From Old World Underground to Hollywood (and Back): Metric’s New Wave Adventure

Last June, Emily Haines — singer, songwriter, indie-rock pinup girl and leader of the acclaimed Canadian indie-rock quartet Metric — landed a dream gig when she was asked by Lou Reed to perform his song “Perfect Day” with him on stage at the Vivid Sydney festival in Australia. It is an event that Haines describes as “pretty much the highlight of my life”, but Reed may have already paid her the highest possible compliment during an earlier meeting.

“He actually quoted the lyrics of ‘Gimme Sympathy’ to me,” Haines enthuses, referring to the single off of Metric’s 2009 album Fantasies whose chorus poses the immortal question of “who’d you rather be, the Beatles or the Rolling Stones?”

“To which, of course, I answered The Velvet Underground,” Haines tells me. “Which is true.”

Moments like these are indicative of the recent string of successes that have found Haines and her decade-old band emerging triumphant through a combination of stubborn adherence to artistic ideals and serendipitous waves of good fortune that have guided them through the increasingly complex, unpredictable waters of 21st century pop music. The ways in which the industry has mutated, for better and for worse, in the years since 2001, when Metric recorded their debut album Grow Up and Blow Away (in what would turn out to be a false start, as the album remained unreleased until 2007), establish the band made up of Haines, guitarist and co-founder Jimmy Shaw, bassist Joshua Winstead and drummer Joules Scott-Key as both survivors and benefactors of this particularly and often wonderfully turbulent musical era.

Theirs is a story that has found band living and working, at various points in it, in such landmarks of post-millennial hipster culture as Toronto, Montreal and New York City (where Haines and Shaw famously shared a loft with future members of Yeah Yeahs Yeahs, TV on the Radio and Liars), as well as industry epicenters London and Los Angeles. It is Toronto, though, that remains the city most closely associated with Metric’s work, owing in large part to Haines and Shaw’s tangential membership in the sprawling Broken Social Scene collective. That band, initially the low-key bedroom pop project of Toronto indie veterans Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning, would go on to boast a revolving membership roster that now reads like a miniature who’s who of 21st century Canadian indie rock luminaries, with an alumni that includes such well respected musicians as Feist, Jason Collett, Andrew Whiteman (who records under the banner of Apostle Of Hustle) as well as key members of the bands Stars and Do Make Say Think, all in addition to the Metric duo.

Along with fellow Canadians The New Pornographers and Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene were among the very first bands to experience unexpected breakout success in the early years of the new century through the suddenly influential proliferation of online music communities. The brave new world of MP3 blogs, music review websites, file sharing programs and social networking was instrumental in granting many independent acts the promotion and exposure that they were not getting from the radio or the mainstream music press. Haines remembers the commercial potential for independent Canadian musicians being particularly dire, both at home and abroad, in the days just prior to the cultural Trojan horse brought forth by the Internet.

“Until this all got blown wide open in Toronto, for example, you had this like huge disconnect, which I have to believe would probably be the case everywhere, but particularly in Canada because there is so much pandering to the US happening culturally in the music industry. So you had all these major labels represented [by] their Canadian offices [and] those were the only sort of legitimate ways to get your music out, but they had no backbone and they had no interest in what was happening on the street at all. So you had little clumps of just amazing musicians, people like Jason Collett and Andrew Whiteman and Brendan Canning, and at this point Feist is riding around in a van — all these great, talented people who [were] completely invisible. Toronto is a great music town and the fact that, now, everyone associates Canada and particularly Toronto with credible independent music is just an amazing change because when we moved to New York it was like the last thing you were gonna say to anybody was that you were Canadian or from Toronto and anything related to music. They were just gonna literally laugh in your face. It’s amazing how it’s changed.”

In what has been a decade of whiplash-inducing changes for the music industry, perhaps one of the more unpredictable ones is just how mainstream what we used to segregate as “indie rock” has become. No longer do words like “indie” and “scene” and “underground” give off an alienating vibe of something unprofessional, exclusive and unapproachable, the imposing weight of art that is appreciated rather than simply enjoyed. Much of this has to do with the mainstream’s steady integration of some of the less imposing aspects of independent music into its larger cultural tapestry, leading to such previously unimaginable events like Death Cab For Cutie landing a major label deal in the midst of the music industry’s flailing decline thanks to some name-drops on the teen soap opera The O.C. or, more recently, the Arcade Fire’s third album The Suburbs debuting at the top of the Billboard charts by the sheer force of critical adulation and net-based fan enthusiasm.

