Though the name Ethan McCarthy is to many people synonymous with the direct, aggressive extremity propagated by Primitive Man and Vermin Womb, he has also always had a proclivity for noise, dark ambient and drone. McCarthy’s solo project Many Blessings is the fullest realisation of this talent, exploring dark sonic territory through experimental amalgamations of harsh noise, unsettling drones and eerie electronics.
The project’s latest release, Emanation Body, is perhaps McCarthy’s best yet, proving more cinematic and less antagonistic in delivery but no less imposing as it seeps, moans and gurgles onward, luring you deeper and deeper into its cavernous soundscapes until, before you know it, you’ve left daylight behind and are now hopelessly lost. The music reverberates like a demonic chant in a distant tomb, with disquieting noises emerging suddenly as if some unknown creature lurks in the darkness, slowly encroaching on the listener.
It’s an all-consuming experience, one that seems to explore the inner torment inside us all. But for greater context, we needed to speak to the man behind the noise. During our call, we spoke about the album’s themes and goals, McCarthy’s experience as a person of colour in the metal and noise scenes and the depressingly dismal state of modern politics.
Could you tell us a bit about the themes of the album and its production?
I’ve been doing noise stuff for a long time, but this is a little bit different and was written more along a cinematic vibe. I was trying to build an atmosphere and mood that captures mental decline and anxiety. So yeah, that was kinda the whole idea for the record. I’m usually full-bore with everything I do in bands, extremely heavy all the time, so I wanted to take a different approach to themes I’ve spoken about a lot in the past.
Is it that you’re taking a more contemplative tone to similar subject matter?
Yeah I would say so. I’ve written about mental illness a little bit, but not so much.
I know that in a lot of songs you’ve written, the concerns are structural or material.
I stopped focusing on myself as much, and started focusing on the world and everyone’s problems, alongside mine, whereas Many Blessings is just self-centred music. I’m a one-man band you know…
Quite right, you’re free to be the auteur. While we’re here, do we have any updates from Primitive Man or Vermin Womb?
Primitive Man got done recording our new album the week of March 10th, so you might start hearing stuff about that soonish, within two months or so. With Vermin Womb, we were writing songs but that band doesn’t get to do as much ‘cos I’m so busy with Primitive Man and everything, and everyone else has bands as well. So we were supposed to record in August but we’ve had to cancel the studio time because of all this virus shit. So I don’t know what’s gonna happen with that, I don’t know how long it’s gonna take for us to do something.
I know that one thing you really wanted to talk about is navigating extreme music scenes as a person of colour. Do you feel that there are structural obstacles? Do you feel that it is a more difficult environment to navigate as a person of colour?
Sometimes it can be, but for me it’s strange because I’m mixed, I’m light-skinned so that has its own unique thing. What I see happening to people, not just myself, is that people like to tokenise the shit out of you. There’s a writer who only writes about Primitive Man when they want to bring up a topic for Black History Month. I don’t hear anything from them all year, but now they’ve found an in, and it seems like some bullshit.
Is the concern that when a band with POC members gets popular, there’s a temptation from a white-structured scene and media to render the image of the group more important than the substance?
Yeah, I think that some people definitely want to go for identity politics and skip over the quality of what you’re doing. And that fucking shit sucks, and doesn’t make you feel good about it. When I was growing up, I had a lot of problems with this. Black kids hated that I was playing heavy music, I got in all sorts of fights over that shit. On the other hand you’ve got white kids saying that this is “white man’s music”, and I’ve been hearing that up through my adult years, that metal is for whites.
Is that a Midwest USA thing?
It’s a fucking idiot thing.
I guess I’m fortunate that most of the people I know that listen to metal lean very far to the left.
Sure, most of my friends are the same. For Primitive Man, we all really like black, death and stuff (the bassist is in a blackened death band called Black Curse), so we go into those realms and there’s a lot of weird right-wing shit over there. A lot of weird racism shit. And when you’re in the extreme metal scene like this, and those kinds of people like you but don’t know what you’re about it’s interesting to see. And then they learn what you’re about and get really upset. [Laughs]
Do you think there might be resentment with white racists who claim metal as “white man’s music”, like it’s been stolen or something?
Absolutely, they can’t believe they subjected their ears to your “cuck” nonsense. Someone talked about us in a documentary about grindcore, and people were calling my race to the carpet on that shit because I’m light-skinned, I got called a white guy with dreads, and then whenever people are like “he’s black”, they’ll go “the fuck he is, blah blah blah”. There’s bands round the country who I’ve heard have a problem with me because they don’t believe I’m half-black and they fucking hate it.
