Frantic jet-setting between Perth, New York and London to mix and master Methyl Ethel’s third album, Triage, had left its creator Jake Webb strung out. Two hit singles, Twilight Driving and Ubu (which placed fourth in Triple J’s Hottest 100), had Methyl Ethel poised to be Western Australia’s next big breakout after Tame Impala’s huge international success. Webb’s UK label 4AD was putting pressure on him to deliver another winner.
“[4AD] were directly saying ‘go write a hit’,” says Webb. “It’s a common thing, without much tact, to be told: ‘Go make a masterpiece, that’s what we want from you’.”
Closing a trilogy of albums that began with 2015’s Oh Inhuman Spectacle, Triage arrived in 2019 as a tightly coiled collection of baroque synth-pop and uneasy psychedelia. Webb’s earnest, jarringly vulnerable falsetto sounded alienated and disconnected. Its opening track, Ruiner, contained an exasperated, self-directed refrain: “That’s not good enough.” The album was ambitious, but the giddy chart heights of Ubu weren’t repeated.
“That’s who I sort of was while making [Triage],” says the 34-year-old musician. “That kind of nervous energy … makes sense to me when I think about it in the past tense.”
For his new album, Are You Haunted?, Webb returned to Fremantle Recording Studios, where he had recorded his first EP, Guts, in 2013. The studio’s three wood-panelled rooms were as he remembered, bar one crucial element: the studio’s founder, Brian Mitra, Webb’s high school friend and collaborator, was dead.
“I think about him every time I’m in [the studio],” says Webb. “He had a really natural, inbuilt propensity to do things differently … I learned most of what I know, as far as engineering and recording music, from him.”
Like Webb (who writes, plays and records Methyl Ethel’s studio albums almost entirely solo; his touring band comprises six members, including two drummers) Mitra was multi-talented. Generous with his time for others, Mitra favoured the bass, but played other instruments too; he was a DJ and dance music producer, and worked with artists including Tame Impala. Mitra passed away in 2018 at just 30 from hereditary coronary artery disease, with a clean toxicology report, peacefully asleep in his bedroom.
Webb admits to falling out of touch with Mitra in recent years and doesn’t claim special importance in his life – “I’m a pretty bad friend, [in terms of] staying in contact with people” – but Are You Haunted? became his outlet for the loss. He wrangles with the memories, people, ideas and experiences that float around us: he remembered wagging school with Mitra to play music; obsessing over episodic Greek tragedies; and concocting experiments together, like recording the sounds of sizzling pizza, or the sounds of a cymbal they’d burned with fire, then buried. But the subjectivity of his memories left him feeling conflicted.
“It’s kind of a tragedy because [my memory], in a way, it’s not really real. It’s my version of him, the version of who he was to me, that I have sewn into my life’s story now,” says Webb. “[He] is my ghost. My person. It’s important to me.”
Are You Haunted? swings freer than Triage. Working with a new label and grounded by the pandemic, Webb refined his sound. While still richly arranged, its songs bob with confidently delicate funk. Each string section, synthesiser gurgle and bass lick has room to breathe. Written with intentional restraint, it’s pop with poise: “It’s like I’m learning to speak for the first time,” Webb says.
The album’s other phantoms include online misinformation and conspiracy theories on the sauntering Proof, featuring former Methyl Ethel bandmate Stella Donnelly. And on the unstable, synth-heavy track Matters, an earthquake on the San Andreas faultline is a groaning cataclysm of existential dread.
“It’s just wild that at any moment that could happen, it could be the big one,” says Webb. “How would you step out the front door, how would you do anything, if there wasn’t something built into us that’s able to compartmentalise [our fear]?”
Webb is learning to accept life’s curveballs and tragedies. He believes honouring those who’ve come before can free us from fearing forces beyond our control.
“I think it’s important to actively remember these people as often as you can, and you can manifest them in that way,” he says. “I feel we can learn from our past selves, our shared history as human beings, what we’ve done wrong and what we’ve done right.”
Cryptic lyricism riddles Webb’s discography. But on Are You Haunted?’s closing track, In a Minute, Sublime, he finds simple beauty by addressing Mitra directly – reaching beyond the veil to his ghost, friend and teacher. He remembers weeping before the lyrics hit the page.
I’ll still hold
onto what’s beating
store you in my mind
like a page in a file
oh, what a lonely,
heart strung feeling
to be out of time
in a minute, sublime