“We’re just marvelling at the fact that, in tennis, as soon as the match is over you’re given a microphone and have to speak to the entire country. It’s the cruellest thing you could possibly imagine! It’s like, in rock and roll, if you play your biggest show ever at Madison Square Garden and then the minute the show’s over you have to walk back on stage and be interviewed in front of the crowd and be asked how the show was for you…
I’m speaking to Metric’s guitarist Jimmy Shaw almost immediately after Andy Murray’s tear-stained defeat to Roger Federer in the Men’s singles final at Wimbledon. The band watched backstage before their recent show in Oxford, and Shaw is thankful if that ever happened, it wouldn’t be him speaking to the crowd. It would be singer, and face of the band, Emily Haines: “But that’s rock and roll for you!” he laughs. Metric were in the UK playing their first shows in support of fifth album Synthetica, a brilliant concept album about trying to identify the real thing or the original in a long line of copies or fakes, a look at the power of song , integrity and honesty. Despite such heavy subject matter, Metric still have a shimmering pop heart, and the album is a hook-laden treat balanced against Haines’ powerful lyrics and outlook. Over the course of our chat I discover that Jimmy Shaw is a wonderfully outgoing chap, friendly yet extremely outspoken on the music industry and modern society, and how all that fed into the making of their new album.
I ask Jimmy first of all how the UK tour has been, given that this is the first time Metric have played the songs on Synthetica live and the fans might not have had much of a chance to become familiar with the songs: “It’s been great; we’ve been having a lot of fun,” he begins. “It’s the beginning of the record for us, so it’s still time for us to be working out some musical kinks and the show is developing day to day. We’re really finding what’s working with the new stuff, and what’s not working… we’re constantly revamping and making things better and better, and tighter.” Given that the shows in July were the first in support of the album, is it harder to play in the UK rather than launch it in North America? “It’s always a little strange for us to come to the UK,” admits Shaw, “because in so many other parts of the world we’re very well established, played festivals and massive arenas and when we get to the UK it’s like… we’re this band and no-one ‘s really sure if they know us or not.” I ask if that takes some getting used to, given their status in Canada. “There’s moments of it that are a little strange, but then we don’t worry about it and we go to the show and the people that do know us love the music and know all the words to songs that have been released for a week and have a great, great time and we put on great shows…so we don’t worry about it too much.” And after the UK? “We’ve got a couple of shows in Canada, then it’s off to Australia and Singapore…and then when September hits we take the show all across North America.”
I wonder if Metric ever takes any time off. Following a lengthy tour in support of last album Fantasies the band went straight to the studio to record Synthetica, so was there any gap between finishing the record and heading out on the road again? “You know, you’re right. We really rolled into the making of Synthetica from being on tour,” says Jimmy. “And once the record was done, that’s when we kind of took some time off. We took seven months to prepare the release, which is a lot longer than standard…but because we do it ourselves it makes a lot of sense to do it like that. We don’t have huge teams of people – there’s select individuals working around the world doing the right things to set up the release.” Jimmy himself had a big role to play in producing and mastering the album: “Once I’d finished the mastering, though, I passed the baton on to the management, so I fucked off for a little while and had my time off!”
The self-releasing aspect of Metric’s recent albums is something that intrigues me; I want to know how the band balances playing huge arenas across the US and Canada, working with Lou Reed and appearing on the Twilight soundtrack with running their own label and having a separation from the major labels. I hesitate to call it a cottage industry, but pose the question to Jimmy in those terms anyway: “It’s a real trip doing it that way, you know?” he enthuses. “More than anything it does feel like it’s very grounded, and it’s very realistic. One of the things I was always really tripped out about by labels and the way they do things is you never have a genuine gauge of how successful you are.” You mean you get your ego massaged a little too much? “Yeah, labels like to hype things up, they keep you bolstered and have your head in the sky and believing things are this way and that way….you know, there are so many bizarre little markers of success. There are a hundred thousand charts: radio charts and sales charts and blah blah blah, you know? You could be number one on five of them and still not have five bucks to rub together; you could not be on any of them and making millions!” So does the band feel happier being outside of all the bullshit? Jimmy agrees: “It’s just all so in the shadows and doesn’t really make a lot of sense, and for us – because we really do own everything, and I get sent sheets every week of exactly what’s happening, and where it’s happening, and why it’s happening – it kind of keeps the whole thing realistic, and keeps us making music from a very honest and real place, you know? It’s not for any reason other than just for the love of music itself. We’re not a band of stars; we’re a band of humans…”
Before I can ask another question, Jimmy’s train of thought takes him back to the previous night’s gig in Manchester: “It’s funny, actually. Something hit me last night when we were on stage: the first part of the show – don’t get me wrong, it was an amazing show and the crowd absolutely blew my mind – or the first half of the show got me thinking ‘this is so interesting how different it is than in North America’. Then, halfway through the show I had this sort of realisation that we’re a band that stands for something and will go down in the history books as completely, 100%, done our own thing.” So, the less-than-positive initial reception was down to not playing or pandering to the crowd? “Yeah, that’s not exactly the most popular approach right now; not many people are doing that, not many people admire that or even see that as a reality or an option. But to the people that do, I think it really gives them a lot of hope, it saves their ideas that things don’t have to be the way they’re told they have to be all the time.”
