Happiness Is a Warm Band: An Interview with Emily Haines of Metric
Haines fled to South America, Metric scrapped their new songs, and everyone realized their well-considered Fantasies.
Sometimes you have to leave everything behind to find out who you are. This has been the mentality of artists for years, from Kerouac to Scarlet Johansson in Lost in Translation. It’s safe to say that Emily Haines of Metric was lost, and in search of a spark to wake her from her spiritual and creative torpor. On the surface, everything was great and glittery for Haines. Metric had steadily been gaining fans and attention since breakout release Live it Out in 2005. A magnetic beauty, her high-energy live performances caught media attention from the start, and Haines could easily have become a publicist’s dream pop tart. Metric’s power hooks and infectious dance pulse has always belied an undercurrent of melancholy and a constant questioning of love, the creative process and fulfillment. Thus is the dilemma of Haines, a songwriter with too much respect for her fans to bog them down in melodrama and the sad musings of a rock star. Rock 'n' roll should be fun and free, but Haines had lost that fun in her life. It took a solo sojourn to Buenos Aires to rekindle the spark she had lost. The lyrics to “Help, I’m Alive”, the first single off Metric’s first album in four years Fantasies, partially written in Buenos Aires, speak of rebirth. “My heart keeps beating like a hammer / Come take my pulse / The pace is on a runaway train”.
Haines and co. are busier than ever at the moment. For the recording of Fantasies, the band built their own recording studio in Toronto and started their own record label, Metric Music International. With solo releases and her contributions to fellow Canadian supergroup Broken Social Scene, I find Haines happy to be in New York during a break in the hectic touring schedule behind the new album. She is sunny from the start as she strolls down a busy New York street, speaking with me on a cell phone. She is also delightfully existential, and it becomes clear that the spark she found in Buenos Aires still burns brightly.
Does Fantasies feel like a departure or a natural progression for you as a songwriter and as a band?
It feels like a natural progression. Our goal is to never repeat ourselves. I know it sounds a lot different from Live it Out, but our first album sounds a lot different from Live it Out, so for us it feels like a natural progression, but we’re always pushing ourselves to try and create something new that doesn’t sound completely unrecognizable to the people who have always been with us.
Was that always the goal? To experiment but keep it accessible?
Yeah. It’s weird, because I don’t know how accessible we’ve been up to this point. We’ve always been an underground band who makes little blips in the mainstream, but we’ve never been embraced by the mainstream, which is totally fine with us. It’s hard, and I’m sure you find the same thing as a writer, it’s all well to look back at something you’ve accomplished and postulate on all the magnificent, pre-conceived ideas you had and the way you developed them, but writing music is a mysterious and magical process, and we didn’t even really know what we were making until we made it, which really followed the feeling that if it didn’t feel good, we ditched it. And that ended up being the litmus test.
How many songs ended up on the cutting room floor?
Easily ten or fifteen songs. There was a bunch that we really liked, but just didn’t fit into the narrative of what Fantasies ended up becoming. Before we started the album, we thought we’d already written the record. We did a tour of the US in fall 2007, and played songs that we thought would end up on the album. It went over well and people liked it, but we just ended up saying, that’s not a record, or that’s not the record that we want to make. The content was just too much what happens with so many bands, where you spend so much of your time on a tour bus and living in hotel rooms and feeling disoriented. It was all those themes, and no one needs another indie rock record about how hard it is being in a rock band. We have too much respect for our fans to ask them to listen to that, and frankly that was a lot of the content so we just really pushed ourselves and I fucked off to Argentina, and everyone did what they needed to do to reconnect to what’s interesting about life. I hate to take the glamour out of it, but the backstage scene is so fucking boring ultimately, after the first little glimmer of glamour wears off.
Do you guys get pretty wild backstage? Was there a feeling of burning out that led to the break?
It was more a feeling of missing the rest of life. I don’t feel like we were burnt out on the band or the music, but it was more esoteric like with anything creative. It was like, "What are we trying to accomplish exactly?" If the goal is just to get bigger, that works at the really early stages, but we were grappling with the question of "What is the actual goal here?" Because I really love my family and friends and lots of aspects of life that have nothing to do with being in a rock band or touring, so it felt like a preventative assessment we took, because none of us ever felt like we wanted to leave the band or anything, but I felt like I had to leave the civilization I was in, and I just had gotten so sick of myself. Actually, a friend of mine was telling me recently that there is a study on happiness that directly correlates to how much you have to focus on yourself and having your whole life be about you is a recipe for unhappiness. It sounds kind of counterintuitive but it’s interesting. I think all of us in the band felt like, we love this and we love the music and it’s important, but at the same time I want to have lunch with my mom and hang out with my niece before she has her sixteenth birthday.
Reading about your trip to Buenos Aires really inspired me to take a similar trip.
Yeah, I definitely recommend it. As a writer, anything that gets you away from the conscious acts of writing, and I guess different people do it different ways, but writing has never felt like a chore to me. I’ve never had writer's block, because once it feels like a conscious act, like Emily Haines from Metric is working on a new Metric song, I just think, "Oh fuck, I gotta get out of here."
Early on, how did you approach marketing? Obviously you’ve got the looks to have been cast as a pin-up, did people ever try and project you in that light?
