Unravelling The Mystery Of Methyl Ethel

TEN thousand hours is the magic number of greatness. Or so wrote Malcolm Gladwell in his 2008 book, Outliers.

It’s a theory the author attributes to the success of Bill Gates, who started coding back in high school; and The Beatles, who were playing eight-hour shows before exploding globally. So why not an art rock band from Perth?

“When you think about it, it makes a lot of sense to work like that,” says Methyl Ethel’s Jake Webb, who adopted the theory while writing the band’s third album Triage.

“When I’m writing I’ll come up with 100 ideas and maybe there’ll be three that are good. It can take a while to get to something I’m happy with, but that’s starting to become my approach to songwriting.”

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JAKE is eating his lunch in between interviews when we meet at a bustling cafe in Collingwood, Melbourne, in late 2018.

Softly spoken and reserved in conversation, he reflexively puts his hands to his mouth when speaking; a move that would suggest he’s shy.

It’s a far cry from the confident frontman who performed in front of a sold-out crowd at Brunswick venue Howler the night before, but even on stage he’s a man of few words.

The show in many ways felt like a reintroduction to the band, with the set comprised mostly of songs from Triage. Tracks like ‘Scream Whole’ and ‘Real Tight’ already feel like set staples, and if the crowd’s response is anything to go by, they’re likely to become some of the band’s most loved tracks.

Jake is a compelling songwriter but an unlikely frontman – and it’s this paradox that makes him intriguing.”

Everything has been taken up a notch for Methyl Ethel’s new chapter – the live band has now expanded from the core trio of Webb, Thom Stewart and Chris Wright to five members with the addition of Lyndon Blue and Jacob Diamond.

With the new configuration there’s always a point of distinction between the recorded track and the live version, and subsequently, older songs like ‘Twilight Driving’ and ‘No.28’ now feel fully realised.

Jake is a compelling songwriter but an unlikely frontman – and it’s this paradox that makes him intriguing. Many have been left wondering who the man behind Methyl Ethel is, but as our conversation reveals it’s clear Jake would rather be shrouded in mystery than be a clear-cut figure.

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2017 saw the release of Methyl Ethel’s second album Everything Is Forgotten.

Produced by James Ford (Arctic Monkeys, Klaxons), it allowed Jake to delve further into his experimental leanings, often veering off into dark and unusual places.

Despite its density, Everything Is Forgotten delivered moments of pop brilliance, spawning the single ‘Ubu’ which has been certified gold in Australia and reached #4 in triple j’s Hottest 100 in 2017. It’s success however is still baffling to Jake.

“Whenever I’ve heard one of my songs on the radio it never seems to fit, so it’s quite surprising to see how people have responded to ‘Ubu’,” he explains.

“I always joke about writing a song like that with the audience’s reaction in mind, but I think that would be the worst thing to possibly do, to write specifically with that intention. What I’m writing is not engineered for the top 10 Billboard charts.”

“That’s what I’m obsessed with: that dopamine hit when something comes together. It’s kind of like an addiction really.”

There is no denying however that Methyl Ethel possess a feverish appeal, and while Jake prefers to exist outside of the mainstream, the success of the past two years has well and truly thrust him into the spotlight.

Since 2016 the band have sold out every show in Australia and the UK and racked up more than 25 million streams on Spotify. The days of Jake’s anonymity are over, but the curiosity his music provokes is still something he’s adjusting to.

“I’m that same super fan, so I understand why people are so interested in what I do,” he admits.

“I guess I always thought that mystery was kind of fun, and for me, being mysterious is more a product of choosing not to talk at length about certain things which I think is a bit different. At the end of the day why I wrote a particular song is kind of nobody’s business. But also I chose to share that song with an audience. I guess I’m still trying to figure out where I sit with that.”

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IF you hadn’t guessed already, Methyl Ethel is something of an outlier in the Australian music landscape.

While the music is immediate and hook-laden, Jake’s lyrics are often perplexing and lend themselves to many questions. On ‘Summer Moon’ from Everything Is Forgotten, he addresses an unknown religious figure: “Should I dress like you, cardinal? Should I dress like you, even so?”

