Nine Songs: Metric
If there's a theme a musician ought to know well, it's the seemingly never-ending journey of the discovery - and rediscovery - of oneself. It’s certainly a journey that Emily Haines knows well and her latest dance with it began on a day when she just needed to run.
The soundtrack to her epic running session was an M83 record, which provided Haines with both a eureka moment and a serendipitous link, that would result in M83’s Justin Meldal-Johnsen producing Metric’s seventh record, Art of Doubt.
When we speak about the songs that have inspired her current musical journey, Haines is holed up in a hotel in Paris' Marais district and her warmth is both present and captivating, "it’s the last bit of summer and the beautiful first days of autumn," she remarks. With the cool, intellectual elegance she exhibits onstage, one can imagine her wistfully staring out of a window overlooking the Place des Vosges.
Haines is in Paris for another few days, looking forward to the idea of sweater-weather and even more integrally, the transience of the city of lights, a theme rampant across the pivotal songs of the past few years of Haines' life, as well as the trajectory of Metric.
When Haines finished work on her second solo record Choir of the Mind she headed straight back into the studio with Metric. To follow the syncopated, synth-secluded sounds that made up Pagans in Vegas, they decided to go back to their roots of loud guitars, heavy drums, slick basslines and of course the voice and synth(etica) of Haines herself.
Metric’s raison d'être has always been to take risks and in following up Pagans in Vegas, they initially set out to create a companion piece. "It was going to be like splitting the atom of the two components that make our sound.” The result was an album of creative orchestral pieces "where one song sounded like a Bond theme with a 60-piece orchestra and another had a New Orleans funereal-march horn section."
However, they came to the realisation of where their journey should be taking them: back to the beginning, or as Haines describes it, "Nice, loud, rude and noisy. Our revelation was that we wanted to make a record of us being the band we are onstage. That's the essence of who we are, that's where we live and that's been the journey, exploring things sonically. To not do so would be boring and disappointing.”
Metric approached Meldal-Johnsen - who remembered their 2003 debut Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? as well as tiny gigs in Silver Lake - to produce and Haines shared her love of his song ‘Solitude’ at their first meeting. "I actually think Art of Doubt feels connected to our first record somehow" she laughs, "it took us 15 years to get back to, “Wait, what were we trying to do again?"
If Metric's journey as a band has taken them full-circle, what about Emily Haines' own personal journey? Having begun when Haines and Jimmy Shaw, Metric's guitarist and co-writer, jumped on a Greyhound Bus to New York in 1998, after all this time, she knows there's still a way to go. "I'm realising," she confesses with a laugh "If you're always drawn to the flaws, you've got plenty to do for the rest of your life. I just know when it's right and when it's right, it doesn't look perfect.”
Throughout her journey, inside and outside of the band, there are songs that have kept Haines company, that have soundtracked dark nights of the soul and kept her on the right track. Songs by Lauryn Hill and T. Rex upped the creative ante, where songs by Jon Hopkins, Stars and Metric’s bassist Joshua Winstead helped put colour to the noise.
The way Haines talks about music and the pivotal songs of her journey over the last few years is like they’re old friends, brought together by the same thing that brought Metric together; the unseen discovery of the self.
"M83 did really well with their previous album, Hurry Up, We're Dreaming. They had a song called 'Midnight City' which was everywhere, it was massive, and then they made this record that got absolutely no attention called Junk. I don't remember why I ended up finding one of the songs, I think I was suddenly like, “Oh, M83 has a record?" I didn't see a single review, hear anything about it or know about it at all.
"I got the record and it absolutely transformed this moment in my life in the summer of 2016, when I started running again and this was the soundtrack for it. It wasn't jogging, I was running like a dog. Running is like a switch in your head, you realize you have everything you need, it's just you and there you are - just run. It untapped an energy that had been very blocked and 'Solitude' was so riveting and crushing, there's a line, ‘There's a part of me that only you can find’, that's just so intense.
"It absolutely transformed this moment in my life in the summer of 2016, when I started running again and this was the soundtrack for it. It wasn't jogging, I was running like a dog."
"So in that summer of '16, I had all these major life changes and we were also doing all these orchestral, crazy, epic pieces and discovering we just needed to get back to the essence of the band, of Metric. The producer we wanted was Justin Meldal-Johnsen, and Justin Meldal-Johnsen is half of M83.
“I hadn't put it together when I went into my first meeting with him; I had no idea. Near the end, where we were discussing the possibility of working together I said, "I've got to tell you, that record Junk and that song 'Solitude' was a life-changing album for me.” He welled up and said they felt it was the best work they'd ever done, but it was absolutely ignored by everyone and I would agree that that is 100% true. To this day, I haven't met anyone who's even listened to that record and their previous album was so ubiquitous.
“It was this beautiful sense that whatever it was in that album, that was Justin's musicality - it's not that he produced it as a musical director in that capacity, or represented in that album, it's him as a player. I tuned into that and then found myself having this incredible, intimate working relationship with him on my own work a year later.
