my room and roll on things. That’s the main reason [the rest of the band] haven’t played on it because if it’s a phone call to then to organise a time, it’s almost like that’s too much wasted time.

Was there a sense of expectation internally, you being a Perth band signed to 4AD and all, of raising the bar?

I’d want to raise the bar regardless of if I was putting albums out on Bandcamp. Pretty much because of how much great music comes out of here [Perth] alone. Like, Ben Witt’s putting out great album after great album within twelve months and he’s doing it in his bedroom. Everyone in this city alone is putting out some good music.

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I’ve been trying to decide what the Twilight Driving from this record is, I know a lot of people will say Ubu but I think maybe Drink Wine, do you have a sense of which is going to be the really big tracks from this album?

I think I’m always wrong. From what I’ve heard from talking to people from within the like greater label bodies, someone said that when they were talking about putting out Seven Nation Army as a single that everyone thought it was this stupid and crazy idea. I thought No. 28 was an odd choice for the first single but people liked it. I think L’Heure des Sorcieres is, I would have thought, the obvious single.

There’s a couple of song titles in French and one in Japanese. Do you speak those languages?

I just like the language. I think it looks nice as well. And it also, it kind of codifies things a little bit. It codifies things and also opens up for reading and interpretation. I mean, I can direct things in a way but it’s supposed to be fun. It’s like being Indiana Jones or something. You’ve got to mine – be the archaeologist of all the references.

That hook from Ubu gets stuck in your head like nothing else you’ve ever done, and there’s something almost 80s and superficial about it though I sense there’s something deeper going on. What can you tell us about that track?

That’s really good. That one was very much informed in the beginning by that kind of Eno and David Byrne approach with the loops. And sometimes, sometimes the hooks just have to be there. And it sort of has parts rather than verse-chorus sort of sections. I think from memory, once I’d made it, it was like well, there’s this idea for a melody, which has like a chorus feel to it. The whole record was supposed to oscillate or bounce between the superficial and the very serious. It kind of lets me off the hook. And it keeps things a little light. It’s a hook and it’s pop music as well. So I’m not standing up delivering a keynote speech or anything.

Did you go into writing this collection with a theme in mind – or if not, looking back on the lyrics for the album, do you notice a thread running through?

It all comes from the same sort of time chunk. So that’s where it’s time stamped. It’s written from as raw a place as possible. And then I kind of go over it and  figure out exactly what it is that’s being said. And then the titles inform it again. And then, once there is good through-line, I think that’s when I know that there’s a record there. The thing is, specifics is not really what I want to put through. But I feel like it’s darker than the first one. It’s that same disconnection – it’s an anxious record. It’s anxious about, I guess, getting older. It’s always sort of anxious about losing control. A little bit of pre-psychosis. It’s just things touching on, or at least asking those questions. You pour so much into something but at the end of the day, could there be something a bit more you know useful that you could be doing with your time if someone’s going to push the button tomorrow? But at the same time that’s why you should be doing it. That’s the two things. You’re pouring so much meaning and emotion into something that’s just pop music. They just want a fucking hook anyway. So that’s kind of talking about that as well.

It’s more interesting than what most bands do post- success or on their second album, which is usually to bitch about touring…

I’m embarrassed that I’m self-involved to think about it too much maybe, I don’t know. I think maybe I’m just the personality of the record, you know. It’s kind of a bit wanky to put so much in there. But that’s why I can kind of take the piss at the same time.

A question that I think one way or the other is going to spark some important conversation is I’ve heard people suggest the album art, the cover painting, could be viewed as exploitative in terms of men using a naked woman to promote their art. It’s sparked interest on social media and the way it has divided people is interesting. Have you come across that and what is your take on it?

I was told the other day of something happening on Facebook. I don’t have Facebook, it’s a good world to live in. The old world. And had there been no Facebook, perhaps I would have hoped that people would have raised the issue. Of course I thought about it and I was concerned, as you are with anything. I said from the beginning of the whole project whether it’s wrong to do so or not, that the whole idea with the band was for it to be as androgynous and genderless as possible. So I’ve always thought of the character, the voice in the songs, as not really being me. Holly Fewson who did the art is a friend of ours, a really close friend of Tom’s in particular. She’s an amazing artist. If you look through her portfolio of art, they’re mainly self-portraits (and) nude self-portraits. There are through-lines in the choice of that art, for me. But also in a way I feel like the voice of the record is her, or is me and is her and it’s a marriage of the two. It’s really difficult to explain.