The lyrical obliqueness has very much been carried over to Triage. Lead single ‘Scream Whole’ opens with the line, “Asinine white light come feed me/Come remind me of my grievances/Twice imbibed, confer the how and why.”

“I think the beauty of things that are a little more surreal and ambiguous is that it’s a bit more of an open ended question,” Jake explains.

“The way that I’ve tried to make all my music is to construct them almost like dreams. It’s something that I think is a good analogy to the way that I work, given that dreams are often fragmented and unclear. I think the more that you try and explain it in a narrative or linear way, the more it becomes irrelevant and boring.”

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TRIAGE is a term used in the medical world to decide the order of treatment based on the degree of urgency.

The album, Jake explains, is concerned with the same thing.

“I chose it for its literal meaning in terms of sorting through things and ordering them in terms of their importance. That’s the way I think of the album. When I was making it I tried to imagine all the arguments of all the songs and how they were putting their case forward.”

Writing and recording out of his Perth home studio allows Jake to dedicate the majority of his waking hours to music-making. Like Nick Cave, he adopts a nine-to-five business hours approach rather than waiting for inspiration to strike.

“You get quite a lot done if you do it everyday, and you can shed the bullshit of being an artist too,” explains Jake. “Ultimately I’m making music I want to listen to. The way I see it I’m the listener just as much as anyone else.”

And while a 9-5 schedule of making music may already feel like a lot, Jake isn’t about to get complacent. “It could be 24/7,” he says with all seriousness.

Although Methyl Ethel is a band for live purposes Jake has always been its sole songwriter. Nevertheless, Triage represents a major breakthrough for him. It’s the first time he wrote, performed and produced the album entirely himself in his home studio and in London with mixer Marta Salogni.

It seems like the natural progression, but he doubted for a long time whether or not he was capable.

“I think it was just time to be brave and thankfully all the label people [at Australian label Remote Control] were super supportive of me just tackling it myself,” he says. “I think it was just the right time to back myself into it, it’s all about learning and I’ve learnt a lot more this time round that will help for the next album.”

“The way that I’ve tried to make all my music is to construct them [the songs] almost like dreams."

This confidence in his music has translated into Methyl Ethel’s grandest and most adventurous album yet. Triage features some big instrumental moments that Jake attributes to his desire to push his sound to new places.

Pacing is key to each song’s progression – a breakdown in instrumentation on opening track ‘Ruiner’ reveals a bubbling synth line, while a poppier track like ‘All The Elements’ starts off bare, before synths and a sinewy bass are layered in.

“I think making music is always an experiment to me, and that’s what’s so fun about it,” he says.

“Each time I go to make something I want to do things differently, I even moved my whole studio into another room in the house just to change things up. I always need to change the makeup of what’s in there or where I am because it stagnates so quickly.”

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WITH the February 2019 release of Triage, Jake says he’s ready to close the book on what he considers a trilogy of albums starting with 2015’s Oh Inhuman Spectacle.

“Having that distance between what I was going through and what I produced made me realise that that all of the songs have been dealing with the same stuff,” he says.

While he won’t speak in specifics, the album’s lyrics seem to delve into the complicated nature of relationships, particularly when they become fractured or end. “There is a point of no return/It’s easy to see, you’re slipping away from me,” he sings on ‘Trip The Mains’, while ‘Post-Blue’ hints at relationship breakdown: “The first lie/So light I held it inside, then I saw it creeping up the walls.”

“This album is ultra-personal”, says Jake. “The songs are talking about specific moments, and also talking about things that I’m too afraid to say to the people in them. That’s why when I get interviewed I don’t feel I need to talk about that sort of stuff, because when I wrote the songs, that was me talking about it.

“There are definitely some songs that I think are too cryptic,” he continues, “some are so abstract that it’s hard for me to remember what the lyric is for me to perform it, but for the most part, a lot of my songs are very direct.”

While the mechanics behind Methyl Ethel are meticulous and complex, perhaps the most fundamental takeaway is how much joy this project brings Jake.

“It’s so enjoyable to make music and make a song that’s chasing that sort of special moment,” he says. “That’s what I’m obsessed with: that dopamine hit when something comes together. It’s kind of like an addiction really.”

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