"When I heard ‘Solitude’ it actually reminded me of my song 'Doctor Blind', from my first solo album. I wondered to myself, even though it wasn't a commercially recognised album, whether it's influenced people, if a lot of musicians and producers I know have been influenced by it.
“At this point I don't even know where the beginning is, or the end! I'm not someone who wanders the streets saying ‘The Universe is doing things’, but sometimes you get the sense that even though you have no idea what you're doing, you're somehow getting to where you need to be.”
"I feel like there's this zeitgeist with hip-hop right now. For me, it's met with mixed feelings and I know I'm not alone in that, it's like a trope of '90s hip-hop, but with such a different ethos and meaning. The sense at that time was that, not unlike jazz, people invented this genre; it came out of these places and the spirit of it and the message was so completely different from the self-aggrandizing materialism of where we are now.
"The fact is you could say the same thing about probably every genre in music. Rock and Roll started out one way and ended up being Bon Jovi or whatever, so it all has this path that capitalism naturally takes every art form down, but I found myself stumbling back into this record, and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill tops them all on that, particularly on 'Lost Ones.'
“It’s the morality, her tone, her flow, the combination of her cadence and her gender-neutral, human energy and spirit. When I listen to it I've found it brings back Tribe Records and Mos Def and how that was all also happening around the time of the inception of the work that I've done.
"So if you're having trouble getting out of bed, 'Lost Ones' is definitely effective for me. It's like, ‘Whoa, I've got shit to do.’"
"Stars have so many different sounds and kinds of songs that they write, but this one has a particular wistfulness to it that Amy Millan has always had. This choice is highly personal, in a pretty bleak period quite recently I was soul-searching in Los Angeles and what I was finding was not my soul, but with ‘On The Hills’, I found myself in the middle of the night in a hotel, with this song on repeat as my only solace.
"Amy and I are as close as we were when we were fifteen, but closer than we've been in years. Our friendship lives completely outside of our work; its family, we just have a different space. It's not that we're side-stage and we don't engage in that whole realm together, I just always wait to listen and Amy does the same thing with me. We just wait until we hear it with the rest of the world and I love that.
"I found myself in the middle of the night in a hotel, with this song on repeat as my only solace."
“As much as I know her, this song is still so mysterious to me. I know what she's talking about, but also I don't. I would never ask her what it was explicitly written about or what inspired it, because I don't even want to know, What I think Stars do so well is that sense of familiarity, but also the poetics are such that you never fully get the bright lights of what it's about.
"I love this song and of course, it's buried. It's like track nine on their album There Is No Love In Fluorescent Light, that was also criminally overlooked."
"I'd never heard ‘Ballrooms of Mars” until it was put on my radar by Hal Willner, who is a legendary '70s producer and concert creator. Hal's been on SNL forever and he puts together these evenings of collaborations. He's produced Marianne Faithfull records and he's from that original New York scene - he was very tight with Lou Reed; they had a radio show together and they've been friends since the very day.
"Hal Willner is the reason that I met Lou Reed, playing at his Neil Young tribute. Lou Reed and I then went on to form a really beautiful friendship and we wrote together. Sadly, our last time seeing one another was when he performed with us at Radio City doing 'The Wanderlust', which we wrote together, and 'Pale Blue Eyes'.
"Since Lou Reed's passing, Hal has kept me in his stable of artists that he'll call upon for various events. The other major project he's got going is this T. Rex album, where he's having all these artists cover these works with an absolutely astounding band and he brought me in to do 'Ballrooms of Mars'. It’s an incredible arrangement of the song, it’s a completely magical, Disney-fantasy version of the song with harps and horns and strings and incredible drumming.
“It was one of the most extraordinary studio experiences I've ever had. In preparing for the song, I just got completely lost in the lyrics and the sexiness of this guy and how he was able to create these sonic landscapes where you're like, "All right, I'm hangin' out in the ballrooms of Mars. Thanks, Marc, appreciate it." The ballrooms of Marc."
"This is another example of how through Hal Willner I ended up discovering songs that I'd never heard. I feel I've done my due diligence with Bob Dylan, like everyone else, but somehow ‘Bob Dylan's Dream’ had eluded me.
“It's strange, the most recent thing I did with Hal was a Bob Dylan tribute, again with a really incredible band. He let me choose which song I wanted to do from a small list and I ended up doing 'Masters of War'. The version with that band was kind of like an Afro-Cuban rhythmic thing that they pulled off and I found it astounding, the arrangements were so inspired and elevated.
“'Bob Dylan's Dream' makes me think of me and most of my friends from the early days. This dream that he so eloquently creates for us, of the early days of your life when your friendships are simple and everyone's aspiring to something, where you could never anticipate the complexities that could tarnish your friendships, or complicate relationships, or the scars that could happen with the people that you love.
"I thought of how we've come out of it pretty much unscathed, but there's still the sense that you'll never get back to the simplicity of just playing in a room together. I think that experience also influenced what we were doing with Metric and really doubling down on getting back to the origins of the friendship and the origins of the music."
"It's a bit of a bleak landscape for rock in the world right now and it feels as though there's a lot of nostalgia. I mean, this is from the person who’s just completed 38 tour dates opening for Smashing Pumpkins across North America. There's a sense to the extent that there is rock, but its bands from the past performing their old albums, or reunions of questionable authenticity.
