January 05, 2010

An Interview with Emily Haines of Metric

Metric recently wrapped a U.S. tour in support of their latest LP, Fantasies, which saw them playing in several cities for the first time, gaining traction with new listeners while getting reacquainted with their core fanbase. It'd been almost five years since their last album, Live It Out, and for the Canadian-based indie-rock quartet—frontwoman/keyboardist Emily Haines, guitarist Jimmy Shaw, bassist Josh Winstead, and drummer Joules-Scott Key—their return not only entailed headlining packed venues on their home turf (they sold out two nights at Toronto's storied Massey Hall), but also performing twenty-minute sets on multi-artist bills.

"If we want to continue to exist and if we want to continue to really achieve what we [can] as musicians, you can’t always have it be like your aunt and uncle’s in the audience," Haines says. "It’s not going to be your friends from high school the whole time."

Along the way, the band scored a Top 20 hit with "Help I'm Alive," the single garnering an encouraging amount of support from commercial rock radio. And most recently, they released Plug In Plug Out, an EP that showcases five songs from Fantasies in acoustic variations.

"It's been a hell of a year," Haines reflects, and her insights to the music she makes with Metric, particularly her songwriting, illustrate as much.

On Fantasies, there seems to be—I don’t want to say darkness—but some cynicism in context to human connections, love, emotion. Is that accurate?

I would never tell anyone that they couldn’t read whatever they want into the lyrics. I think that’s part of what’s great about music. It’s kind of up for grabs. It’d be no fun if I sent out a pamphlet saying exactly what everything’s supposed to mean. But generally the response has been very interesting and for me, like, an inkblot for a journalist. Because some people, when they hear the record and they see the album work as well, they say, ‘There’s all this dark imagery and sinister undercurrents of superficial things,' and they get a certain darkness from that—which is totally valid.

And alternately, I’ve probably talked to the same number of people who say, ‘There’s a light bulb on the cover of your album. This is the most optimistic and hopeful album Metric has made by a long shot, compared with the preoccupation with deception and the cynical tone of previous albums.’ So I think what’s happening is that we’ve paid a sort of balance right in between there with light and dark. And it’s kind of going to depend on your mood and the timing from where you’re coming at it; certain things will be illuminated. Which makes me happy, because that’s always been our approach to music—that openness to pop sensibilities and the beauty of a three-minute song while also being interested lyrically in more unusual subjects.

There’s an abstract element to it that lends to interpretation.

Right, exactly. Also for us, when we put some things together, the process of creation is always interesting looking back because it seems you knew all along what you were creating, but you really don’t. You can’t. At least for me, I can never see what it really is until it’s done. And then I stand back from it—and from the benefit of conversations with listeners—I’m also discovering it as time goes on.

When you completed the album and listened to it as a finished work, how did it measure up to your initial ambitions?

I was really pleased with the album. We really took our time and went through all kinds of personal things individually and confronted a lot of realities in our own lives in the making of this record, kind of by accident. [We] confronted aspects of what was happening on the business side, the inner workings of our lives, [and we] also took the reins on building our own studio… By the time this thing was done, we didn’t even know really what it was that we were pursuing. We just knew when it wasn’t good enough.

I’d read that the fans wanted it, but what was the artistic motivation to release
Plug In Plug Out?

Well that was really the main impetus. I think when people come to us and say that something matters to them even if we’ve moved on, it’s like, ‘Alright, sure, if you want to hear it I’ll put it out there.’ Artistically, I think what Jimmy and I found by accident—this acoustic stuff, which just kind of came out of the writing process, to be honest—was this thing called the "campfire test" where it’s kind of a way of curing yourself of getting too excited about production tricks. So the idea was any song on Fantasies, you had to sit there and play it—play it on a piano, play it on guitar, play it in a room with five people sitting there.

It had to hold up.

It had to hold up, exactly. There’s lots of great music out there that doesn’t meet that test, but it was an experiment for this particular album. In the process of doing that, we found ourselves developing these acoustic versions that I found had a different mood…they worked. Also, having put out my solo record and done the tour that I did, at the piano I found that I feel quite comfortable now performing that way. It felt like a natural thing and I’m really glad people enjoyed it.

On “Help I’m Alive,” in particular, the contrast is striking between the Fantasies version and the EP version, which takes on a more contemplative tone with you just on the piano.

I would say, in general, the songs that I bring to Metric do have that contemplative tone. I think that’s mostly how I write. And picking up on what you were referring to earlier—about the darker side of the lyrics—I think that’s always been and always will be in our music. Because so many of the songs come from me at the piano, usually in some sort of self-enforced exile. And for me, it’s an amazing process artistically to put myself in those positions and then bring it back to the band and then be able to have, like, people moshing to it. [Laughs]

That communal spirit is pretty electric when you’re in a crowd like that.

Oh, I love it. I’m just so lucky to have found the people that I did to make music with. Because they get where the song is coming from, but it’s really me who wants to take it out of being in the contemplative realm—because you can always go back to that. You can always strip something down… People have asked me, ‘How do you have all that energy on stage?’ It’s like, have you watched Joules? That guy is seriously digging in.

And you’ve got adrenaline up there too.

Exactly. I really like that this is becoming part of who we are, having these two sides develop and coexist.

For more information on Metric, please visit the band's official website.