Metric's System or how we learned to stop worrying and (finally) release our debut
Published Jul 01, 2003The first time I saw Metric was actually the third time.
It was March of 2002 and the nomadic duo of Emily Haines and James Shaw were nearing the end of their latest hometown Toronto sojourn. Metric were on a much-hyped showcase at the otherwise deadly-dull Canadian Music Week industry schmooze-a-thon, playing before gay church folk heroes the Hidden Cameras.
It wasn't until I brought home their 2001 EP, Static Anonimity, that I realised I'd seen the Toronto band open for both Starling and Loveage during the previous couple months. Those shows had been alright, but this night was different. In fact, it was pretty fucking epic.
The typically blasé Toronto crowd fell dead silent as Metric's ethereal analog keyboards and overwhelmingly atmospheric guitars fell upon them in enveloping layers, propelled by an insistent backbeat. Emily, all angular and lovely, stood there with her mic cord noosed around her neck, her heart bleeding on the floor while a roomful of indie rock fans, boys and girls alike, developed an incurable crush.
One expects it's a reaction Haines must be used to by now. She has, after all, won over the hearts of critics and fans in all of the towns she has called — Toronto; Montreal; Brooklyn; London, England; and currently Los Angeles, where an L.A. Weekly reviewer recently waxed rhapsodic about her "post-coital allure."
It's a poetic image, but it only fits if one imagines the sex to be spectacularly unsatisfying. "If this is the life," she asks in Metric's signature song (and Polaroid TV ad) "Grow Up and Blow Away," "Why does it feel so good to die today?" It's the seething disappointment of her lyrics that taints what would otherwise be artificially sweet, providing a perfect counterpoint to Shaw's propulsive rhythms, jagged guitars and euphoric pop laments.
But they don't play that music anymore, at least not quite. That CMW show was supposed to be a triumphant concert heralding their debut album, also called Grow Up and Blow Away, to be released on vaunted L.A. indie label Restless. But that heavily programmed electronic indie pop album, more than a year later, has yet to surface. It may not ever.
Nonplussed, Metric has made themselves a completely new debut album, Old World Underground, Where Are You Now?, showcasing their newfound affinity for rock'n'roll.
The album, like their lives so far, is about searching for something and almost, but not quite finding it. But it's also about never giving up the hunt.
"My whole life I felt like there was this incredible mysterious other world full of musicians who made really unorthodox music," Haines says over the phone from the L.A. home she shares with her partner Shaw, one curiously cold and cloudy June morning.
"It was really exciting and inspiring and they lived all over the world and you never heard about them anywhere except from my dad. It placed in my mind the idea that there was a world I could live in that was different. I think that accounts for some of the disillusionment that you pick up on the record. I've been roaming around for six fucking years now, but I haven't found that world."
Haines was born in New Delhi during the period her mother and father, the legendary jazz poet, filmmaker and world traveler Paul Haines, were out gallivanting the globe. Paul was a peripheral figure on the Greenwich Village jazz scene in the 60s and later gained wider acclaim via his lyrics for composer Carla Bley in the early 70s, remaining an influential avant-garde artist up until his death this past January.
Not long after Emily's birth in India, the poet and his family moved to Ontario— renouncing their American citizenship in political protest. Haines grew up in an environment where experimentalism was considered the norm, so it's no surprise she was enrolled in Etobicoke School of the Arts during her teenage years. While there, she became close friends with Kevin Drew — who would later work with her in his bands KC Accidental and, more recently, Broken Social Scene — and Amy Millan, who would later work with her in the dream pop group Stars.
"Emily was complicated and alive back then and I think she's still complicated and alive these days," Drew says. "She was constantly speaking of her father and in love with her father's words. She respected him very much, that's why she always took a lot of interest in words."
Meanwhile, James Shaw was that rare breed — a classical music-loving teenager. After he graduated from a music school in Boston, his friend Torquil Campbell, founder and vocalist of Stars, asked if he wanted to apply to Julliard and live in New York. Campbell didn't get in, but Shaw did, and the two of them moved to Manhattan.
"I didn't really wanna go to Julliard, but I knew Torq was moving there and wanted to go with him," Shaw remembers. "Julliard was definitely not the highlight of my classical run. In fact, it was probably the reason why I stopped making classical music."
Like his friends, he became more interested in swoon-inducing pop music and after three years in New York they moved back to Toronto, where Shaw met Haines. Or rather, re-met they later realised they hung out briefly when they were both 16, but had forgotten each other existed.