What is interesting and, for fans of some of these bands, possibly even vindicating about such breakthroughs is that they serve to highlight another issue that rarely acknowledged in underground vs. mainstream discussions — namely, that many of these so called “indie rock” bands are made up of sounds far more conventional than the bizarre noises and obtuse lyrical themes that many expect to characterize the genre. Sure, no one is going to score a WB teen drama to Animal Collective’s maddening psychedelic swirl, any more than The Books’ cut-and-paste sample collages will be killing the Billboard competition any time soon, but for many other nominally “indie” outfits, underground status remains much more of a matter of business and politics than it does a sonic designation.

Take a listen, for instance, to Fantasies, Metric’s latest, and tell me that it isn’t the sound of a band who not only fancy themselves the world’s biggest rock band, but also a band that, at least for length of the album’s exuberant and epically tuneful 43 minutes, perhaps should be. Fantasies is the sound of a wholly credible and fiercely independent-minded band who can name one of their songs “Stadium Love” in all apparent sincerity and come off as neither ironic nor pandering in the process. Although the album does feature an undeniably glossy sheen of the sort that might lead some indie-centric skeptics to assume a major label influence, Fantasies was in fact self-released by the band, with lead single “Help, I’m Alive” even becoming the first ever track to hit the American Top 20 singles chart without major-label backing. That accomplishment is one that Haines, who is not at all shy about her distaste for the politics of major labels, seems particularly proud of, although in mentioning it she appears to view it as more of a symbolic victory for her larger community of independent musicians than simply a personal one.

“I really hope [it] will serve as an inspiration to other bands,” she explains. “Not [to] do it like Metric did it, just do it like you should do it.

If Fantasies represents several bold leaps forward, though, its sound is nevertheless a natural, if more polished, extension of the band’s two previous fan base-building outings, Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? (2003) and Live It Out (2005). Both of those albums nodded in the direction of New Wave, with standout songs like “Dead Disco” and “Poster of a Girl” sounding like internet age invocations of Blondie circa Plastic Letters (1977) and Parallel Lines (1978), that shining moment where the band’s CBGB’s-honed punk rock edge and commercial pop ambitions were merging most vibrantly. The New Wave sound that Blondie were at the forefront of 30 years ago has seen a significant resurgence in recent years that stretches far beyond Metric’s razor-sharp synth hooks and hard, danceable grooves; find it today in sounds as obscure as the lo-fi buzz of “chillwave” bands like Neon Indian and Toro Y Moi or as popular as the synthesizer whooshes that occasionally rush through hit singles by The Killers or Kelly Clarkson.

In Metric’s early days, however, New Wave had yet to be re-absorbed into pop culture’s all consuming sponge…

In Metric’s early days, however, New Wave had yet to be re-absorbed into pop culture’s all consuming sponge, leaving Haines’ love of synth-pop without much of a popular outlet, especially with bands like the Strokes and the White Stripes forging a movement on the back-to-basics, and decidedly non-synthetic, garage rock movement. Still, Haines remembers the movement as being responsible for a particularly encouraging time for independent musicians like themselves, regardless of the Haines and company’s own stylistic leanings.

“There was not a lot of respect for the synth kicking around New York at that time, but we definitely benefited from the attitude and the energy of those bands, particularly the Strokes, who people love to diss — I don’t know why, but for us it was like ‘oh great, these rich kids just made hanging out with your friends look cool’. Believe me, after hanging out with A&R guys doing demos for [them] in London for a year there’s nowhere you’d rather be than in this shitty basement in the lower East side. Even though we were playing synths and doing, like, electro, which wouldn’t become okay until several years later, the energy was huge and being able to take that back to Canada where we grew up and connect with the community of friends that was Broken Social Scene and Stars and Death From Above and all these other bands — it’s the beauty and magic of life outside your control”.

“[New Wave] was just where we were at. That’s what we heard, that’s what we wanted: my synth dreams that will one day come true of truly expressing my inner synth geek one day will happen. It’s not like you make a strategic move, it’s like you do what you wanna do and what feels right to you. I love the garage rock stuff but I wasn’t gonna suddenly just drop what Jimmy and I have been developing, which is this total love of electro and dance music and trying to bring those New Wave sounds and the songwriting and the energy of rock and roll all together. Dance rock is not a new idea now, but it’s hard to try and express that in front of 20 people, it feels kinda stupid, but that’s part of the test. You just keep doing it. I’m glad we didn’t give up. It was hard to make a synth look rock and roll for a minute, but it worked out.”

