It’s an unusual hook to promote an album: ‘the least personal record yet’. But it was an important challenge for Jake Webb, the creative force whose first three albums as Methyl Ethel constitute a psych-pop triptych of heartbreak.
“It’s nice to put almost a self-imposed conclusion to an approach to the songwriting – turning the focus outward instead, trying to pluck things from my habitat, what’s around me a little more,” he tells NME over the phone from Perth, where he lives and has spent “basically” the last two years.
“It was a step away from that ‘teen songwriting’ approach, where it really was just my feelings pouring out, because my songs are always a search for answers, rather than a Wikipedia entry. I’m asking the questions just as much as anybody else.”
Methyl Ethel’s fourth album (and their first for tastemaking label Future Classic) is named after a question that’s been hanging over the 34-year-old Webb: ‘Are You Haunted?’. Since their debut EP in 2013, Methyl Ethel have had an ethereal slant, thanks to the eclectic mix of psychedelia, dream-pop and Webb’s distinct warble, vibrating as if through the walls from another room.
Yes, another Western Australian producer also creates psychedelic pop about being haunted by regret, but Methyl Ethel’s soundscape is much spookier, with plenty of jagged edges. The guitar slides, idiosyncratic voice and unusual song structures evoke a hectic 3am existential breakdown where, eventually, you give up on sleep altogether. The energetic release of Methyl Ethel’s music was perfected in 2017 on ‘Ubu’, a neurotic pop song about a person changing before your eyes that landed at Number 4 in triple j’s Hottest 100 that year.
The new album’s title came to Webb originally as a joke – “I thought ‘’Are You Haunted?’ by Methyl Ethel’ is a very funny thing to say, and would be nice on an album jacket”, he laughs – though he slowly came to see how central the question was to the songs he was writing. “It’s understood in reverse,” as he puts it. “You might be engineering the project, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you are underwriting all of its meaning into it. It sort of makes its own meaning.”
“My songs are always a search for answers… I’m asking the questions just as much as anybody else”
It may be less autobiographical than previous albums, but Webb’s anxieties reveal themselves on ‘Are You Haunted?’: questions of how much power one person has over their life and their choices, let alone larger forces of politics, culture and climate, swirl through the album.
“What I’m interested in when it comes to writing music are ideas of memory – how you split as a person and live parallel lives,” he says. “Your past, present and future selves are like ghosts of ourselves – somehow you are this already long dead person, walking through a world that you are not really materially even present in at the time.”
Nowhere is that clearer than album single ‘Proof’, a duet with fellow Perth musician & one-time Methyl Ethel touring member Stella Donnelly. Over reversed synths which continually ripple back into themselves, the two ask each other what they can and can’t “see”, asking the other to look at the numbers and “take a chance on proof” – a tautology if not for our ‘post-truth’, post-Trump world, where facts and evidence are readily ignored. (It also doubles as a break-up song, each pleading the other to see their view.)
Webb directed its music video, a black-and-white, tongue-in-cheek nod to European arthouse films. He and Donnelly paint scores on a wall, barely in the same room or reality except when they paint over each other’s marks, even as they mirror each other’s moves.
‘Proof’ is Methyl Ethel’s first song with a featured artist, though ‘Are You Haunted?’ was Webb’s most solitary effort yet, the decision to produce, master and mix alone made easier by Western Australia’s repeat lockdowns and border closures since 2020. Like most during that first lockdown, Webb had grand creative visions for the newfound free time, but found himself stuck in his past, going through old demos and scraps.
“I’d get so much satisfaction from listening to them,” he says. “Then I realised that it was kind of bullshit… It’s like looking over old photos. Sometimes it’s so great, and I’m so glad that you can capture these memories from your past lives, but it’s not very productive. And a lot of the driving chemicals of making anything, you can use it all up just looking through old things and getting the satisfaction of, ‘oh, I made this one time’. It just sort of stops me dead from pushing myself to make anything new.”
To enact what Webb calls a “creative purge”, he drew on sources outside himself: writing songs around dialogue from films like The Passenger (paraphrased in ‘Proof’), or loosely thinking of the songs as Greek plays.
“To me, the record is this one solitary person sitting down at a piano and all of the songs are played out in this person’s head,” he says. “But I thought of all the chorus for all these songs being sung quite literally by a chorus, like in those old ancient Greek plays, [where] there is quite literally a chorus of people who are the moral compass. I tried to make most of the chorus have this ‘big group’ sound to them.”
These Greek choruses give voice to Webb’s own internal arguments and dialogues. On the downcast, funky ‘Something To Worry About’, he unconvincingly reassures himself with the chorus that there’s “nothing to worry about”. The single ‘Neon Cheap’ is a stroll through a physical social media boulevard, backed by enough sunny synths for car commercials if executives don’t pick up on the lyrics about the endless scroll’s onslaught of decontextualised traumas and selfies. ‘Kids On Holiday’ is a pop lament that imagines worldwide coups so children can scream for ice-cream, instead of at climate protests.
“You might be engineering the project, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you are underwriting all of its meaning into it”
Webb’s the first to admit it’s a little pretentious: toeing the line of silly and serious was key to writing ‘Are You Haunted?’. The genesis of the album was the track ‘Castigat Ridendo Mores’, named after a Latin phrase that translates roughly to “one cures customs by laughing at them” – essentially a definition of satire.
“I always find it really funny taking songwriting really seriously, because art is pretty bogus if you think about it too much,” he laughs. “[The phrase] is about laughing your way through the most insane, difficult times. But also that in itself is so pretentious, to have a fucking Latin quote in a song. It’s a way that I can laugh at myself and at what this is, that no matter how serious [I am] and how much I imbue these songs with these deep meanings, it’s a song.”
That brings to mind ‘One and Beat’, a meta-ballad about performing. Webb admits his need for an audience like a desperate lover (“Can’t you see it’s impossible without you?”), wondering whether it’s healthier and easier to be part of the crowd (“It’s got me guessing/what’s the right side of the one and the beat?”).
Webb pours his heart out while an audience bops along, the lyrics meaning something completely different to them – if they mean anything at all. On ‘One and Beat’, Webb drops the title when he asks the listener, “Are you haunted by preening and cooing?”. The answer’s obvious: we’re all constantly looking for applause and creating meaning in our lives. We’re all haunted, and Webb knows he isn’t special. He’s just laughing at his compulsion to say it out loud.