Jake Webb of Methyl Ethel on “Are You Haunted?”
Grief, Climate Change, and Label Woes
Apr 19, 2022
Photography by Xan Thorrhoea
When COVID-19 took hold in 2020, the work of Albert Camus took on special meaning for Jake Webb—frontman and songwriter for Perth, Australia-based band, Methyl Ethel. At the time he happened to be reading the French philosopher and novelist’s most famed work, The Plague. “Come to terms with death. Thereafter, anything is possible,” wrote Camus, whose essays, plays and novels rooted largely in Existential and Absurdist modes of thought, often explored the right and wrong ways to live.
Are You Haunted?—the title of Methyl Ethel’s fourth studio album and first on Australian label Future Classic after their departure from 4AD—expands on Camus’ belief that we should first deal with death before we can truly contend with the art of living, otherwise these things bubble under the surface and come back to haunt us. Webb’s songwriting functions like memento mori, a reminder of death in “In a Minute Sublime,” or that we’re not dealing with the death of our planet in “Neon Cheap” and “Kids on Holiday,” and the death of truth, in “Proof”—which features Stella Donnelly, whose 2019 album Beware Of The Dogs reveled in truth telling.
Speaking to Webb via zoom video, I can see the studio that he wrote Are You Haunted?—a room in Fremantle Recording Studios, where Guts, his first EP, was recorded in 2013 with producer Brian Mitra, his once-collaborator. A founder of the studio, Mitra, who had also worked with Tame Impala, shocked the local music community in Perth when he passed away suddenly, in his sleep, in 2018. Webb also attended high school with Mitra and though the friends had lost touch in recent years, Webb wrote “In a Minute Sublime” in remembrance of him.
Celine Teo-Blockey (Under the Radar): During COVID, Western Australia was the toughest [area] to get into. It was Zero COVID for so long, as international and national borders until very recently, were closed. But during the early part of the pandemic as our beaches and parks here were cordoned off, I would look longingly at Insta-stories of my family in Perth and think, “That’s where I want to be!” Because people were still out doing the things they wanted to do, and it seemed like a safe zone. What was it like for you from the inside? Jake Webb: For some context, just prior to the beginning of COVID, I was living in L.A. and was starting to put together the bits and pieces required to see if I could get something going there. Then I came back to Perth with the sort of question mark over it—this sort of feeling like, “Well, it’s really good, but it’s also expensive and having to get a studio organized to work on things.” I was planning to go back there anyway to do a solo tour with Peter Bjorn and John. I was just about to do my final rehearsal for that tour in Perth when the news came in that Trump closed the borders to Europe. It all kind of snowballed from then. It’s in my personality to make the most of the downtime but for a long time, I was waiting in Perth to see when things would change. Luckily, I reached out to the current manager of this studio space, this room at the time was just being used as a storeroom. But I knew it very well because I used to sleep in here years ago when I was recording with my friend, Brian [Mitra].
Oh, yes, I’m sorry for your loss.
Yeah. Oh no, that’s fine. Anyway, it just kind of went from there. And next thing I knew, I was sort of deep into setting a space up, and in full recording mode. I was working on this the whole of last year I guess, and it kind of flew by. Also having everything slow down and not having a tour impending—it was kind of helpful in a way.
But you also said you wound up just looking through old stuff and that became counter-productive to some extent, to actually making new music.
It was a lot of going through old ideas. Maybe I’m giving too much credit to COVID, perhaps it was always going to happen this way. But yeah, looking and sifting through it all and trying to make I suppose sense of it—I think a good clean up is a good way to start anything. It’s like painting the walls or something, you know, metaphorically, just get a total clean slate. But yeah, the Perth thing is different again, because Perth is a bubble anyway, as far as in the Australian context and also in the global context. So the way that everything kind of continued business as usual was—yeah, it was kind of a bit of a bizarro world. We were all experiencing the same things (COVID, lockdown, protests), but at the same time, I was still catching the train to this place for pretty much six days a week, 9 to 5. I was living what would be considered a normal life. But for me, it was not normal. It was totally different. I usually have tours, I’ve never really done this 9 to 5 before—and I loved it.
Listening to this album, there is certainly a sense of loss—that we’re haunted by people we’ve lost. And this looming specter of climate anxiety and that we’re going to die out as a species if we don’t face and deal with the climate change issue. Then there are songs that reference the social upheaval that we were going through this last two years. There’s this kind of grander theme of a loss of innocence for us as a human race because we’re not focused on the right things. I think “Something to Worry About” really fleshes this idea out. You’ve talked about losing your friend and it seems to be me that much of this album is tied to that personal grief and then it pans out to this larger notion that as a species we’re like, “What are we fucking doing?” When did you first start writing these songs and when did it all coalesce into “Oh, this is what I’m writing about!”
I’ve never been to therapy before but what I imagine in the way that you’re describing and after having spoken about the record—I’m realizing how much this tone of grief is in there. I was not conscious of actually putting it in there. And I think if I was conscious at the time, it would have felt too contrived and I would have just—
Taken it out?
