The concept of a Renaissance man was first coined by Leon Battista Alberti in Italy during the Renaissance era, abiding to the idea that a man can do all things if he will. This ideal embodied the tenets of Renaissance humanism, considering man as the center of the universe, limitless in his capabilities and capacities for development, further evolving to the notion that men should try to embrace all knowledge and develop themselves as fully as possible. This idea, albeit initially rather sexist and partly quite stubborn and egocentric, has undergone its own evolution during the last five hundred years, and today is treated as multidisciplinary artistry. This is a combination of arts from various fields, using an interdisciplinary approach that, unsurprisingly, involves more than one artistic discipline and focus. A simple example of this would be someone who performs art via means of music, visual mediums, really anything on the literal, digital, and conceptual areas. In bygone days these people were mostly recognized only after they were long gone, but in today’s society, the existence of the internet has made it possible for multidisciplinary artists to break through and make themselves known during their lifetimes, which all in all is only a positive thing.
Ethan Lee McCarthy is a prime example of the embodiment of an artist. Known well through his various musical and visual outlets, McCarthy is a creative force to be reckoned with, and our Weekly Featured Artist this week. It would’ve been simple to just pick a band of his and focus solely on that for this article, but after mulling it over for quite some time, it felt more natural and rather obvious to me personally, to look into the mind behind all of it, and focus on him as a person and entity rather than as the driving force or a part of something else. So, we did just that.
Even a quick glance at his résumé underlines how impressive it truly is. If you’re even remotely invested in the underground metal scene, regardless of leanings, you certainly have come across such bands as Primitive Man, Vermin Womb, Many Blessings, Clinging to the Trees of a Forest Fire, and Spiritual Poison, among others. Musical merits aside, you also more than likely have stumbled upon his visual art in the form of album artworks and merch designs, which he’s usually either doing under his own name or his Hell Simulation moniker. In short, there’s merely a trifling chance that you haven’t seen, listened to, or heard of Ethan Lee McCarthy, and if against all odds you somehow have, now would be a really fucking good time to fix that.
To be clear, my intention and purpose couldn’t be farther away from just sounding like a fan tooting any particular horns or making things seem bigger than they are, but quite the contrary. McCarthy is a level-headed, good human being who just so happens to be able to break through the murks of the underground scene, and not only do I respect and appreciate him for it, I am also deeply interested in the mechanics behind that, and what constitutes him as an artist. Even though we have mutual friends and acquaintances on various fields, our paths had never really crossed prior to this, and it felt somehow strange to write the questionnaire and read what he wrote back to me, as even though I’m exceedingly familiar with his doings and probably because of it, it felt like finally looking at a complete puzzle even though the pieces have matched and been in place for a long time already. So yeah, maybe I need to walk back my words a bit and admit there was a smidgen of fanboyism included when I got the notifications for the emails from him. Anyway, let’s not focus on that.
It doesn’t come as a surprise that a lot of how McCarthy‘s career started has to do with his upbringing and the environment he grew up in;
‘So, music was always played in my house growing up. By my mother, siblings, father, grandparents, everyone. But it was my oldest brother who introduced me to metal and things of that nature real young around three or four years old and I just took to it. He is a bass player and I wanted to be like him but I choose the guitar instead of the bass.
‘I think the first ‘real’ band I was in was Clinging to the Trees of a Forest Fire which started in 2003 and our heaviest & most recognized years of activity were the last two years of the band from 2010-2012. The band started in Denver as we were all born and raised there. I was in a bunch of shitty local hardcore/punk/death metal bands before that but nothing that ever recorded or made much of a dent in any capacity.‘
Clinging to the Trees of a Forest fire were active until 2013, and I recall first hearing about them just a month or two before they split up. Their interesting blend of death metal and grindcore did garner them plenty of eyes and ears, and has gone to do so afterwards as well, but the band has stayed relatively small when compared to what came after it. It goes without saying that McCarthy’s wider recognition ensued after the devastating, droning death/doom and noise oriented act Primitive Man and the ravaging deathgrind unit Vermin Womb came into existence, both being unique outlets for a very unique manifestation of filth McCarthy clearly intends to build his artistry on.
Through these bands alongside his solo noise outing Many Blessings, Ethan Lee McCarthy conjures a very specific type of tangible hell to an aural form. I’m not alone in saying that I’ve never really heard anything that comes even remotely close to the heaviness, depth, and vortex-esque cacophony of Primitive Man, nor can I immediately think of other bands that’d embody similar rage as Vermin Womb does, and a big portion of both of these have to do with McCarthy’s singular vocal style. He doesn’t ask nor does he insinuate, but he tells you. And fucking god be your witness, you sit your ass back and listen to what he has to say. Defining what heavy music can mean as a concept is no easy task, but that is exactly what McCarthy is doing, and I’m sure anyone who knows his doings can jump on that sentiment without much of an ado.
