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The Satellite Minds of Metric

Emily Haines and Jimmy Shaw of Metric talk about the music industry, Virgin Fest, and the struggle to self-release their newest album, Fantasies

By Ryan Duncan

Photo: Justin Broadbent

Photo: Justin Broadbent

Record sales are down, major record labels are announcing layoffs—the music industry as we knew it is in turmoil. Enter indie darling Emily Haines and guitarist Jimmy Shaw of Metric.

In 2003, Haines and Shaw—along with bassist Josh Winstead and drummer Joules Scott-Key—struck gold with their first release, Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? The album earned the band a Juno nomination and played in heavy rotation on college radio stations across the country—and they haven’t looked back.

Two years later Metric released Live it Out, a sleek and sophisticated album full of synthesizers and lyrics that could have been torn from Haines’ journals. They toured their auspicious record relentlessly for several years, hitting countries all over the world and earning three Top 20 singles.

Before their appearance at Calgary’s Virgin Fest in August, Haines and Shaw talked to Where Magazine about their latest album, Fantasies, which debuted in April and reached #1 on Billboard’s Top Heatseekers.

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

After their sophomore album, the band needed to regroup—but first they had to separate. Winstead and Scott-Key toured with their own band Bang Lime, Shaw built his own recording studio Giant in Toronto, and Haines took a sabbatical in Argentina.

“I just wanted to see things I had never seen, to force myself to regain the independence I had lost being constantly surrounded by people,” she says. “It was a serious challenge being alone and unknown in an unfamiliar city, working to learn the language and finding my own way.  I highly recommend it for anyone who is sick of themselves, like I was.”

Shaw agrees that the four of them had to take a step back and look at themselves. “The record represents where our collected head space was at the time. We needed to take time to become human beings again. We needed to be able to call our friends, find an apartment and clear our heads. Countless bands rush into the studio and end up recording an album about the frustrations of recording an album. We had to get those emotions out of the way. It was very important for us to have the ability to dream and see the world differently, and get it out there.”

FANTASIES BECOMES A NIGHTMARE

The band nearly had a finished product, but while listening to the mix in Vancouver, it hit them: “This wasn’t the album we wanted to release” says Haines. “We bought all the rights back and since we were funding it ourselves, it was a very expensive decision.”

The band road tested their material, trying to find something they could release proudly. The ultimate trial was the “campfire test:” the songs had to sound great organically, even if it was just with one guitar and one voice.

Live it Out was recorded in ten weeks, Fantasies took a year,” says Shaw. “We had times where the entire band would meet in Toronto and f@*k around, come up with ideas and chill out. This time Joules and Josh were involved in the process. Emily and I had been writing songs together for a very long time, but when we gave this opportunity to them, so many new things came out of it.”

“We were really confident about what was up musically. There was no one around to yell at us but ourselves. Yes there were times where we got frustrated and thought ‘F@*k! Why are we doing this on our own?’ We knew that no one wanted to hear a record from a band that wasn’t behind it. Knowing it was going to eventually work out was really our only obstacle, and our only saving grace.”

SELF-RELEASING

Metric’s decision to self-release Fantasies was a move that “just made sense” to Shaw.

“It wasn’t done out of some podium moral stance, it was what we decided to do after meeting with all the major labels. What they were offering us didn’t make any sense—it was straight math to us.”

“The labels are in such a dire situation, they offer what seems to be a large chunk of money to a desperate artist who is so excited about the money they don’t realize the relationship they are entering. Records are a bit of a lost leader now; the company comes in and takes a piece of merchandising, publishing and touring. It got to a point where we started to structure Metric Productions and it felt good. We wanted to show other bands that it was possible to invest in themselves, and that it wasn’t necessary to take the first offer of money from a label.”

THE LEAK

Weeks before the record was due to be released, the band was informed that the inevitable had happened—Fantasies had been leaked on the Internet.

”We were really pissed off,” Emily recalls. “We are pretty sure we know who is responsible for that, and he was someone in the music industry.  Some people are just sloppy and don’t seem to realize that it isn’t 1982 anymore.  We were relieved, however, to discover that the crack copy wasn’t of horrible audio quality.”

The band retaliated quickly, pushing their release date a week early, streaming the entire album on MySpace, and offering fans the chance to purchase Fantasies directly from their official site www.ilovemetric.com.

“It was obvious what we had to do,” says Shaw. “We were anticipating the leak for several months. As far as I know there hasn’t been an album that hasn’t leaked in three years. The label freaks out, and the irony is that it is always someone in the company, some intern or something that leaks it. What they fail to realize is that they are the only ones who have it.”

