Metric: A Rock Band Declares Independence

Jun 30, 2012
Originally published on June 30, 2012 4:56 pm

Metric has long been identified as an indie-rock band, but it recently embraced the "indie" part of that descriptor in a big way.

For their last album together, the band's members formed their own company — Metric Music International — to distribute the record, organize a tour and handle promotion without a label's support. The result was the biggest album of Metric's career: Fantasies sold half a million copies worldwide.

"The only fundamental and life-changing difference is there's one band at the center of that whole organization — and it's us," singer Emily Haines tells NPR's Laura Sullivan.

Metric has just released its second self-distributed album, Synthetica. Haines says the title is a term that wouldn't go away during the writing process.

"When I was still working on Fantasies, I had kind of concocted this character, this sort of robot, soulless woman who I named 'Synthetica' — someone who was so free of flaws that she made being human seem repulsive," Haines says.

"We started to develop other ideas of what the word meant to us: the idea of what's artificial versus what is real, and sort of imagining landscapes, even, of a place called 'Synthetica,' " she adds. "The word almost sounded like the music we wanted to make."

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If you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Laura Sullivan. And it's time now for music.


EMILY HAINES: (Singing) Hangman, we played rubber soul with a razor blade.

SULLIVAN: The term indie rock is thrown around a lot these days, and in many cases, there is very little that's independent about those bands. Well, Metric is about as indie as it gets.

For their last album, they formed their own company, Metric Music International, to distribute their record, organize a tour, handle a promotion, all without a label support. And the result: the biggest album of their career.

"Fantasies" sold half a million copies worldwide. Emily Haines and James Shaw are the creative core of Metric, and they've just released their second independent album. It's called "Synthetica." Emily Haines says it's a term that wouldn't go away during the writing process.

HAINES: It means resilience, that's for sure. It began actually when I was still working on "Fantasies." I had kind of concocted this character, this sort of robot, soulless woman who I had named Synthetica, someone who was so free of flaws that she made being human seem repulsive. So we started to develop other ideas of what the word meant to us, you know, the idea of what's artificial versus what is real and started imagining landscapes even of like a place called Synthetica. A lot of sort of retro futuristic images. And, you know, the sound even - all these beautiful analog synthesizers that Jimmy managed to find. You know, even the words sort of all sounded like the music we wanted to make.


HAINES: (Singing) Hey, I'm not Synthetica. I'll keep the life that I've got.

SULLIVAN: There's a line in the song "Synthetica" that says...


HAINES: (Singing) I can think for myself.

SULLIVAN: ...I can think for myself, which seems to be, you know, basically the theme of your band. James, what is Metric Music International?

JAMES SHAW: I think for us, it was something that we started to replace the traditional idea of a record company because we figured that we had sort of enough fans and we had enough direct relationship with them that we didn't really need someone in between. And I mean, I liked that you connected it with the lyric from that because it really is, you know, a shell that enables us to really think for ourselves and do whatever we want to do.

You know, we can have a thought in the middle of the night of let's, you know, re-record a song and release at noon tomorrow and make some sort of weird Twitter something or other to get people to draw in towards it. And we can do it. We don't really have to check with the legal department on the fourth floor.

HAINES: We just always had trouble with what was then the conventional model of the sort of hierarchy where the musician is supposed to be, you know, the person that everyone in the whole company says, well, the last thing we should do is ask them what they think, you know, and the idea that you're kind of this permanent adolescent.

Now, the thing that we've constructed, it's essentially looks the same. We do the same thing that a label would do. The only difference, which is so fundamental and life-changing is that it's just there's one band at the center of that whole organization, and it's us. And you'd be surprised how radical an idea that is.


HAINES: (Singing) The wind presents a change of course. Second reckoning of sorts. We were wasted waiting for a come down of revolving doors.

SULLIVAN: I know a lot of artists are doing that now - leaving the record label structure and going it alone. Have you found it more difficult than you expected to run the business side of music?

