“Twilight driving gotta watch out for the ‘roos. Well, it’s the early morning baby I say why don’t you hit the snooze?” With an unmistakable Australian sensibility, the next big band to come out of Perth since Tame Impala appears to be Methyl Ethel. They were widely touted as one of the bands to watch at CMJ last October and were soon signed to prestigious indie label, 4AD. Their debut album, Oh Inhuman Spectacle was released digitally in the US last month, with LPs and CDs available in May.
“Twilight Driving” speaks to the final days of a relationship but juxtapose with a uniquely Australian edge where driving across any rural part of the Great Southern Land presents the real danger of hitting kangaroos especially at dusk and dawn. It is also a song that speaks to our need to keep moving regardless of the dangers, for better or for worse. A song that will bring “roos” into the vernacular better than perhaps a hunter’s croc-wrestling antics. One that will be as memorable as “he just smiled and gave me a vegemite sandwich”?
Methyl Ethel will play at Live 105 DJ Aaron Axelson’s Popscene show at The Rickshaw Stop tonight, March 25. They headline an excellent bill that includes loop collector, Bayonne and spacey garage-punk band, Honduras.
The Perth headliners will no doubt set about converting more fans to their brand of dream pop and soft psychedelia where alien abductions, Summer days so baking hot there is no respite in going indoors and a sense of listlessness that can dog the best of us while on the one hand seemingly parochial also underlies an undeniable universality.
Methyl Ethel – an onomatopoeic gem of a name – was originally begun as the bedroom recordings and adventures into reverb and melody for frontman, Jake Webb whose dad owns a fibre glass business that deals with the sweet, organic compound Methyl Ethyl Ketone. Webb first conceived it as a ‘nameless, faceless entity that no one knew the gender of, and never played shows’. With his ample vocal range and high falsetto early fans were indeed unsure if Methyl Ethel was a female vocalist. However, released tracks quickly garnered the attention of radio shows such as Triple J Unearthed and it didn’t take long before fans were clamoring for the band to be fleshed out for the live stage.
Birthed from a thriving backyard music scene as much as the bigger successes on the international stage of Tame Impala and Pond, Webb who had also been playing guitar in several local bands then set about choosing friends and fellow musicians from the scene – Thom Stewart on bass and Chris Wright on drums – to complete his lineup.
Last year, the album, Oh Inhuman Spectacle was released in Australia with standout tracks like “Twilight Driving” and “Rogues” proving popular with critics and fans. “Rogues” won Pop Song of the Year 2014 at the WAM (Western Australia) Awards and as the band played more shows, another song from Oh Inhuman Spectacle, “Twilight Driving” took Best Single at the WAM Awards a year later. This time, they also won Best Pop Act.
Already proving to be a band with a sound so distinct that their recent cover of Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me A River” succeeds in not just hitting all the right notes with its wry bass and hints of psychedelia but also in bringing a shade of brooding depth that surpasses the syrupy original.
Earlier this year, Methyl Ethel were one of 10 bands up for the coveted Australian Music Prize together with fellow Perth band, Tame Impala and one of Australia’s most successful female acts from the last two years, Courtney Barnett. The band eventually lost to Barnett but she did take them on tour with her this past January.
After a hectic run at SXSW, Webb takes a moment to speak to Examiner about whether his dream-pop ear-worms were written to be enjoyed in the bright glow of daylight or better at night. He also gives us a hint to what their next album may sound like and how it feels to be the next big thing.
Examiner: How was SXSW – did you get any sleep? How did the audiences there enjoy the tracks of Oh Inhuman Spectacle?
Jake Webb: We knew we were going to be busy so we made sure to rest between the shows. It’s always interesting coming to a new place – I think they re-acted positively. We had a good amount of people come out to most of our gigs so we were pleased.
Examiner: I’ve read a couple of reviews that say this is a night time record but I can hear descriptions in the songs and I feel it’s incredibly sunny – but could this be because I know Perth well and I know with Perth summers it can be very hot during the day but usually cools off at night… I am actually off to a family wedding there at Christmas – anyway, what were your intentions?
JW: It’s funny you say you’re going to a wedding at a brewery cause some place like that was probably where I spent time writing the songs for this album. My memory of making this album is that a lot of the writing and recording was done during the day rather than how people are experiencing it as a night time record. But at the same time I know some of the songs have that fragments-of-a-dream sensation and in my intent there is an element of it being a dream. I guess I can say it’s a marriage of both – night and day.
Examiner: You wrote much of this album on your own behind close doors – can you tell us a little about your state of mind during the writing and recording of “Oh Inhuman Spectacle”?
