Metric: TAS In Session
Metric's slow ascent from well-kept Canadian secret to a band that headlines New York's Radio City Music Hall — which the quartet will do on September 23 — is even more intriguing given the group's determination over the last few years to create an independent business model, self-releasing its new album, Synthetica, this week via Metric Music International with partner Mom + Pop Music.
When Metric's Emily Haines and James Shaw, recently visited The Alternate Side to play a special acoustic set from Synthetica (with a bonus cover of Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan's "Strange Weather"), they discussed their reasons behind their forward-thinking business acumen and explained the compled reasoning behind the new album's title.
Listen to Metric's invigorating session when it airs this Friday, June 15, on 91.5 WNYE at 11 a.m. ET, also streaming on the TAS site.
Alisa Ali: The last time I saw you guys was for Fantasies. You did an acoustic setup for us and I’m pleased that’s going on today! I’ve heard a little bit of the new album and it’s pretty rocking. How often do you get to do these stripped-down, acoustic versions of these songs?
Emily Haines: It’s something we really enjoy doing; it’s great with radio stations. You guys have amazing microphones. Jimmy and I have done tours before where we just play songs in a different rendition. A whole other mood or dimension comes out of the song. Shocking, sometimes, how different they’ll be.
Jimmy Shaw: Sometimes it’s nice to play music without a truckful of gear outside.
Alisa: I remember looking up your band and everytime I would google your name, the tagline, “We are in the prime of your youth” would come up.
Emily: That one has been around for a while. That’s a Joules [Scott-Key] line.
Jimmy: That sounds like boredom in an English van.
Alisa: Can you talk to me about the inspiration for “Youth Without Youth?”
Jimmy: It feels like the running theme throughout the record is coming to terms with what’s happening in the world: the fact that we’re moving forward in so many ways that we don’t know what’s real and what’s fake. A lot of interaction that happens between people is digital. It’s hard to know what’s actually real. In that song, in particular, there’s a sense that children don’t really have the same opportunity to live a youthful existence in the first part of their life, like they used to. Kids [become] adults really young.
Emily: And you’re still playing the same childhood games, but the way it plays out is sometimes terrifying. It was also strange in the writing of this song [that] the images just kept coming to me. I’m superstitious about talking about it, but it’s really what I’m so grateful for, being a writer. It’s fascinating the way that images show up on your doorstep. It was the first verse [that came to me], the rubber soul with the razor blade, the hand grenade. And then it got more and more intense. You’re just kids playing a game, but you set the place on fire, you’re looting and rioting. It started to take on this whole other dimension of perhaps justified activism on the part of a generation that’s been completely sold out by the grownups, as it were. There seems such a disregard for the oceans, the air, the water, education. You’re supposed to be a kid and go to school, but that means you’re going to walk out with $250,000 in debt. It started with a kid and the kid kind of grows up through the song, I’m realizing … the song really told its own story.
Alisa: I feel like I’m always trying to see the silver lining in a situation. Even though stuff is really out of hand, with revolt comes change?
Emily: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of positivity in the air now. There’s definitely electricity and I hope it’s positive. Anytime that people are shaking themselves out of a consumer slumber, it’s a good thing. I think it’s going to be a really heavy summer and I think if you hear this song playing in New York City on a hot, hot day, a lot of stuff is going to happen this year.
Jimmy: It’s actually going to smell all summer.
Alisa: I understand that you named the album Synthetica with a tip of the hat to “Bladerunner,” but more about this theory, this post-apocalyptic theory.
Emily: My rule in the band when we make a decision about titles is that it has to have more than one meaning to be a valid album title. Synthetica is not a concept record at all, but we keep finding all these ways that it makes sense. The song “Synthetica” was an incredible composition that Jimmy had done in five massive orchestral synth pieces. He didn’t realize that there was a melodic thread through all of these pieces and it was as if he wrote the same thing five times. All sorts of things came up; there was this character [of] Synthetica, a woman, who I was visualizing. The girls who you feel bad for, who move to L.A. from some small town, and they get hardened. I had all of these visuals. We took that out and it developed more into what Jimmy was saying, what is real and what isn’t. The synthetic world. Maybe we’re headed for something amazing.
Jimmy: We were really inspired by this one image by these Italian architects from the 60s.
Emily: Superstudio architecture firm.
Jimmy: This image of a little girl and she’s on her little plot of land, sweeping it up and keeping it clean. But her plot of land is rubble and around her is futuristic, mirrored tiles. Encroaching upon her and she’s trying to keep the area to herself. The thing that’s so strange is that the land she’s on has already been destroyed. It seems like technology taking over industry; the remnents of the industrial revolution as opposed to the technological one.
Emily: The images on our website; there are so many interesting works that inspired the making of the record as well.