SHAW: We just - I think we just learned that, you know, you just leave life, that's all. And it's not necessarily like hard work. It's just a little bit more work, that's all. But there's a weird thing that happens in life. It's like if you don't pay attention to something and you let other people do it for you, then most of the time you end up sort of having to take stock of it later and try and figure out what went wrong and why it didn't go the way you wanted it to. And that's sort of a different version of stress and work. And, you know, for us, it's just the work comes up front.

SULLIVAN: I'm speaking with Emily Haines and James Shaw, two members of the band Metric. Their new CD is called "Synthetica." Lou Reed joins you on the song "The Wanderlust." Did you just call him up and ask him? How did that come together?

HAINES: Yeah. It was kind of a highlight of that whole era of "Fantasies" was meeting Lou at this Neil Young tribute that Jimmy and I were playing in Vancouver. And a really talented musician named Kevin Herrin(ph) was kind enough to say, like, hey, Emily, you want to meet Lou Reed? I said, sure, assuming, of course, that he'll have no idea who I am. So I just said, hey, Lou Reed, this is Emily Haines. And when he met me, he quoted "Gimme Sympathy," the lyrics from "Gimme Sympathy," our song from "Fantasies."


HAINES: (Singing) Gimme sympathy after all of this is gone. Who'd you rather be? The Beatles or the Rolling Stones?

He said, yeah, Emily Haines, who would you rather be, the Beatles or the Rolling Stones? Which was great.

SULLIVAN: What did you say?

HAINES: The Velvet Underground.



HAINES: (Singing) Like here comes the sun.

HAINES: When it came to finishing the record at Electric Lady in New York, you know, we'd struggled with this song of finding the voice, this world-weary voice, to be the counterpoint to this innocent yearning to just see the world, you know, which is expressed by my vocal and my lyrics. And so, yeah, I just asked him and he said yes.


HAINES: (Singing) I never wanted to go home.

LOU REED: (Singing) The wanderlust will carry your song.

HAINES: (Singing) There was nothing there for me.

REED: (Singing) The wanderlust will carry your song.

HAINES: (Singing) In a high rise on my own.

REED: (Singing) I've been on all kind of highways for so long.

HAINES: (Singing) Looking out in a mirrored balcony.

REED: (Singing) The wanderlust will carry your song.

SULLIVAN: Well, here you are, you own your own company. You've got a big tour coming up in Europe and Australia. You'll be at Lollapalooza. And you totally control your own destiny. Do you feel like you've made it? Is this it? Is this where you want to be?

SHAW: We talk about this, you know, this has come up before. But, you know, I've had this strange revelation that as a perfectionist, the best life choice you could make was to be a musician because you can never perfect it. So it's going to give you something to do for the rest of your life.

HAINES: It's really true what Jimmy says of if you, you know, are inclined toward being a perfectionist, I really recommend you take up songwriting because it will just torture you. Anything can be a million ways. The shift of impact between the choice of one word or the inflection and the delivery and the choice of the tones, how they all fit together and what they convey and - it's been a lifelong obsession I don't see ever feeling like I've accomplished really what I could because it's - I'm in such awe of the art form itself.

SHAW: I don't know what we would do if we ever felt like we didn't succeed. I mean, what would we do? Stop.

HAINES: Yeah. You just stop.

SULLIVAN: Well then, we'll hope that you don't succeed so that you'll continue to make music.


SHAW: Thus the basis of Canadian indie rock.


SULLIVAN: Emily Haines and James Shaw are the founders of the band Metric. Their new CD is called "Synthetica." Emily, James, thanks so much.

SHAW: Thank you for having us.

HAINES: Thank you, Laura.


HAINES: (Singing) All night, like a child, I stayed up to prove I can keep up. All night, like a fool, I...

SULLIVAN: For Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Laura Sullivan. We're back tomorrow with a conversation with legendary RnB artist Bobby Womack. He is back from a near-fatal health crisis and making music again with musicians half his age. Until then, have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.