Metric Balancing Act

Metric Balancing Act
Photo: Justin Broadbent
Metric guitarist Jimmy Shaw sits sipping some mineral water, a fedora perched on his head; vocalist and synth player Emily Haines folds herself neatly into a nearby chair. They are a lovely pair, in an angular way, sharp corners and velvety shadow. They have been giving interviews for days and look exhausted, but also resolute, ready to give of themselves again.

Before I ask a single question, I tell them a story.

At the beginning of 2007, my marriage was ending. It would not completely implode for nearly another year, but the plastic explosives were being coolly, methodically placed at all the weak points. I was working as a cheesemonger, learning to cut 60 kilo wheels of parmesan with a bare wire and surreptitiously drinking behind the counter. I hated everything.

My co-worker Dan also hated everything. The only things he didn't hate were Metric, and me. That spring, we spent every lunch hour at his apartment, reeking of cheese and on the verge of tears, listening to Live It Out over and over again. I tell them how I cried to "Monster Hospital," how it was a hard transformation that left me uglier and lonelier for it. I tell them I was glad to have had their soundtrack to get me through it.

Jimmy Shaw leans back and grins expansively. Emily Haines brightens and shifts forward. Living day in, day out with Metric, hearing directly how the music coaxed someone through a difficult, chrysalis period seems to confirm that the magic is working. They still seem shocked by it, and by the energy that is already building in advance of their latest album, Synthetica, coming out June 12. "Oh God, I am not used to it at all," Shaw confesses.

Metric are at a tipping point. The record already made chart history when "Youth Without Youth" became the first single to ever debut at #1 on the Mediabase Canadian Alternative Radio Airplay chart. "It's like the record is leading us," Haines says. "We're following it, and it's actually going quite fast."

The band's rise has been steady, more architectural than meteoric. Now with Synthetica, the next level of their career's structure reaches further skyward. Shaw notes that while each stage of their career's construction has been just as hard-earned, their success has matched it, and with every step they have moved up to "a different spot on the staircase." Haines agrees: "We've always been on this kind of slow and steady trajectory, but it feels on a different level."

Synthetica is at once darker and more hopeful than anything they've done before. The record's themes question the reality of the outside world while ruthlessly examining the truth of one's own identity. Far from being an abstract idea examined from a clinical distance, these questions are intimately connected to Metric's concerns about their own career and personal lives. Haines reflects that "every person is evaluating their life, thinking: 'Am I the person I am meant to be?' As the person who writes the lyrics, it couldn't be more personal. Also, my whole life is this band, which was something I realized while writing this record. Holy fuck, this really is what I am doing with my life."

As Haines and Shaw continue to challenge themselves regarding their own artistic authenticity, they face new anxieties. Instead of struggling artists, they are now an internationally known commodity. Rather than completely rebel against that success, they seek control it - to retain their integrity through deliberate management. Since their inception, Metric have been dizzied by dramatic changes to technology that have transformed every aspect of the industry. Shaw notes that the theme of anxiety and technology started to creep up on him as the album neared completion. "The way the record became for all of us wasn't just 'Am I authentic, or am I fake?' it became the idea of examining what is real and fake, taking that concept and seeing it externally. And we're really at a bizarre moment in history-" "-where Tupac's hologram shows up at Coachella," Haines interjects. They are both silent for a moment.

Emily and James look at each other and grin; the strangeness delights them. Instead of resisting, as so many labels and artists have, they choose to embrace new opportunities; after all, the band have relied on the internet to connect with fans almost since their inception. Haines feels that witnessing this moment "just feels really fortuitous. You hear so much much negativity about changes in the music industry, [but] it just felt exciting to us. We just wanted to change with the times instead of fighting them." That means making an EP that is available exclusively online and for only 30 days, as they did with Plug In Plug Out in 2009, or releasing an album of fan remixes called Fantasies Flashbacks under a Creative Commons license in January of 2012.

Metric have not abandoned the traditional markers of success - they built their career with traditional labels, and currently have a hit on alternative radio. But neither do they cling to the significance of these milestones. Clothed and shod by the past, they rush forward to meet the future head on.

They're also open to internal change, even in the band's most intimate arena: the recording studio. While Jimmy Shaw had always manned the boards, this time they invited the Stills' Liam O'Neil to help record and mix Synthetica, a partnership that allowed Shaw to focus on composing with Haines. Shaw notes that O'Neil "was one of the first people ever to be okay when Emily and I scream at each other. It gets really heated about music." Haines nods affectionately. "It gets really passionate about the chord, or the word or the rhythm," Shaw continues. "There's nothing that either of us feel more strongly about. And [Liam] just understood that it was music."

