“There’s a coldness even in the name of our band to sort of balance the fact that we are going to pour our hearts into it. The whole thing is protection,” says Emily Haines, the singer and songwriter behind Metric, as we spoke just as she was prepping to leave on the electro-harmony band’s current world tour. “You know we can’t be called, like, The Hugs. Although that might be closer to the actual spirit of the four people that are in the band.”
That contrast between detachment and engagement is a constant theme for Metric over its four albums. Their newest album, Synthetica—which came out in June 2012—is no different. On the one hand, the album’s shiny production is beautiful and reflective, like precious metal burnished to perfection. Drums beat from a distance, and a synthesizer provides jagged zaps of flash. Meanwhile, the guitars have such thick layers of effects that they might as well be synthesizers themselves. Haines vocals are intense, but her voice never catches with emotion. Listening to this album is like looking at a diamond—you definitely feel something, but the thing that’s producing those feelings is cold and hard.
In Rolling Stone, Haines tells the story of when she first met Lou Reed, who appears on Synthetica. He asked her who she would rather be: the Beatles or the Rolling Stones? “The Velvet Underground,” she replied.
That makes sense. When she started Metric 15 years ago, Haines wanted the band’s sound to contrast the “over-emoting” noise of other bands.
“There’s a deadpan kind of delivery that I’ve always really admired, both female and male,” says Haines, who is perfectly warm and personable as we talk. “And also definitely people that write their own music, with a lyrical ability to make you feel so much, but by descriptive writing.”
The tension between overt sentiment and withdrawn cool is part of what makes Metric so damn intriguing. The band’s songs vibrate like high wires, evoking the sounds of Depeche Mode, the Pet Shop Boys, Kraftwerk, and Berlin. I remember when I first heard those bands back in the 80s, and being turned off by how calculated they sounded. Now when I hear them, it’s clear that their electronic sound wasn’t robotic, but rather an extension of rock’s heart-on-your-sleeve tradition. Somehow, the synthesizers and post-production effects managed to bridge a gap between the typical themes of “Why don’t you love me?” and the more rarified themes of “Who the fuck am I in this modern world?” The central question of Metric’s Synthetica is, to put it simply, “What’s real?”
When I ask Haines if she was going through some kind of existential freakout during the writing of Synthetica, she laughs. “I like to think about shit.”
Though she’s a deep thinking, you’re just not going to get all of Haines. Sometimes, she has to keep parts for herself. “I’m just not really interested in shaking everybody’s hand… I don’t have to kiss everyone’s ass,” she says. “It’s not about being unkind,” she continues “It’s sometimes you just want to get on with the thing that you’re really passionate about and I guess it’s protective too.”
And that’s the thing with Haines. She intentionally keeps a distance, climbing atop a heap of electronica detritus to sing shimmering, faraway songs. But then she’ll bust out with a heartfelt vocal, and you can tell she’s a softie, in a kind of intellectual way. I ask her about the Synthetica’s “Dreams So Real,” which goes:
“Have I ever really helped anybody but myself/To believe in the power of songs/To believe in the power of girls?/Though the point we're making is gone/Play it stripped down to my thong.”
Haines explains, “There was a time when being a musician meant you actually felt a certain social responsibility or sense that you were part in the culture and commenting and being a force of good or change… I had this sort of sad moment where I had the thought, ‘Maybe I’m just another selfish, self-absorbed person that wants to be a rock star.” And then she laughs, again, and says, “So that kind of sucked.”
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