From discovering hip-hop classics on the school bus to hearing garage rock when he worked in a record store, Alex Edkins talks Rhys Buchanan through the songs that inspire him
We meet Metz’ frontman Alex Edkins as he’s perched on a flight-case, restringing his guitar inside legendary Bristol venue The Fleece. The Toronto musician is an unmistakable figure to those who know him; messy hair, glasses and a denim jacket.
It doesn’t take long for him to complete touring duty before we’re in the pub next door and clutching two cold beers. Assuming a suitable seat outside, talk turns to their latest Sub Pop release of rarities Automat. “It’s exciting, it’s the first time we’ve been able to stop and take stock of the many years that we’ve been a band. This is us compiling all of the old singles, things that people haven’t had the chance to hear and certainly haven’t had the chance to own.”
Edkins says the release has forced METZ into looking into their past, but also to get excited about their future. “In a band you’re usually so focussed on what’s next, so this is one of the few opportunities we’ve had to slow down for a second. Also, while this whole thing is rolling out we’re working on a brand new album, so it’s allowed us to have a lot more time at home, which is pretty cool too.”
Nonetheless, he explains it was a little weird embracing the bands’ history, but Automat is about more than Edkins and his bandmates Chris Slorach and Hayden Menzies. “I try not to get too nostalgic because I feel a little bit silly doing that. At the same time though, I think it’s more about being thankful of what we’ve been able to do and for the people who’ve supported us. We’re very conscious of how lucky we are, and I try to wake up every day and focus on the positive things. It’s very easy to get carried away with everything that’s bringing you down but we’re thankful to be able to do this, travel and do exactly what we want to do.”
The release itself documents a band finding things out and Edkins is naturally thrilled to have it out in the world. “I’m excited for people to hear some of the old stuff, it seems like a different band to me. We were just figuring it out back then. I mean, we’re still figuring it out now, but it was very much way before we started to do this as a career. It was very much on the weekends after work, we’d just have a bunch of beer and jam.”
When the talk turns to the pivotal songs in his life, Edkins says it wasn’t easy picking out the songs. “It was tricky, I scrolled through iTunes while we were in the van to see what popped out at me. I’ve been a record collector for as long as I can remember, I geek out over everything I can get my hands on, so it’s impossible to narrow it down.”
He describes some of the songs here as ‘gateway drugs’, where finding a brilliant piece of music is part of chain that leads the listener to somewhere even more remarkable. “They’re the ones that I found that sent me on to other stuff. That’s how record collecting goes, you find one thing, you find out what label put it out or what people played on it and then you go down this other path and it leads you to a whole other thing. So, a lot of these songs are gateways to finding lots of stuff that I’ve loved.”
“When you’re younger you’re at the mercy of your parents’ record collection and I grew up around some pretty basic stuff, like your normal Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel. I became a Beatles freak, but I was lucky enough that my Dad had a VHS of The Last Waltz. My brothers and I became obsessed with it and we’d watch it all the time, so I owe my Dad that one.
“I just got into whatever was around the house. My parents weren’t musicians by any stretch, but they did have some records and tapes and they were definitely supportive of me following music and wanting to go and buy my own music. It was mostly Beatles, Beatles, Beatles though, they’d play them and nobody would complain. Second to that was The Band.
“The story with that was my Grandad went to a record store and asked the kid behind the desk, ‘What’s good? What’s a good record to buy for my son?’ They said The Band, which is funny, my Dad wasn’t a hardcore music fan, it was just something to put on in the background. I think he got lucky and that his Dad talked to the right person, got that and went down the right road. It definitely influenced me and my brothers though.
“All the acts on that concert were incredible but ‘Helpless’ especially is one of the shining moments in that concert. You’ve got Neil, all gacked up and so happy to be there and then Joni Mitchell comes in singing on the choruses. Not to mention it’s a song about Ontario which is where we all live, so it’s always hit home with me. It’s a super special song and this is the best version I’ve heard of it for sure - it’s a hell of a first line as well.”
“This song had a big impact on all three of us. I found my way into punk and hardcore music through college radio, I’d be lying in bed around midnight and the Ottawa University would have these shows where they’d play all this stuff that I’d never heard anything like before.
“I clearly remember hearing this song and going ‘Who is that and where can I get it?’ You know how the recording is pretty lo-fi and the mastering is pretty junky? I honestly thought it was a local band. I thought, ‘Who is that?’ because the recording is a bit iffy.