Jimmy: Are we making the world more beautiful now? Maybe we already destroyed a lot of it and we’re improving what we’ve done as opposed to making it worst.
Emily: So the word “synthetica” kept coming up in these interesting forms and that’s how we knew it was our album title.
Alisa: You’ve been a band for ten years. [What have you learned about the business?]
Jimmy: The way that we approach the business part of what we do is that we do know a lot and because of that, we take total control of everything that we do. We don’t put our music in the hands of a lot of other people, we don’t work with a lot of people, we started our own label called MMI and we put out our records worldwide on our own. We now have a partner in the US.
Alisa: Mom + Pop.
Jimmy: Who we love. I think we have we have adopted the ethos that the band IS the thing. It IS the company and you have to control everything that you do. You have to make all of the decisions for yourself and if you don’t, you can’t really blame anyone if everything goes awry and you don’t have a career anymore.
Emily: A lot of the conventional model, along with being an absurd business, if you told anyone in any other business the conventional parameters of what a standard recording contract is, everyone would be amazed. Someone wanting to open a dry cleaning service wouldn’t enter into it. It’s such an out-of-date model that’s totally built on the exploitation of musicians, in my opinion. And then you see the one person it works for and you’re like, “Well Michael Jackson was a superstar!” It’s like, all right, let’s not get into the casualties on the sidelines. Ironically, the label is called Mom + Pop, but [the industry model] is condescending; that the parents are the label and you’re a bunch of kids who don’t understand what’s going on.
Jimmy: You’re employed by the label.
Emily: Exactly. So it’s been great for us and so refreshing to be out from under that cloud of feeling negative about things. It’s not how we want to spend our lives. We love the music so much; it’s our life.
The idea that other people could meddle with it or interfere with our relationship with the listeners, a pure connection … we’re so ecstatic and grateful that we made the decision with our manager to be bold. Do it our own way. Embrace the changes in the industry and finally, find a partner in Mom + Pop that really respects what we’ve done and wants to help keep us going on our own path. Radiohead was definitely our Beatles of this next era by putting out [In Rainbows] the way the did — pay what you want — they started the conversation that everyone was kind of thinking.
I think it’s a really exciting time. A band like us, in the old model, I don’t think we would have survived. There’s no way that some A&R guy is going to sign me and turn me into a star. That was never going to happen. So in a way, the current music climate, is perfect for bands like Metric. We’re unusual. We’re going to [take] our own path. I think bands should feel optimistic.
Alisa: Your last album Fantasies, which sold over a million copies, but the moment you finished the tour, the next day, you started work on Synthetica. Taking no time off.
Emily: It is true.
Jimmy: We’re not sane. We were just feeling really good at the time. We weren’t tired and we were all getting along really well. It was a magical year, 2010. I just wanted to take the same energy and move forward with it and not let it dissipate and go away.
Emily: There was five years between Live It Out and Fantasies. That was a huge growth period for the band. So many things changed for us personally and that’s when we revamped our business situation. We could finally get going. In a way it felt like all the years leading to Fantasies were like trying to “get” the job. And it was like, now we can really do it, we can have our own studio, our own equipment and we have time and people supporting us. We can make beautiful music.
Alisa: I know you recorded at Electric Lady Studios in New York. What made you decide to record in both Toronto and New York?
Jimmy: [We own] the studio in Toronto. It’s behind my house in a building that we own so it’s home. It’s our room and we can do whatever we want in there for however long. It feels warm and free, which is really important thing creatively. You’re in a back alley in Toronto for 9 months and it starts to sound good. It’s such a supportive place for us, personally and the energy in that city is very kind and non-abrasive. Non-judgmental.
Alisa: As opposed to New York.
Jimmy: Yeah, where you find out fast whether you’re totally full of s**t or not. You’re doing exactly what you want to do and New York has a well of telling you if you’re living up to your own standards are not. Some people came up from New York to Toronto when we thought we were finished and literally 20 minutes into listening, my head was in my hands and [I said], “We’re not done.”
Emily: We worked another few months. Our relationship with New York and Toronto is [my two sides]. I pretty much split my time between the two cities. Jimmy and I came here on a Greyhound bus [in 1999] and we found Josh and Joules who were [in New York] from Texas and they were looking to do the same thing of, “I’m going to find my people and make the dream come true.”
That’s always been my relationship with [New York]. It’s so heavy to remember those early days. Our joke is, “Back when you couldn’t buy a roll of toilet paper in Williamsburg let alone an ironic Sonic Youth baby onesie.” Back when we played with the Stones at Madison Square Garden, it was years ago, but we all took the subway there. It’s a very innocent and sweet side of the band that I really like to stay in touch with. Even though we know New York is the place where we know we’re busted if the quality is not there … I feel like there’s real affection and real history for us of the beginnings of the band.