Ethan Lee McCarthy is a man who never stops. Hell, he doesn't even appear to even slow down.
One should be reluctant to use the overused 'prolific' descriptor, but that's what he is in truth: a prolific man on fire, inexorably driven to break his environment into fragments with sounds that seek to punish the world, and reassemble those shards as he sees fit—to reorganize and rearrange the schizophrenic wreckage into something cohesive, something that makes sense—at the very least to him.
He boasts multiple creative endeavors of varying styles and mediums with no compromise in vision or standard whatsoever. Ethan is an anomaly who defies the quality/quantity continuum where one is typically inversely proportional to the other. It appears that, oddly, the more he creates, the higher quality the creative work itself becomes. But anyone familiar with his visual art, his composed music, his noise projects will agree that "typical" is the last word anyone might use to describe the man or anything that comes from him.
Fresh off of a full-US tour with Vermin Womb (and a full US with Primitive Man just prior), Ethan was generous with his time and opted to offer you, Dear Reader, some open-hearted insight into him.
Though you require little introduction, let the people who might not be familiar with you and your work know who you are, what you do, and what you're about.
Well, I play in a doom/sludge band called Primitive Man, a death/grind band called Vermin Womb and also make noise/drone/minimalist music under my own name and other various projects but the most active ones are Many Blessings and Spiritual Poison.
You've been busy of late! Primitive Man recently unleashed the Insurmountable EP to unanimous acclaim, and Vermin Womb recently released its third album, Retaliation, an absolutely feral follow up to Decline (2016), which displays amped up aggression and a legitimately unhinged vocal performance.
Share a bit about the content—your writing process, art direction, themes. How has your approach changed over the years?
With Primitive Man I'll bring an idea to practice and we will jam on it and write the songs together that way. It's a really fluid process. It used to be more similar to how Vermin Womb songs are written, meaning that with Vermin Womb I usually have songs and ideas prepared. Many Blessings is improvisational in its nature and started as a harsh noise project but has evolved into other areas. Spiritual Poison is planned out soundscapes/concepts and more in the drone realm.
Things I have released under my "Christian" name have an emphasis on minimalism, usage of silence and space—found sounds along with instruments and so on. Very little vocals in the "experimental" realm of my output since I do so much of that in metal, though I did record an experimental album recently that has vocals on it so we will see.
Lyrics are written last, I used to write more all the time but now because of the way my life is I tend to write about things when it is time for me to create music so I no longer have a large backlog of lyrics. I set aside a week or two to do that if possible before recording. Art direction/themes, it's the same. This is the last piece because a lot of what I make is created in what I can describe as an "artistic fervor" and is all pulled together at the end and made complete. So I don't necessarily understand everything until the end either.
It's like a magic spell math problem where you have the ingredients but TBD on the taste and presentation if that makes sense. Also, because of this timeline the subject matter is always what is going on at the time of recording—not shit that is a few years old-unless it's an ongoing issue. Meaning, if I'm having issue with something during that two weeks or if I've had issue with something that has not gone away before recording it is being written and sung about.
You're widely known and respected for your undeniably crushing tone both instrumentally and vocally, and embrace super dark lyrical and visual themes. Where does this tone and vocal approach come from?
Tone wise, I've just tried to find the balance between crushing heavy and "understandable enough" but because of my love for noise music and things like that I still want there to be this chaotic quality to the tone.
I want my guitar to sound like the surface of the sun. Vocally, I want to be able to produce tone that can convey all of the emotions that you can experience within the negative realm. So, I've tried to steer away from only doing gutturals or only doing stuff in a higher register. I want to sound simultaneously dead and very much alive and suffering because oftentimes that is how the human experience feels.
Technically speaking, what wisdom do you have to share with other vocalists to maximize their power and preserve their voice both live and in the studio?
It's like exercising anything else. It's the second most raw physical job in the band next to the drums. Practice at least once a week for the rest of your life and if anything you are doing hurts stop doing it, even if it's mid set. I had done it every week for 20 years and then the pandemic changed that and made it harder to come back and it isn't until after 6 months of steady touring that I feel like I am back to where I was before then. Warm water or at least staying hydrated. Go to "a place" in your mind and it'll happen with ease.
Things I do on tour after a week physically and mentally, I make sure I have plenty of grass. I'm drinking water. I'm eating bananas and other bullshit at the gas station instead of eating fast food. I'm taking naps even if they make me a little groggy because a 15-minute nap might save you from falling asleep and killing everyone for that hour drive you are doing out of town.
I take it easy on the drinking, but I'm more of a weed guy so that's easy for me to do and more power to you if you don't do any of this shit because you're getting 4-5 hours of sleep every night for 30,60,90 days. But I'm also an older dude and I have to take care of myself to be able to keep it up.
A 22-year-old can get fucked up every day and not sleep and keep touring for two months. It gets different after years of sleep deprivation and things like that. Anyone who does not have a driver who is past 30 that has stayed in this will tell you the same.
Your live performances are consistently punishing and straightforward. With what feelings and impressions would you prefer people walk away from your shows? Conversely, what do YOU take away from them?
I want people to walk away from a live show I have played knowing that I absolutely mean and feel this art I am creating. That this art comes from a place of sincerity. I walk away from any show I play feeling gratitude that anyone even took the time to come and see it.
