Interview: Metric’s Emily Haines
Metric sure picked the right time to strike out on their own. Their self-released fourth album, Fantasies, notched up worldwide sales of nearly half a million copies, proving that it’s possible for a band to achieve mainstream success — and, more impressively, airplay — without the support of a record label. It certainly didn’t hurt that Fantasies was stuffed with radio-ready hits like “Gold Guns Girls” and “Gimme Sympathy,” or that the band — led by singer/keyboardist Emily Haines and guitarist Jimmy Shaw — have never been ambivalent about their ambitions. Part of what’s exhilarating about Metric’s songs is their ability to whole-heartedly embrace the widescreen appeal of popular music without a trace of calculation or posturing.
Synthetica, Metric’s fifth album, retains the futuristic gleam of Fantasies, but the songs are sparer and more spacious, given to asking questions rather than answering them. Haines muses frequently on the fate of authenticity in the age of the digital copy, as well as the disparity between her youthful pop-idol soul and her aging body. “All night, I stayed up, just to prove I can keep up with you,” she sings in “The Void,” giving voice to the mixture of existential angst and lower back pain that plagues middle-aged rock stars and music fans alike. With a sound that Haines calls “retro-futuristic,” Synthetica gives voice to the wisdom of years lived and the excitement of discoveries to come, as well as a band who, a decade into their career, sound as if they’re just getting warmed up.
You made the decision to release your last album, Fantasies, on your own, and it paid off big time. How is Synthetica going out?
The amazing situation we’re in is that because of the way we have it structured — we can choose partners all over the world. I think that’s what’s challenging for a lot of bands — trying to determine what’s the best path for them. Every band is different, and Metric is the exception in many ways to the standard arrangement. What we’ve always struggled with is that we’re very collaborative. We really want to work with people, but we’ve always found the terms of the conventional deal are just so unfavorable to the artist — and kind of insulting in a lot of cases. It’s like, “Don’t let the artist get involved in directing their own course, because they don’t know what they’re doing.” You feel like you’re having to spend your time trying to get on the phone with people so you can get on with your life, or so you can get permission to become your own person, in your own right. We released Fantasies on our own, which was a really scary move. It’s not like we had some huge line of credit. And it was our most successful album to date. We felt really encouraged by that. So we finally had people coming to the table ready to accept to terms that we were comfortable with, and treat us as a partner instead of a situation where a band feels like an employee of the label that then gets distributed by some other company. It’s a very direct, amazing partnership.
The band has always been straightforward in its desire to be on the radio, and the music reflects that, but at the same time, you’ve been insistent on doing things your own way.
I suppose we do usually associate the desire to be independent to be in opposition to the desire to be successful in a mainstream realm. From the beginning, when Jimmy and I started writing together, it was always the dream, and always the goal, to reclaim radio. It’s completely absurd that radio should be a medium no self-respecting band would go near. That’s wrong. That’s insane. We were very pleasantly surprised with Fantasies to find that people actually are open-minded.
We had program directors of big, mainstream alternative stations — and obviously, we’re in no position to have any power whatsoever — but we managed to get in the door and say, “Will you just listen?” And they did listen, and they played it. They did that with “Gold Guns Girls” and “Gimme Sympathy.” That was really encouraging to me, having felt that the whole system was unfair. It’s really exciting for us to be able to participate in that and be a band on the radio. I would love to see enough bands go into that world that it changes the format and we can all enjoy the radio. That’s what I’d like to see happen.
And now you’re being distributed by Mom + Pop, which is the record-releasing arm of Q Prime, who manage some of the biggest rock acts in the world.
That’s what was so great when we met with those guys, is instead of what we’ve gotten throughout our career, this disdain for our independent spirit, or “Oh no, this is gonna be hard…”
“They have ideas…”
We have ideas. And they’re like, “That’s fantastic. Just keep doing what you’re doing and let’s be part of it.” It’s an exciting time. The thing that I really love is that we can make decisions quickly. I can walk down the street and come up with an idea I think could be really fun for our fans, something that I feel excited by, and I can call my manager and we can make it happen. Twenty-four hours later, there’s a worldwide team of people who are doing what the band wants. I really hope this can be a new model — for the kind of bands who are into it. I know it’s not for everyone. But for the people who want that, I hope we can be of help in making that path a little smoother than it was for us.
You’ve got a little more of an organization behind you now, but with Fantasies you made an effort to be hands-on in every aspect of putting the record out. What did you take away from that experience?
The revelation I had, and it’s actually become even more philosophical as time’s gone on, is that if you’re passionate about what you do, you’re going to work really hard, and there’s some ratio of pain you’re always going to have there, no matter what happens. The circumstances can change, but these ratios do not change. It’s just a matter of what kind of challenge is inspiring to you and what kind of challenge makes you suicidal. My revelation is that, as exhausting as it is, to do things way that we do them — it’s exciting. And it makes me feel proud of the band, and like we’re helping in some way, or something.
