Originally published in AU magazine, May 2009
THE PYRAMIDS of Egypt. Niagara Falls. The Great Wall of China. The Taj Mahal. These natural wonders have provided scholars with topics of discussion and debate for centuries upon centuries. A lesser-known wonder is how a gifted Canadian band, who have all the right ingredients to be globally successful, haven’t achieved the same level of success that many of their contemporaries have in recent years.
It’s almost like the story of Anvil – without the bad songs, bad hair and bad ending – but Metric frontwoman Emily Haines doesn’t really see it like that. The quartet may not have had a bona fide hit over the course of their decade-long career, but, clichéd as it may sound, Haines is simply happy to be doing what she loves best.
“There’s never been a big break for this band. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had people telling me we should be bigger than we are,” she says. “But I think other people have more of a problem with it than I do… I’m happy with what we do, and where we sit in popular culture. I try not to measure my life according to the standard of what I’m supposed to want. People have all sorts of strange reasons for getting into music, I’ve noticed, particularly on the business end. It’s like they’re trying to become the cool kid they never were in high school. It was never like that for us.”
Emily Haines is at the tail-end of a very long week of nine-hour press days, but her enthusiasm – or at least her articulacy – shows no signs of waning. Earlier today, she was in London. This evening, she’s in Paris and by her estimation, reckons that AU is her 103rd interview so far. She doesn’t mind, though; having something new to talk about, like her band’s new album Fantasies, is always a pleasure. Strictly the quartet’s fourth album (although they don’t class 1999’s Grow Up and Blow Away as their debut proper), it’s an extremely strong, brisk collection of indie-rock tunes that are generously coloured by electronica and pop.
“Every record has been influenced more by the places that we’ve been in, really, more than anything else,” she explains. It’s funny she should say that: Metric have gained something of a reputation for being a nomadic band, which might explain their knack for avoiding categorisation, at least to some extent. Haines and co-songwriter/guitarist/producer James ‘Jimmy’ Shaw are based in Toronto, bassist Josh Winstead lives in New York, while drummer Joules Scott-Key is a resident of California – which must make getting together for band practices a real killer. It’s illustrative of how all four members live very distinct lives, too; yet even though Haines and Shaws are members of the lauded Broken Social Scene and regular contributors to other bands and projects, returning to Camp Metric has never proven to be a chore.
“It’s exactly like returning to your family,” she earnestly agrees. “I mean, even your best friend, you can’t spend 24 hours a day with. You love this thing so much, you love the music, you love the band – but what are you supposed to do, nothing else? We all allow each other a lot of leeway to maintain the other aspects of our lives, our other interests. Whenever Metric is getting back together and we’re all gonna be in the same town, there’s so much energy and excitement around that, ‘cos I get to see these people that I love so much, without feeling any sort of burden. It’s not supposed to be like working in a factory, you know?”
It’s not only in music that Haines is something of a natural-born drifter, either; her proclivity for travel would put even Judith Chalmers to shame. Born in India to American parents and raised in Toronto, she explains that much of Fantasies was written on a trip to Argentina.
“One of the things we did between the release of the last record (2005’s Live It Out) and this one was sort of sort out our personal lives, and literally get ourselves a life – not just be shuttled from one place to another,” she explains. “A trip to Buenos Aires seemed like a strange way to achieve any sort of grounding, but I had to get away from everything, and every sort of identity that I had created for myself. Just to remember that all the good work, all the observations, all the writing – everything comes from just living. It doesn’t come from touring.
“The last thing we were gonna do after six years of touring was go straight into the studio and write a record about… touring!,” she giggles. “To me that’s the most boring topic. Hearing a rockstar complain about… let me guess. Exhaustion? Isolation? Listeners deserve more than hearing about rockstars complain.”
In their earlier days, perhaps she would have had reason to grumble. Constant comparisons drawn by lazy journalists between Metric and Blondie, or Metric and Garbage – neither of them particularly accurate and presumably drawn because of the band’s gender make-up – were bandied about. These days, after cultivating something of a loyal fanbase, it’s not as much of a problem.
“It’s funny, it’s like looking back at yourself in the ninth grade, or something,” she laughs softly. “I felt really offended when somebody would compare us to something. Then you just realise, y’know, people need a reference. There are only so many notes in the scale. If I had any advice for new bands, it’d be ‘Don’t be offended if people compare you. They’re just trying to put you in some context – it’s a compliment, they’ve listened to you enough to actually notice these things…'”
Furthermore, she seems particularly proud of the fact that Metric’s fanbase has remained constant and unwavering since their inception in 1998. Although Live It Out was their most successful record to date, and their extensive touring commitments following its release brought them to hitherto untapped audiences, there is a core group of devotees who have remained with the band since the start – no mean feat in an industry that has seen an increase of ‘one album wonders’ in recent years.
