Photo: Norman Wong

For Kicks: An Interview with Metric

They went from beloved electro-indie lovers to a chart-topping act running their own label. Pagans in Vegas is their latest disc, but the stories behind it indicate where they are and the fascinating places they're going.
Pagans in Vegas
Metric Music International

Since 1998, Metric have been harnessing a craft, perfecting with each album a specific kind of sound, getting closer and closer each time to the heart of who they truly are. They could not have known then, in their early 20s, that their musical journey would lead them back on the other side of a record contract, to starting their own label and brand, routing their own tours, developing a smartphone app, and essentially running their own show.

2012’s Synthetica musically feels like the logical progression for Metric’s sound: catchy electro indie pop songs, lyrical hooks with Emily Haine’s haunting voice, etc. Also, it was released on their own label, Metric Music International. Going it alone is always tough, but it appears to have paid off. Synthetica, peaked at #1 on the Alternative Albums chart, #12 on the Billboard 200, #6 US Rock albums, #2 Canadian albums chart, and was nominated for the Polaris Music Prize.

2014 saw them living their lives and generating new material, songwriter/producer Jimmy Shaw in his studio, and Haines in Nicaragua and Spain. What they came up with would soon become known as Pagans in Vegas, their latest album, with allusions to the Cure, Depeche Mode, and New Order. Its preorder packaging was elaborate to say the least; a so-called “Pagan Time Capsule”, limited to 500 copies, a kind of ode to analogue, that comes in a customized wooden box; the new album on cassette, a Metric flag, patches, post cards, a lapel pin and a charm necklace. Separately, one was also album to preorder the album on limited edition 2LP 180 gram vinyl, which comes with a digital download of the album. The kind of prizes that only a true indie would think to do.

PopMatters discussed with Jimmy Shaw from Metric this process, as well as their recent tour with Imagine Dragons, the almost-release of a double album, and the the state of women in music.

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The album has such an ear-grabbing title, phonetically. I wondered what the story was behind it, as it sounded like something that was an inside joke that was thrown around and then someone said “We should call our record that.” Or something like it.

Well it’s weird, a lot of the time, well especially with Synthetica. We had the title for Synthetica way early on and it ended up really informing a lot of what we were doing. With Pagans, I think we had 15 minutes left to title the record. The record was done, mastered, finished, everything. Even the artwork had taken a direction. But Emily didn’t have this title. And she called me one day and I think she was in an airport somewhere and she said “I’ve got the title and I’m going to text it to you right now.” So she hung up the phone. I got the text and it came through. PAGANS IN VEGAS. And it was in all capitals. And I said “Ooh, that’s an amazing title.”

But I wrote back and I said “Text it back to me with … not all capitals.” And she did and I said “There you go that’s it. It looks better that way.” And for me it was immediately that. Metric has always ridden this line between being like a mainstream band, a pop band, but also like an indie band, and literally we are about as independent as you can get as a band. But we don’t sort of succumb to the prerequisite guitar tones that that usually associates with. So we’ve always kinda played this weird line. And for us, like, when I heard that title, it felt very much right because it’s who we’ve always kind of been. The people with ethics and a conscience in a place where you’re really not supposed to have one.

So there’s not a literal song about literal Pagans in real Las Vegas.

No, not really, but it’s kind of funny: when we announced the album title I believe on the first day of the Imagine Dragons tour, and they’re from Vegas. And there was this sort of, like, in the camp that day, in the backstage there was this sort of feeling of like, “Is this coincidence? Or is this not coincidence.” And it was genuinely coincidence. But I can see how some people might have interpreted it the other way.

So you just got done with a US tour opening for Imagine Dragons. How did it go?

It was awesome, it was strange, they are massive and they are selling a lot of tickets, and I know we haven’t been on a tour that big before. There were 150 people on tour. It’s the literal association of pagans in Vegas. There’s little ol’ Metric on tour with the band from Vegas, with the giant light show and the whole thing. In some ways it was really cool, their audience is really young. There were a lot of moments of, like … well we’re definitely exposing the audience to something that they wouldn’t normally hear, and sometimes there was a really positive reaction to that and sometimes there was really negative. But I kind of feel like that’s part of your role as an artist. If I only ever played to people who were already sold, then what would be the point, you know what I mean?

What was the best city on the tour? Can you say, or do they all blur together?