In Primitive Man’s early days, nobody in the band was white. People would love to call us to the carpet, asking us if we were fascist ANYWAY. There was even a big metal publication that found out that we were going to tour with a black/death band from New Zealand, someone emailed them saying “Primitive Man is going to tour with a fascist band”, which they weren’t, and this publication got in touch with us basically to determine whether they were going to write a hit piece.
Wow, that’s wild.
The thing is, I have a really big mouth, so I’ve been outspoken about where we lie!
Would I be able to pin you down to a political position?
I’m far enough to the left to get your guns back.
Ah yes, I remember you saying something similar in Heavy by Dan Franklin.
Dan was so good, so nice to us in that book, and I hadn’t mentioned anything yet but I really appreciate that he put us in the way that he did, because it’s the best representation of us ever written.
I think he got you guys spot on. Can we talk a bit about the path you had to take to write songs like [Primitive Man’s] ‘Commerce’ – do you feel like you were utilising metal to combat and manage the issues that were at hand?
Absolutely, I mean, what else am I gonna do? Faced with such a large problem you can’t change alone, and most people aren’t willing to do shit, so you just write about it because that’s the last thing you got.
Is it an act of desperation?
Yeah, I make things because I’m in pain.
So does making extreme music have a beneficial effect, like the catharsis you get from listening or going to shows?
You also mentioned in Heavy that you “feel too much” in response to the world and its ills, which I’m sure others identify with. Do you feel like metal/extreme music is produced by this intensity of experience?
There’s so much shit, I’m thinking all the time. Like if I wake up at 3am my mind runs. I’m thinking and absorbing shit all the time, and this [music] is what I can do with it. I don’t think it’s like that for everybody. I think that some people do this to address different things, but for me I do it to express this enormous amount of information, and how that information is making me feel.
I can see that feeding back – the lyrics on Caustic are so direct, it’s so clear what you’re trying to say. Do you feel like this kind of frankness could help metal develop into something more than a subculture?
We’ll have to see how this turns out first. Shit keeps getting fucked up, people will continue to say “this isn’t so bad”, but it is bad, I’m miserable. You know, this is all the same stuff – we could apply this to Primitive Man or Many Blessings. There’s all sorts of weird white power noise out there, all sorts of weird misogynistic-ass musicians, and I just want to say that I do like some shit that is fucked up, that I didn’t know was fucked up when I got into it. It’s hard to always vet all these things easily.
Or to reconcile yourself.
Right, but I think there’s certain things, like if I see a swastika or a sun wheel I know to take a check. Or if the album is like “Dead whore in a vat of piss” I know to probably skip that one. But that shit is everywhere you know. I think that noise and extreme metal float in the same circles, have a lot of the same issues, though noise might have a smaller scene.
I tend to see noise as an extension to extreme metal because the listener’s tolerance for abrasion is about the same, and the subject matter is similarly extreme. Though metal loves fantasies a bit more…
Yeah, definitely. Though I’m not a pizza-song writing guy or a fantasy-song writing guy. It’s not what appeals to me.
There’s too much in the real world to contend with, isn’t there.
Right, but the thing is I love Weedeater, and I listen to this stuff – it’s just not what I wanna make. But I do know the feeling of hitting a bong for an hour and listening to Dopesmoker, I do all that shit you know.
Firstly because it’s been done, and there’s so much to say?
Yeah, and there’s so much going on every day.
A slightly spicy one – how are you planning to vote this year?
I’m not putting that in print, no fucking way. I can tell you I’m very unhappy at any option presented to me, almost to where I feel that there is no option.
After the election we had last year I’m in the same boat.
I’ve been watching that shit go on, and I’ve seen a lot of parallels there. My heart goes out to the UK, it’s the same thing over here.
At least your giant blonde baby president is occasionally funny.
Not for us, though. It’s like when someone has a drunk dad, and you look at them from across the street. “Oh, so-and-so’s drunk dad is fucking hilarious”, and he’s like falling over and puking on himself, burning the kitchen down and shit. But when you live in that house it’s not funny.
It’s weird as well because the non-American perspective on your country is so heavily mediated by TV, there comes a point where the USA gets reduced into a series of images and it stops feeling real.
We’re a fucking cartoon to everybody, but that’s ‘cos of the shit that we do, like electing this stupid asshole. Fucking disgusting.
Fuel for the next fire I guess.
This virus has really clamped down on the independent music industry, it’s clamping down on anyone that wants some kind of change, and taking away their means to make that change, and we’re gonna be right back at square one. It’s fucked, man. Those in power are gonna stay in their ivory towers and keep doing the same shit.
So we’ve got to get louder…
…But how can you do that with a medical emergency outside? It’s a complex issue. And this is the kind of shit I’m thinking all day.
Emanation Body is out now on Translation Loss Records. Order here.
Interview: David Burke
Intro: George Parr
Band Photo: Alvino Salcedo
Album cover image: Teddie Taylor