THE BACK APGES

METRIC SYSTEM

THE TORONTO BAND THAT’S THE TOAST OF THE INDIE SCENE IS POISED FOR ARENA-ROCK STARDOM. CAN IT SURVIVE ITS OWN ASCENT?

SHANDA DEZIEL April 3 2006
THE BACK APGES

METRIC SYSTEM

THE TORONTO BAND THAT’S THE TOAST OF THE INDIE SCENE IS POISED FOR ARENA-ROCK STARDOM. CAN IT SURVIVE ITS OWN ASCENT?

SHANDA DEZIEL April 3 2006

METRIC SYSTEM

THE BACK APGES

music

THE TORONTO BAND THAT’S THE TOAST OF THE INDIE SCENE IS POISED FOR ARENA-ROCK STARDOM. CAN IT SURVIVE ITS OWN ASCENT?

SHANDA DEZIEL

It takes some coaxing

to get Emily Haines to take off her big black sunglasses for a photo shoot. Guitarist James Shaw never comes around. “Is it for the cover?” he asks. “I’ll take them off for the cover.” While the Toronto band Metric has a detached, stylized onstage persona, backstage one expects to find something more real, more friendly—more Canadian. After all, aren’t Haines and Shaw also part-time members of Broken Social Scene, the massive Toronto collective that wears its heart on its sleeve and breaks down barriers between performer and audience? But on a hot March day in Austin, Tex., at the start of the South by Southwest music festival, Metric’s four members (Texans Joules Scott-Key and Joshua Winstead are also in the band) are giving very little in the way of conversation.

Asked how they met, Haines says, “It’s in the bio.” Questioned later about her age, she replies, “I don’t do that question, I don’t see how it serves me.” When their tour manager tells them about an upcoming L.A. photo shoot, Haines says, “I don’t know if we want to be photographed around a motherf— ing pool.” Only once is their confidence rocked. After the Maclean’s photographer is done taking their picture, he hands Haines his camera and asks her to take a photo of him. The rest of the band—outfitted in the right combination of black tailored suits and thrift-store accessories—crowds in, thinking he’s looking for a keepsake. “No,” he says, “just one of me alone.” Embarrassed, they give a nervous laugh and move out of the way. As the photo-

grapher corrects the way Haines is holding the camera, she blushes and fumbles. “I feel a bit used,” she says—a sly riff on the fact that she’s not often on this side of the lens.

Later, Metric recalls another photo op— this one with the Rolling Stones, for whom they opened at two Madison Square Garden gigs in New York in January. They are proud of that experience but make light of it. “You’re under threat of incarceration if you show the photo to anyone,” says Haines. “So I have it in a vault somewhere.” Scott-Key says, “I destroyed mine.” And Shaw reports: “I bought a whole other laptop just to keep it on.” They begin to tell what could be an interesting story about that night, how they sat in the nosebleeds during the Rolling Stones performance— and how they still owe money for those seats. But they refuse to elaborate on why an opening band that the Rolling Stones hand-picked would have to pay for its own tickets.

Nonetheless, that New York weekend, which also included a guest appearance on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, was further proof, if any were needed, that of all the Canadian indie

bands currently being celebrated—Broken Social Scene, Stars, Death From Above 1979 and the New Pornographers—Metric is the most likely to grow into an arena-rock act. Their sound is the addictive combination of heavy guitars, new-wave synth keyboards (played by Haines) and propulsive dance beats. With the release of their second album, Live it Out, last September, they’ve already made a major jump in the size of venues they play. They’ve got a tour bus rather than a van; both of their albums have gone gold in Canada; and when they show up for SXSW they’re given a prime slot at Stubb’s, the same venue the Beastie Boys and the Pretenders are playing.

Only two years ago, Metric was performing at a small Austin club on an all-Canadian lineup, far from the real SXSW action. MTV and Rolling Stone weren’t exacdy beating down the doors to talk to them, as they are this time. “There was no press,” says Haines, who is on her third interview by noon. “By this time I was drinking beer.” So while their compatriots sleep, eat and wander around in a drunken haze, Metric works. And while others hope to impress industry types, Metric snubs that scene. It’s understandable why they keep their distance from the mainstream music biz—after all, the first album Haines and Shaw made, Grow Up and Blow Away, got caught in red tape with a large record label and was never released—and are less than cuddly with the press, which sees them as an overnight sensation. Doggedly indie, Metric started their label, Last Gang Records, with entertainment lawyer Chris Taylor and promoter Donald Tarlton. “I’ve built this,” says Haines. “I’ve done every single job that there is to do, from mailing out CDs to designing T-shirts, selling T-shirts, tour managing, driving a van. We’ve made a point of building ourself up from the very bottom without any marketing. It doesn’t really make sense to me that we would then hand the whole thing we’ve built over to a major label.” Besides, she adds, it’s a dying system.