“With The War On Drugs, I feel they're our contemporaries and on a similar trajectory to us. They're quite far into their career, they're very active in their career and they're doing the best work of their career. They're not trying to reach some glory day that's eluding them or that they once had. Our joke is that we progress in steady, one-degree increments, but it does help with longevity.
"When I finished Choir of the Mind, I was going to play this festival called Desert Days in Joshua Tree, which is kind of like the anti-Coachella; it sits calmly between Burning Man and Coachella. It's on these grounds where there are facilities from the early '60s, from thought-experiment conferences. The building I played in was called The Center for Mental Sciences; something questionable-sounding. It was a domed space with people sitting on beanbag chairs.
"So I did that show, I had this amazing time and saw Iggy and the Stooges. On the drive back from the desert to Los Angeles, when we were heading into the studio with Metric, A Deeper Understanding was the album that we listened to driving back into the city. It felt like it encapsulated the care you can tell that they put into crafting those records, and that it doesn't matter to them being told every day that no one buys records.
"I'm really glad those guys are out there, it gives me a sense of camaraderie that's sorely lacking."
“We were in the process of doing the exact same thing and still being like, "Well, we make records.” We have an intense love for every piece of equipment and gear that we use - every amp, every tube, every microphone and every guitar and all the synths. We're committed to that version of being a musician and being an artist, no matter what the current climate might look like.
“We headlined a festival with them in Vancouver and we got to meet them. I put a note in their dressing room just saying, "Hey, we're playing, we're massive fans, much respect and love. If you have a minute, we'd love to meet you afterwards." Sure enough, they did and it felt like this little huddle of like-minded people. We all kind of look the same, it's a similar aesthetic and we all dorked out talking about amps and gear. I'm really glad those guys are out there, it gives me a sense of camaraderie that's sorely lacking."
"I discovered Jon Hopkins a few years ago, and it's been a few years of him sneaking onto playlists that I would make of Stars of the Lid and Tim Hecker. He does electro-acoustic ambient stuff that's like Brian Eno's Music for Airports genre of music.
“I think ‘Light Through the Veins’ is really aptly titled. It's a bit of a stretch to suggest that you might get that visual from any piece of music, but they translated something beautifully there. It's that exact feeling, it's very much music for travel. I like that whole album Insides, but this song really stands out as a transcendental exit, when you're maybe stuck somewhere that you don't want to be. Usually it’s in transit, maybe in some terminal at LaGuardia or elsewhere.
“I feel like his music is only for those very specific moments. I only really listen to it in those particular times of transit when you should be sleeping, but it's the next best thing."
"We played Voodoo Fest in New Orleans and I saw that Peaches was going to be playing at this little club on Halloween. I was like "I've got to figure out how I can get tickets, or get some kind of situation so I'm sorted for Halloween." We showed up and The Growlers were playing and the vibe in the place was unbelievable; it was so fun. I ended up having an absolutely debauched night and I was too messed up the next day to even go to the Peaches show, but I did discover The Growlers.
“The rest of the band came and we ended up backstage. I never met any of them though, we were all just loitering with everyone else. You know when you romanticize the backstage vibe? It was that, I was just another groupie. I didn't even try to meet anyone.
"That one line is so apt, "There's nothing more depressing than good advice / nobody wants to hear how to live their lives." Well said."
"I became a fan of them instantly. I sought out all their records and then I discovered that they were actually signed to Everloving, which is the label we made our first record with, which was called Enjoy then. It was a strange circle, I've never met another band that was signed to that label, it was us and one other thing.
"And then to the quality of the song itself. Other than my relationship to it, I just think that one line is so apt, "There's nothing more depressing than good advice / nobody wants to hear how to live their lives." Well said."
"Joshua is the bass player in our band. He made a solo album MMXX in 2016 between Metric albums, after Pagans in Vegas and before I did Choir of the Mind. First of all, I think the album is gorgeous and vulnerable and beautiful. The whole album has that sort of sonic quality of soul, it definitely sounds like soul.
"As for Joshua, he's the bass player in Metric but he's always had this other path, that I know has haunted him, which is that he writes his own songs. He doesn't write with Metric, I'm the writer with Jimmy. The fact that he found a way to make it all work for him - instead of being someone who would have to say "I can't do Metric, because I need to follow this path."
I think he realized that there's all the support in the world for him to develop his whole self and identity as a musician and an artist in his own right, that there's nothing that means he has to leave Metric to do that. He mostly self-produced the album, none of us had anything to do with it, he got other players and he got everyone he needed. He produced it, self-released it and did the whole thing. I was so proud of him, he did concerts and they were great.
“’A Poison Cup’ is such a beautiful love song. I know exactly what he's talking about, which is when you're away from the person you love because you're on tour and you don't have access to that part of yourself. All you have is a poison cup - which is basically like a thousand drinks or more - as the only outlet for your emotions. Whereas when you're with the person that you love, it's a little bit of a less destructive place. That whole record is great, but this is my favorite song on there."