“It connected with me though, it was a total entry point into so much great music that was fed to me on the radio, through some really cool people that I eventually got to know in Ottawa. They ran record stores, they did zines and they put on shows, so eventually I’d journey into the big city, go to these shows and meet the people doing it. I just got hooked. I really fell in love with the whole thing; there was a great hardcore scene there at the time that was very welcoming. I realised I’d found my family and it was really cool, I’d travel into the city three or four times a week for these gigs in little art galleries or wherever they could do them.
“I was studying communications at the time, which is like a Bachelor of Arts, but I was also working in a record store. I’d be doing that, trying to start bands and doing a little bit of touring and stuff. I was mostly spending all of my pay-checks on records and putting them back into the store where I worked. There were tons of great people at the store turning me onto stuff. That time was great. It felt like there was very little responsibility, other than to have a good time and to get into music really deeply. I managed to do that successfully at least.
“It was highly influenced by the DC sound and all of the Dischord stuff, that was it and a lot of bands were sounding like that. In a sense it’s always been the holy grail for us and it’s held really high in all of our minds as a pinnacle.”
“This song represents the moment when I became very fascinated with country music. I’d been aware of the big names like Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, but then I went a little bit further.
“I remember when I first heard this record and I couldn’t believe that it existed, it was so fascinating. It took me down a path where you find out, ‘Oh that’s why The Everly Brothers sound that way.’ It’s the same with ‘Sunny Side Up’ by The Carter Family, that song and their image are so disconnected from the words in the song. I thought it was completely wild.
“Jumping back to The Louvin Brothers though, you’re not sure if they’re taking the piss or not. It’s like, ‘Are these guys for real?’ Then you start reading books about them and you find out more. It also coincided with the time I was working for a PBS music documentary series; I was paid to research them, so I got super deep into it. I learned everything I could about them and my love for them grew and grew.
“We play ‘Satan Is Real’ after every one of our shows, as soon as we finish it comes on. The monologue in the middle of the song is just the craziest thing I’ve ever heard and I love it. It freaks people out. They started a bit of an obsession with country music, I always enjoyed it, but this is a somewhat more interesting and darker side to it that carried on.
“It even pushed me to go and listen to The Flying Burrito Brothers and Gram Parsons. It was a round about way to exploring other stuff.”
“When I was in High School and before I found punk, I played a little bit of basketball. That’s where I was introduced to ‘90s hip-hop. I mostly just got into the big stuff, but for me this was huge. I got into Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and then all of the offshoot records that followed it.
“I remember discovering it, I lived in the suburbs and I had one other friend who was into playing guitar and some punk rock stuff, but everyone else was into skateboarding. All the skateboarders were obsessed with Wu Tang Clan – so on the bus to school we’d be trading tapes or talking about it and someone said, ‘You’ve got to listen to this.’ Seriously, I think that’s where I heard it first – on the school bus - and I just immediately loved it.
“I think it’s incredibly high art, Wu Tang Clan are appreciated, but to me what was happening there is musically wild. It was super, super important the way that the samples were all loosey-goosey, and not snapped to a grid. I’m really fascinated by that sound and the darkness of it, it’s probably by far my favourite hip-hop record.
“Their whole persona and the drama and theatrics behind that group are so fascinating, and you get wrapped up in the whole world they’ve created. For a bored kid from the suburbs it was just unbelievable and awesome, it was ‘I’m diving in.’”
“This song is a high watermark for rock and roll. ‘Down On The Street’ gets me so excited and it almost fortifies my belief in rock and roll - like loud, in your face, punk rock - and it can have an incredible power if it’s done in a certain way. I think this is an example of it done so incredibly well and it’s so ahead of the curve. It blows my mind every time I hear it and I laugh every time I hear it, because it’s perfect.
“It’s more of a direct influence on us in terms of the approach - not so much the music, but the wildness of the performance and the physicality of it, with Iggy throwing his body around.
"I’m a big believer in that it’s not the gear you play, but how you play it. Fugazi did that as well, wrenching sounds out of guitars rather than actually learning how to play properly. I think when we see the crowd react off the back of that, then it comes as a confirmation that the music is doing what it’s supposed to do. We’ve always naturally played it that way and don’t know any other way to do it.
“We definitely take cues from seeing bands like that. I never saw Fugazi but Hayden did several times. I love that approach to making live music. I think loud and aggressive music can be super affecting, and it can be a bit of a religious experience if it’s done in a certain way. Those two bands do that.”
“METZ had probably started by the time I got into DEVO properly. They’re so special, they’re such a conceptual art project - they had this vision from front to back, sound, look and even a philosophy. I felt that was really inspiring and even one of a kind.