While there’s some debating over Shaw’s analysis of music right now (and I have to say, in terms of middle-level to superstar bands, he’s probably quite right), this gives me an opportunity to talk about the themes and concepts behind and within Synthetica; I begin by asking about the contrast between being on an indie to a major label and some of the fakery we’ve already touched on – given the album’s flagging of the differences between the real and the synthetic, does this feed into Synthetica? Jimmy agrees: “Yeah I think so! A lot of the things we were examining in the making of that record – without really knowing they were going into the record itself – were the differences between real and fake and false, and integrity and trying to figure out what’s a reproduction and what’s an original. There’s so much interaction happening just now in this bizarre, brand new social media digital realm…when you write on someone’s wall is that actually interacting? Are you closer to that person?” I want to interject, but Jimmy’s on a roll: “If you have a two month text message relationship with someone, has that relationship actually evolved at all? I don’t know the answers to these questions at all, but I know that we’re asking the questions. And I know that it’s puzzling a lot of people that I know right now – the world seems more connected and more alienated at the same time. And in the meantime we’re trying to forge a clearer, more direct relationship with our fans that’s actually real and gives them a sense of who we are and what we’re doing.”
Jimmy’s last point is something I was keen to talk about before the interview; in the opening track of the album, ‘Artificial Nocturne’, Emily Haines openly sings “I’m just as fucked up as they say”, but this only came about after Shaw insisted she should just bare her soul and not wrap it up in poetry or allusions. I make the comparison between these lyrics – the first words on Synthetica – with Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder proclaiming, in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s death, that he wasn’t “your fucking messiah”: I ask if this is Metric saying “hey, we’re as messed up as you right now so don’t raise us up to be something greater than you are”, something that I think is also touched on when Haines ponders the power of a song on later track ‘Dreams So Real’, refreshing honesty in a world so often filled with half-meant or faked emotions. Jimmy agrees: “You know what, you’re one of the very, very few people who have got that one, because all the interviewers they just take it so…literally. They’re like, ‘so are you fucked up?’ and that’s not what I’m saying. Very much in the way that you pegged it, it’s just much more a proclamation of honesty, you know, and also a proclamation of owning yourself, owning your position and asking not to be judged. It’s like, we know who we are, and we don’t have a problem with that. We’ve found a way to make light out of the darkness that we’re in… and I think that just means that we know ourselves, and we’re okay with it.”
I do mention ‘Dreams So Real’, which on first listen might come across as a “protest” song is actually Haines questioning how much a song can change or influence someone’s life and, despite the line “a scream becomes a yawn” the conclusion to the track is that, yes, you can still believe in the power of song: “I know that’s what Emily was going through,” admits Jimmy. “I’ve been making music with her for so long now that I know every once in a while – and I know this goes for all four of us – sometimes it really feels like you can play a chord and change the world, and other times it feels like you could write the most important thing ever and nobody gives two shits.” He goes on to explain that Haines was brought up listening to protest songs: “She comes from a lineage where the music she was listening to as a kid and being taught by her parents was music that was changing the world, and she really grew up believing that was a strong force. I think we all did, you know? In the 70s there were images of Bob Marley holding the hands of leaders of warring countries – that was just a musician! It was just a song writer doing that, and now it’s like, the biggest thing we can aspire to is to pop out of a giant cupcake at the MuchMusic Video Awards . It’s really a different climate and nobody gives a shit if you’re trying to change the world anymore – they’d actually prefer that you don’t, because they only have two-and-a-half seconds to watch what you’re doing…the attention span is short, and the ambition is low.” I can really feel Jimmy’s frustration and anger with the state of play (and I mostly sympathise) and although I don’t wish to push him further towards despair I ask if the majority of the songs look at a dichotomy between general indifference and an attempt to fill the listener with hope and trying to get them to realise the power to change things is in their hands? “I would say so,” he confirms. “I think at this point in our lives we’ve come to the conclusion that this can be all or nothing. And that’s up to the singer, and it’s up to the listener.”
Turning away from the music itself (sort of) I ask Jimmy about the artwork for Synthetica; the lyrics and tracklisting (and the cover of the record) are printed so they can only be properly viewed in a mirror, handily provided within the record in the form of a reflective sheet of paper. It was this sheet mirror that first caught my attention as it fell out of the packaging and I say to Jimmy that I’ve gone through a number of ideas and thoughts about the artwork and how it ties into the themes of the record. The artwork itself is artifice and “synthetica”, but: is it about holding a mirror up to yourself, or a way for Metric to say to the listener that they maybe shouldn’t make such an effort to connect to the lyrics and just focus on the music, or is it in fact a challenge for the listener to gain more of a connection to the lyrics? “I think it’s a comment on of all of those things, you know?” says Jimmy. “We definitely had all of those things in mind; it wasn’t our idea, it was Justin Broadbent’s idea. We were all sitting in a room and we started talking about doing things backwards and what that actually meant to us – things like the idea that the cover is upside down, well it’s sort of half upside down and half right side up, and I think for us this is tying into the idea of ‘which is real and which is fake?’ and is the lyric backwards or is the mirror backwards? Are you backwards, forwards, upside down? No-one’s really sure what the hell’s going on.” I try and pursue this line and probably push it too far by asking if the record can be listened to from track 11 back to track one? “Oh I dunno, I’ve never tried!” laughs Jimmy. “I do know, though, in the track order one of the things that really struck me was that when you get to the end of ‘Nothing But Time’ it feels like it has brought you back to the beginning of ‘Artificial Nocturne’ again, and the journey has completed itself and come full circle – just sonically, you know?”