That Metric were lucky enough to be engaged early on with both a sound and a geographical scene that would each go on to gain popular acceptance makes for an encouraging success story, though hardly a new one. Throughout the history of pop music, many talents who might have otherwise remained mired in obscurity have had the good fortune to ride a fashionable movement to some degree of fame. Think of the early 90s “alternative” explosion for only the most obvious example of underground acts getting their shot at mainstream-level exposure. Never, though, has exposure appeared so easy to attain than it is now, when bands can measure popularity in the number of hits they get on their MySpace profiles and careers can be launched by homemade YouTube clips. Often cited as a “democratization” of the music industry, the internet does not actually remove the corporate middle man from band-to-fan interaction (bands still rely on corporate entities to promote and release their music, even if they happen to be newer, hipper corporate entities), but it does find the dreaded “industry” aspect of making and distributing music at least appearing somewhat minimized.

“[Our] first three years as a band were pre-MySpace, pre-iTunes,” Haines recalls, “so its definitely been, for the ethics of this band — the principles and the way that we like to live and make music — the internet has been an amazing development and made everything possible. It’s almost impossible to do justice in words the feeling of awe and gratitude we have having started out completely on the ground and watching the crowds go from 20 people to 20,000. We’re so grateful to the people who found us themselves and its just such a simple and pure interaction when you take all of the bullshit of the music industry out. We’re four people who met and want to play music together — we like to travel and play music — and there’s all these people who want to listen to music and go to concerts and I think without the internet we would have spent more time than we already did bogged down with labels.”

The current model might not quite represent the utopia for independent musicians that it is tempting to paint it as, however, and even Haines admits a “concern […] that bands [might be] lost in the mass of multiplication of MySpace pages, that it’s harder to stand out.” If anything, Metric’s success should serve as an example to younger bands that developing a savvy head about the music business remains a crucial part of surviving even in an era that offers such a diversity of pathways to success. “I hope,” she explains, “what we achieved on Fantasies will mean we really get to graduate to what we always wanted, which is just to make it be about the music.”

Perhaps as a result of her own recent personal triumphs Haines is, despite her concerns and her often harsh words for the corporate end of making and selling music, refreshingly optimistic about the current state of the industry. “I feel like music was particularly burdened by people who — their motivation for being involved in it and their usage for it and their approach to it made it really lame for people who genuinely love it. I hope that one of the side effects of the Online Revolution, or whatever, is that it kind of weeds out people who were doing it just for money. Obviously people gotta make a living, but when it stops being that lucrative, where you can just walk in and just prop something up and walk out, I think its gonna mean that the industry can thrive and be more healthy because people who are still sticking around with music on the business side as well as the creative side are gonna have to be the ones who really love it.”

After a year of touring behind and promoting Fantasies, 2010 should have been a year that Metric spent relaxing…

After a year of touring behind and promoting Fantasies, 2010 should have been a year that Metric spent relaxing, taking in their accomplishment and then only gradually working their way towards their next move. Metric, however, has never been a band to take it easy, always filling the time between albums and tours with various extra-curricular projects, like Joshua Winstead and Joules Scott-Key’s somewhat harder rocking side venture Bang Lime or Haines’ mellower acoustic recordings under the name Emily Haines and the Soft Skelleton. For 2010, Haines made an appearance singing lead on one track (the lovely “Sentimental X’s”) off of Broken Social Scene’s recent comeback-of-sorts Forgiveness Rock Record, itself a major event in the indie-rock world, but Metric’s highest profile exposures of 2010 actually come courtesy of Hollywood. Two soundtrack appearances from two youth oriented films, albeit ones pitched at two different teenage demographics, effectively had the summer of 2010 opening and closing to the sound of Metric, at least in movie theaters patronized by young audiences.

At one end was the band’s soundtrack contribution to Eclipse, the latest entry in the sulky teen vampire romance of the Twilight series. To date, the cinematic adaptations of Stephanie Meyers’ wildly (and some would say, inexplicably) popular book saga have shown a savvy taken straight from the O.C. model when it comes to filling the soundtracks of these films with music that is generally edgy enough to be hip, but accessible enough to accompany each melodramatic gesture of the teenage characters. Metric’s song “Eclipse (All Yours)”, co-written with Howard Shore, composer of the movie’s score, fits the role of the film perfectly; a mass of sweeping strings and ethereal vocals from Haines that feel miles away from the bands characteristically jagged New Wave rock. The band even shot a video for the song, complete with scenes from the film spliced in between shots of Haines performing the song while languishing in an appropriately Edwardian (as in Cullen) setting. A far physical and aesthetic cry from the band’s Broken Social Scene roots, to be sure, yet Haines speaks about the opportunity to work with Hollywood and music industry veteran Shore with the same degree of excitement and genuine fandom with which she detailed her meetings with Lou Reed.

