When something as simultaneously complex and catchy as Methyl Ethel hits your eardrums, a fair question to consider is whether the songwriter is trying to challenge us – the listener – or whether their goal was to challenge themselves. Jake Webb – Methyl Ethel’s songwriter and chief musician – sees the two as interwoven. “I suppose I am a listener, in the same way, throughout the whole process,” he says, “before anyone else gets to listen to it. But the difference is, I can change it. If it’s satisfying to me, it’s hopefully satisfying to you. I’m just trying to find the answer to that.”
How that search takes shape has its options too. On new album Triage, track Hip Horror has a dissonant quality to its constantly folding rhythm – so, did Webb make some massive effort to force his brain into strange places and colour outside the lines, or was it a matter of choosing a slightly wonky pattern and repeating it until it became that aural mandala? “I think it’s always something to strive for – a blend of the two,” he says. “Because sometimes you need to have the satisfaction of being in the lines, as you say – on the grid – and sometimes it’s as simple as a time signature being in odd numbers. There’s that famous song, Take Five by Dave Brubeck: a 5/4 time signature does that [i.e. makes for an inherently unpredictable song] because it’s uneven; it doesn’t go where you want it to go. When people can’t find the downbeat, I don’t know if it’s satisfying or distracting. But it’s something to strive for. For me, [track six on Triage] Real Tight [has an] odd, looping structure that is… sort of repetitive, but it never repeats in the same way – or, it kind of flows in a natural way that is unnatural to what we’re used to.”
In first single Scream Whole, there’s a harpsichord – a very early form of piano. It has a cute but creepy feel, the origin of which Webb finds interesting. “Maybe it’s because of The Addams Family?” he suggests. “Much like how the theremin is used to make things sound like they’re from outer space! [The harpsichord] is really satisfying to play. I’m pretty sure each string has a tiny little plectrum that plucks it. The piano was invented afterwards – that’s when they came up with the hammering system.”
Meanwhile, there are plenty of electronically manipulated goings-on across the album. Ruiner includes some sort of hydra-dog’s reversed barks, which emerge like the hounds of hell before a beatific choir steps in. Webb did use samples on Methyl Ethel’s previous album, 2017’s Everything Is Forgotten (see: the kookaburras he recorded at his parents’ house, on Summer Moon), but this time they’re utilised differently.
“They’re not used as field recordings; they’re samples in the field, turned into instruments,” he explains. “So in Real Tight, the main piano sound is made up of field sounds. You can take any old sample, and sculpt it, and essentially just play it across the keyboard – pitched up or down.”
This was one particular method in an overarching campaign to evolve from the previous record. “In the process of thinking and conceptualising how I was going to do Triage, I just wanted to spend more time going over things, to make sure that I was really satisfied first,” he says. “Essentially I wanted to pore over the lyrics, pore over the songwriting, and explore all the scenarios of each song before I decided it was finished.”
And how does one know when that is? “That’s the thing,” he smiles. “I think the song dictates that.”
Triage is out February 15 via Dot Dash/Remote Control.