Metric can never be romanticised as an overnight success, although they were considered exactly that by many who weren’t paying attention to them before 2008. They can be romanticised for other reasons – as one of the many successful tentacles of Canada’s superstar jam session, Broken Social Scene; or through guitarist James Shaw and frontwoman Emily Haines’ Buckingham/Nicks-esque songwriting partnership – but in reality, Metric have always grown an inch at a time.
That’s how Shaw sees it, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. “We add things to our repertoire and the audience keeps growing and we keep getting marginally better as a band each time we hit the road,” he says, reductively surmising their 15-plus years together. “We just keep getting closer as people and we just keep going. It stops us from peaking, in a way, and we’re able to maintain this slow level of growth. I love that we’ve been able to keep it this way and that it’s been this way for so long.”
Last year’s release, Synthetica, still has a little steam left in it yet, with Metric just finishing up a huge US tour. The band is happy to be able to shake up the setlist, though – after all, 18 months of showcasing one album can get a little tedious. “We’ve been enjoying this really long US tour and we’ve finally been able to delve into a lot of older material,” says Shaw. “Last year we were heavily focused on Synthetica, but we’re going back to 2005-06. Every night on the bus we’ll pull out some old stuff and listen to it and then pull it out the next day in rehearsal and see how it sounds.”
Metric had the honour of collaborating with Lou Reed on the track ‘The Wanderlust’ for Synthetica. Reed had joined them onstage a few times, surprising gobsmacked audiences, and it’d be easy to assume in light of Reed’s passing that it might take a long time for that song to ever find its way back on the setlist. “You know what?” counters Shaw, “I just walked out of sound check and we played it for half an hour in sound check – so maybe soon.”
The band was close to Reed, so surely that was a fairly heavy jam? “It was really weird. When we started playing it we just kinda stopped at the first chorus and were like, ‘This is weird.’ But we decided we just had to keep playing it to see if it felt any better.”
While Shaw and the band are looking back for now, I ask whether he and Haines are confident they have plenty of creativity to look forward to. “The creative part of our friendship has only ever grown, and the more you’re able to pull out of each other the broader your palette gets,” he replies. “It doesn’t seem like the well is running dry at all. It’s actually the opposite. It feels like we have a wealth of experience and knowledge to grow on and to use.”
Each Metric album has certainly played like a sonic evolution, a greater dance with complexity – Metric have always sat only at the fringes of the mainstream, but still somehow garnered criticism for their pop leanings. They can write choruses, they’ve never hidden their ambition, and they use catchy synth hooks – really, that’s all the pop they have, but the narrow-minded are still desperate to criticise.
“I think that some people want music to be personal and they want to feel like the artist is just like them and speaking to them and not speaking to everyone else,” says Shaw. “Some people want exactly the opposite. Some people feel like there’s no point in listening to music unless the whole world is listening to it because what they’re trying to do is connect with the rest of the world; not affirm their individuality but affirm their sense of community and affirm the feeling that they’re like other people. Music helps people feel whatever they want to, in a way. It helps them feel connected to other types of people that they want to connect with. If someone feels like a loner and outsider, they still somehow want to connect with other types of loners and outsiders. If someone’s feeling a part of the mainstream and they sit around and watch the Kardashians then they’re gonna want to connect with other people that feel the same way. Music is like wearing a t-shirt with your thoughts on it. In terms of where Metric is at, we’ve had a lot of criticism and we’ve had a lot of praise for the fact we write choruses, you know, and we use instrumentation that’s gonna get our music played on the radio. That’s the music that I personally relate to – it’s certainly not done out of some sense of reaching outside of our realm. That’s just the world that makes sense to me and the world that I want to inhabit.”
How much has the touring of Synthetica informed what might come next in the Metric catalogue? “I don’t always know what I’m going to be into or what my next musical step is going to be. It’s usually an exploration through using a certain instrument or playing with a certain type of sound that really resonates with what you want to say. It’s easier to say what you want to say if you have the right tools to say it with. Playing live definitely informs what’s gonna happen in the future. If the band starts to realise that we’re really enjoying playing a certain way onstage then we’ll almost definitely take that into the studio and take it further. If it’s boring us then we’ll leave it behind.”
Measuring what bores the audience really is an art form unto itself, but for Shaw, the answer always lies in how he’s feeling onstage. “When you’re up onstage and watching the audience react, the easiest reaction to gauge is hands in the air and screaming – but that’s only one emotion. When you see Neil Young, you’re not gonna feel that way; when you see Bon Iver, you’re not gonna be screaming – but you’re still gonna be feeling something and enjoying yourself. It can be hard to gauge what is really reacting, and for us, I think we just trust that if we’re enjoying it, then other people are going to be enjoying it to. Ultimately, people come and buy tickets to watch us live our dream, in a way, and we have to enjoy our time up there.”
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