Taking Measurements: An Interview with Metric

Devon Powers

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.

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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

Next Page

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

Acid house legends 808 State bring a psychedelic vibe to Berlin producer NHOAH's stunning track "Abstellgleis".

Berlin producer NHOAH's "Abstellgleis" is a lean and slinky song from his album West-Berlin in which he reduced his working instruments down to a modular synthesizer system with a few controllers and a computer. "Abstellgleis" works primarily with circular patterns that establish a trancey mood and gently grow and expand as the piece proceeds. It creates a great deal of movement and energy.

Keep reading... Show less

Beechwood offers up a breezy slice of sweet pop in "Heroin Honey" from the upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod.

At just under two minutes, Beechwood's "Heroin Honey" is a breezy slice of sweet pop that recalls the best moments of the Zombies and Beach Boys, adding elements of garage and light tinges of the psychedelic. The song is one of 10 (11 if you count a bonus CD cut) tracks on the group's upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod out 26 January via Alive Natural Sound Records.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.