JW: I was spending a bit of time over that Summer writing it – I guess the actual things in my life had pushed me to seek that out, so that gives you an idea of my head space.
Examiner: I understand you recorded this album in a series of different places – you parent’s home south of Perth, various bedrooms, friend’s studios, quiet caverns – when you listen to the album do you hear all those different places and how did it affect the mood of the various songs. I mean as a whole it sounds cohesive?
JW: I can definitely see in hindsight all the different places and moods. But it’s the benefit of hindsight and the fact that this album has been out in Australia for such a long time and I have been talking about it so much.
Examiner: Apart from the standout tracks like “Rogues” and “Twilight Driving”, I also loved “Obscura” because it just sounds different – it has a jazz broadway solo feel to it or an ‘80s new wave band, I can’t figure it out – what was the inspiration for the song?
JW: It was the last song that I wrote. There’s always a song in my albums that is of a first batch – I guess it’s safe to say then, if you like that song that you may like the next record. My writing usually flows into each new record. It was the opening lyrics that just jumped into my head and I wrote it from there. I think it was while I was driving across Stirling Bridge and I used my phone to record it as a memo.
Examiner: The Perth community seems pretty tight with Tame Impala and Pond – did that have an impact on your own music and the genesis of Methyl Ethyl?
JW: How the community has influenced me is in looking around and seeing all your peers prolific in putting records out all the time. And always going out to see other bands perform – that was a motivating factor. There was nothing holding anyone back in experimenting then putting out music. And initially when I wanted a band I had a well-spring of good musicians to choose from which is how I met Chris and Tom, through these forged friendships.
Examiner: You are a big fan of Classical music – Ravel, Rachmaninoff and Debussey, what is your relationship with it, and how do you think it affects the way your brain is wired for songwriting?
JW: I studied music in High school. However, I was terrible at music theory. I still am. But I had an older sister who also took piano lessons and I would wake up to my sister playing scales – that was actually how I knew it was time to get up.
Examiner: That must have been a nice way to get up?
JW: Yes. What I love is that power of classical music – the more you learn about it, the more you talk about it sometimes with music you can loose that enigmatic power – but with classical music there is so many more secrets to unlock. With a regular song I’ll be listening out for the way in which the snare drums are recorded. With classical songs my brain pieces the way the melodies work – I am trying to figure out why I feel the sort of way I do after hearing it. It’s on a different level.
Examiner: And you teach kids as well – or do you still? Sometimes, gigging musicians teach music to kids to make money but what do you enjoy about that, I feel it can be a real calling to teach music to kids?
JW: Yes I feel the same way. I love it. I haven’t taught for a while as I’ve been in America but I hope to go back and they’ll have me again. I love imparting that knowledge to kids. I wish I was taught that way – to help them also learn to unlock those secrets.
Examiner: Did you learn the piano as a kid too?
JW: Yes I didn’t last very long though. It’s a little mean but my sister who is younger learnt as well and we both thought our teacher was scary, we thought she was a witch. (laughs) Well, I think it was pretty tough on us as kids we were 4 or 5 year olds. But I’m a middle child and my older sister was very good and I was always envious of her skills.
Examiner: You’ve had a couple of very good reviews from CMJ with Pitchfork and The Guardian, and now you’re signed on the 4AD label – do you feel like that next big thing hype is taking over?
JW: Er… not really. I think it will take a while to step outside of it and piece together what it’s been like. In the meantime, there is always so much to do so it’s like a sports cliché – we just take each show one at a time. Stick our heads down and do the work.
Examiner: Courtney Barnett wrote a whole song about living up to that hype but now it feels like every label has to sign their Aussie act – it’s like Aussie bands are the thing to have, like a prized Fendi handbag.
JW: What’s there to complain about? (Laughs) If all you want is that opportunity to play your music and to keep playing it to a bigger audience and labels in America want to sign Aussie bands, then why not?
Examiner: What’s the biggest misconception you think that Americans have about Perth or perhaps Australia?
JW: It’s a difficult question… I feel like now more than ever, people really know where Perth is… I think what John Travolta and Oprah did has really worked.
Examiner: John Travolta?
JW: Yes didn’t they all get onto a Qantas plane together and fly out to Australia. I think that really did happen! (laughter)
To purchase Oh Inhuman Spectacle please click here. For tickets to see Methyl Ethel at The Rickshaw Stop, please click here. For further tour dates, please see below.
March 25 – SAN FRANCISCO, CA, Rickshaw Stop
March 28 – LOS ANGELES, CA, School Night at Bardot
March 30 – SEATTLE, WA, Barboza