Methyl Ethel on How an Andrei Tarkovsky Quote, ‘The Waste Land’, the Golden Ratio, and More Inspired His New Album ‘Are You Haunted?’

    On his fourth album, Jake Webb comes at you with a question that sounds heavy and even a little bit ridiculous: Are You Haunted? When you think about it, it makes sense that the genesis of the album dates back to ‘Castigat Ridendo Mores’, a song named after a Latin phrase that essentially suggests the only way to get through the craziest, most difficult times – which is what some may describe the past two years during which Webb crafted his most solitary project to date – is to point out their absurdity. The Western Australian singer-songwriter and producer, who has been honing his eclectic brand of psychedelic dream pop since he adopted the moniker back in 2013, is less interested in offering easy answers than trying to capture the essence of a question, the things – both frightening and funny – that creep around the edges and evade you. It’s a fitting title for an album that is moved by abstract ideas but finds bold and intriguing ways of exploring them.

    Out today via Future Classic, Are You Haunted? – Methyl Ethel’s first for the label – is his most unrestrained and experimental effort to date. There are sections of solo piano, an instrument featured heavily on the album, weaved alongside dissonant strings, dramatic melodies, and heady electronics, like on ‘One and the Beat’, which stretches out to six minutes. But for every moment that feels brooding and introspective, there are others that are groovy and danceable, like the propulsive ‘Matters’ or the Stella Donnelly-assisted ‘Proof’, his first song with a featured artist. It’s a strangely evocative album that concerns itself with serious subjects – climate change, politics, the culture at large – but never takes itself too seriously. Because what it’s really haunted by – in a poetic sense, at least, but still quite visceral –  is the actual space that made it possible, the studio where Methyl Ethel recorded their earliest material and where Webb returned to during the pandemic, following the passing of a close friend who owned it. You can spend your time pondering the meaning of that question, but at the end of the day, you just have to feel it. 

    We caught up with Jake Webb to talk about how an Andrei Tarkovsky quote, The Waste Land, the golden ratio, and more inspired his new album.

    An Andrei Tarkovsky Quote

    Had we been speaking in my studio, which I normally would be for most of the interviews, you would have seen it behind me, but it’s just three words. I’m paraphrasing, but I think he was essentially saying that these are the core elements of what he considers to be his art or his creative process, and it’s “Luck, lies, and witchcraft.” That felt really apt, and it kind of resonated throughout the making of the record. To this day, I think those are totally three core elements in any creative pursuit of making something that is special.

    Do you see one of them as being in any way more important when it comes to your work?

    Not at all, because I think what it also does signify is that you kind of need to be in the room, doing the work, for any of them to actually manifest. You need to really be there to to get lucky in any way, but after toiling for so long you can totally make that happen. The lies is really kind of like that showbiz thing where it’s all smoke and mirrors, trying to trick people into feeling certain emotions.  I think that’s the driving force in many ways for the choices that you make, it’s just, “How do I fabricate an emotional response out of something?” That’s where that witchcraft comes in – there is sort of an unknown factor where everything goes right, I guess the magic, if you will. It’s something that is open enough to be a great source of inspiration.

    I actually noted down another Tarkovsky quote from Stalker that I thought was interesting and wanted to ask you about. It goes, “A man writes because he is tormented, because he doubts. He needs to constantly prove to himself and the others that he’s worth something.” Do you believe that’s true?

    I feel like that’s just a pretty human perspective. In loads of pursuits, there is so much of proving oneself – in a person’s life, too, to a certain degree. So certainly, I think it does resonate. But the torment is just too dramatic for me. I understand and I can empathise with the thought, but it’s far too dramatic of a perspective for me. I don’t feel tormented so much – only as tormented as anybody else. I mean, life has its torments, you know, and it can be read and experienced as nothing but endless torment. But the opposite is also true.

    I also think this idea of self-doubt being a motivator is interesting, that part of creating something is putting yourself in a vulnerable position.

    I think there is something in that. I think you do know that the answers that you look for through doing this kind of stuff, they’re impossible to find. Even striving for some kind of perfection is an impossible quest, but it’s that striving for it that is so seductive, that’s so enjoyable, to feel like you’re really trying to grab onto something.

    Nam June Paik with Charlotte Moorman, Guadalcanal Requiem

    It’s something I came across years ago, and there was just a part of it that resonated with me, that essentially was something I would have written down in a journal that has become the title of the album and just a lot of thoughts about it. There’s this title that comes on the screen, and it’s speaking about displaced spirits of soldiers who have died while at war on an island away from their home. From my memory, that’s what it kind of is. I think it says, “Are we haunted by homeless ghosts?” I thought that was a really beautiful sentence. Even just that question, “Are you haunted?” was something that felt really evocative for me. It’s something that I saw years before this record was something I was working on, and I think this really illustrates how I’m using my antenna to kind of pick up on things that get stored away for later time.

