Have you heard… Metric?
Music genre: New wave / indie rock
Metric is a Canadian New Wave/indie rock band.
At first Metric comes on like some kind of new wave dance band that has something just a bit off kilter that you can’t quite put your finger on but you don’t really care because the tunes sound good and you’ve got that head bop thing going. Repeated listens start to reveal how they work their magic through precision and control. The songs are very carefully structured with precise and sneaky metre changes, exquisite layering and timing of voice and instrument appearances and disappearances and very finely tuned harmonies. Adding to the effect are Haines’ very clearly and sharply articulated vocals.
It’s rare to hear music that is both as carefully constructed and as much fun as Metric’s. It’s very hard to do and Metric make it look easy.
Metric’s 2003 debut, OLD WORLD UNDERGROUND, WHERE ARE YOU NOW?, was a statement of both resignation and resurrection: when the underground you once romanticized has given way to pre-fab Rebellion, grab a shovel and start digging your own subterranean sanctuary. But spend enough time down and out of sight and you start feeling the need to come up for air. And when Metric did just that after a year of ceaseless, club-by-club conversions, they were confronted with a strangely beautiful sight: a crowd of people looking right back at them. The very fashionistas and consumerists they slyly satirized in songs like “Dead Disco,” “Combat Baby” and “The List” were singing along with them. And it felt good.
That’s the funny thing about the never-ending battle between pop and art – the goalposts keep changing. And for Metric’s Emily Haines (vocals/synths), Jimmy Shaw (guitar), Josh Winstead (bass) and Joules Scott-Key (drums), the most exciting thing is being able to play for both sides. Over the course of 2004-05, Metric were everywhere, from MTV and commercial rock radio to French art-house cinemas (the band made a show-stopping cameo in Oliver Assayas’ 2004 junkie drama CLEAN); depending on the night, you could find Emily playing sombre solo piano shows in churches, or diving off the stage at Toronto’s Mod Club Theatre, where Metric played an unprecedented four sold-out nights in a row in January ’05. This is a band comfortable making music for both the misfits as the masses.
“I get freaked out by numbers, and the idea that if your audience grows, suddenly it’s going to be a bunch of frat boys,” Emily admits. “But more and more I just feel like those judgments about types of people and their musical tastes are ringing untrue to me. There are lot of people who would love to listen to Feist in the morning and Death from Above on a Friday night. People don’t like music according to a type.”
After spending much of the past two years in the company of strangers across North America, Europe and Japan, Metric retreated back to the comfort of friends and family. Since Jimmy and Emily first began collaborating seven years ago, their list of hometowns has become almost as well-known as their repertoire (for those following along at home: Toronto, Montreal, London, Brooklyn, Toronto again, and then Los Angeles for the recording of OLD WORLD UNDERGROUND). But by the end of 2004, Metric realized that everything they were searching for could be found in their original home base of Toronto: a wellspring of moral support (most notably from their childhood friends in Broken Social Scene and Stars), a culturally inspiring community and, of course, affordable rent.
This last factor was particularly conducive to the creation of the band’s second LP, LIVE IT OUT. As luck would have it, the cheap east-end loft space that the band inhabited during their previous Toronto stay (in 2001-02) became available upon Jimmy and Emily’s return to the city in autumn 2004. (Joules and Josh both retained residency in Oakland but made frequent visits.) Located on the second floor of a bank, the space features a series of old inter-connected office rooms that James reckoned could be converted into a home studio, where the band could regularly convene and work out ideas without the pressure of watching the clock – and without the interference of an outside producer.
“I was a little scared,” Jimmy says. “I felt like I took on a lot. You approach the record company and say, ‘You’ve got to let me do this on my own, and I need to call all the shots and do everything myself and everyone needs to trust me,’ and they say, ‘OK!’ And then you’re like, ‘Oh sh*t, what if I f*ck this up?’ It’s really terrifying. I’m just glad I didn’t f*ck it up.”
“We had no idea if it was going to work,” Emily says. “The studio was a makeshift job of covering insulation with fabric from Goodwill, not even knowing if it was going to sound good. We recorded throughout the winter and with the heat on, it was so boiling hot in there that everyone was shirtless, and then in the summer, it was incredibly boiling hot. We really went through all the seasons, which is a big reason I’m really glad we made the record in Canada. I feel like those moods are really reflected.”
No more so than on “Empty,” which Jimmy and Emily point to as a breakthrough song for the band, one that showed them a path beyond OLD WORLD UNDERGROND’S new-wave formalism.
Says Emily, “Jimmy had written the guitar part and I wrote the vocals on the big red couch in [Broken Social Scenester] Kevin Drew’s living room, which I kinda like. I feel like in light of all the changes that have happened in everyone’s life, that was the place where it needed to start.
Like many songs on the new album, “Empty” bears the unmistakable mark of Sonic Youth’s 1990 masterwork GOO (Metric recently met their indie-rock ancestors at an Oliver Assayas-directed music festival in France) and highlights LIVE IT OUT’s most intriguing developments: Jimmy’s increasingly unhinged guitar playing, Emily’s mercurial vocals (ghostly one minute, electrifying the next) and Josh and Joules’ intuitive rhythmic interplay. The song simmers with a creeping tension that explodes without warning and dissolves into the ether – and heralds the arrival of a new, more fearless Metric.
Emily cops to another key, less obvious influence. “I was thinking about Pink Floyd a lot on this record,” she says, and while fans can rest assured that LIVE IT OUT contains no 20-minute space-rock jams, the French pillow talk whispered throughout the neon disco haze of “Poster of a Girl” betrays a debt to the subliminal conversations that permeate DARK SIDE OF THE MOON. (And not coincidentally, like Pink Floyd and Sonic Youth, Metric are a band borne out of underground ideals that were gradually absorbed into the mainstream.) Road-tested favorites like “Monster Hospital,” “Patriarch on a Vespa” and “Handshakes” have a touch of OLD WORLD UNDERGROUND’s spunk-rock swagger, with Emily’s vocals so chewy they leave bite marks.
The album is meant to be a bit of a journey. Its ominous opening salvo – “When there’s no way out / The only way out is to give in”- eventually breaks into the triumphant climactic chords of the title track. Hopelessness has become celebration. Hurrah!
“It’s all just the idea of ‘don’t freak out,'” Emily explains. “Anything that happens to you is just your life getting lived. Sometimes it feels like we’re afraid of events and action of any kind. But if you can get a little distance from it, it becomes an incredible adventure no matter how things turn out.”