The Conceptualization Highway

Posted September 28, 2007 in Music

In the midst of creating their new music, Metric are having to talk to people like me about, well, their old music. See, nearly a decade since they formed, and with their fourth album well underway, the Canadian New Wavers unexpectedly find their first record, 2001’s Grow Up and Blow Away—lost in the industry shuffle at the time—seeing the light of day.  

“It’s like looking at yourself in a mirror from seven years ago,” says guitarist/co-founder Jimmy Shaw. “It’s always a weird experience.”

Though Metric fans have been downloading Grow Up for years and demanding a “physical” release for the record, it was only recently that the band’s Canadian label, Last Gang Records, was able to acquire the rights to the disc.

“It feels amazing!” Shaw enthuses. “It really is quite a cathartic experience. To me it wasn’t even so much that it finally got to see the light of day, because I knew so little about the music industry when we made that record that I didn’t really know the difference between what was happening and what wasn’t happening. I just think that there’s something really gratifying about the fact that people know about it and people talk about it. It’s really humorous that it’s gotten further along on the CMJ charts than any of our other records and we had a better Pitchfork review than we’d ever gotten!”

Shaw formed Metric with vocalist/synth-player (and fellow Canuck) Emily Haines in New York in 1998 (the pair are also members of indie supergroup/musical collective Broken Social Scene). Grow Up and Blow Away was recorded by just Shaw and Haines prior to drummer Joules Scott-Key and bassist Josh Winstead coming on-board. Before it could be released their label at the time was bought-up and the disc got shelved. Subsequently, Metric’s official debut, 2003’s Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? achieved gold status in Canada. The follow-up, 2005’s Live It Out, went double-platinum up north, as well as being nominated for both the 2006 Polaris Music Prize for Canadian Album of the Year and the Juno Award for Best Alternative Album.

“[Grow Up and Blow Away] wasn’t really written for a live band—it was way more electronic and was made with samplers and drum machines and keyboards,” Shaw explains, speaking on the first day of Metric’s current US tour (which arrives at Pomona’s Glass House on Tuesday). “The band has really evolved since then, so it’s difficult to take the songs and sort of make them fit in this context. On this tour we’re playing, like, a song [from Grow Up and Blow Away], and even then it underwent quite a large transformation.”

Metric’s more recent albums have showcased sophisticated guitar-pop sensibilities topped with Haines’ girlish vocals and savvy lyrics, recalling late ‘90s charters like Veruca Salt, The Breeders, and even Brit poppers Sleeper. Grow Up and Blow Away, however, spatters their indie-rock template with trip-hop and electro-pop.  The record has the white funkiness of well-programmed drum machines lubed with flexi basslines and flickering loops—kinda like Portishead demos or pre sell-out Liz Phair gone Radio Shack. Ultimately, like all Metric’s music, Grow Up connects through Haines’ voice: a finely-textured, “what me, sexy?” in-control/need-rescuing sigh that could make reciting the yellow pages sound seductive. It’s an utterly charming, sometimes mesmerizing understatement of a record.

Critics who’ve dubbed Grow Up and Blow Away Metric’s best work may be in part adhering to the tired they-were-better-in-the-early-days indie mantra, but it’s certainly their most interesting album stylistically. And, oddly, it sounds less dated than subsequent releases (descriptions of the band boat-missing alt-pop hangovers are not without foundation).

The Metric of today, with all four members now contributing to songwriting, really is a different band.

“It’s been a slow process of that fully happening,” Shaw mulls. “I think Emily is still the primary songwriter, but it definitely has changed, yeah, and changed in a way that’s more conducive to the way all four of us want to live our lives.” 

Which will presumably be reflected in the new album that Metric have been writing in Toronto for the past 18 months.

“It’s coming, it’s about halfway there,” Shaw confirms. “I think conceptually it’s about halfway there as well. It’s definitely a relatively new direction for the band: it doesn’t really sound like the last record—it’s a little bit less aggressive rock and a little bit more, I think, something spacey and futuristic and silver.

“One of the reasons we booked this tour is because it’s really important to go through the conceptualization process; go through some pre-production; do a bunch of demos; get a sound together and then get out there and play it every night. Because it tends to change: it becomes more real and visceral as opposed to just sort of like an idea in the ether. You get to feel peoples’ reaction to it; you get to play it every day and let your fingers explore a little bit throughout that music . . . I like the idea of doing that before you lay down a record.”

While Metric are no slouches in the success department in America (they even opened a couple of stadium shows for the Rolling Stones in New York City), they’re yet to replicate their huge Canadian career here.

“It’s an ambition among others,” says Shaw of “breaking the States.” “The world’s becoming a much smaller place . . . there was a time as little as 10 years ago, as little as five years ago when there was only so many places you could go as a rock band: America’s the biggest market, and then the UK, and then Germany and then Japan and then Australia and then Canada—that’s just where you sold records. With the advent of the Internet and the way people buy music now there’s people all over the world who would freak out to come to an indie rock show.

“So to me one of my goals, just as a human being alive on earth, is not necessarily to go back to Philadelphia and DC and Portland like a hundred more times in my career, but I want to go to Venezuela, I want to go to Colombia, I want to go to Brazil, I want to go to East Asia—there’s a lot of places to go and play in the world now. America’s this sort of cultural center for rock & roll for sure. At this point it’s probably one of the many places that I want to spend my life and play my music.”

For a band that began life as a studio-centered duo, Metric have fully embraced the touring life. To keep it interesting they’re even toying with the idea of having fans write their set lists on their current tour.

“Our show ideally is about coming to hear good music and maybe losing a little bit of ambition—maybe dancing a little bit. You don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s a super-fun show. We like to make sure that everybody leaves that room sweaty and having had an amazing time.”




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