“It’s a pretty intense feeling too, when you realise the value of that,” she agrees. “When I hear feedback from people who’ve been with us since the beginning, it makes the whole thing make sense. I feel like we’ve fought, our entire career, to just preserve the simplicity of the idea, y’know? My whole life, I’ve had people try to complicate my ambition into something really difficult and abstract. The fact is that I wanted to play music, I’m a songwriter, I met the best people I could have met to do it, and we wanna write songs, record records and play shows. And conveniently, there are a whole bunch of people in the world who want to buy records and go to concerts. So anything beyond that, I just feel like it’s bullshit. People are trying to make jobs for themselves, to create all kinds of problems, in a very simple and very basic part of life that should be just pleasurable. It doesn’t have to be a business nightmare.”
Have Metric had any particular bad experiences with labels, management companies or fellow musicians over the years, then?
“I don’t know if we’ve had it any worse than anyone else, but we definitely haven’t been lucky,” she says resignedly. “But I’m not talking about any bands, no. We have a collaborative rapport with so many bands, we’re part of a vast community of musicians. I’m talking about the whole business that’s sprung up around the phenomenon of music, that really nobody can control or explain. Because really, it doesn’t really make any sense, how powerful and important music is in peoples’ lives. Yet there are so many people who are drawn to it because they’re trying to monetise every single interaction between every human being on the planet, y’know? You can’t charge 25 cents for every single moment! It’s a minefield of strange intentions out there.”
On a similar theme, the band have also fallen prey to one of a working band’s most dreaded fears – the leakage of their album. Fantasies’ release was brought forward by a week for that same reason, yet Haines’s feelings on piracy are more of frustration and disappointment, than anger.
“Well, I’ll tell you – we had that record under wraps for six months,” she says firmly. “We controlled it for a really long time; we were really vigilant, because that’s what you have to be. My only frustration is with the people in the business. You know, it’s not some kid on his laptop that leaks the record – it’s always somebody from within the record company. It’s somebody who’s trying to show off, who burns a copy of the master and starts circulating it. So my problem is with people within the record companies that refuse to grasp the moment that they’re in, that it’s not 1979 or something. We have this technology now that means if you circulate CD-Rs of a band’s record, it will get leaked.
“The only other thing I’d say, is I heard Lily Allen make some quote on stage saying ‘I know you all downloaded the record, but I don’t care, because I don’t make any money from album sales’. I kind of take offence to that, because we weren’t all born with a silver spoon in our mouth, you know? That’s not the case for a lot of musicians. A band like Metric? We self-financed this entire process, as did so many people we worked with. People do a lot of things out of Metric for love, but they get their return on the back end – it’s when the record sells that the producers and a lot of the behind-the-scenes people make their money. So when somebody just decides that they’re going to make themselves a distributor by circulating CD-Rs, they’re actually punishing people who, in our case, are really generous with their time. We’re not in Lily Allen’s position. Every penny that’s gone into this album to make it sound the way it does, and to be able to compete on radio stations with major artists, is coming directly out of our pockets. I understand that people like getting something for free, and they’re interested to hear it – that I understand, and I’ve certainly downloaded stuff before. But it’s just understanding that if you want to hear the music, and if you care about the band, it’s not gonna kill you to drop ten bucks on the album.”
When you put it like that, I say, it sounds like people don’t fully grasp the gravity of the effect that illegal downloading actually has on bands on Metric’s level.
“No, I don’t think they do. And it doesn’t help when you’ve got people like Metallica, who are complete dicks, making a completely untenable case of suing a kid in his bedroom. It’s like, gimme a break – of course not. That’s an absurd proposition.”
For a band like Metric, business and art are closely entwined due to their self-sufficiency on a number of levels. There’s a line from track seven on Fantasies, ‘Gimme Sympathy’, that asks ‘Who would you rather be, The Beatles or The Rolling Stones?’. It’s the perennially timeless question, but I have to throw it back at its author before she ventures out for an evening stroll on the banks of the Seine.
“Well, I have to defer to Jimmy, who co-produced the record,” she laughs. “His answer to that was ‘Who would I rather be? Neither. The Beatles are dead and The Rolling Stones are corporate’.” Thankfully, for them and for us, Metric remain on the healthy side of both. Long live Metric.