James Shaw and Emily Haines are part of the sprawling Toronto-based music collective Broken Social Scene, but as the core members of Metric, the guitarist and vocalist specialize in more electric, forceful dance-pop. After an itinerant period that included stints in New York, London, and Los Angeles, the two moved back to Canada to record last year's terrific Live It Out. Haines is also finishing a solo record with members of Virginia band Sparklehorse; she describes that album as "cinematic darkness music… Okay, it's just songs on the piano." The A.V Club recently caught up with Haines.
The A.V. Club: You recently opened at Madison Square Garden for the Rolling Stones. How did that come about?
Emily Haines: Well, they're very selective. Even though they're a huge organization, they still choose the bands that open for them, and somehow Live It Out got to the band. I guess it was Mick who really wanted us. They have a really strict schedule, but we got to hang out on the second night, just before they went on stage. We got to meet and take photos—you know, get kissed by Keith. They looked great, I thought, actually. For all the jokes people make about them being old, they just looked like four friends who have been playing music their whole lives, instead of watching golf on television.
AVC: Did opening those dates have an effect on the size of the crowds at your own shows?
EH: No. Those aren't the kind of shows where you're winning over new fans. It was just a great way to spend a couple days in New York. As far as this last tour is going, it's really such a positive time for us, because it feels like it's the same mix of people, just more of them. It seems like the growth is happening really naturally—we don't suddenly have a bunch of guys in Sticky Fingers T-shirts in the front row. [Laughs.]
AVC: Live It Out is more aggressive than your last album. Why did you move in that direction?
EH: I don't know that we decided where we were headed. It was more a matter of the circumstances and the concept behind the way we wanted to make the record that yielded those results. For example, Old World [Underground, Where Are You Now?, the band's previous disc], was recorded during the day in California—we would report to the studio at 10 in the morning—and this record was recorded only at night in Canada, in the dead of winter. [Laughs.] So that accounts for a lot. And then we wanted to bridge the divide between the recordings and what we really sound like live, because we had spent so much time touring. And we didn't work with a producer. It was just the four of us, oftentimes without an engineer or anything, just in this room that we called a studio above the bank.
AVC: You guys actually built the studio yourselves, didn't you?
EH: Yeah! It was really an amazing process. One of those lifelong dreams for Jimmy [Shaw] was being able to have a budget—limited, but a budget nonetheless—to pick up vintage instruments along the road and build our own studio, our own space to just put it on tape and see who we were.
AVC: Did you find it freeing not to work with an outside producer, or did you miss having someone in the studio to be an impartial part of the process?
EH: I think probably if there had been someone objective, they'd have said "You let your guitar player produce the record, you're going to get a guitar-heavy record." [Laughs.] They would have probably tried to make it more polite. And I'm so glad we didn't have that. The only thing that's nice about the objectivity is when you're starting to go a little stir-crazy at the end. But John O'Mahony, who mixed it with us, kind of filled that role. He listened and just said "This is good, keep going."
AVC: You've stated that the band had a breakthrough moment coming up with the song "Empty," which leads off Live It Out. How so?
EH: That was the first song that gave us any indication of what the next record was going to be. Jimmy and I went to [Broken Social Scene leader] Kevin Drew's house, where he used to live, and just sat down in the living room. Jimmy picked up a guitar, and that whole song just came out of nowhere—lyrics, the whole thing. So that was encouraging. That's when we knew we were going to be able to keep going.
AVC: One recurring theme on Live It Out is the struggle between cynicism and optimism. Lyrics like "I fought the war and the war won" and "the only way out is to give in" seem defeatist on the page, but you sing them as if you mean them the opposite way.
EH: The one thing I knew going into this record was I didn't want to be detached, and I'm definitely not interested in cold irony. When things don't look so bleak, I'll be writing about things that don't look so bleak. But until then, all you can do is be as positive as possible about a pretty crummy world.
AVC: How consciously do you try to communicate your political opinions through your music?
