Progress Report: Metric
Since releasing their first album back in 2003, Metric has proven itself to be the little band that could. Even though the band might have suffered a slight identity crisis with U.S. audiences early on (due, perhaps, to the fact that frontwoman Emily Haines has done double duty as a vocalist in Broken Social Scene at various points over the years), since the release of Live It Out in 2005 the band has enjoyed a steady rise in popularity on a global scale. In 2009, after the release of Fantasies, Metric became the first band in history to have their first ever Top 20 hit at U.S. commercial radio without the backing of a traditional label (the band launched their own Metric Music International label to release Fantasies, which would go on to sell over 500,000 copies worldwide). This year, in addition to collaborating with composer Howard Shore on the soundtrack to David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, Metric will release Synthetica — a hyper-slick, super-catchy collection of pop songs that should/could make them bonafide rock stars, whether they like it or not.
STEREOGUM:I feel like I’m a little biased because I know you guys a little bit and I’ve been a fan of the band for so many years, but I think the record sounds really amazing.
EMILY HAINES: Oh, thanks!
STEREOGUM: Now that the record is done and you’ve had a minute to step back from it, how do you feel that it fits in the context of your other work?
HAINES: Well, I guess that remains to be seen, but it’s true –- it feels like a combination of all of our work and maybe you’ve been with us long enough to have some insight on that as well. It wasn’t something that we set out to do, it wasn’t a concept record and it wasn’t something we set out to do when we headed into the studio — we never really have a set goal in mind. We kind of figured it out based on what feels right in the moment. But having stepped away and listened to the record it feels like there is a combination of the entire 10 years since the band has been together that is represented in the record. We’ve had a lot of obstacles in our career — not necessarily more than others but you don’t see a lot of bands that make it to the 10 year mark, for a lot of reasons, because it’s challenging out there. It makes me happy to feel like on this record we finally had the resources to do what we wanted. The right studio, and to be surrounded by people we respect on the business side and all that stuff kind of came together on this record — or at least that’s how it feels emotionally and that’s how it sounds to me.
STEREOGUM: I was thinking back about the last time I talked to you about band things, which was just before the last record came out. It seemed like such an intense make or break moment because it was like “OK, we are going to officially do this all ourselves now” and launch your own label. Were you surprised by the success of that record?
HAINES: It was surprising because it was such a gamble. In addition to deciding to put it out ourselves, it was … was it five years between putting out Fantasies the previous album? Oh my God, I’m asking you!
HAINES: You know? And a lot happened in that time but it still for other people it was five long years –- even though we revamped our business and I put out a solo record and we redesigned our studio in that time, it’s a long time to be away. And that was why it was surprising for us. And we were aware of a lot of people saying “There is no way they can come back” which always gives me great pleasure. Predictions by people that don’t know what the fuck they are talking about.
STEREOGUM: One thing I think is so interesting about your band, aside from the fact that you have been doing this for 10 years, is that a lot of people don’t realize just how popular you really are. And I don’t mean that in an insulting way at all — and I don’t know if its just people here in the States or something — but I don’t think a lot of people realize how long you have been out at it and the size of shows you guys play around the world.
HAINES: No, I know what you mean. First of all, that is a source of happiness for me –- it’s very easy to get roped into the idea that success is having 25 people standing at your door waiting for you to take a picture as soon as you try to go out at night or whatever the modern version of celebrity is. And we have lived in L.A., New York, London and other big cities long enough to know the things that you can do to be visible in that realm. But we have always just focused on getting out on the road and play music for people that want to go to concerts -– not people that want to stand around and analyze really, but people that want to go to a concert with their friends and have a really good time. Those two worlds aren’t always the same. I’ve lived in NYC on and off along with Toronto since the late ’90s, and people stop me sometimes and say “Hey, I love your band!” and sometimes they don’t and meanwhile we know how we’re performing in the place it really counts and it’s with the music fans that want to go to concerts. The purest form of the music is the concert to me.
STEREOGUM: For this column, I’m usually talking to people about the way that work or how the record was made. How do you guys usually work as a band? Do you write together?
