Taking Measurements: An Interview with Metric

If the word fierce had retained its original, animal meaning — without any inkling of irony or camp — it would be the perfect descriptor for Metric’s lead singer, Emily Haines. Like a ferret, the Canadian-American singer emanates a biting, almost feral potency, one that could give even the coolest contender a case of the jitters. She’s not wicked or mean-spirited, nor is she “scary” in that put-on, Courtney Love-esque way that would be spooky if it weren’t so sad. Instead, Haines is a determined woman on a mission; she isn’t afraid to tell it like it is or use whatever means necessary to get herself there.

Which makes sense, really, when you listen to the music of Metric — an evolving musical project began by Haines and her partner, James Shaw, in the mid-’90s. Their music, rife with pummeling rhythms, geometric melodies and sweet yet savory vocals is as intoxicating as a tequila shot; like that pungent drink, it packs a devilish wallop that erupts unexpectedly amidst its burning euphoria. When I spoke to her, she and the band were about to embark on a mini-North American tour before settling into the studio to record the follow-up to 2003’s electric Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? (Everloving Records).

PopMatters: So are you on tour now? It seems like you all are touring a lot these days.

Emily Haines: We’re taking some time off before we start touring again at the end of September. James and I are just here doing work with Broken Social Scene and some soundtrack stuff. Last year was constant touring. So I’m really excited for this to be sort of the last North American tour, we’re going to do Canada and the U.S. And then we’ll get down to making the new record in the new year, and probably go to Australia and Japan in the new year also.

PM: Do you like touring?

EH: I do like it but my life sort of starts to fall apart under it after a certain point. So you just have to stop. And it’s hard to. But I really love traveling, I love playing.

PM: I have seen you live a couple of times, and the thing that always strikes me is the response you receive as a female front person of a band otherwise made up of guys. How you handle the gender issue?

EH: I try not to focus on it too much but I think you have to acknowledge it in order for it to go away. Years before this incarnation of Metric, I was very much in the school of indie rock of asexuality — the more like a guy you were, the more a real musician you were. But now, the direction I’ve taken it in terms of performance is acknowledging the part of me that is a girl… which probably doesn’t sound good in print. Not pretending that I’m a guy — I’m a chick for sure.

Certain audiences get the double meaning and some of the references and ironies, but there’s definitely been shows where I feel like I’m not doing it well enough for it to come across as anything other than “oh, she’s hot and she’s dancing.” One show we played in Seattle, I came off stage and I came into the band room — it was a really weird night anyway — and the first thing that anyone said to me was “Oh, thanks Emily, you really made my dick hard.” And I was like “I want to die!” We’d been touring for eight months at that point and it was like “what am I doing, what am I doing? That completely is not the point.” At the same time, someone could infer that that is your point, so what are you going to do? Honestly, I try not to think about it too much. Ultimately the goal is to have it be a really amazing evening where it does feel like something could happen, and I think a sexual energy is a positive energy. It’s not my fault that people are perverts.

PM: You mention that there’s a double meaning in your performance. I would say that there’s the same aspect in your music as well – a lot of tongue-in-cheek, a lot of irony, a lot of subtle politics. Would you agree?

EH: I think there’s lots of writers who are of that approach to songwriting. It’s obviously first person and it’s obviously experiential but it’s not confessional. That’s the main work that I’ve done in my life — really wanting to get past that gender trap where there’s a certain nudity in poetry. It’s not about showing my soul, it’s about observations. And I think if I were living in a utopian world, then it wouldn’t be political commentary; it would be about daffodils. But that’s not what I’ve seen. But I’m spending more time in Canada so maybe the next record will be images of comfort and community.

PM: You’re from Canada, right?

EH: I have an identity crisis which is not resolved because I’m a dual citizen. My whole family is American, and I was born in India but I was raised in Canada. But all my extended family is American, I’ve held an American passport and I’ve spent my whole adult life in between New York and LA. So I feel like an American… and I also feel like a Canadian! I wish more people were dual citizens and then I wouldn’t feel like such a freak.

PM: Do you feel like that duality comes out in your music?

EH: Yeah, I think it definitely does. I always felt like I had to leave Canada, which I think is a common perspective — feeling as if you have to leave because otherwise you’ll be too soft, and that objective reality exists in America. And I’m starting to feel like that doesn’t have to be the case — there are lots of people in the world whose existence doesn’t revolve around American culture. But as far as the writing goes and as far as the band goes, half the band are from Texas, the rhythm section. And [James and I] met in New York.

The feeling that no one gives a shit about you is such a wonderful thing about New York, and America in general. At least my perception of it is no one’s going to pander to you. And I really, I think that’s a good thing for art. By contrast, in Canada there’s an extensive grant system that really allows people to make their work without having to suffer that much, and I’m staring to come around on that, that maybe people don’t have to suffer. Maybe you can just not be unhappy and make beautiful music in Canada, maybe that’s ok. So these are all the questions that will come up for me in the next year or so.