I mean, some blur together, there were some really good ones. Boston was really good. I don’t really know why. We’ve played Boston 20 times, but that one went off inexplicably. There were some good ones right at the end. Tacoma was amazing. I kind of have this feeling, it’s possible that the middle of the country is the new coast. The coasts have been populated with liberal-minded people, artistic people, really where the communities that made a lot of the stuff that our world talks about has happened on the coasts. When we first started, the first time I’d go to like Omaha, Nebraska, or, you know, I don’t know, the middle of the country, St Louis, blahblahblah, it was hard to find good stuff. And now, it’s like, those places are abundant in amazing food, amazing bars, amazing people. Kind, friendly, intelligent. It seemed like there was this surge of really good energy coming out of the middle of the country which is not what you’d usually expect.

I am from rural Iowa and when I go back it’s full of organic food now and local craft breweries, and it’s like “Where did this come from?”

I know! It’s crazy! It used to be like Arby’s and now it’s some of the best food you can find is out in those little places, where they are actually getting food from farms and it’s actually working. It’s bizarre.

So, back to the tour, what goes into choosing a band to tour with?

There’s a million factors. In a perfect world, it would be who do you like the most? In this specific instance with Imagine Dragons, it wasn’t us who chose them, it was them who chose us. We were on the loosest timeline you could possibly imagine. Basically, just like, making a record and not really caring when it would be finished or when it would come out. We had basically lost our link to iCal and stopped looking at it for like a year and a half. And when we got that call, it seemed outside the norm for us, like not someone we would normally tour with. But at the same time it was going to be a lot of people, it was going to be a lot of young people, it was going to be those kind of events that kids go to and remember for the rest of their life. And that felt really new for us. It also put us on a timeline, made us finish our record, title the record, book other tours, actually get on a timeline instead of wasting around and not worrying about it. It had a lot of benefits in a lot of ways it just sort of kicked our asses and made us remember we had a career to pay attention to.

Yeah, I was wondering why you were touring in advance of the record coming out, but it sounds like it was sort of unrelated to when you had scheduled that date.

Yeah completely. When we got the tour offer it was like, basically it was like, we can have an album out for this but we’d have to finish like tomorrow. And that wasn’t going to happen. So we just figured we would have the single out for that tour and put the album out in the fall. And one of the things that we did, you know, back to the planning of this record. Emily and I agreed to take 2014 off and not work at all. We ended up writing a huge amount of music in the beginning of 2014 in the first few months, when we got together in something around April of last year, it turned out that she had enough material for a record and I had enough material for a record. And even then there was some extras on both sides.

What we decided to do is make both records, as two separate albums. What we would have done in the past, we would have taken Emily’s sad piano songs, and I would have sped them up by 40bpm and put a dance rock beat behind it and played a lot of guitar and do all that stuff. But what we decided to do this time is let those songs be exactly those songs, and not try and change them. In the meantime I had done a lot writing which started out fast with dance beats and a lot of electronic. And we decided to be that as well.

The latter, the music that I predominantly wrote became most of Pagans (there’s a lot of stuff that Emily wrote on there, too) it became the real meat of Pagans. But then what we decided to do when we got the Imagine Dragons tour is record the other record, (which we’ve been calling LP 7, because we don’t have a name for it yet) while we were on the tour, so we booked these studios all over the US, we went to Blackbird in Nashville, Electrical Audio, Steve Albini’s place in Chicago. We went to the Fleetwood Mac room, Studio D in the Village in LA. We went all over the place and recorded this album which is predominantly Emily’s songs, much more downtempo. Almost like a follow up to Knives Don’t Have Your Back, played by Metric. It’s like they’re kind of like two parts of a whole.

I kind of think that knowing we were going to do that allowed me as a producer to let Pagans go way off into right field, like having no live instruments, because I knew LP 7 (whatever it’s going to be called), was the polar opposite, where there’s no electronics whatsoever, all organic instruments, there’s no doubling, its all live takes it’s the polar opposite for us. It’s a double album in a sense, even though it’s not going to be packaged as a double album. They’re still kind of related, like siblings. It’s one having its extreme liberal views that allows the other one to have its extreme conservative views on the world.

I look forward to hearing that one. When would that come out?

Probably next year. I got really ambitious and I was like we can finish it in time and we can put them out basically three weeks apart and blahblahblah, and from the creative side it will make so much more sense and it shows the whole picture, and so on. And since we run our own label, all our partners worldwide from like distributors to Australian PR firms to blahblahblah, everybody basically has a 40 person conference call with me, saying like, don’t do that, you’re insane, you know, calm the fuck down. Its great that you have two records, but you can’t make one step on the other. You have to let this one breathe. And then we’ll have the moment and then we’ll put the next one out and in retrospect they’ll totally see how they’re connected, but you know, just relax man.

On the topic of running your own label, how has that been going? Anything unexpected?