The band feels the same way about mainstream radio. “Human beings can find things for themselves and they don’t want to be fed something,” Haines says. “So if you want to continue to grow and be alive in this time, you have to acknowledge that people like bands that have come up from somewhere, that are not prefab.” Metric would like to see radio change with the times, especially in Canada, where it’s all but ignoring the success of domestic indie bands. In 2004, they spoke up at a gig sponsored by Toronto alt-rock station 102.1 The Edge, which hadn’t been playing their music. “We started playing the chords from the Strokes song The End Has No End” says Shaw. “And Emily started singing ‘The Edge has no edge.’ ” That led to a war of words, with Edge morning DJs badmouthing the band and Haines making snarky comments at Toronto

gigs. In the end, Haines made a surprise visit to the station to debate the issue. Now songs from the group’s two albums are in rotation.

While Metric’s music is no stretch for The Edge, the station’s change of heart could also have something to do with the lead singer’s charm. She can really turn it on—whipping a crowd into a frenzy with her sexy, domineering stage presence. She’s got a softer side too, which will be displayed on a solo orchestraltype album, to be released in September. “I write more than is needed for Metric,” she says. “This album will be very cinematic—I’m going to put together a pretty amazing show for the Toronto film festival with a full orchestra. Otherwise, I don’t think I’m going to tour it.” This is just a side project and won’t get in the way of Metric’s momentum, which took the band years to achieve.

Haines was born in New Delhi and raised in Peterborough, Ont., the daughter of poet Paul Haines. Shaw grew up in Toronto and studied trumpet at Julliard. They met in a bar in Toronto in 1998—and bonded over a mutual dislike of white funk music—before moving to Brooklyn to make music together. By 2002, they had gotten out of that first record deal, and met Scott-Key and Winstead. During an Internet-radio interview toward the end of their stay in Austin, they open up about the band’s evolution. “Emily and I played a small show with a Danish bass player and it was so bad, I thought I should be shot for this,” says Shaw. “Joules comes up after and says, T like your band.’ And I said sarcastically, ‘Great, why don’t you join it?’ And he said, ‘Okay.’ Later that night someone told

THEY OPENED FOR THE ROLLING STONES BUT MAKE LIGHT OF IT.

‘I HAVE [THE PHOTO] IN A VAULT SOMEWHERE,’ SAYS HAINES

me I just met the best drummer in New York.”

Haines and Shaw hounded Scott-Key to find a bassist, and he eventually convinced a friend, Winstead, to switch from guitar to bass. The four relocated to Los Angeles. “We moved into this older woman’s guest house,” says Haines. “Her name was Maureen, she’d come in with a cocktail, in a nightie, and hit on Joules.” Scott-Key confirms, “Yeah, she was pouring out of that nightie.” There were ants in the house and they had no money, but they stuck it out, playing at the Silverlake Lounge in front of 100 people until they finally got into a studio with producer Michael Andrews. “We would be there at 10 a.m.,” says Shaw. “You can’t make a rock album at 10 a.m. in the California sunshine.” Somehow they managed. That disc, Old World Underground, Where Are You Now?, includes one of the best dance tracks ever recorded, Dead Disco, and three years later is still selling well.

For the next album, Live it Out, they moved back to Toronto. “It happened to be election

day and we were driving across the border,” says Haines. “As Bush won we were really happy to be back in Canada.” (Scott-Key and Winstead picked Oakland, Calif., for their home base.) The tunes on the new disc are more complex and satisfying, thanks in part to a recording arrangement that fits better with the band. “This time we did it in the cold Canadian winter,” says Shaw, “and only recorded in the middle of the night, because the studio was over a bank that was open during the day.” Shaw took over the production, pulling back a bit on the new-wave synth and turning up the guitars. And Haines’ songwriting benefited from two years on the road, getting to know the new band members.

Metric can be unabashedly political, and both albums are outspokenly anti-militaristic. On the 2003 single, Succexy, Haines sings, All we do is talk, sit, switch screens/As the homeland plans enemies /Invasion’s so succexy. On the latest CD, there is Monster Hospital (I fought the war but the war won/1 fought the war but the war won’t stop for the love of god).

Most of the other new songs rail against consumerism and address social disillusionment—and there’s a feminist take on celebrity: Can’t stand by myself/Hate to sleep alone/ Surprises always help / So I take somebody home / To find out how I feel / Feel like just a baby / Portrait of a lady /Poster of a girl.

Haines seems to both fight and embrace her role as an indie sex symbol and poster girl. A serious songwriter and musician who scoffs at manufactured images, she tries to bring her own kind of glamour to a scene of shaggy, sweaty boys—travelling with a designer friend who sews the singer’s skin-baring outfits on the bus. Her band has given the world danceable rock music with a socially conscious message. But now, after years of hard work and despite their do-it-yourself ethic, smart lyrics and finely tuned musicianship, Metric may have to work at not appearing contrived. And lightening up on the attitude. A long-time fan at the Stubb’s show was heard saying, “I’m off them now, it’s like they’ve become the rock stars they always wanted to be.” M

FOR PHOTO AND VIDEO GALLERIES from the South by Southwest music festival, visit www. macleans. ca/sxsw