Being able to scream, or break down, or admit intense embarrassment was invaluable. "It facilitated us being able to go as far as we needed to, emotionally, to get the music that we needed out, without feeling guilty about it," Shaw says. As a result, Synthetica retains the polished, almost sweet synths and throbbing beats that have always defined their sound, but with lyrics that are even more raw and challenging. Haines hopes that listeners "get that feeling like you're at the best party you've ever been to, and and also are the most vulnerable you've ever been."

As the primary lyricist, Haines is particularly connected to the language, and she visibly cringes when talking about the writing process. "I cannot convey, except through squirming, the level of awkwardness and embarrassment I feel. It might be something I've spent all night working on, coming from the deepest, most pure part of myself, and then I walk into the studio say, 'Okay. I'm going to show this to you.'" She shudders.

That willingness to demand everything of themselves is a key part of what makes Synthetica so compositionally sophisticated and yet emotionally raw, a rare combination of sleekness and vulnerability. At such a strong, pivotal moment in their careers, it's easy to forget that Metric almost didn't exist.

At the turn of the millennium, and still a duo, Metric were one of Toronto's buzziest bands. They signed a deal with Restless Records and recorded their debut, Grow Up and Blow Away, in 2001. When Restless was bought up by Rykodisc, the album disappeared, unreleased, into label limbo. All of the momentum they had build up seemed on the verge of evaporating. Most partnerships would have ended then; many people would have quit and few would have blamed them.

As the music languished away, Metric continued to play, creating their own distribution channel by burning home-made CDRs and using their nascent website as a mini mail-order business. Haines remembers the process: "make a list of songs, make a CDR, write them a little note and mail it." In his 2003 Exclaim! cover story, Joshua Ostroff called Metric "sadly optimistic" at the time, wondering if "maybe that's what has kept Metric active and alive, forcing their way through the mud of unfulfilled dreams, failed efforts and foreign cities."

Through a combination of melancholy optimism and sheer drive, Metric persevered. They expanded to a quartet, adding drummer Joules Scott-Key and bassist Josh Winstead. Adding dynamic backing to the muscular-but-dreamy vocals and complex synth melodies proved a magical combination. Leaving their first album behind them, they wrote and released 2003's Old World Underground, Where Are You Now?, and began a steady rise. Live It Out in 2006 earned both Polaris Prize and Juno nominations, and their label, Last Gang, capitalized on the momentum by purchasing the rights to Grow Up and Blow Away, finally releasing it in 2007. In 2009, Fantasies earned them Group of the Year and Alternative Album of the Year Juno awards.

As their power has grown, Metric have responded by making freedom their highest priority. No longer willing to be at the mercy of labels and other people's agendas, they have sought to take back control of their music. The process has been measured, not reactionary. They continued to work with labels, and when they were strong enough and established enough to break away, they have. Now, the band have systematically bought back all of their rights, and Synthetica will be released exclusively on Metric Music International, the band's own label.

For Emily Haines, ownership gives her a sense of peace, that she no longer is "trying to repair things, or feeling like you're a detective in your own life trying to figure out what everyone is doing to you." Jimmy Shaw adds that "we'd rather build our own plane and fucking go down in it than do anything else. If we fail, then we only have ourselves to blame; things become more honest and clear that way."

Musically, Metric remained on the same trajectory. "It's not like we were on a label that controlled everything before," Shaw notes, "and we're going from artistic jail to freedom, some crazy artistic orgy. Things didn't change that much - we always made exactly the record we wanted to make." What's changed instead is their ability to be as nimble as possible. Haines adds, "You don't have to be a musician to relate to the idea of taking control of your own life and taking control of your destiny."

Now, with Synthetica, Metric are releasing and performing the music that they want, blending their aesthetic of retro-futurism with new wave, merging digital distribution with analog synth. As Haines says, they seek a balance: "As we embrace certain elements of the new developments in technology, we simultaneously hoard vintage microphones and analog synthesizers." Just as Sythetica may have started as a personal examination of their own artistic integrity and individual authenticity, it has come to mean much more. Shortly after the album was finished, Shaw had a moment of clarity: "We realized that internal thing - where you're trying to figure out whether you are honest with yourself or not - is the exact same thing that happens when you look out at the whole earth and all of culture and human nature. Are we, as a collective, true or not?"