Emily Haines and Jimmy Shaw find it a little perplexing that people keep noticing that Metric is fast approaching its 25th anniversary as a band with some admiration when, frankly, that’s exactly what they’ve been planning since the beginning.
The Toronto-based quartet – anchored by the US-imported rhythm section of bassist Joshua Winstead and drummer Joules Scott-Key, long adopted as honorary Canadian citizens by Metric’s sizable local fan base – released his formidable eighth album, “Formentera”, on July 8, almost 20 years after his debut, “Old World Underground, Where Are You Now?” signaled the arrival of one of the smartest and most accomplished new voices in indie rock in September 2003. Yet while such longevity is a rarity in the unstable flicker of 21st century popular tastes, longevity is what everyone involved had in mind from the start.
“It wasn’t something I intended to do for eight albums, you know? I started it to do it for good, for life. And Em too,” said Shaw of the new Metric studio built in a rural church in the Dufferin Highlands to record “Formentera” when COVID-19 upended everyone’s best plans for 2020. “And I think Josh and Joules want play music for life, too. They don’t want to do anything else.
“We just did the first set of shows and the rehearsals were cool – we had only played three and a half shows in three years because one of them fell apart after three songs – and it took two shows before the four of us actually, viscerally, and on a cellular level, remember how happy that makes us,” Shaw said.
“I didn’t even know what I was missing the last few years. I didn’t understand what part of me was empty. And all of a sudden, we played a couple shows and it was, like, ‘Oh, okay. It’s me. Let’s go. I think we’re here for good, man.
As Haines observed, if there was ever a time to walk away from it all, the onset of the global pandemic paralysis was that time.
Instead, however, she quietly trusted that Shaw – who she’s been making music with since they first met at the Horseshoe Tavern in 1997 – hadn’t ‘lost her mind’ tearing down the longtime Giant Studio. from Metric to downtown Toronto and camping in the backcountry. with friend and frequent collaborator Liam O’Neil (formerly of The Stills and sometimes Kings of Leon sidekick) to build a new one in hopes of a fresh start amid the chaos of COVID-19.
“I think we felt from the moment we met that this was for life,” Haines said from his own perch in the woods a six-minute walk from Metric’s new clubhouse. “We just didn’t know what form it was going to take. And then the pandemic really went like ‘OK, if there ever was a starting point, this is it. We can’t even get Josh and Joules across the border. Maybe that’s it. And instead, it turned into the biggest double possible of all time beyond the other commitments we’ve made.
“Investing in this building and building a new studio was such a gamble, wasn’t it, in the context of ‘What will the world be like when we all come back? But in the meantime, let’s double that for the next decade. It was so intense.
Metric was in a luckier position than many of his contemporaries when COVID hit since he had just completed the touring cycle of his previous record, 2018’s “Art of Doubt,” and – as Shaw put it – after seven albums “there were enough royalties pouring in to keep everyone alive. Plans for the next album hadn’t developed beyond a “really bad song” when the planet as a whole grew closed, so a new physical environment and headspace turned out to be exactly what the band needed to make “Formentera”.
You can hear it too. “Formentera” – a sparkling burst of barbed electro-rock named after a dreamy Spanish island the band stumbled upon in a travel magazine while recording – oozes confidence and utter mastery of craftsmanship that can only be earned by a group that’s put in as much time and effort into becoming the best possible version of itself like Metric has.
After 25 years at the top of his game, Metric felt completely free to do whatever he wanted.
“Oh, I totally feel that, man. We were literally like ‘F— it, who cares? We can do whatever we want,” Shaw said.
“By the nature of album #8, not only can we do what we want, but we’re supposed to do what we want. It’s actually the most expected thing of us at this point, to go as far as the imagination can go and try everything. And that was also paired with that other ingredient of, ‘Well, the world is in complete chaos and who knows if this thing will ever be heard? Who knows what will happen?
“I mean, we couldn’t get Josh and Joules here the first year. And it was mainly at this time that everything was written. We were like, ‘We don’t even know if we’re going to be a band. We don’t know if we will ever do this tour. I didn’t even know if I was going to go back to town. I didn’t know if my whole life existed anymore,” Shaw said.
“As soon as we let go of any preconceptions of who we are, what Metric is supposed to do, what a Metric record is supposed to look like – anything like that – we instantly loved what we were doing. And so we realized that and started making a mental note to just walk into the studio with the clearest stories. Clear the cache before entering and do what happens.
Haines agreed that “it was kind of cool to get to that point and think, ‘Why not let go?'”
Why not, for example, open the record up with a 10-and-a-half-minute multi-phase dystopian techno-pop banger like Haines’ mighty tour de force “Doomscroller” and release it as a single, to boot? Metric has self-released its own albums since 2009’s “Fantasies” without any industry “wisdom” to guess them and has always remained a dominant force in the arena in Canada. He truly has earned the right to do whatever he wants.
“If you’re powerless over everything and you have the revelation of the minimum scope of your control over your life, you have options of what to do with that revelation and information,” Haines said. “You might be, like, ‘Well, in that case, nothing’s worth doing’ because it’s all a simulation or whatever you feel when you hit those kind of philosophical moments. But you can take that same feeling and make it immensely liberating, that it’s not up to you, anyway, so why not go for it? What difference does it make? So I’m glad that feeling is coming out.
At the end of the day, despite the freewheeling nature of its creation and a greater emphasis on sharp electronics in the mix, “Formentera” still ends up sounding remarkably “Metric”. But that’s what happens when you’ve been a band for a quarter of a century: you can’t help but develop a sound.
“That was kind of the joke,” Haines said. “We’ll think we’re doing something that’s so out there – like, we’ll have a reference in our mind that’s such an extreme departure – and then you put the four of us together and I start singing, and suddenly it sounds like us no matter what we do. So that’s another side effect over time: we can really be free because there’s such a signature with the four of us, I think, that everything we do starts to look like us.
Metric has a long history of big boffo outdoor shows in its hometown, so it’s suspected that this Friday’s performance on the Budweiser Stage – with lofty backing from Spoon and Interpol – will mark the release of a sizable amount of pent up energy.
Shaw, who along with Haines represents part of the extended diaspora of the broken social scene, is coy about any special plans for the occasion.
“First of all, if I was planning some really crazy bullshit and like, like, Gordon Lightfoot was going to come out and do a duet with Emily, I wouldn’t tell you. He’s going to sing ‘Gold Guns Girls.’ wild. You’re gonna love it,” he laughed.
“But it’s more like the special thing is that it’s actually happening. It’s really cool programming and the shows that we’re doing now, we’ve never done before. And that’s largely because this record is different for us, for some reason. It’s different. And when we play it, it just takes on a new meaning.