"Our mutual friends were playing at the Horseshoe [in Toronto]. I won't mention their name, but the reason we started talking was because we were both complaining about how bad they were," Shaw says. "It was a relationship based on mutual dislikes."
They were both concentrating on solo projects at the time; Shaw followed Emily to her then-home in Montreal, and they began to help flesh out each other's music. By the fall of 1998, Shaw was ready to return to New York. He asked Emily to come with, she assented and so did Stars' Torquil Campbell and Chris Seligman (who had attended school in Boston with Shaw, if you're still keeping track). They found a myth-making musicians' loft in the now-trendy Brooklyn neighbourhood of Williamsberg, which they also shared with future members of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Liars.
"It took us two months to get the place to the point where you didn't have to wear boots in the entire loft," Shaw remembers. "It was horrible when we first moved in. Every penny was going to another quart of blue paint or some sort of stripper. We were building and building. It was really hard for the first couple of years, we had this insane roommate with dogs that would run around and shit everywhere. It was pretty dark."
By 1999, Haines and Shaw has officially formed Metric — named after a beat Shaw had saved on his sampler, but kept because of the duo's precise mathematical execution and industry interest was piqued almost immediately. Warner Brothers gave them a deal to record a demo, but then passed on picking them up. Soon that demo fell into the hands of a manager in London, England, who, perhaps naively, saw serious dollar signs.
"He emailed us a month later and said the interest was so huge that people are talking about record deals and you guys got to come over here and I'll send you some plane tickets. Are you up for moving here?' At that point the loft was still grungy and the two insane dogs were still roaming around, so it was like yeah sure, let's get out of here.' So we went to London."
They landed a publishing deal with Chrysalis in early 2000, but the record deal was simply not materialising and there weren't many shows to play either. They felt like they were being groomed to be some factory-made recording artists and, as Shaw points out, "there wasn't a single thing that felt right about that." After about ten months in London, they packed up and returned to the New York loft.
"We had so much label difficulty because we were doing something that was right on the verge of being super-commercial, but it wasn't super-commercial it was close enough to get the money hungries up in arms and twitchy, but not enough for them to act on it," Shaw figures.
"For a long time we were battling this thing musically are we in the pop world, are we trying to write hits here or do we not care? I don't think we made up our mind until recentlywhen we decided we don't care."
All this time, they were working on their debut album Grow Up and Blow Away, and a few months after their return, they signed a deal with Restless Records and met their drummer Joules Scott-Key. In April of 2001, they finally finished their album, but the indie label was undergoing financial re-jigging after losing their primary backer and the album was put on the way back burner for some time. Stuck in a sort of success-stasis, the loft living began to take a bit of turn for the nihilistic.
"When we moved there it was like wow, this is our generation? It's really negative,'" Haines says. "I was a very light character in that time in Williamsberg, even if it seems I'm exuding something dark. There's definitely a sense of hopeless alcoholismwhich is a helluva lot of fun, too."
The party got broken up by a pair of planes taking out a pair of buildings on a sunny September morning.
"It was like that Flaming Lips song, Is it getting heavy? I thought it was already as heavy as can be,'" she says sadly. "The smell was so it was really if you are sensitive person, the smell of 3000 people was too much. And mine was already a very toxic environment.
"There was this window of time where everyone in the loft was suddenly talking to each other politically, all the walls broke down between relationships, it was like What are we going to do? This is going to be a breakthrough for our generation.' Big thoughts. Big ideas. And then the door kind of closed and everybody just started drinking in earnest. It's the end of the world, so let's trash it' was the slogan I had in my head.
"But I just couldn't do it. I couldn't get really fucked up forever. I wanted to get out. And that's what we did."
They managed to sublet their loft spot to a European musician, and they hightailed it back to Toronto, where they moved into another loft space on the top floor of a downtown bank. They played a series of shows, patiently waited for their album to be given a release date, and worked on their friends' Broken Social Scene album You Forgot It In People, on which Shaw played trumpet and guitar while Haines dropped the vocals on the album's most arresting single "Anthems for a Seventeen Year-Old Girl." "Park that car / Drop that phone / Sleep on the floor / Dream about me," she sang, mantra-like, in a modulated plea for attention, but it's not easy to win people's ear when you can't get your music to them.
Soon after the recording sessions were completed, in the hopes of working closer with Restless, they moved to Los Angeles. But still nothing. Eventually, the sand ran out on their album and, living up to its title, it did indeed blow away.