HAINES: Well, I write the lyrics. That’s the foundation of songwriting for me –- that’s the primary place. I’ll write progressions. My writing process is a lot like what is projected on my solo albums so that is what my songs sound like before I bring them to Metric. It’s a lot of primary chord progressions, lyrics and melodies which then, Jimmy has just always, in the 10 years we have been in a band together, expressed them in a larger way and also served as a fantastic editor, which is something I feel really grateful to have. For me to just be like “I’ve known you for 15 years and I have no idea what you are talking about” and I can argue that all I want but if its not clear its not clear and that is amazing part of the process. Alternately, Jimmy also writes pieces that then he sends to me and I write lyrics and melodies for and other times we just kind of have “spontaneous combustion” kind of moments when we come up with them together. But, Jimmy and I write the songs and that has been the heart of the band since we started and Josh or Jules contribute a huge amount in terms of the expression of the sound and guiding it and making it sound like Metric. It’s a distinctive thing that we can all tell when it comes out of the speakers -– you can’t really tell why, but if it doesn’t sound like us we can all tell. It’s a pretty comfortable working environment because we’ve been doing it for so long and a lot of the ego that gets in the way of good work has been resolved. And the trust. A big revelation for me actually was, and you are a writer so maybe you can relate to this, but it’s getting rid of that notion that since you wrote it has to exist -– like “well I wrote it so it has to be used…” No it doesn’t! I’ve scrapped so much stuff. You know, if it sucks you scrap it. On this record it was, in fact, really unusual for us to throw out entire songs.
A good example of what I’m talking about is that we didn’t even get hung up on individual songs being individual songs –- if there was a piece and it was three verses, say, a chorus a and a bridge and an outro and we are like “OK, it’s not happening” but there was an 8-bar piece in the middle, we’d hold on to that piece of music and see if it could ever exist in other places or other songs. And it was really an amazing process for us to discover when it would come back -– it would leap back into our consciousness -– lyrically or melodically. I think that’s why this record has a lot of cohesion because they are all intersected in some way.
STEREOGUM: That’s a valuable lesson. It’s easy to get really precious about your work and feel like everything is inherently valuable just because you made it.
HAINES: And for me to, I cant really overstate the value for us of having the business side of our stuff finally clicking because, just like any self-respecting artist, I didn’t like the feeling like I was asking for the approval of people I ultimately didn’t respect. And that is sort of the game in the music industry; sucking it up and adapting to the tastes of whoever happens to be the person that is going to put out your record. And, I’ve always been stubborn to a fault with that -– probably to the detriment of our band, but I always felt like “No fucking way.” When the band became more empowered and we realized we could do this stuff internally I feel like we gained more confidence and now I feel like the editing process for me is great and I have really amazing and honest friendships with the people I work with. They are able to say like, “I feel you on that visual, but you’re not executing it” or like “I know you think that’s translating to something, but it’s not” and similarly when I’m about to set something on fire and completely obliterate it from the repertoire they’ll say “You’re crazy just give it one more pass and you’re going to have it” and I’ll actually listen. The song “Dream For Real” — which is really close to my heart — happened over an eight-hour period, and if it hadn’t been for Liam, the engineer who’s part of the whole family of bros at Giant Studios who helped record the record with us, If it hadn’t been for him, I would have really fucked things up. I was so close to giving up on the sound that defined the record and he really pushed me. In that case he was also a good editor and I don’t know, a good friend, who happened to be skilled and know what he was talking about.
And the thing I’ve learned about taking input is that you can always say no. In the past I’ve always been like, it’s going be spoiled if someone else’s idea is even near your idea. If your idea is strong enough, it will be able to withstand any criticism or any suggestions to the contrary. So, I kind of had that idea that its an internal vetting that we do and then by the time you put something out into the world, it’s completely fine if it gets panned or people don’t get it or whatever but we know that we were happy with what we put out into the world. You don’t want to have to figure that out, you know, six months into a Scandinavian tour that you really wished you’d refined the third verse or whatever. I love the process so much and that’s the only difficult thing about this time right now. It’s a big transition into becoming something different, putting on a different hat. Now that the record is done — because we are in control of so much of our own business now — I go from being the writer with a lot of time for hibernating to being the CEO of a company, which requires spending hours and hours of doing what feels like clerical work but is also just the reality of doing the nuts and bolts work of getting this thing off the ground. Then I get to transition into the person that is going to stand on stage and rock the faces off thousands of people around the world.
STEREOGUM: Out of all of those roles, which is your preferred one? Do you think of yourself as a performer first and foremost?
HAINES: I guess so … although I could never be a performer if I wasn’t doing it the way I’m doing it now. I couldn’t do it with other peoples music. The energy I have and confidence comes from the other people in the band. People ask, “How do you get the energy?” and it’s like, try standing in front of Jules, our drummer for ten years. He is just a monster on the drums. How could I not feel energized, you know? But, as everybody does, you get overwhelmed and …I ’m realizing this as I say this to you that I am grateful for being able to exercise my full potential. The issue I had with the conventional music industry was like, I don’t want to be a little kid that feels like an employee of the record label, and I don’t want the A&R guy to be the superstar … or for my ideas about the business side to be considered irrelevant because I’m just the artist. Things have changed a lot now, so that may seem antiquated, but it’s amazing the number of times we’ve had meetings with really good-natured people doing their best at labels and we come out of the meeting and they’ll be like “Will you come work for us?” Maybe that is the realization is that we’ve learned a lot and it feels good that we have been able to put that into practice instead of these archaic laws about how these things are supposed to work. I mean I guess if I had to give up anything it would be the business side -– I do feel like finally on this record we have people in place that we are happy about. So, I think if I had to choose, the writing is really the main one. I feel like I only learned to sing so I can sing what I wrote.