Yes! So I’m really happy with how it came out. I started writing songs in probably early 2020 with “Something to Worry About.” But “Castigat Ridendo Mores” was the first song I wrote after I had just finished reading The Plague by Albert Camus. I’ve never actually read his work and I love his writing—then it was just total coincidence that the plague started to play out. That was too weird.
For the previous three records, I feel like I wrote these personal songs [about heartbreak] but then worked hard to obfuscate all of the details. And then they came out in this sort of wonky way. I think the distance was too much for some people and really I wanted to try something different. So my intention was to write a song directly about this book. And then over the sort of year that I was writing and rewriting things I felt a confidence that I’m just writing my perspective on things. I’m posing more questions and writing what I see, and that’s how so many of the issues that came bubbling to the surface came to be on the record. I think your reading of the record is spot on because the album titles almost always come first and then I kind of write to that theme. And that innocence that you’re speaking of losing—all of these things, the deep troubling parts of humanity are always there, that specter is always lurking, but do you address it? And when you address it, how do you address those issues—and I went from there. There’s two songs that aren’t on this cut of the record, but I hope to release them eventually. And one of them is about questioning: “Why do we hold onto certain traditions that are hurtful to other people, like Thanksgiving, for example?” It’s not about me saying, “What is the right thing to do?” It’s just, “Why? Why do we do these things?” And these were the conversations that I was listening to with the people around me—there was so much learning happening over those two years, which was really great.
I was reading some press around this album and there was a lot of regurgitation about how this album was not personal for you this time. But for me, it actually seems like the reverse, it is more direct and personal. Perhaps when you put that mask on and told yourself that you were just talking about the world outside you—so much more of you seeped into the record.
That’s a really good point about masks. And that’s the interesting thing about how sometimes—I don’t know who said it and I’m paraphrasing—how when you are wearing a mask, you reveal more of your true self. Perhaps that’s what’s going on here—this feeling of confidence and revealing more. I’m starting to see that in the songs, this growth as far as the songwriting goes, that’s exciting for me. That’s what it’s all about—the drive to continually find that voice, and to get better.
“Neon Cheap” captures this idea of growth that I think we were all experiencing. It’s like no matter how much you think you’re not racist or are doing all the right things, how can you actually be anti-racist? It was a real reckoning, like, let’s look at all this structural and internalized racism and be aware of how we benefit from it. I mean, it was huge here, and I guess that translated in the context of Australia—in terms of aboriginal issues and the migrant population. And in the song, those lines: “Who’s that girl that’s so strong and so confident? Who’s that boy that eats wrong and stays hungry? Who’s that person that cannot be put into a category?”—that’s in reference specifically to all the social justice conversations of the last two years from Greta Thunberg to food insecurity and trans rights.
Yes! That makes me so happy. It’s like when I speak to people who really listen to what I’m saying—you have no idea. It’s just like, “Yes, I just want to hug you so much.” [Laughs]
At one point, you also sound like you’re singing through a loud hailer. And again, it was reminding me of protests, George Floyd and #metoo. But also the irony that we seem to be going backwards with gay and trans rights. And Roe versus Wade we’re actually losing. Then I had a question mark in my notes, “Was I reading too much into the song?”
It’s all of that. And that’s why it’s a little hard—I mean, that’s the beauty of writing in this way. I think I wrote that not long after attending a protest in Perth. I think Courtney Barnett does it really well where she can take a slice of life—talk about going to buy a house in Preston or something—and she can really show you the beauty in the mundane, in that really laconic way.
I can’t. When I read it back, it just feels like what I said before—it’s too contrived when I do it. I guess I’m just trying to find my own way.
So take me back, how did that song come together—you said you went to a protest?
Yes, when you mentioned that, I realized it, the timing kind of works out. It’s a bit of a blur. All I can remember was that it was summer. That’s why this song sounds a bit more upbeat. It’s probably the most upbeat song on the record. It also came after the majority of the album was finished and is a little bit separate from the rest. But so writing it—I lie on the ground, and I have the melody there, and I often get into a bit of a trance state. It’s like sculpture you’re chipping away at it, then putting things in. And when it works—it’s like all of a sudden I can’t remember how it happened.
What protest was this?
It was an Aboriginal deaths in custody protest and it was right around the same time as the George Floyd protests were happening around the world.
“Kids on Holiday” starts out with a pretty piano intro and then there’s a sort of squashed yelp before the song segues into this ominous synth-y melody that evokes this feeling of foreboding. And towards the end there’s a spectral, ghostly sound that I associate with scary movies from the ’70s. What were all those sounds?
The first thing—I must have done something weird with my voice and then it sounded good so I kept it. The answers are always boring. The second one—I was listening to a lot of South Indian music from Rajasthan at the time and I became obsessed with the percussion for this song. I went really heavy, and set up all these toms [tom drums] in the room and recorded lots of that. And what’s that ghostly sound? It’s white noise, a white noise filter of some sort. It is really spooky because it does create this atmosphere and suspense. These are all little bits and pieces that I started learning from Brian actually, when we used to record music together. The studio for me is where you can do anything you want. You can create any world and that’s what’s so exciting and fun about it. I try to do that without going overboard.