Restless got absorbed by Rykodisc and though the label people kept promising the album would be coming out (which, by the way, it still advertises as "upcoming" on their website) the day after they passed the deadline requirement for releasing it, Metric extricated itself from the contract.
As Billy Idol might say, it was a nice day to start again.
"They've definitely gone through a very long process to get to where they are today," Broken Social Scene's Kevin Drew notes. "But the process that we heard you haven't heard, and it was a wonderful fucking beautiful process that should have been released. To the public, this is going to be the first record, which I think is a bit of a tragedy, because some of their greatest recordings have happened in the past. We're all just proud they have a record that they're really happy with and that they're putting out. It's about time they put out a fucking record already."
Aside from the nightclub-set song "Hustle Rose," which positively basks in keyboards'n'beats euphoria, the new album, Old World Underground, takes a far rockier turn, largely ditching the samplers and computer programming with which they made their name. Haines' vocals similarly shifted from bachelorette pad cool to Elastica sharp, though her disappointment with life became, if anything, more acute.
"What we started doing last spring was just playing," says Shaw. "When we were writing new music we were making the limitations of the song [according to] what the band could actually play live and we wanted to base the energy off of a rock performance. The main goal was trying to record what we could play. One of the things that inspired that decision was that we would come up with a song, and then it was always such a battle to play it live and it got frustrating to the point where we just wanted to get up on stage and play our instruments. have a really good time and not worry about what was missing or trying to finesse the song too much."
The new album, 80 percent of which is guitar, bass and drums recorded live in one take, was completed in just 30 days. One gets the feeling from talking to the two of them that the recording process was extremely cathartic, after four solid years of being screwed around, put on hold and let down by the music industry. Enough was enough.
"I felt like an idiot," Haines says bluntly. "I think that was the turning point of changing the emphasis from recorded music to live music. You think you're doing recordings for yourself, but actually everything you do is demos constructing something artificial in the hopes you can sell it. To me it didn't feel enough like being a real musician. A performing musician, to me, is an honourable profession.
"I'm proud of the work I did getting up that point, but both James and I feel that it's not really a record; it's a collection of demos, a process hopefully it's enjoyable listening, but to me it's not the same thing as realising some music and recording it."
Shaw notes they actually feel like they're working on a new project started only last summer, despite keeping the name Metric. "In retrospect, I'm glad that it never came out. I think that it was a learning process for us and I think that there are a few people who know that, but not that many. And their first question is always so, why the change?' I'm glad that's not going to be a more widely asked question."
Metric don't own the masters to the Restless record, and it likely won't ever see the light of day unless their new album really takes off which is a distinct possibility. Their new mix of soaring indie pop and down-to-earth rock'n'roll feels extremely of-the-moment, if not quite as distinctive as their old sound.
They've now aligned themselves with upstart indie Enjoy Records, which successfully launched surfer-turned-singer Jack Johnson's career into the stratosphere. In Canada, their album will be the first release from Last Gang records, a new label run by Chris Taylor, entertainment lawyer for such acts as Avril Lavigne, K-OS and Hot Hot Heat.
Once record stores across the continent can finally put in a Metric section, the band, which also includes new bass player Josh Winstead, will be able to get back out on the road. They can get away from the Blade Runner vibe of Los Angeles and its innumerable police helicopters, and let the world's problems dissipate a little in their exhaust as they slip back into travel mode, where they plainly feel most at home, if not quite comfortable.
"I suppose if there's any thread to my life and my work so far it's that I have gone out in the world searching. It's partly been a romantic vision I heard about my parents having," she admits. "[Old World Underground, Where Are You Now?] summed it up really wholeheartedly scouring places, looking for something intangible. I go out with an open heart, as cheesy as that sounds, and more than often I don't find what I hoped would be there."
But she doesn't have to search alone, and maybe that's what has kept Metric active and alive, forcing their way through the mud of unfulfilled dreams, failed efforts and foreign cities. They remain, to the end, sadly optimistic. Emily may write about the horrors of televised invasions and an escapist desire to milk cows and grow sweet potatoes, but after all her stories have been told, disappointments catalogued and travels enumerated, they finish their "unfashionably modern" album with the song "Love Is A Place," offering up the timeless hope of "nothing but blue skies."
"They're very strong people, James and Emily," Drew says, somewhat proudly. "They've had so much thrown at them and promised to them that it doesn't even faze them anymore. They've haven't stopped. They haven't stopped since they first kissed."