STEREOGUM: I remember having a conversation with you many years ago -– I think it was after a Broken Social Scene show. You said, “Being in a band is great but it also forces you into this perpetual adolescence … and it can be shocking when something interrupts that and you have to be an adult all the sudden.” I was thinking about that when listening to this record, which seems to be about the perils of having to be a grown up.
HAINES: If anything, I think I’m thinking wistfully back to when it felt like that. To continue the analogy its kind of like –- OK, well now its graduation year and we are wondering if we are going to make it into the school of our choice or live the life that we want. So much happened really quickly once it got going, so if you talked to me five years ago it was zero but now its kind of come to fruition. I also have a million plant analogies but we’ll skip them. I do feel really blessed. I also feel like rock ‘n’ roll is the fountain of youth — which is great, don’t get me wrong — but just because of the people I work with I’m forced on a daily basis to call myself on my own bullshit, and not get too comfortable and not be self satisfied. All the things that are the negative attributes of adulthood … I feel like I’m insulated from that by the nature of what I have to do. So, in that way, I feel like performing is such an incredible task because it really is -– you know our first show touring Synthetica is going to be at Sasquatch in front of I don’t know, 10 or 20 thousand people –- so it really makes other things seem irrelevant. The things that you could freak out or become preoccupied with or evaluate at length just go away -– it’s kind of just like, rehearse, prepare, make it amazing, be 100 percent of what you could be. It’s kind of like being an athlete –- it’s like, all the other stuff in your life is important, but once you get out there whatever happens on the court is the real story. It goes back to what you said earlier about us being underexposed, I think that’s a lot of the reason. We’ve always seen the stage as the actual story and there hasn’t been a lot of hanging around in the history of this band. We’ve made incredible friends and we feel very connected with other musicians — and that’s been very important to us — but the place that I want to be seen and how I want to be known is from my work … that might have something to do with it. We have taken a lot of trips to places that maybe aren’t that “cool” but there are amazing people in small towns everywhere who love music and that’s such a relief to get away from everything else that gets between the purity of that experience that every music listener feels when they commune with an album by themselves at home or with friends at five in the morning or at a concert or whatever. It is the purest thing and to me there is nothing better. Man … you are making me want to play loud guitar in my apartment or something! Put me in front of a stack of Marshalls and just let it out!
STEREOGUM: What will the rest of the year hold for you guys?
HAINES: Well we are trying an approach this time of not killing ourselves which means –- well, we still have over 200 dates this year but for example this summer we are doing select festivals we are not trying to do every festival everywhere. So we are doing some summer stuff and some European festivals. We are going to be touring the world. But, people that have been with us for five records don’t always feel like going to the arena so we are experimenting with ways to include people that have been with us all along can still come experience us. So, as usual, there is a lot of love going into the planning of it, a lot of thought, and a lot of care. We’ve had lifelong agents — really solid people that have seen us through — So there is a lot of insight into putting first what people want from the band. This is the longest fucking sentence, that was really long I don’t even know what you are going to do with that. So, basically we are going to go on tour, that’s what we are going to do! Oh and we did the score for the Cronenberg movie, which comes out pretty soon.
STEREOGUM: I’m really excited to hear that music. How was that experience for you guys?
HAINES: It was amazing! I mean, it’s really surreal to have one of the preeminent writers of film music, Howard Shore, pick you to do something like this. That’s how we felt when he asked us to do the Twilight thing, which was its own little adventure and a great experience. We learned so much from his process and how things work in the world of film and music and that is something the band has always been interested in doing. Howard has worked on every single Cronenberg movie, so when he is like ‘I kind of want to approach this in the way we worked with Ornette Coleman on Naked Lunch” we are like, ‘Whoa, that sounds good! Yeah, let’s do that!”
STEREOGUM: Will that music come out the same time as the film?
HAINES: I know the film itself is coming out at the end of April in Germany and France maybe? And the soundtrack we just got done mixing so I want to say it comes out at the end of May? I think it comes out at the same time Synthetica comes out.
STEREOGUM:I know you have to catch a plane, so I’ll let you go. Thanks again for chatting … and best of luck with everything.
HAINES:Well thank you so much it was so nice to talk to you!