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Metric vs. the machine

September 25, 2015

Emily Haines explains how Metric reconciles its place in a troubled system.

The songs were done. The album was completed. Even the artwork for Metric’s sixth full-length had been picked out, featuring a shuttered building with an old-fashioned marquee sign. But Emily Haines still had no idea what the text on that marquee was going to say.

It’s not particularly odd for an artist to struggle with naming an album until the last minute. But for Metric, a band that’s been nothing if not purposeful in its actions over the course of a 15-plus year career, this was somewhat peculiar; with 2012’s Synthetica, for example, Haines says she had the title in mind a year before the record was even written. This time, though, at nearly the 11th hour, she was digging through her notebooks, canvassing half-written songs and fragments in the hopes that something would leap out at her.

“As soon as I saw that phrase, Pagans in Vegas, I knew that was it,” Haines recalls. “I went through the record with that phrase in mind and felt it really connected with this feeling that’s on the record: that we’re spiritual people that are still really committed to what we do and what we love and engaging with people in the most primal rituals of humanity, but the world we live in is like a massive global conglomerate casino. We’re still out here but we feel pretty old school.”

Woman vs. (the) machine, in other words.

By any measure, Metric is one of the most successful Canadian bands of the past decade. Haines and her fellow bandmates—guitarist/producer James (Jimmy) Shaw, bassist Josh Winstead, and drummer Joules Scott-Key—can claim platinum records in Canada, rock/alternative radio hits, Juno Awards, and three separate albums on the Polaris Music Prize shortlist. Yet there’s still an uneasy tension to the band’s career, an antagonism between the synthetic and the “real” that is muted at times but never fully goes away.

A great deal of that tension is musical, in the blurring of textures between acoustic and electronic instruments. On many of Metric’s best songs, it’s often not clear where the guitars end and the synthesizers begin. And even in her most impassioned vocal performances, there’s something alluringly cold and almost robotic about Haines’ timbre, a precision and distance that makes you want to lean in and listen more closely.

Pagans in Vegas, released last week, continues this trend, but it may be the album on which the band’s electronic edges cut the sharpest. This is a record, after all, that concludes with an engaging two-part, synthesizer-driven instrumental called “The Face,” and whose centrepiece is “Cascades,” a song that Haines has called the “heart of the record.” There’s not a guitar to be found on the track, one of the strongest of the band’s career, and even Haines’ steely voice doesn’t escape an extra layer of electronic colouring.

Haines says this shift reflects the differing ways that she and Shaw, the band’s core songwriters, spent their year away from the band following the Synthetica tour. Haines travelled to Nicaragua and Spain and wrote songs on an acoustic guitar, while Shaw holed up in his studio, emerging with a set of songs that were largely based around synthesizer patterns.

“When we regrouped, he went up to me and was like, ‘Uh, I kinda wrote like 15 songs.’ And I was like, ‘Oh no, so did I!’” says Haines, who I spoke with earlier this summer ahead of Pagans’ release.

“So we decided that instead of trying to pull his stuff into the middle to meet my stuff, we just let those songs be what they are, on both sides. We’ve never done that before. Normally we kind of glue it all together, make sure that every instrument is represented.”

If Shaw’s musical machines, to some extent, win out on Pagans, Metric’s tension with larger, more symbolic machines—the music industry, the “system,” the commercial infrastructure in which they operate—remains as pronounced as ever. On the one hand, this is a band that has become decidedly mainstream over the years: radio hits; opening big arena tours for the likes of Muse and, this past summer, Imagine Dragons; and songs featured in major advertising campaigns. (For example, “Stadium Love,” from 2009’s Fantasies, was adopted by Rogers as the official Blue Jays song in 2013, and if you watched a single commercial break on CTV this summer you probably heard Pagans’ lead single “The Shade” soundtracking a 30-second salute to the network’s fall lineup.)