EH: The funny thing is, even until very recently I was afraid that with this record, I'd lost too much of my concern with bigger topics. I was sure that I would be criticized for giving up. [Laughs.] It's odd to me that people read the record as really political. I'm just navigating my existence with, I think, a fairly average amount of compassion for other people. It's hard for me to understand how it's of note to include anything bigger than love stories or details of a night out in my writing—that somehow that instantly crosses over into, like, Gore Vidal. [Laughs.]
AVC: Given its chorus, the song "Monster Hospital" would seem to be a pretty direct anti-war song, but you've stated in other interviews that it isn't so straightforward.
EH: One of the rules for me as a writer is that no lyric gets through if it only has one meaning. I remember finding that written on a scrap of paper somewhere when we were making the record, and I have no idea when I wrote down "I fought the war and the war won," but I know that I wasn't talking about Baghdad.
AVC: The image of a "monster hospital" is weirdly intriguing as well.
EH: I don't know where the hell that came from. I remember those guys were working on that song and they had it in their heads that the music sounded like a Puerto Rican street fight. I came into the studio and they were playing and all wrapped up in this imagery. And I was like, "All right, Puerto Rican street fight! Wow!" And then I opened my mouth and "monster hospital" came out, and I completely started cracking up. There were multiple scenarios constructed around it. Is it monsters in a hospital? Is it monsters running a hospital for humans? Is it somehow related to the Muppets or Sesame Street? I owe it to the gods of words for putting those two words next to each other for me.
AVC: A lot of Canadian bands receive financial assistance from their government. Can you compare your situation to bands in the United States?
EH: Canada is going to have a difficult time competing with America, for obvious reasons. The population is a fraction of America's, and American culture is pretty pervasive. But I think more of note—in fact, go ahead and disregard everything I just said—it's just good business. It's like helping small businesses get off the ground. It's definitely the case for bands, I think that if you can just get past that first hump of being able to get on the road and not come back in debt, then you can carry yourself. So it's really just the people of Canada making a preliminary investment in small enterprise and then seeing the results magnified. This has put a lot of revenue back into the country, with minimal investment. But I think also, if you suck, it's not going to do anything for you at all. There are loads of people who've done really well without it, and people who've had it and haven't done anything. It's definitely not a make-or-break factor, but I think it's nice. It's modern and civilized.
AVC: The climate in America has been moving dramatically away from that kind of support of the arts, and yet it's still strong in Canada.
EH: I think the reason that it's blatant right now is that your tax dollars in America are going to the fucking missile, and tax dollars in Canada are going to the music program in an elementary school. Or helping a band like Broken Social Scene subsidize their tour to Germany. [Musicians] end up being like diplomatic representatives of Canada, and I think everyone takes that very seriously. But I think that both countries have a lot in common culturally. Independent labels in America have lived by those same principles forever, as what we're seeing come out of Canada. We're not at odds, really.
AVC: Metric is well-known for moving from city to city, but these days the band is centered on Toronto.
EH: James and I went back to Canada to hold down the fort and get everything straight with [the band's label] Last Gang Records, which is based in Toronto and Montreal, and to set up the studio to make Live It Out. Joshua and Joules live in Oakland, [California,] so they came and spent time during recording and when we were touring. I don't know how long we'll stay there, but we're there right now. We're already thinking about where to go next.
AVC: Do you think you would ever settle in a city permanently?
EH: [Laughs.] Yeah, maybe if I can afford it. But right now, travel and writing are kind of tied together.
AVC: It isn't easy for a musician to avoid touring.
EH: People do, and maybe that will come next. But I feel like this is a pretty exciting time to be on the road. We're seeing such a positive rebirth of live music. I think it's great that people are going out to shows. The more people participate in live music, the better the production can get, the better the sound can be. People like the guys in Pittsburgh who started Mr. Smalls—they bought a church, made it into a venue, and they're bringing in all sorts of international acts, and I don't know what else. I'm a romantic, so I like that shit.
AVC: Does the personality of the city you're recording in work its way into the music?
EH: Yeah, definitely. It's like hanging out with different friends. It brings out a different side of all of us. I really value that sense of place—God forbid the world ever becomes so homogenized that cities are interchangeable, because I really like just dropping myself somewhere and seeing how it affects what we do as a band.