Psych-Pop Act Methyl Ethel on Perth, Teen Angst and Not Taking Breaks
Just because Methyl Ethel was perhaps the only band in the universe not to have descended upon Austin for South by Southwest last month doesn’t mean the trio hasn’t been plenty busy. The Perth, Australia-based psych-pop act Methyl Ethel kicked off a European jaunt with a sold-out set in London – a phenomenon the trio ought to get used to, given how quickly its March homecoming shows in Australia sold out.
But like most young rising musicians, the bandmates are trying to enjoy the opportunities given to them without letting the hype go straight to their heads, including their outings in support of bands like lovably goofy psych heads (and fellow Aussies) Pond and Canadian post-punk quartet Preoccupations.
Westword caught up with frontman, primary songwriter and newly minted road warrior Jake Webb prior to the band’s second American jaunt in under six months to talk about Methyl Ethel's sophomore album Everything Is Forgotten, along with the idyllic, the impossible, and the angsty sides of Methyl Ethel’s quickly expanding world.
Westword: How’s the tour going?
Jake Webb: We drove from Copenhagen straight to London last night. Sixteen hours of driving, but it’s been good. We’ve got all of America now. I’m excited, but it’s hard to be excited after sixteen hours of driving.
Do you ever write on the road?
I do, but I do more production stuff. I have my laptop with me and work on producing songs rather than sitting down with a pen and paper. There’s a bit of that, too — but when you think of songwriters who write on the road, you paint a picture of sitting in the back of a tour bus with an acoustic guitar singing about being away, which is not the case for me.
It’s not quite that idyllic?
I don’t even think that’s that idyllic. I don’t know. It doesn’t really turn me on.
When did you start writing your own songs?
I was probably a teenager. It’s a good thing for a teenager to do, really, because of the angst! The buildup of angst! It was very much a private thing. I can’t sing or play anything when there’s anyone in the room. I record by myself, because I can’t even think about writing or recording anything that’s decently produced if I know that anyone’s around to listen to it. It began as a private thing just for myself, making things for myself. I guess it remained that way.
So what did those teenage bedroom songs sound like?
Those ones were the gross acoustic guitar songs. I had no way to record them at the time. I only started recording things with my friend just out of high school; I learned over his shoulder. I got a tape machine a few years later and, using the things I learned from him, I played with that. That was the first time I really got a kick out of songwriting — when I was able to fill up four tracks of everything and sculpt a full song with rock-band instruments.
Do you think you’ll ever try a more collaborative process?
I like collaborating. I’m very open to it, but at the same time, I like to work quite quickly and get things done. It’s just easier for me to play by myself.
I read somewhere that “Ubu” was inspired by Alfred Jarre. Do you draw on any other non-musical inspirations of note?
I get into this head space of just sucking up as much inspiration as possible when I’m writing. I think by putting my spin on things I see and read, it helps me understand and re-contextualize it. Maybe it stores it back away. I’m forever referencing things and conversations. Maybe it’s appropriation, and that sort of appropriation is a natural thing to do in the cultural world we live in anyway. I realize that I’m never going to say very much of anything that is new. It’s like being a bit more expressionist.
How does Everything Is Forgotten feel different than Oh Inhuman Spectacle? How do you feel your songwriting has evolved between them?
I hope that I’m getting better at my project; I guess that’s to be seen. But the main difference is that this one is a little more homed in. I began writing this record more or less straight after the first one, so it steps off very directly from the first. In the coming months I’ll be able to look back and reassess how I did. In my bedroom and in my head and in my ears, it’s a lot different. I know every single in-and-out of all the songs. I know everything about them. Having it out in the world helps to get some feedback.
How do you think waiting longer between these two albums would have changed the sound of Everything is Forgotten?
It wouldn’t have gotten released if that had happened. I’m already aiming to finish writing the next one. It’s well under way, and I want to finish writing it very soon. I work really diligently. I came to the conclusion that if you sit on something for too long, then your tastes change and you get over things and projects stagnate. They never get finished. To answer that question, if I had waited, I think this would have become a pile of unfinished songs, and I would have moved on. I don’t labor over it too much. That’s hopefully not to the detriment of the records.
Wait. You’re already well into writing your third one?
It helps me to deal with having a new album out in the world. As people tear it to shreds, I can at least have a new baby that I can say to myself, “You know, you may think this one is bad, but I have another one up my sleeve, and that one's going to be even better.”
It sounds like you’re not a fan of breaks.
In Perth, it’s part of the culture. That’s how everyone does it. People are putting out records all the time. There’s no point in resting on your laurels. I enjoy writing songs. I want to get really good at it. It’s a continuous puzzle that you’re trying to solve. It’s kind of an addiction.
Tell me about the music scene in Perth.
It’s great. We haven’t been part of it for a while now that we’ve been traveling around so much. But starting out, my love of music was definitely born out of the people I met and the places I went in Perth. It’s DIY insofar in that people aren’t doing it for any other reason than just for the love. They want to do it. Some cities you go to, you meet bands that are trying really hard to become successful, but I never found much of that in Perth. That’s where we all met each other – through playing in different bands. I think somebody is working on a big family tree for Perth bands. Maybe when it comes out, you can tie it all together.
So it was less opportunist?
Exactly. That’s the right choice of words.
Geographically, it’s pretty out of the way. How does that isolation impact how difficult it is to break out?
It’s kind of impossible. It’s an impossibility to think that you can step out and do it and reach the world — that’s at least how it feels there. I think you want to get your music heard, but at the same time you realize how difficult it is, so you concentrate on the craft rather than the hustling side of things. It costs a lot of money to get to the other side of the world to begin with. With the Internet, you can get your music heard, but traveling away is difficult to do.
Were your parents initially supportive of this project? How did they react when they realized you were taking off?
I think they were always supportive, but...sorry. I’m getting strange looks from the big giant bass player that we like to call Lurch. You can print that. Feel free to print that.
Methyl Ethel, 8 p.m. Sunday, April 9, Lost Lake Lounge, 3602 East Colfax Avenue, $10, 303-296-1003.
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