I'm extremely thankful for anyone that has interest in anything I do in the creative realm and I can't express that enough. There is also a feeling of humility which is a large part of the reason why I do not say anything during the shows I play.
Please offer some insight to your evolution as a musical and visual artist - when did you begin exploring these disciplines, and who inspired you?
I have an older brother—who is 13 years my senior—so my relationship with metal music started around when I was 3-years-old and I started playing guitar at age 8. Early metal influences for me were Jimi Hendrix (gateway into guitar), Metallica, Slayer, Cannibal Corpse, TOOL (I can't pretend to have not liked them—everyone did), Alice in Chains, Nirvana, Crowbar, Morbid Angel, Acid Bath, Napalm Death, Carcass, Sepultura, Today Is the Day, Celtic Frost, and Incantation.
Then, in high school, I started getting into other shit: Disembowelment, Converge, Disrupt, Dystopia, Vision of Disorder, Snapcase, Bloodlet, Torn Apart, Eyehategod, Hatebreed, and so on. I started as a vocalist out of necessity and was reluctant to do it. I started out trying to sound like Carcass in that respect. There just wasn't anyone else at the time but then I grew to appreciate it.
Art: I started by emulating the old grindcore collage style ala Carcass and Napalm Death cover art, Sakevi from G.I.S.M.'s output, stuff like that. I think the first piece of art I did for a band was a grindcore band I was in called Death of Self and this was in 2008. After that, I really grew by doing Primitive Man's artwork over the years and that has expanded into what it is now. I find myself inspired by different things now but that is essentially where it started.
Wolf Eyes, John Wiese, White House, Merzbow and the Today Is the Day album Sadness Will Prevail is what initially got me interested in playing noise and then Sunn O))) sort of solidified my love for the unorthodox because it combines everything I love. Most specifically, Flight of the Behemoth. That was a turning point for me.
Many Blessings is yet another outlet for you, but certainly one which explores less structured composition and occasionally more abrasive tone with some tracks reminiscent of early Wolf Eyes, A Fire In the Head, I Discern (much of the Blood Ties Records roster), and (instrumentally) Sutcliffe Jügend. Speak a bit about your affinity for noise music, what artists you appreciate, and what gear you use to express yourself in this wide-open creative landscape.
When playing as Many Blessings it just depends on what I am trying to achieve. I use a lot of distortion and "noise maracas" + synths and the occasional guitar. Lots of vocal processing over there.
Lately, I have been running a Lyra-8 synth through pedals and process vocals to make sounds-as well as using the mic for natural room feedback. Spiritual Poison utilizes Modular Synth for about 80% of it.
On that note, are there any criminally underrated or underexposed bands/artists you would like everyone to know about?
Sore Dream, Rush Falknor, Reek of Divinity, Maltreatment, Tolerant, Volunteer Coroner, Fresh Bait, God is War, Swollen Organs, Pain Chain, Holy Family, Bottomed, BLSPHM, Sutekh Hexen, Verhoffst, White Phosphorus
[These] are some current noise artists who are doing the thing right now. All noise is under appreciated/underrated. Occupational hazard.
You seem to be creating and composing with alarming frequency with no compromise in quality or integrity whatsoever. Where the hell does your ceaseless energy and drive come from?
I appreciate that! Music and art are the only things I like to do. Also, extreme mania and having idle hands allows depression to take root. So I be running from that all year long.
Who/what earns your scorn?
Systemic failures within our government/society/the world at large, bigots, sycophants, the human condition, existential dread, bigots, anyone who blindly follows anyone whether that be politician, celebrity, whatever, the dying of the only earth we have available to us.
Are you closing in on where you'd like to be artistically? Is the work ever done?
I feel like I am approaching my best years of composition in every avenue that I have my hands in and now it's more a question of financial liability, other musician availability, and having the time to make these things as I see them in my vision.
I think I'll stop doing this stuff when I can no longer physically able to or when it finally breaks my heart.
With so many people paying attention to your creative output and your voice, how will you use your platform? What, if anything, would you like to convey to those who care about what you have to say?
To be a positive and inspirational force for anyone that needs it in terms of continuing to be an artist. But I am also just one man living through this life and making mistakes like anyone else and I would encourage them to look elsewhere for inspirational ways to improve and further their lives and the community around them.
Look to the community organizers and people doing good every day in your community. Being a musician is very self serving and though I appreciate people subscribing to what I create, I do think there are better folks to look up to.
Your fellowship with Dylan Walker (Full of Hell) and Kristin Hayter (Lingua Ignota) is well known. When can we expect a collaborative effort (This is just wishful thinking, of course)?
I could see something happening with Dylan. Kristin is my friend so maybe with some persuasion but in my opinion what she creates is very “high brow” and I’m not sure that she would ever lower herself into this hellish and disgusting realm of thought.
How would you care to be remembered?
Hardworking, accepting to all types of people. A hard ass when necessary but also a good friend & mentor to those that needed it, caring, loving, steadfast in my beliefs, and to have never folded or compromised ethically or artistically.
Thanks so much for sharing, Ethan!
Listen to more of Ethan's musical output at the following links:
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