“We attempted to cover ‘Smart Patrol’. We never played it out, but we could absolutely connect with it. Out of all of the ‘new wave’ stuff - if you’re going to call it that - then I think that’s the band that hooked me. It got me interested in synths as well, it opened the door to Kraftwerk and stuff like that. It was another big gateway one really, I was ‘What’s that all about, what’s going on there?’
“Then I went on to investigate it much further. It was an influence on us in that you can just create something fully out of the blue. I don’t for a second claim that we do that, but we do try to work by our own rules. They knew what they were going to do and what they weren’t going to do, they played to their strengths and never came out of character, and I find that to be inspirational.
"I don’t know if it rubbed off on us in any real way, but maybe just in the idea that you can do whatever you want and it’s up to you to decide, and not anybody else.”
“When I first moved to Toronto I tried to make some money by doing a little bit of DJing. I was really into ‘60s garage, beat music and ‘50s soul. I’d play a lot of that stuff, and you’d also get people like James Brown later in their careers, getting into these super hypnotic long tracks and that kind of flooded over into this world.
“I don’t know when I first heard ‘Expensive Shit’, but I know one of the people who turned me onto it was my wife. She absolutely loves Fela and it’s one of the things we listen to in the house the most. She came from a dance music background and this was definitely something that was played by the DJ’s she was hanging around with.
“I heard this and I was blown away by the hypnotic effects of it. It was something that wowed me, a fifteen-minute track with this insane groove. It’s almost like working on the idea of what those bands do with repetition and that undying groove. I just love it, I used to play stuff like this in my DJ sets actually.
“Some of the Nigerian and Ethiopian music that I started discovering was amazing, like Mulatu Astatke and stuff like that. I just saw him recently in Toronto and it was a stunning concert, I couldn’t believe I got to see him. Fela is the biggest name in that world of music though and rightfully so, but then all of a sudden you get a compilation of stuff and you’ve got twenty different artists that you can explore.
“It’s a style of music that I hadn’t heard before, but it still feels very linked to punk rock in a way. He was so political and so ahead of his time.”
“I probably got into this when I was working at a record store called Record Runner. I remember it now, it was in downtown Ottawa, close to the mall. It was definitely ‘the spot’ for a long time.
“It’s pretty clichéd, but I literally got the job by going there too much. My friend was working there and I’d spend too much time there; at one point the manager said to me, ‘We’re stocking the store on the weekend, do you want to help?’ I worked my butt off to impress him and he eventually offered me a job. It was perfect. I would work, go to school and then I’d come back. It was a good time in my life and I have fond memories of that, I had very little adult responsibility.
“This song sparks memories of the store, because that was when I discovered it. We had a back wall of major label releases that had classics like The Velvet Underground or Nick Drake. It was all marked down for like seven dollars ninety-nine, so you’d pick something off there, because it was cheap and always a good record. I think Psychocandy would have been on the back wall for super cheap, so I grabbed it, put in the pile and then brought it home.
“It could have been any song off that album but ‘My Little Underground’ is just an example. Just hearing something that sounds like a Beach Boys song but it’s like someone’s got a power drill on in the background. I loved the mixing of two chord pop songs and smothering it in distortion, echo and feedback. I was like ‘Now we’re talking’, it made me realise you can actually do that.
“I saw them on the Psychocandy reunion tour and my jaw was on the floor. I often think that they’re everything I love about music all in one band. It’s like a Phil Spector song that’s been destroyed.”
“This is an incredible song. I chose ‘Can’t Seem To Make You Mine’ because it represents me finding one of the Nuggets compilations and I got obsessed with half of those bands. It was like, ‘Wow I need to get all of these records now.’
“I’ve really slowed down on the record collecting since I had a kid. I don’t spend the time that I used to in the stores, I used to spend a lot of time and money there but I’ve slowed down big time. I’m sure that the digital world had something to do with that too, but it was mostly that I can’t justify spending four hours in a store anymore, and I’ve got to save money so my kid has diapers. It’s still fun to go and look though, but I do it less that I used to.
“That ‘60s garage sound is near and dear to me though. I see it as similar to The Stooges stuff, some of it was pretty much punk rock but didn’t know it. It was super fuzzy, aggressive and pissed off, probably talking about their girlfriend or something. It was a trap between Beatlemania and something else. It was still kind of fluffy but with a little bit of aggro.
“This is just an example of that amazing compilation opening up that door to American garage rock and finding a whole bunch of new stuff. A lot of those bands are pretty psychedelic but a lot of it was just teenagers in a garage learning how to play their instruments, and both of those things were pretty inspiring.
“That’s still connected to what we do now, at least in my mind. I think there’s certain tracks that we’ve done that are based on that blueprint of three chords and a fuzz box, trying to make a song with a melody or something.”