THE INTERNET

“The way people get music now has helped us,” says Haines. “Our business approach has changed. There is no old school record exec sitting between our fans and us. We didn’t need them to facilitate things that were unnecessary. We have a very unique and close relationship with our fans, and I didn’t want that to be tampered with.”

“The idea really came to us when we were playing a festival in Brazil. This is somewhere we had never released our music, never promoted ourselves, and yet there were ten thousand people dancing and singing our lyrics right back at us. Without the Internet, that never would have happened. Record labels fear the Internet only because they don’t know how to monetize it.”

LIFE ON TOUR AND VIRGIN FEST

Life on the road is sometimes exhausting for the quartet, but Haines is quick to explain the chaos.

“It is an intense schedule, it’s true. There are days when I look at the calendar and wonder if it is humanly possible to do what we are doing. The funny thing is, we started our own company and have set up our own releases around the world outside Canada, so we have nobody to blame but ourselves for the pace that has been set. When I feel like I can’t go on, I just remind myself of those days when I would sit at home waiting for my life to happen.  No amount of jet lag is worse than that.”

Haines and Shaw first performed at the Virgin Festival in 2006, when they headlined in Toronto with Canadian “superband” Broken Social Scene. Now, three years later, Metric has become a festival staple.

“Being part of this festival feels really good,” says Shaw. “I am happy that it is catching on and going across Canada. You are going to need your energy for this, try to save your dancing abilities.” They both promise fans high voltage performances of “Twilight Galaxy” and “Stadium Love,” one song they promise will never be played acoustic—ever.

METRIC HEARTS CALGARY

“When we first started touring Canada we noticed right away that there was a particularly good vibe at the Calgary shows,” says Haines. “It felt like the audience was really getting the point of attending a Metric concert, which is to stop being self-conscious for an hour or so and actually enjoy yourself with your friends without worrying too much about what other people think.  Our Calgary shows from the beginning were explosions of energy. We liked the feeling so we kept coming back.”

In early April, on the promo tour for Fantasies, they invited over a dozen freezing fans in from the cold and into the studio to sing with them as the “Calgary choir of love” during a live radio show. Late that evening, armed with a guitar and keyboard, they played an exclusive show at the intimate Grand Theatre—including an acoustic performance of “Gold Guns Girls.”

“All the gold and the guns and the girls/All the boys all the choices in the world/ I remember when we were gambling to win/Everybody else said better luck next time—is it ever gonna be enough?”

Acoustically, the song was reminiscent of Emily’s dreary solo record. “I really like the acoustic version, it has a completely different mood” she says. Shaw adds “it stirs something different up, and kind of changes the meaning all together.”

DEALING WITH FAME

As the band’s fame grows, does it cause a need for distance between the band and their fans? “I am pretty chill in my personal life,” says Haines. “I don’t walk around thinking, “Hey, I’m Emily from that band Metric!” I forget about it and go about my day. So sometimes it is a bit lame for me when I am just doing something really normal like riding my bike or grabbing a coffee or drinks with friends, and somebody starts freaking out and making everything awkward.  It is way better if they behave in a way that allows me to interact with them as a human, not as an abstract idea of a human.”

“We are really not like Nickleback,” says Shaw. “We don’t get accosted by fans daily. The only time anyone recognizes me is when I use the company credit card, and someone asks me ‘what do you do for Metric?’ Emily has to deal with it a lot more—we’re talking gasping teenagers reaching for their camera phones.”

INDIE AT HEART

Critics question if mainstream exposure has allowed the band to stay true to their garage roots. “We still stand up for what we believed in all along,” says Shaw. “Sure, we have publicly and privately said and done things that appeared wrong, but the fans respond to it.”

“The idea of not wanting to be owned by some corporation resonates with everyone. The fact that we are still independent proves that success and major labels don’t have to go together. You don’t have to sing esoterically and play on a broken guitar to be indie. And you have to record in a sterile studio with a huge label to write pop-sounding songs. Personally and politically we are quite subversive in the way we think and act—but we can still release records with a pop sound.”

Metric has dismantled the usual barrier between band and fans, and achieved mainstream success while standing in the shadows of major record companies. With news of a collaboration between Emily and a Euro-Trance DJ, a tour taking them from Australia to Europe and back to Canada, and a home studio to experiment with, we are left to wonder: what is left to conquer, and is it ever gonna be enough?

2 responses to “The Satellite Minds of Metric”

  1. Calvin says:

    Very informative! I didn’t realize this band was taking such chances and risks. Kudos.

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