PM: Are you doing much writing now? Will you be playing new stuff on the road?

EH: There’s a lot of stuff written that we don’t play live yet. But the song “Handshakes” and “Live It Out” and “Patriarch on a Vespa,” those songs will be on the new record as well as some other good stuff. And we’re putting out a “Dead Disco” single with these hilarious dance mixes. But those are the only ones for now.

PM: How does songwriting work in your group?

EH: The last record, and the way that James and I have worked traditionally is that I write sad, slow songs on the piano, and he would hear them another way, sort of adapt them to the sound of the band, and flesh them out, and then we’d play them with the rhythm section. But songs like “Dead Disco” he wrote the music to, and “Combat, Baby” we wrote together. It’s a combination of ways that it happens. But a lot of it starts as just songs on the piano. I’m actually going to release some of that stuff. I don’t want to say solo record because that sounds gross but just some songs that are in that form on the piano, I think I’m going to let them out in that form.

PM: Are there other bands out there that inspire your songwriting?

EH: The things that I’ve seen where people are trying to change the definition of what a band has to be, those are the things that end up being inspiring. That’s the thing about Broken Social Scene — the fact that we can even exist goes against every business model in the world. I feel the same way about anything that I see that’s outside of constructed, manufactured music. Like duos like Fiery Furnaces, when people can be compelling and do something that affects people without being a perfectly polished little act.

PM: I realize the inspirations question is kind of annoying. It’s a device music critics use to cheat, I think.

EH: I guess it’s one of those things that you don’t want to be conscious of everything. Of course there are influences, of course there are things that are inspiring, but it’s weird to think that I’m trying to keep a mental inventory of them and report them clearly to whomever might ask.

PM: And there are lots of things that can be inspirational besides music…

EH: You feel like you’re trying to show off your cool by mentioning the five bands that you know are great and the five books that will reflect well on you. I can’t do it. I should take the time to but I don’t want to take the time to do that.

PM: Do you like giving interviews?

EH: I know I could give a better interview, but I’d rather just have a conversation with you. I don’t feel like being clever with it or something.

PM: Being interviewed is a weird interaction, for sure. For both parties, I think.

EH: I like the idea of interviews where you just talk about stuff instead of where it’s my chance to talk to my public through something else. I feel a real allegiance with writers too — I feel like what you and I are doing is very similar. In my imaginary utopian world there would be a greater allegiance between music writers and musicians. Maybe I’m romanticizing the Lester Bangs era. But it’s not a conflict of interest, it’s a shared interest. So I feel like I’d way rather like to talk about shit, which we’ve done.

Generally I try to read anything but indie rock journalism or anything about music at all, especially in the summer — it’s like can we just think about something that isn’t related to us? But [when I happen to] read interviews where people are such pros and they come out looking so good, [it comes off as] a little smug or something.

PM: I think that can also be about writers and editors showing off and seeing how good they can make a person look. I think it’s my duty to show who you are as a person.

EH: That’s the way I feel too — like if we’re going to bother to have a conversation it’s not about mystique, it’s the opposite. Which again might be my total downfall and I’ll never be a bona fide rockstar. But there’s something kind of revolting about that anyway.

PM: What does that mean — being a bona fide rockstar?

EH: This is the thing I’ve noticed is that the greater the distance between you and any ordinary task is the measurement of how much rockstar potential you have. The complete self-absorption, and childish indulgence and disregard, and having to feel as though everything you’re doing is so people can live vicariously through you, so you have to pursue more and more unpleasant pastimes in order to satisfy the armchair people. That’s a kind of scary existence. I’m into a little glamour and certainly, I think it would be interesting to be an icon. But I think more like Charlie Chaplin than like Jennifer Anniston.

PM: I always that it must be so weird to have fans who are obsessed with you. I mean, what is it like to see people wearing T-shirts with your face on them?

EH: We don’t have T-shirts with my face, but there I can see the beginnings, especially young girls seeing me as sort of a icon in that way. And in that regard I’m more than happy to step in. It can take different forms. Like for me, when I was in a shitty little town and all we got was Tina Turner and Bryan Adams, my friend introduced me to U2 and Sinead O’Connor. Which is hardly some of the most underground shit in the world, but that was actually the point. It was mainstream but it’s like “Jesus Christ, she’s bald and she’s an incredible writer.” I like the idea that you would participate in mainstream culture, especially for young girls and young kids who are looking for an alternative. It’s not that I’m superior, but I know that my heart is in it more than people who get into music for other reasons. [Sinead] saved my life, and if she had just been an underground phenomenon it would be something else, but it’s the fact that she really came right up next to the prefab shit. So that’s where I’m at right now with Metric. We’re starting to infiltrate some of that shit and I’m excited. I see how 14-year old girls react to me and I think I’m a good role model. Rockstar maybe not, but I’m willing to play with it for a little while, until my hair gets gray.