    David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

    Last year and the year before, they were the biggest two years of readings for me. I’ve read more books than I ever have. I looked at my bookshelf at the time, at the beginning, I just thought it’s shameful how many of my own books I haven’t actually finished or read. So it was a really feverish time of reading, because I was also – this is one of my inspirations, but it ties into catching the train. I was catching the train and the bus to my studio, which was a really peaceful 45-minute journey just to myself that I would read all these books while doing it. I was so engrossed I would walk and read at the same time – our streets aren’t particularly busy, so it’s very easy to do that, but you just go straight out the door, straight onto the page.

    I think David Foster Wallace has been the most exciting author that I’ve read for so long. The inspiration is more of a rule-breaking thing. It’s almost like: don’t be afraid to cram all your ideas into something. Don’t be afraid to speak in your own voice. Don’t be afraid to mash all of the formats and bits and pieces of things that you are interested in into the work. That’s the first time I’d ever read it, and I can’t wait to read it again. But it’s just challenging in all the right ways, funny as hell, which is also so important. It’s something that I’ve tried to put into this record as well. There needs to be a healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek. Because I also read Ulysses not long after that, just because I’m a pretentious wanker, mainly, and for me, so much of those works – there’s so much piss-taking in it. And there’s so much that it wasn’t meant for us to understand. We can try so hard to figure things out, but it’s just like a practical joke on the reader a little bit.

    When it comes to catching public transport, was there anything you wanted to add on point?

    It really is that time of quiet contemplation, and wanting to look out the window as much as possible when not reading. It’s just a reminder that sometimes that’s where the experience of music is perfectly suited, when you give yourself the opportunity to slow down a bit, not have anything to do right at that moment.

    A Very Nice, in Tune, Yamaha Upright Piano / Piano Works by Sibelius and Scriabin

    I can hear the piano being more prominent on the album, but how did those things specifically inspire you?

    The piano is at the studio space that I rent, it’s not my piano. But coincidentally, the first piano that I’ve ever owned arrived today and is upstairs and ready to tune tomorrow, so that’s pretty special. Future inspiration, perhaps. I haven’t had access continuously to an actual acoustic piano, because I write on keys wherever I am pretty much for most of the records. More than what the piano signifies, that particular piano was just always there, something that I spent hours at arranging. And I wanted to record it really well and have it be how it sounded to me in the room, because that’s how special it was. And you have to be careful, with the piano, because it says something that is so familiar to people. It’s almost too emotional, it can be very melancholic. But that was okay, because it sort of helped me to tell the story that I wanted to in a musical sense.

    And those pianists, Scriabin and Sibelius, and there were probably a couple of others, but it was just the music that I was listening to most of the time. Because I do I revert to classical music – and I still listen to mostly classical music, but when I’m making my own music, I try to push away most other music except for classical music.

    The Unanswered Question by Charles Ives

    It’s later in the list, but there’s also this modernist work, The Unanswered Question by Charles Ives, that you’ve cited. Can you talk about that as well?

    Yeah, similar sort of thing. I was really interested, and I didn’t do it too much, but I think in other pursuits or moving forward, I found the beauty of dissonance to be really inspiring, and especially through listening to that Charles Ives piece. I remember working on some of the string parts for ‘Castigat Ridendo Mores’ – as soon as I found this dissonant swell, I just remember playing some parallel notes together, some mash that was just exactly perfect. It was this sort of epiphany moment that all of a sudden, you realise there are no rules, really. Everything is just there for you to use in whatever way. That’s a special thing that listening to that Charles Ives piece kind of unlocked a little bit.

    I’m interested to see how that manifests in future works. Maybe that’s why it was further down in the list, too.

    I can understand how, once you get interested in that sort of thing, it’s hard to return to melodic, tonal music. All of a sudden, it’s not exciting anymore. It’d be cool to really see that through.

    T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

    Personally, I find it hard to get away from T.S. Eliot, and this is somebody that I have and probably lots of people have studied in high school. I find that his poetry is just perfect to me, and something I use as something to strive towards. But for this time around, I spent a lot of time on writing the lyrics for this album and rewriting them a lot. I’m not somebody who’s proofread any of my schoolwork or anything over the years, and this is the first time I really did that. The Waste Land was almost like a workout for me while I was writing lyrics, to just read it and see if it can set something off.

    The thing about The Waste Land, more than content, it’s just really sitting with something that is so well-constructed. Not that I would ever want to copy any part of it, that’s not the point, the point would be to really see what somebody who’s a great writer can do and get excited about going in to do that. Because that’s the biggest amount of toil in writing songs, I suppose, is the fact that you’ve got to marry these two totally separate things sometimes, you marry a melody to a lyric. As far as rhythm and melody goes, it’s really hard to do. I feel like I’ve chanced it a little bit more in the past, and this time I wanted to be more precise. So, what better inspiration than somebody who was a master of writing in that way?

    Wim Wenders, Wings of Desire and Kings of the Road

    I was watching a lot of films at night, but just with the subtitles on and the sound muted. And with all due respect to Wim Wenders, I would fall asleep. It would really lull me into sleep in a totally beautiful way. But these films, the pacing of it all was so beautiful and meshed with the evening, the stillness of night. Sometimes you wake up feeling in a similar mode to what the film had because you’re so lulled into that floating around. Wings of Desire maybe is one that thematically did kind of find its way in, because I find that often you can feel like you’re sort of a silent observer of things when you’re walking around. And especially when you’re listening to music, it’s very easy to feel like you’re just watching things going on around you. It’s totally a feeling that I wanted to have in the music.