Yet throughout that journey, Metric’s music has been repeatedly critical of the systems in which the band operates. From early tracks like “Dead Disco” to some of the more pronounced gender commentary on Synthetica (“Dreams So Real,” in particular, one of Haines’ best lyrics), the band has never shied away from critiques of the culture industries and their priorities. Pagans opener “Lie Lie Lie” is the latest song in this tradition, but perhaps one of the most pointed: “If it happened it was meant to be, offer me a free lobotomy / Got to be sedated to be seen on the cover of your magazine.”

I ask Haines about how the band reconciles its place within a system that its members clearly have concerns about.

“The whole thing feels now like when you go and play late-night TV, like Jimmy Fallon or Conan or whatever, and you’re really excited because they want you to play,” she explains. “They give you this little window, and you get up there and play your song. And that’s it. And what you can control is that little window.

“It used to feel as though the whole thing had a lot more room around it. I don’t know if it’s because we’ve graduated to another level and it’s just more locked up. A lot of things have changed in the world, obviously, over the past 15 years but certainly there are many factors in play. Increasingly, I just feel like all we can do is what we do. We control our music and we just continue, in our sort of bubble, in a world that we can’t totally recognize.”

At the centre of that “bubble,” to use Haines’ term, is the enduring songwriting partnership she shares with Shaw. Based on how Haines describes Pagans in Vegas’ genesis, and the fact it’s the first proper Metric album to feature a lead vocal performance from Shaw (the sweet, catchy “Other Side”), one could be forgiven for presuming it’s more his album than hers. But that sort of reductionism does a great disservice to the way in which the two collaborators have built a career on a steadfast, shared commitment to their music.

“When I look at how dedicated I’ve been in my life to my work, and to our listeners and the music, that partnership—the writing partnership that Jimmy and I have been able to create, and it’s a lifelong thing—it kind of stands as the greatest accomplishment I feel I have,” says Haines. “It’s really challenging, and it feels as though each of us are there to support each other to evolve.”

Thus, when Shaw brought his studio-driven pieces to Haines, her first instinct was to figure out how she could help weave this material into the next Metric album.

“He really felt like making that music and I was like, ‘alright, let’s do this. What do you want to do? I’m going to figure out what you want to express. How can I help with the vision you have, and help you express it? How can I tweak the lyrics, the melodies?’ And I know he’s going to do the same for me with this next ‘road record’ that’s coming up.”

Ahh yes, the “road record,” as Haines calls it. Remember how both Shaw and Haines emerged from their hiatus with a bucketload of songs? Pagans isn’t the last we’ll hear from that combined set, as the band expects to release a follow-up album in short order, most likely in 2016. Haines says the material is distinct enough that the idea of doing a double album or releasing the two albums at once simply didn’t make sense. Instead, the band spent time reworking and refining the material while touring with Imagine Dragons across North America this summer.

That’s how the band likes it, really: even when they’re part of arguably the biggest contemporary rock tour of the year, Metric’s four members were deeply focused on their own world, on what they do best.

“The reality of what has become really obvious for all four of us, in each and every way, is that happiness is about immersion in the process—especially [when] every day as a musician you get not encouraging news, from the industry that you’re in, right? What we all keep to is, ‘let’s just stay in the work.’ That includes the writing and the recording and playing the shows and hanging out with the fans and then doing it all again. Because there really isn’t much else, aside from a few conversations like the one you and I are having. That’s what it’s all about: staying inside of it. So we’ve got a nice amount of material and just taking our time. If you’re going to be an independent artist, you might as well take the benefits, right? Which is basically doing whatever you want.

“We’ve done what we can with what we can control,” Haines adds, later in our conversation. “But we’re not going to stop. We’re not going to stop growing, stop going forward, stop taking opportunities like this [Imagine Dragons] tour. Why would we? It’s our thing. Last I checked, I’m still sitting here with the same three people who were there at the beginning. And that’s what matters to us.”

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