No, nobody seems to have ever wanted to. There was a point in my life where I thought, yeah, I guess I’m eligible for this role as a pop star, but no one’s ever been able to figure out how to sell me. I gotta say, in retrospect, I’m so grateful for that. Whatever it was about me that made me not a commodity, I’m really happy about. (laughs) Because you start to realize when someone starts to get a lot of exposure, like you see someone on a big billboard, and growing up I would look up at those billboards and think, "Oh man, that’s so cool, imagine if I was up on one of those," but being older and wiser you realize that those people’s faces are someone’s investment, and all they’re doing is getting a return on their investment which is your face and/or ass, and in the case of women it’s usually both. So with all that exposure, you start to think what if you didn’t want that, and what if you want that privacy back? Maybe all you’re really doing is lining other people’s pockets? I think I would still make a good pop star, but it’s just going to be with a different budget.
Have you ever felt a kinship to Debbie Harry? Her looks didn’t hurt the music, but she let the music speak for itself.
I never really did, but that’s interesting. In the early days, people would compare us to Blondie, but if you ask any girl in a band, it’s always a bit annoying because people always compare you to Blondie, because up until a few years ago it was hard to think of bands with three dudes and a girl. But now I feel that my situation is a bit like Blondie, and I feel somewhat of a kinship to Debbie, and I can see the reference that people are connecting, in terms of this record and the look of the band. But growing up, I remember liking her but never really connecting with her, and she wasn’t a big icon for me. But I’ll take my heroes wherever I can get them, and she’s a great one.
What’s the writing process like for you?
It’s a combination of things. It’s been different on different records. There have been periods in my life when it’s been very reclusive with just me and a piano, and other times where it has been cocktail napkins. Often I find I write in a fashion of social commentary and observations. Sometimes it feels like I’m staring at the wall in a bar, feeling alienated or whatever, which is kind of a certain tone that my writing has always had that I’m enjoying losing a little bit, so that I don’t have to exist seeing things in one perspective for my entire life. With Fantasies, it was a lot of running away from myself and tricking myself into thinking I wasn’t writing which I highly recommend. I just tried living, and then you have experiences, and if it’s part of who you are then you’ll have the impulse to write. The last thing I would ever want in my life is for those things to get out of whack and out of balance. The point is to live and experience things to the point that you experience things that are so interesting, moving and complex emotionally that the only way you can express it is in a piece of music, not the other way around by combing the streets and writing out little scraps of words ... desperately looking for inspiration. I just hope it never comes to that.
That spirit of inspiration is definitely reflected on the record.
Oh, good. I feel really strongly about it, and I’ve already come to the point where I’m like, "Shit, what am I going to have to do for inspiration for the next record? Am I going to have to have a complete upheaval and deconstruct my whole life?" I really hope not, because things are really good at the moment.
Like you’ll have to go on a vision quest or safari?
Yeah, I know! For this record, it was a literal, physical removal of myself from a frame of reference.
Apart from the drudgery of backstage, do you still love performing live?
Yeah, live music is one of the most incredible and strange phenomena that I’ve ever experienced. It’s completely addictive because it’s this flow of energy, and I’ve been at shows where it doesn’t really work, but the times when there is an exchange of energy, and without getting too lofty about it, I’m able to reflect the energy back to the crowd, so we’re sort of bouncing this thing back and forth and blurring the line between participant and spectator, which is a concept I’m really interested in. I’m constantly amazed at what sounds can do, and the response it causes in people, and the way that it can affect the core of who people are. Like the strings of a guitar, vibrating and sending sound waves that cause people to feel like they are capable of bonding with people in a way they felt like they never could. I just think it’s one of the most amazing things in the world, and I think I’m doing the right thing with my time on Earth by being in sound.
When it works, it is a religious thing.
Yeah, in the sense that instead of answering questions, more questions get asked. I think that’s the interesting thing. Hopefully, that’s what our music is doing. Instead of shutting things down, it’s opening up more possibilities.
Did you come to a better understanding of true happiness during your time in Buenos Aires?
I really have to emphasize that there are three guys in Metric, and it’s literally a family and a democratic model. It’s like an awesome committee. (laughs) I’ve been thinking of them with every question I’ve answered for you, and just realizing, as cliché as it sounds, that you ultimately do have to define your idea of success, and in the words of someone very close to me, there’s always going to be someone with a bigger yacht. So if the goal for us had just been to become bigger commercially or in popularity, then we basically would have been asking for unhappiness.
If you can set for yourself some meaningful markers as to what you want to accomplish and then see if you can get there and enjoy the process then that’s the goal. We’re not juggling opportunities based on chart success. I don’t want to be fucking Lady Ga Ga. We were just talking recently as a band about Michael Jackson’s death, and how he sold a hundred million records and how no one will ever reach that mark, but that poor man would have been so much happier if he’d only sold ten million, and had kept some semblance of his own existence, and had something else to drive him other than fear and paranoia which was completely justified by him basically being imprisoned by his own celebrity.
Happiness is aiming as high as possible for the things that you want to achieve and setting no limitations on what you want to do for yourself, while realizing that everything is the moment, and there’s not much else beyond what you’ve got. I really don’t want to play in clubs that sound like shit anymore. The sweaty clubs chapter of Metric is something that I could really put behind us. The goal now is to achieve the sonic quality that we hear in our heads, on the records and in concert. Happiness is having your own recording studio and owning your own record label and being in a band with your friends.