Photos by Charlie Hardy
‘It’s probably one of the more scary things that I’ve ever done, dance in front of a camera,’ says Jake Webb, frontman of Methyl Ethel.
Webb is sitting in his house in Perth, which is spotless after a rental inspection, talking to me on the phone about making the film clip for ‘Real Tight’, the second single from Methyl Ethel’s forthcoming album, Triage. The clip features Webb dancing alone in an empty room, with snippets of him singing out the window and laying on a carpeted floor looking into a mirror.
I comment to Webb that it’s probably not the film clip that fans were expecting from Methyl Ethel, who make dreamy, arty pop music that nods to that synthy ‘80s sound. ‘I think that the most subversive or surprising thing that I could do at that stage was to just make a proper music video that would be within the trope of what a music video is,’ says Webb. ‘And to be dancing in it is one of those things.’
Fear of dancing on camera probably isn’t the sentiment you’d expect from a typical musician, especially a guitarist, songwriter and singer. At this stage, Webb has toured the world with Methyl Ethel, written a song that ranked fourth in the 2017 Hottest 100 (‘Ubu’) and is putting out his third studio album this week. All things considered, his vibe is remarkably down-to-earth and modest. But he also has an unmistakeable diligence; it’s clear that a tenacious work ethic drives his music.
Webb grew up working as a labourer for his dad, who runs a fibre-glassing business in Perth. Webb describes his old man as, ‘the first one up [in the morning] and even to this day, even when he’s not working, there’s something on the go. He’s got a project.’ This upbringing—which has been described as a ‘blue collar’ work ethic by band mate Thom Stewart—is a good indicator for Methyl Ethel’s approach.
Methyl Ethel’s new album, Triage, will be out February 15, but Webb is already a fair way into writing and recording the next album after that. This constant need to work is his tried and true method of subverting the fear of putting his music out there and potentially receiving negative reviews or feedback. His theory is that by working on the next thing, he can mentally distance himself from the most recent release.
‘When a record is coming out and you start talking about it and conceptualising it, people are saying that they hate it or they love it or they’re indifferent about it,’ Webb explains. ‘It’s a way of me thinking it doesn’t matter because there’s the next thing on the go. It’s a way of just burying your head into the work so that you don’t have too many existential crises about what it is that you do.’
In his approach to the music, Webb is a lone wolf. The band—Thom Stewart, Chris Wright, Lyndon Blue and Jacob Diamond—are an integral part of the touring aspect of Methyl Ethel, but they’re rarely, if ever, involved in the writing process. Since his teens (he’s 30 now), Webb has written music in almost total isolation. He once told US publication Westword, ‘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.’
Another of Webb’s creative quirks is his inability (or refusal) to talk analytically about his own lyrics. Instead, he firmly believes that it’s up to fans, listeners or critics to decipher what he’s saying in his songs.
‘Triage’ obviously refers to the section of medical care where a medic initially assesses an injury or illness and decides how serious it is and where to refer a patient. I tell Webb that my theory on the album’s title and theme is that he’s sick or injured—maybe heartbroken—but not really sure how bad it is yet. The album is his way of working it out.
‘Amen,’ he laughs. ‘[That] interpretation is as valid as the next. That’s great, I think that’s a good explanation.’ But I’m left wondering whether my analysis is accurate or comical to him. While Webb insists that his lyrics are fairly transparent, on some level he seems to enjoy creating mystery and encouraging independent analysis. ‘The interpretation from the listener back to me is always far more interesting,’ he says.
Inevitably, there are misinterpretations, but Webb is fine with that too. ‘There are humorous things that happen with misinterpretation, which is good,’ he says. ‘I think the best one I’ve experienced is with this song of ours, “Ubu”, and people were thinking, “What is ‘Ubu’? What is this reference?” And I think a whole bunch of people were convinced that it stood for “you be you”. It’s kind of cheesy and great at the same time. And it’s very fun to leave it. Like, don’t say it all, let people figure it out and all this magic happens.’
Actually, ‘Ubu’ was in reference to a French play by the name of Ubu Roi (or ‘King Ubu’ in English), which was first performed in Paris in 1896 and is about a cowardly king. When he wrote the song, Webb was working at the State Theatre in WA doing live captioning for Perth International Arts Festival and he spent about a week watching the play every night. He coupled some of the themes of the play—particularly selfishness and cowardice—with is own experience of growing apart from friends and feeling guilty about not making more effort.
The initial songs from Triage are probably equally personal and introspective, though lyrically they’re a bit darker. The chorus to ‘Ubu’ was about a haircut while in ‘Real Tight’, Webb sings, ‘I cannot lie/I don’t feel right.’ Despite the upbeat, synthy sound of the track, there’s a sense of sorrow in it. If this isn’t immediately clear in the melody, the film clip shows it visually, in the way he sings to the mirror, laying on the floor, clutching himself awkwardly, as if he’s slightly cold.
In ‘Scream Whole’, the other single from the new album, Webb sings, ‘What’s the point in killing all emotion?/I choke on mine…’ The exact circumstances around what he’s talking about are ambiguous but it appears there’s a consistent feeling of emotional pain or loss happening on the album. And at the same time, these are pop songs that are made for dancing to.
Webb has previously said that since he started writing songs from ‘a personal place,’ people find it easier to connect with them. And he’s right, people connect to them. Fans will dance to these songs together, at big summer music festivals. They’ll also probably dance to them alone, in their bedrooms.