‘Writing & performing music has been at the center of my life for so long that I do not know any other way to live. Which may sound kind of funny but I think it takes that kind of intense focus to be able to pull myself into so many directions in terms of collaboration or even making sure I have time for solo work. I have an eclectic taste in music and even though I tend to stay in the ‘heavier’ realms of music – sonically or otherwise I think that has also helped push me into trying things that are not normally ‘safe’ to do within the rigid constructs of what heavy music is to a lot of people.‘
Besides the more standard band setting, another interesting facet in McCarthy’s output is his tendency to collaborate with others, which is yet another additional layer usually found amidst multidisciplinary artists’ career structures. Working with other likeminded people at best can be a nurturing experience that provokes an entirely new set of ideas and thoughts for all parties involved, with the results usually being a fascinating snapshots of given moments, often without potential replicates following ever again. Granted that some people collaborate with each other frequently, this methodology can also yield a ‘band within bands’ kind of outcome. So what does McCarthy think about this, and how does he operate between such a multitude of outlets altogether?
‘I feel very blessed to be able to work with such a varied range of extremely gifted musicians because a lot of times I am critical of my own work so it is validating to be recognized by people who have a creative outlet that you find kinship with. The rules of engagement for each project is a bit different, depending on the scope of the project/who I am working with. Primitive Man is 60% jam oriented and 40% pre written riffs/ideas. For Vermin Womb, I come with a complete set of ideas and then we mix/match as necessary. Many Blessings has an improvisational element to it but I sort of follow the same set of ideas and then pick up/drop what worked or didn’t work over a series of performances and then I record the completed ideas after they’ve been refined that way. Spiritual Poison – same concept, only the emphasis is on minimalism, much less overwhelming harshness than my other projects and open space so that requires a bit of planning as well to make that happen effectively.‘
I personally recognise the way of working that’s elaborated above, as shifting dynamics with altering people does have a whole lot of benefit to it. Surely there’s always the people you click with and can do plenty with, but I think putting oneself into different situations, whether warranted or not, and whether positive or negative, can all lead to some fascinating discoveries and developments. People change, but the music stays, so why not put everything you got into making it stick, right?
As mentioned earlier, McCarthy also bases a hefty amount of his creative emphasis on visual arts, creating works for both himself as well as clients. While subject matters vary, the main motif relies – again, rather unsurprisingly – on dismal and grim, often but not limited to monochrome or single colour aesthetics. Whether the art needs to be abstract and open-ended or more straightforward and blatant, it’s the sound that dictates the direction, alongside clients’ wishes of course.
‘When I create art for clients I usually listen to their music/read the lyrics or concepts and then go from there. It’s a similar approach to making art for my own projects-though I have toyed with the idea of coming up with an image first and then writing backwards since I have the benefit of doing that without investing money in an artist. As far as motifs are concerned, I obviously really like monochrome but have ventured into the color realm a few times here and there. There is also an overarching theme of relentless suffering and sadness-which is why I will use tears in a lot of my pieces. Tears of blood, water, mud, light, etc…‘
In addition to artworks, McCarthy is also invested in layout and design work, not in the least through his handle Hell Simulation.
Hell Simulation, to me, is public and social commentary above all. There’s once again no limits to the subject matters, but especially the unbelievably absurd and inexplicably arrogant decline of the West is heavily represented on the forefront. Filled with less-than-uplifting slogans, individual words, and even commands, alongside the mutilated figures and violent imagery, some of the designs are downright propaganda. I can’t remember what movie/show the quote I’d include here is from so it’s not a direct one, but it goes something along the lines of ripping off the face of society to hold it back towards it as a lens to look into itself. That is exactly the feeling these works stir up, and rightfully so. What are we, if not doomed as species?
