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

Jer Fairall

Emily Haines' journey with her band Metric has taken her everywhere from on stage with Lou Reed in Sydney, Australia to writing songs for teenage vampires in Hollywood. But all roads continue to lead back to her Toronto home.

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.

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