I mean yeah it’s all unexpected. I had no idea how this was going to go. I guess the thing I’m really coming to terms with now is that it’s very much just our reality of it, is that we have … there’s an incredible positive side to it. The side that we are really allowed to do whatever we want to do, we have no deals in place with anything other than to assist us in whatever cockamamie insane vision we come up with. On that call, if I had said to that team, “I respect all of your decisions, but this is what is happening,” they would’ve all done everything in their power to make it happen and make it work to the best of their abilities. And that is the most unbelievably rare and golden situation.

On the downside of it, we also fund everything ourselves, so we are more like a hang glider than a rocketship. If we were to have a single that really had the shot of getting into the Top 10 or the Top 5 or whatever, getting up there is so difficult because we don’t have a lot of rocket fuel. We don’t have the infrastructure, and more like it we just don’t have the bank account to get you up there. And as the music industry over the last five, six, seven years has been weaned of all of its funding and finance, as there’s less and less money in the music industry, the top spots are more coveted, and more protected, and more paid for than they have been in a long time. And for us to get into those top spots is virtually impossible because we don’t have the army to get there.

And the industry as whole, if we were get there it’s basically a sign that we can do it without them. And the industry doesn’t want to see us get there. It benefits no one if we win. Whereas a band on Interscope, if the band wins, it benefits everybody. It benefits the whole system. So there’s a lot of fuel and a lot of might in making sure that band succeeds. For us, no one has a vested interested, so why would anybody do anything. So there’s really significant upsides and downsides and they balance out. If we were on a major label I would be telling you the exact opposite story and it would just balance out in the other direction.

I had a question about the money part. Not to get into specifics but my vision of what it means to go independent is that you no longer have this corporation taking money out of your pocket, where you are getting one dollar for every CD that is sold. So does that mean you are doing better financially now that you are the label or is that not necessarily the case?

It’s really hard to say. If we were on a major label, let’s say we were on Interscope Records. What they would do, under a standard record deal, in a points deal, not in a receipts deal, you get 13% or 14% of your record. So yes, you’re making a dollar, but their entire marketing and promotion budget doesn’t come off the top. So they pay for that, you don’t pay them back for that. So if they happen to spend two million dollars marketing and promoting you and you turn into a band that can all of a sudden not only sell 500,000 albums (so you’re making a dollar off of those ones), but you are also all of a sudden maybe the main support for Coachella and Lollapalooza, where you are pulling in maybe $200,000 guarantee for a show, and that’s because they spent $2,000,000 on marketing you. So everything really ties into each other.

The idea that the royalty on your CD sale is what you’re making is so antiquated. There’s no such thing as a CD sale, no one gives a shit anymore, no one buys a fucking CD. At this point it’s more about how many streams you’re getting on Apple Music and Spotify and how many Twitter fans and Instagram followers you have. That can almost directly equate what your festival billing might be. And one show could equate to a royalty on a million albums sold. So it’s much more about your status as a band, how much you engage, how much people are interested in anything you do or uninterested in anything you do, and trying to find ways of monetizing that so you can keep doing it.

What advice would 2015 Jimmy give to 1998 Metric, or even 2012 Metric?

Photo: Alysse Gafkjen

Especially with the label thing, we went for that in 2007, and I think probably what I said about five minutes ago about the balance of … these are the perks that you’ll get and these are the drawbacks you will feel. I think I would have just told myself that. I think I went through a lot of 2010-14 not really resenting but not understanding why we were having trouble getting into parts of the music business. And I think now I have a much clearer understanding of why that is and why people would be hesitant to allow us into certain levels of success. Not that we don’t have a lot of success; we’ve had amazing success. I’m very happy with what we’ve accomplished and what we’ve done. But I definitely have my own set of disappointments with that as well. I might have just set myself up to understand that I may be disappointed in certain things.

Moving away from that topic, something kind of incredible happened on Twitter recently. Jessica Hopper posed the question to women in music and publishing and just the scene in general: what was your first brush with the idea that you did not “count” or were otherwise made to feel like an outsider in a boys club? The outpouring of responses has been amazing, and she’s been retweeting all of them. Stories of intimidation of violence, condescension, mansplaining. It gives the reader a pretty horrifying glimpse into the industry and gives the idea that things are still pretty for bad for women in music. As someone whose business partner and creative collaborator is a woman, how do you respond to that? Anything you’ve seen firsthand? secondhand? Sexism in the music industry or how do you work through that?

It’s a really difficult thing, you know? I mean I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it based in something that’s really difficult for humans to drop. People still say “She’s a woman chef” instead of just she’s a chef. People still say “She’s a female director,” instead of just saying she’s a director. People still say “She’s a female singer; that band has a female singer,” instead of just a singer. No one says, “OK, they have a male singer.” Or “Oh yeah, there’s an up and coming male director.” It just doesn’t get said, you know?