‘I make things like this because these issues are gigantic and this is the best way for me to convey my thoughts on them in the shortest most pointed way possible. And also sometimes to prove a point and to deal with the frustration. I am not a politician, activist, nor am I an expert on these issues but I do read quite a bit, I do experience what it is like to live in the West, and I do have in depth conversations about all the issues I speak on with people I know who exist in different realities within the borders of this country (US, and other Western countries) in order to try and see issues from all sides of the coin.‘
I can’t underline enough how unbelievably important it is that those who have the platform, put it to proper use. I don’t mean that anyone should obsess over blaming the world of what it is until they’re sick and tired of trying, but being vocal about matters that affect us all requires oftentimes very minimal effort, after all. The weight of these voices might vary, but they are equal in importance, and calling out shit when you smell, see, and feel it on your body, invading every single hole on it on a daily basis, is necessary. As a concept, using art to force people to think about these things is as old as the notion of art itself, so why should it be any different today. I firmly believe that it’s also possible for art to exist in a liminal space without being commentary or political, but even if the art is free of those things, the people behind it aren’t. There is no such stance as ‘apolitical’; either you are a piece of shit, or are not a piece of shit. You alone are responsible for drawing the line between those and acting accordingly.
One question I always want to include in my interviews, is that how the artists view their personal evolution throughout the years, and obviously this time it’s no different. I’m not entirely sure why, but I am interested in the mental and physical mechanics that drive this evolution, and all the deliberate and unintentional changes and shifts it entails. Like most artists’, McCarthy’s career is out there for anyone to observe, for anyone to draw their own conclusions from, but how does he see it personally?
‘I used to want to be accepted by my peers in the music community. Now I just want to find ears who can accept my creative vision as it is without shackles. Through arguments with band mates in the past I would agree to stick to a very rigid set of standards to make things more ‘acceptable’ to heavy metal fans, but now I only want to be able to create with absolute freedom. Along with that, I want people to be touched by the art I make in the same way that I have been touched by things other creators have made. These things have enriched and saved my life/gave it some direction so I am just trying to be a part of that cycle of things because there is no greater honor than that. To have someone be touched by the things you make in such a way that it speaks to their soul is priceless and should not be taken for granted. Of all the bands in the world someone decides to call your band their favorite. Unreal.‘
It is easy to deduct from these words, and out of all the ones from before them, that McCarthy is free of the acrid restraints of ego and the usual, off-putting self-centered circle jerk it manifests through. Truthfully, I didn’t expect anything else, but for one reason or the other, it always brings a smile to my face to witness firsthand when people are level with themselves and what they stand for, especially in today’s climate when everything seems to be just about the good old me and nothing but me. It’s one thing to talk about your doings and achievements with poise and positive overtones as you’re fully entitled to that, but it’s something else entirely to put yourself on a pedestal in all of your self-absorbed glory. The latter is the prevalent policy today, but the former is slowly and surely making itself more pervasive. You can trust in yourself without being a cunt about it.
My last fuck you‘s aside, I think we have established a pretty clear image of Ethan Lee McCarthy and his creativity, tying in with all the multidisciplinarianism (yeah that’s not a real word is it) talk from the opening. McCarthy, whether through his music or visuals, is in it for the art, which shows. The way he views himself feels truly pure and simply right, and I think there’s plenty of aspects to take note of, aside from my not-so-hidden allusions about the fact that you just shouldn’t miss out on any of his released or impending works. If you’re one of the aforementioned few people still missing out, it’s time to amend that.
After focusing on the past for a good while, let’s direct our gaze at things to come for the ending. Ethan Lee McCarthy, what’s next?
‘I just finished a Many Blessings tour in the EU and will be heading back over there with Primitive Man in just a couple of weeks before we continue working on songs for a new record. There is a collaboration I did called FOSSA MAGNA with Hiroshi Hasegawa (Astro/C.C.C.C.) & Coalminer (Phillipines’ Chester Masangya & Robert Glenn Dilanco) that will be out on July 7th of this year via WV Sorcerer Productions, Damien Records, and myself. There is a Spiritual Poison release that might see the light of day but I am not 100% sure on how that is going to end up as there are other players involved in how/if that ever gets rolled out. Vermin Womb are writing/gearing up for touring & recording in hopefully late 2023 or early 2024, and I have recording time set aside this winter for some more solo material as well. I am hopeful that I will be able to record my collaboration with Elizabeth Colour Wheel that we wrote/performed for Roadburn back in April but schedules have to align for that as well. Plenty more art to come – still selling stuff via Deathwish for now but I’m going to be dropping some limited items myself, hopefully before the end of the year.‘
And that’s that. Like I said very early on, the idea for this particular feature hasn’t left me since it first occurred to me sometime last year, and I’m glad I finally found the time and mustered the will to contact Ethan and put this thing together. Free of arrogance and full of good vibes, I’m confident that anyone interested found some new stories and angles from here, as I’m sure that some of the things above inflicted a thought or two upon you, whether through Ethan’s points or my continued blabberings. In order to keep up with his Earth-shattering ways, check out his personal and Hell Simulation‘s sites for a further historic recap, and follow him on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook to stay up to date on all future things.