It’s really building a world inside the song. You’d get the full effect if you were walking and listening on your headphones in the dark and be like, “Wow, this is so cool!”
I like the way you’re talking about it. I just love that kind of stuff.
“Kids on Holiday” is also a song about climate anxiety. How long did you experiment with all these thematic, sonic ideas?
At this stage, the open-ended experimentalism is kept small because it is the biggest time waste. So I really try to come up with the idea before I plug something in. Because this whole room is like a playground, then you get to three o’clock in the afternoon and I haven’t done anything! Which sucks. Often I frustrate myself all day long trying to work something out and then before I have to leave, I quickly do something and it actually works. [Laughs]
For “Matters,” you said that it was about living in L.A. and ruminating on earthquakes, this idea of the big one. It’s funny, because I live here and earthquakes do happen and we’re like, “Oh, that was an earthquake. Okay, what else are we having for dinner?”
That’s right. Because when you think about things too much, it can be too big. And the earthquake is a larger metaphor that fits the album—that there are literally these dangers lurking beneath our feet and you have to sometimes not think about it and suspend all of those anxieties, to be able to live your life.
I’m drawn to this idea of compartmentalization, because that’s how we deal with any kind of drama—we put it in a box, for later, when we can deal with it. And with “In a Minute Sublime,” I feel like you were unpacking or dealing with that grief of losing your friend?
I made the demo just after he had passed away and I’d been to his funeral. It was always going to happen because as far as our relationship went, it felt like the right thing to do. I have this anecdote of when we were spending lots of time together, writing music—we had this friend of ours and it was her birthday. And it was getting close to the time we had to leave for her party and we said to each other, “She’s awesome, she’ll get it, she’ll totally understand this is what we’re supposed to be doing,” because our friend was also managing our band at the time. So we didn’t go. “Obviously,” we thought, “that’s the right choice.” But she was so devastated at us, so disappointed. And we were clueless. In that way, I thought, coming in here and making music, that’s the response he would have expected. And writing the song and being able to put in all these personal references, and for it to work and feel like a conversation—you know how crying can be so cathartic?
Every time I’d listen to it, even just the strings that I made for it, I would cry. And it felt good singing it and playing it live. I get to tap into that all the time. And I have this forever, you know, and I feel so lucky to be able to do that.
The last time we spoke, you had just signed up with 4AD and now you’ve parted ways? You’ve mentioned there was some pressure to put out something as popular or successful as “Ubu” and that didn’t happen. I guess, it’s a necessary part of being an artist these days that you can shop around your work, and labels come and go. In some ways, it’s better because in the old days, labels would tie up music and not release it. But now you can negotiate and take it to another label or self-release. And you’ve really landed on your feet with Future Classic, an Australian label and a great one. But what was all that drama like?
I think it’s very easy to put up a defense and say, “Fuck it, it doesn’t matter!” I feel like in the past, I’ve used that attitude to get on with things and say, “I’ll make the best thing I can.” But really, it makes you question all of it. Like when a relationship breaks down, you second-guess everything they said in the beginning—did they actually feel, or mean it? I felt like I was being hoodwinked or something but then realizing that there was a bit of anxiety. [Pause] It really does feel like I’m telling you my side of the break up—but we sort of stepped away because I think we wanted a fresh start. And by we, I mean management and I, and also to feel confident that we could partner with somebody who is open to just putting music out and doing things in a way that hadn’t been done previously. So it was a really good, fresh start.
Recently on Triple J’s Like A Version you covered “Frontier Psychiatrist” by The Avalanches. It’s a pretty crazy song but you made it more complicated by mashing in another song—“Dribble” by your Future Classic bandmate, Sycco. Why did you decide to do that?
I love “Frontier Psychiatrist—what a killer song and a huge challenge! I was definitely up to try to do it. I used to do this thing where I would find out where all the old samples of these songs are and recreate the song from its samples. So I did that here, and then had every sort of section to play with. I had also done some cover songs, featuring a few other artists and I like to really look at it, sort of like a remix, where I take the melody and rearrange all of the melodic and harmonic structure so that you can essentially create an entirely different song. It’s all this nerdy, music theory side that I really enjoy. I knew that I wanted to do that with this Like A Version cover—to have an iconic Australian artist as the bedrock and then to find a young female Australian artist to go together.
Featuring a young, female, Australian artist—that was quite intentional?
Yeah, totally. But thank dog, that’s the song’s melody! I didn’t even have to change the key or anything else. I pretty much just changed one note and it all fit together so beautifully.
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|Title||:||Methyl Ethel - Are You Haunted Live|
|Type of file||:||Audio/Video (.mp3 .mp4)|
New album Are You Haunted? out now: ffm.to/areyouhaunted
Follow Methyl Ethel: linktr.ee/methylethel
DOP: Tay Kaka
2nd Camera: Alec Kucy
Edited by Joe Agius
Recorded/Mixed by Jake Webb
ARE YOU HAUNTED? TRACKLIST:
2. Proof feat. Stella Donnelly
3. Something to Worry About
4. Neon Cheap
5. Kids on Holiday
6. One and Beat
8. Castigat Ridendo Mores
9. In a Minute, Sublime