I don’t know what it’s going to take for humans to drop the assumption that when someone does something of any consequence it’s going to be a male, so it requires the requisite “female” to understand that the person doesn’t have a dick. It’s a very strange thing that humans cannot seem to be able to get past. I’ve seen a lot of women in music get frustrated by it. When Emily would be asked in interviews, right from the very beginning, “What’s it like to be a woman in music?” She’d say “I have no idea.” What’s she going to say? “Well, it was different from when I was a man in music.” She can’t know anything else. She can only act as herself and she can only deal with what comes up in front of her and people like to give vast generalizations of what they think is going to happen, what they think you can do and what you can’t do. People very rarely tell men, “Oh, you can do that,” or “You can’t do that,” but people fucking love to tell women that.

In 2003, we were told that the BBC1 radio station in England, is where basically if you’re on you’re made and if you’re not you’re not. And they said, “We don’t play women right now. It’s just not something that’s happening.” They just don’t do it. Well, so, is that, did someone decide that? Was that a boardroom call? The general public just doesn’t like the sound female voices. And now, it seems like nine out of ten pop songs on the radio is all women. And that’s great in a vengeance kind of style. I’m sorry that it was shit for so long and now you get a moment to rise up and do your thing, but I don’t know if it feels like that on the other side. Maybe, I don’t know because I’m not a woman. For me personally I’ve been proud of the way Emily has stood by it in the sense that it’s a non-topic and the more she felt like she would engage in the topic the more she felt like she was perpetuating the fact that someone would say she’s a female singer instead of she’s just a singer, and, if it’s not a topic then it’s just not a topic.

It absolutely feels like it’s gotten better since the days of the Runaways It seems like now more than ever, women have visibility and are more readily-accepted than they had been. It’s a better time to be a woman in rock music than it used to be, for sure. Can you list some of your current favorites?

Well, again, that would be perpetuating the same thing, wouldn’t it? I have some people I like to listen to. I mean for me right now literally in the last two weeks I was fortunate enough to get this little place up north in the woods which I think is going to keep me sane over the years, and for my birthday last year Emily got me this amazing collection of records. Her brother has this record store outside of Toronto for the last 26 years, and he has the most curated incredible record collection. He knows every record made, he knows the date it was made, the first pressing, the second pressing, a real aficionado.

So she got me this collection and I spent some time up north and it’s the only thing I listen to, this old vinyl collection. I had an overload of modern music between playing with Halsey and Imagine Dragons for two months so basically I’ve been listening to Josephine Baker and Chet Baker and Steely Dan. Those are the things I’ve been flooding my brain with the last two weeks. If you just stay in the modern world, for me personally, I tend to lose touch with why I did this in the first place and what music means to me. I find a lot of music right now is laden with ambition and like business savvy and marketing and social media and I feel like I can hear it in the music. And when I go back to the older music I don’t hear it, I just hear artists making music for the love of it.

An experience I really enjoy is recognizing Metric songs in movie soundtracks. It is as if it elevates the quality of that particular show. What is the process of getting music in TV/movies?

In the world right now there’s so much television happening. TV had this incredible rebirth in the last seven, eight years with all the series that are happening, starting with Boardwalk Empire and Mad Men, now there’s just like 15 new Netflix series this year alone, and the people that are involved, it seems like a really creative field, and I am saying this from the outside, because I am not involved in it, but people are doing more and creative ambitious outside left field risky things with those shows. So I just sort of imagine there’s all these musical directors, music supervisors who are just like cool people and listen to what they listen to and go to shows, and getting the opportunity to put whatever they want into whatever shows they are working on. that’s what I’m assuming.

Yeah, I was day-dreaming about getting a job as a music supervisor. How do I get that job?

Seems like a really good job, right?

Yeah. So will we be hearing Metric in any movie soundtracks soon?

There’s actually a couple of movie things that are up in the air right now but I don’t know that anything’s been locked down. I also tend to forget stuff. I’ve gotten kind of forgetful. And it’s not like I don’t care or anything, but, I dunno, my brain has a certain amount of space, and I find when I fill it with a whole bunch of stuff, I can’t fill it with other stuff. And right now, I’m thinking a lot about what this year of touring is going to look like, and what the staging is going to look like, and what the setlist is going to be like, what this show is going to be, you know, and it’s like every three years we make another record and you have this statue that you’ve made out of Play-Doh, but you’ve taken like a whole other ball of Play-Doh and slapped it right on the side and you have to remold the whole thing, resculpt it, knowing there’s like 30% more clay involved now? You know what I mean? And so, that’s kind of where my brain has been lately, really thinking about that, and what it’s going to look like and sound like, that’s really what I have to live with for the next year and a half of my life.

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