    Michelangelo Antonioni, The Passenger

    I don’t know how it happened, but it pretty much gave me the idea for the opening lyrics for ‘Proof’. There’s a scene where one of the characters is asked what they can see, and they start describing what they can see out the window. I started writing down the dialogue instantly because there was something in it, and I suppose that’s the truest form of inspiration. All these things, they have something there that in the moment I’m not quite sure what it is but ends up becoming something. That’s why I have so much respect for all the people who are involved in making these films – they’re just rich, full of great ideas and great moments that can just be mined by bullshit artists like me. [laughs]

    I’m glad we talked about this because out of all the lyrics on the album, that line and that melody from ‘Proof’ is the one that just keeps coming back to me the most.

    That’s the witchcraft, then.

    The Golden Ratio and Its Flaws

    This is another one of those things that I have written up on my wall. I had this realization – I thought that what I was doing by continuously going and working on music, and just everything in that room in general, I thought I was striving perfection to get everything perfectly balanced. But the thing that I wrote and I found out was, for me, perfection and harmony – and harmony not necessarily in a musical way – are kind of two different things. I feel that disparate parts being harmonious together, it doesn’t have to be perfect. And I know that imperfection is a total cliche when it comes to making music, especially, being rough around the edges and stuff. But it goes with the thing about dissonance, too, just to remind myself that the purpose of it all is not to try and get everything to be perfect. Especially when I was mixing, it’s a good thing to remind myself that I don’t need to tidy every little last bit up.

    What had you written down specifically on your wall?

    I have the gold ratio formula. I just put a big red circle with a cross through it [laughs]. And I wrote something like, “Perfection is not even to harmony.”

    Playing Drums to Start the Day

    This is the side of things that is just purely enjoyable. It’s just because I love playing drums and it’s a totally different side to all of this real pondering of the deeper things. Sometimes I just want to get into the room and play music – shaking out a bit of the nervous energy of being in the room in 30 minutes to start the day was just a great way to get on with it. To go, “Okay, I’ve had my fun, now it’s time to do some work.” And I’m really proud of the drum parts that I’ve played on the record, too. Groove is so important in music to me, and that serves as a counterpoint to some of the darker, heady themes. You can cut away that or if you don’t speak English and you’re just listening to the music, you should be able to move in that way that’s really primal.

    Fremantle Recording Studios

    This is where you recorded the album, right?

    Yeah. It’s a place that, many years ago, that’s where I started learning how to do all these things. My friend whose studio studio it was, he sort of set it up, I went to high school with him and I learned a lot of stuff with him. A couple of years ago, he passed away tragically. It just so happened that when I came back to Perth, I asked what was happening with a room in the place – the short story is that I found myself back there, which is really special because I spent so much time there many years before. The plan was for me to just do a bit of work there and I’m still working out of there.

    When you think about what recording music in a space is, you really are capturing the essence of the space that you’re in. And if you want to take it to a poetic level, they’re the actual ghosts on the record, the way everything’s bouncing off those walls, all of the air that you’re kind of getting to move the diaphragms, the microphones, which then move your headphones. There are memories that are these ghosts that I’m talking about as far as haunting goes throughout the album – whether they’re real memories or misremembered things, or whether they’re collective memories of people that we have been or ghosts of humanity. That’s what I think about when I think about this record, and that space is so tied into that because that’s the most literal version representation of a lot of those ideas. You can hear that space on the record, so how could it not be an inspiration?

    How did that idea of being haunted in this personal, almost literal way, blend in with the theme of the ghosts of our collective past? How did you go about merging those?

    I think it was really easy because I pretty much always have the title of a record before I really start writing the record, really writing it. It’s not a dissertation or anything, it’s just a way for me to bring a bunch of disparate ideas about things in totally different ways together in one place. So naturally, each new piece of work that I started working on, I wanted to come with a different angle. That was the intention, to do a reading of the same idea in different ways.

    Do you mind sharing one thing that you’ve learned or that you’re still learning from your friend?

    I think more than a lesson or anything like that, it’s just that I feel really lucky and it’s really special to be doing it. To be full-time making music. That would have been both of our – I hesitate to say dreams, but it’s something that we definitely wanted to work towards and he was doing as well. It’s nice to feel like he would just be loving what I’m making at the moment. I would have so much to talk to him about now about all this stuff that I’ve been doing, you know, under the same roof. There was great time back in the day, all those years ago, when I was working in one room and he was in another and another friend was in another, and we would come out for to have a chat and have a cigarette or something. And we were so excited about everything that everybody was doing, and it was so awesome to be feeding off all of that energy, of people just working and doing their thing in their space. I think rather than a lesson, it’s just knowing, it’s just feeling… Yeah, he’d be really into it.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    Methyl Ethel’s Are You Haunted? is out now via Future Classic.

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