“[He’s] not some slick L.A. guy — he’s a musician, he’s been in rock and roll bands, his career is really interesting to me”, she says, enthusing over her collaborator. “It was very much like an assignment and I mean that in the best way where we went to the studio and watching the screening — and ,like, ‘this is how long the song needs to be and this is exactly where it needs to fit’. He’d written about 90% of the score already at that point, so he’s like ‘this is the key, this is the progression, this is the tempo, here’s the script, I want you to express lyrically and sonically the feeling of this decision that’s being made by this character at this point in the film.’ It was a fascinating thing to do.”

As for being commissioned to write a song based on a pre-existing work rather than, as Haines’ is accustomed to, her own experiences, she says, “it’s a completely different thing. When we make a Metric record its like — particularly for me lyrically, but for all of us, we’re just expressing whatever the fuck we want you know, its whatever we need to say, we’re saying it. In this case, it was — I’ve always wanted to write for film and to have it be Howard Shore calling us up, it was just like…’wow, seriously?!’”

It is admirably refreshing to see how proud Haines is of even this work, one which many bands might view as simply a payday, and speaks of the song’s place in the film without a trace of self-consciousness about the kind of hipster backlash that could easily ensue from taking part in such a credibility-free commercial endeavor. “I guess I can relate to the topic of making choices that not everyone, you know — you make choices for yourself even if you think you’re choosing between two people you’re ultimately choosing your own life. So, it’s a pretty universal theme. I just couldn’t believe it when it actually happened, cause we were happy just for the process of writing and working with such a heavyweight movie company and stuff and then I thought for sure we’d get bumped or something, but we didn’t. It sounds so cool when you watch the movie — we went to the premiere and it’s like seven times in the film that you hear the melody. He really did make it the melodic theme of the whole score.”

Where Eclipse found Metric branching out into more popular territory, though, their participation in Edgar Wright’s adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s cult comic book series Scott Pilgrim vs. The World should have felt a bit closer to home for a number of reasons. For one thing, the film is set in an exaggerated alternate reality of Toronto’s garage rock scene and was filmed on location in the city. Furthermore, much of the soundtrack is populated by fellow Canadian indie rockers, whether it’s Broken Social Scene themselves (represented by some original compositions specially made for the film and by the classic You Forgot It In People album cut “Anthems For a Seventeen Year Old Girl” which featured, yes, Emily Haines on lead vocals) or the long lost all-girl 90s quartet Plumtree whose song “Scott Pilgrim” served as O’Malley’s original inspiration for his titular character. Metric’s contribution “Black Sheep” was not actually written for the film, but was in fact a leftover from the Fantasies sessions that Haines lamented not having space for on the album.

“I really like the song but it didn’t fit the rules,” she explains. “It was like, what the fuck is she talking about, like — the mechanical bulls, real estate in outer space, balls of steel — what’s going on here? It was originally called “Freddie Mercury”, it was a complex, cognitive lyric song that we all really liked but it was like, this is not gonna be on the record.”

Indeed, the song’s synth-laden, arena-ready stomp might have easily felt like one epic gesture too many on the airtight Fantasies, but the song is too deliriously hooky to have been lost in obscurity. “It was just really uncanny how Edgar called me up,” Haines tells me. “I really like his movies as well, and [he] said what he was looking for and it was really strange how perfectly that song fit for the film, including, like, he wanted this intro thing to be part of the song to fit the scene, and it had already been there, like this ‘black sheep come home’ sort of chant.“

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World also resulted in yet another dream collaboration. “The other awesome thing was that [the soundtrack] was curated by Nigel Godrich,” speaking of the well-respected Radiohead producer. “He’s really, really interesting and a lot of the work got done at our studio in Toronto, so it’s a really amazing feeling in the context of everything, with this huge, international movie release and you picture our little community studio in Toronto being the place where the music came from. It’s a really good feeling.”

And for Emily Haines and Metric, all roads continue to lead back to Toronto.