Moving away from Synthetica, I ask Jimmy about the band’s work on the soundtrack for Cosmopolis, David Cronenberg’s film adaptation (starring Robert Pattinson) of Don DeLillo’s novel of the same name. Set in the near future, a young billionaire makes a journey across town in his state of the art limousine to get a haircut from his deceased father’s favourite barber. Eric Packer’s journey is disrupted by anti-capitalist riots, sexual escapades and threats to his life, but more than that, when I watched the film I found the same themes appearing as on Synthetica. Packer has surrounded himself with technology and fakery, and the journey to get a haircut from this barber is an attempt to connect with something real, something tangible, as well as trying to connect with his past and simpler times. Was this something that pushed Metric towards contributing to the film? “Absolutely, absolutely!” is the affirmation. “We were halfway through making Synthetica and Howard reached out to us to do that score. He sent us the book and the script, and when we were reading it was like this is uncanny how much these things are similar, and how related they are. We planned it so the record would be done about a month before we would need to start the score, but obviously it didn’t work that way.” Did something get in the way? “Making records is like renovating houses: it always takes three times longer, and costs twice as much money. So we ended up mastering the record and getting on a plane and flying to Toronto to start the soundtrack the next morning.” Given there was so little time between the two, do they have sonic similarities? “Yeah, a lot of the same sonic tricks we used on the record were our ‘go to’ tricks for the soundtrack as well. So the whole thing felt very, very connected to us; it’s almost in my memory now because it was months ago now, but the end of the record and the making of Cosmopolis sort of blended into one musical experience.”
Turning back to Synthetica, I ask about codes and ciphers within the album; while we’ve discussed the themes, I also picked up on references to other works of art: there’s references to Rubber Soul and Malcolm McLaren’s ‘Double Dutch’, plus song title ‘Youth Without Youth’ seems to reference the Coppola film and the novel by Romanian author Mircea Eliade. I accept that it might be hard for Jimmy to speak on behalf of Emily and her lyrics, but was this done consciously? “Emily has always sort of always had this fascination with doing that,” he reveals, “which is not only tying her own songs together but also tying her songs to other people’s songs and referencing things as though…well, we’re all part of the same thing. You know, if you don’t know what Rubber Soul is then maybe you should check it out! And I think it’s the same thing with ‘Youth Without Youth’ in referencing the film, and I know that Emily is very much enamoured with the world that she lives in and is taken by it, and inspired by it, and also horrified by it. When she writes, it’s from a place connected to all of those things and not disconnected.”
To give Jimmy a chance to talk about himself rather than on behalf of his singer, I ask about the making of the record (Shaw is responsible, as always, for guitars and keyboards, but also produced the album) and if the concepts of real and fake extend to the instrumentation and recording of Synthetica – were there any rules he laid out? “There were definitely some focuses. Avoiding Pro Tools wasn’t one of them – I’m not afraid of Pro Tools at all. I’m a purist in what I hear coming out of the speakers, but not a purist in what it takes to get those sounds. I don’t really care what you use to get the right emotion to come out the speakers – I just want to hear the emotion.” What of instrumentation then, aside from production techniques? “We did use a lot of analogue synthesizers. That was something that wasn’t ‘in concept’, it wasn’t like we decided we weren’t going to use anything made after 1987. The way those instruments are designed, those little interfaces are so intuitive and I got really inspired sort of being around those instruments and being able to jam in my own way. We made the record in my own studio and when we started the process I got all these old keyboards together and I built this little area in the control room called ‘Synth World’, and I would go into the studio twice a day – before really even starting the record at all – and kick up a drum beat on an old drum machine, press record on something and just go! So a lot of my part of the record was written in those little sessions; just chord changes and melodies…and when we came out of it and started listening, that rudimentary sound which had a sort of retro/future thing to it ended up being the basis of the sonic template that we used for the whole record. It reminded us of the past version of the future.”
That seems like a perfect place to wrap up the interview, but I end by asking about Metric five albums and many years down the line. What’s it like being in the band now? “It’s gotten more and more collaborative over the years; we butt heads just as much as we always did, but there’s no ego left anymore. We don’t do this just out of ego, it’s because we care about the finished thing so much. Me and Emily still end up screaming at each other, but it’s really just about a chord, and whether it’s the right chord or not. We both care so much about whether it’s the right chord, you know?” And that, I think, is the key to understanding Metric. You won’t find many bands at their level that still care as passionately as they do and still want to change things – let’s hope they keep at it.
Synthetica is available now through Metric Music International.