Do you personally feel fluid with androgyny and sexuality?

I absolutely do and that’s why the gender issue – I’m very much a firm believer in the issue. I feel like sometimes it’s fought in the wrong way. And sometimes it feels like there are definite issues. There is so much that, because of my genetics and physiology, I’m not able to (know), because I purely don’t know. I knew it was going to be tough but I’m glad people are talking about it. If it brings the issue to light, go for it. The only thing that would annoy me is to think that I would choose that image to sell my art. I’m honoured to have this beautiful imagery together with the music. I feel like the music doesn’t live up to the artwork. Honestly. I own the artwork too actually. It’s in my house. It’s hard to describe why it had to be that image, you know. So much of the process is on instinct. But I definitely asked people who are close to me about the choices all the way through. Most of the people I know are (feminists). Feminism is too broad, there’s got to be a new term, it needs to be partitioned because there’s a lot happening. I think for me, it’s a body. It’s one body. Married with another. I see the flowers first and foremost and that’s the image link from the first album to the second album, literally the flower arrangement. And I see nakedness, you know. Had it been a picture of a naked man holding a bunch of flowers, I probably could have used that. I think with any good argument, there just needs to be a lot of context, like a view of both sides.

Methyl-Ethel-Press-Photo-Credit-Anna-Victoria-Best

I’ve always wanted to ask, where does the band name Methyl Ethel comes from?

My dad works with fibreglass and I’ve worked on and off with him since I was 16. Methyl ethyl ketone peroxide was one of the chemicals that we used. I changed the letter from being a ‘y’ to an ‘e’.

Methyl Ethel started off as a bedroom recording project, you made a lot of the first album yourself, so what was it that was the first big breakthrough and how is it that you’ve just gone so far in such short amount of time do you think?

RTRFM started playing it. I think Peter Barr started playing it. I think Poison Peach was the one that got played. And then the first actual show was an RTR show, it was for Radiothon. The band at the time was two of the Dianas girls, and Amber Fresh as well.

These days you’re a three-piece, do you tour with an additional member?

We’re four as of now. [We’ve added] Ham Jam’s Hamish [Rahn]. And also because James [Ireland, also of Ham Jam, is on tour with Pond], it kind of works.

Let’s talk about touring this record, I fully expect you’re going to raise the bar with your live show so what have you got in store for us? How do you go about getting this big production sound?

As soon as we touched down from the last tour with [Canadian band] Preoccupations just prior to Christmas, that really got me thinking they’re an amazing band; two guitars and they have a lot going on. As soon as we touched down I was so much into rejigging the whole show. We’d been touring as a three-piece for quite a while and it was time to challenge [ourselves]. Chris [Wright] the drummer – we used to live together and I just moved out – got in and just started programming and nutting out how to grow it out to four members. He mixes sound at The Bird, he’s into the nuts and bolts of live shows. I do all boring stuff like sampling things and building keyboard patches. Because that’s what happens when you go completely off the wall in the studio. It’s not so much the performing, it’s building [the live show], seeing it all come together.

How about in terms of sound and lighting – I assume you have your own operators?

We do finally have a front-of-house. That was our first tour with a front-of-house sound engineer. So now we’ve got front-of-house, which is amazing. The good thing is the sound engineer community in Australia is so in cahoots that everyone knows each other as well and is very supportive. We can afford to tour now with a fourth member and a front-of-house, it’s amazing. We’ve been flying by the seat of our pants for a good couple of years.

Have you hired a full time saxophonist just to do that part on Twilight Driving? I see Hot Dub Time Machine stole your idea and had a saxophonist come out just for the solo in INXS’ Never Tear Us Apart which was pretty funny at Falls Downtown…

I thought the sax thing was at the end of the band wagon, but I feel like it’s just rolling on, I keep hearing more sax. Especially the house music that’s coming out of Perth at the moment. I’d like just figure out the nuts and bolts of why it is that certain things to make you feel like that. Why are the guilty pleasures guilty pleasures? I’ve read so many different essays and what not on it. I’ll make a song that will make me feel like that, but why?! Why is this? I want to box this up and you know, sell it to the world.

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