The energy that I expend feels like it’s worth it, as opposed to the energy that you’re going to spend chasing someone around, or blaming someone for something that didn’t work, or trying to figure out what happened to your tour support. So many artists spend most of their lives chasing their money and trying to figure out what’s happening. It’s too confusing, and I realized I don’t function well when I’m in a position of feeling like I’m being victimized in some way. I don’t like to place the blame on other people. Jimmy and I, ever since we started doing this together, that’s something we realized: Let’s just do this, and live and die by your own successes and failures. There’s nobody to blame but yourself, so if you make mistakes, you can at least learn from them. It’s scary, but it’s also exhilarating.
As the title implies, Synthetica is lyrically concerned with what’s real and what isn’t, but the songs also circle back to the subject of aging or an older person’s perspective. “Clone” is a song about being defined by the choices you’ve made, and that at a certain distance, it doesn’t matter if they were good or bad, because they’re who you are: “It’s too late in the day to tell me I’m off the path/ We’re already in the aftermath.”
I’m happy that has come across, the idea of looking forward and looking back. There is this retro-futuristic thing happening, sonically and otherwise. I got really preoccupied with this whole radical architecture thing, the way people in the past envisioned the future. Frankly, I like their version of it a little bit better. There’s a distinction I felt I needed to make as I was working on the record, which is that it wasn’t an end, or a retrospective, so much as the sense of evaluating how to go forward by looking at what just happened. It doesn’t feel like the end of anything, but at the same time, something needed to be summarized.
The band has been around for 10 years now, which naturally gives rise to a little stock-taking.
Yeah, and that’s incredible. Ten years of anything is just, how’s that possible? And having the really intense revelation that this is, this will have been my life. This is it.
“Dreams So Real” is a song about exactly that, realizing that your music is who you are, and wondering, “Does this mean as much to anyone as it does to me?” There’s a kind of nostalgic yearning for the past, or your younger days — it’s deliberately left unclear — when it felt like everyone believed in “the power of song,” and a sense that time might never come again.
What thinking person who isn’t right now working to cure cancer or working in Africa or doing something concretely philanthropic — who doesn’t ask themselves that question? That’s been a low level of anxiety for me for so long, just feeling mortified by the idea that your life could get so distorted that you have this inflated sense of self-importance. Writing that song was one of the strangest experiences. It was instantaneous. I wrote the whole thing so fast. Obviously, it was this very clear awakening that I just needed to say. I guess now that I’ve written it, I feel better about it, because at least I’ve said it. We do take the music seriously. And for us it does still have meaning. Maybe it is an antiquated and romanticized version of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” But that did happen.
There have been times when art has been in the forefront of important moments in history. What I came to is, I’m still going to believe in that. The obvious lesson is you take the work seriously but you don’t take yourself seriously. Which is why we made sure “Lost Kitten” was right nearby.
In “Breathing Underwater,” you sing, “They were right when they said we should never meet our heroes,” but you ended up working with one of yours on Synethetica when Lou Reed sang backup on “The Wanderlust.” It’s interesting the way you use him, too. He’s got such a distinctive voice it naturally pushes to the fore, but here he’s more subdued, answering your vocals rather than taking the lead.
It’s a supporting role. That song had so many incarnations, which is not uncommon for us, but that one in particular was like, “Will it ever get there?” And yet we felt there was something to the feeling and the spirit of the song such that we wanted to complete it, let it come to fruition. That [lead] vocal is particularly sweet and innocent-sounding, and we needed this world-weary person, almost like a guide, or someone who’s been through it all before. He just riffed on that: “I’ve been on the Prince of Highways for so long.” Yes, you have. It’s the experienced teacher with the next generation.
Was it like that in the studio, the experienced teacher and the innocent newcomer? You were actually in the studio together, right? You didn’t just send him the track.
We were. I thought that he would just overdub his part, but he really wanted us to sing together at the same time. That’s the kind of chemistry we’ve developed. We did this thing in Central Park where we sang this Johnny Cash song, “25 Minutes to Go,” this horribly dark countdown to being executed, written by Shel Silverstein. Lou asked me to do that with him in Central Park — which was terrifying, by the way. I was backing him up on piano, and he was just improvising; he went off about Bloomberg, he just went for it. I was the straight man in that situation. I performed with him in Australia as well. It’s kind of a good chemistry. It’s very natural. But it is funny that I have that line on the record: “They were right when they said you should never meet your heroes.” I feel like I need to put a caveat, like, “I’m not talking about Lou!”