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Metric: the art of being a rock band in 2018

Melody Lau

Twenty years into Metric's career, and its bandmates still eat dinner together. It's a fact that surprises some of the band members' closest friends — two decades can fortify or disintegrate a group's dynamic — but according to guitarist Jimmy Shaw, not only do they go out for meals together, but "we can shut the place down."

It’s a rainy September afternoon and Shaw and lead singer Emily Haines are cozied up in their Toronto studio for a quick recharge before hopping back on a plane. With more shows lined up after a 60-day run opening for the Smashing Pumpkins (at Billy Corgan’s request), Metric is going full-steam ahead to promote its new album, Art of Doubt (out today).

But, with seven albums under Metric's belt and thousands of fans filling venues, Haines’ main measure of success is a number that is much smaller than that: “As long as the four of us are OK — [and] a lot of things go into that being the case — then I feel successful.”

In fact, that close-knit bond between Shaw, Haines, bassist Joshua Winstead and drummer Joules Scott-Key became an integral factor in the recording of Art of Doubt. Shaw has produced, or co-produced, every Metric record since their 2005 sophomore album, Live it Out, but he has grown tired of that role. So when he set up a meeting with producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen (Nine Inch Nails, M83, Beck) to discuss taking the reins on Metric’s new album, he was very clear that he wanted to absolve himself of control-room duties: “I don’t want to wear the producer hat, I lost that hat.”

Shaw looks back at the moments where he had to tell his bandmates, “it’s not really that good, you need to do it better,” with some exhaustion. “That sucks and I doubt I’ll ever want to do that again,” he says. But his frustration comes less from a place of hating his past work and more from a yearning he has to properly rejoin the band and do what he does best: play the guitar.

With Shaw busy producing Metric records, the band often found itself at the end of each album process with little or no guitars — a strange feat for a group that unabashedly calls itself a rock band. “This has happened many times,” Haines notes. Not on Art of Doubt. With all four members and Meldal-Johnsen jamming together in the studio, the band was adamant on translating its live performance — its biggest strength — into an album that reflects that thunderous onstage energy.

You can hear that on lead single and album opener, “Dark Saturday,” which literally kicks off with big, crunchy riffs made to echo far and wide in stadiums, tied together by Haines’ biting takedown of wealthy socialites. That intensity, in both sound and interrogation of the reality around them, is carried throughout the record. Guitars never erase the band’s synth-pop roots though; instead, they work together with the electronic elements to find an equilibrium that coalesces into some of Metric's most effective work in years, from the cathartic breakdown of "Underline the Black" to the more understated moments on "Seven Rules." Despite years of sonic experimentation, it's not a sound that defines Metric, it's the band's onstage vigor that drives each album to the finish line.

For Haines and Shaw, being a rock band carries an ethos of togetherness that, in some ways, counteract what’s in the mainstream right now, which is heavily influenced by EDM and hip-hop, genres often led by solo acts. “What we are is four people and the premise of it is that it’s not just about you,” Haines explains. “It’s not about you assembling people behind you to reinforce your idea, dictator-style; it’s about the really complex democracy of four people making it work for everyone.”

It’s tough not to extend those ideas to the world at large, especially when fascist tendencies have led to the coming together of people in movements, in protest and, yes, in music, too. (It's a similar motto that Broken Social Scene, which Haines and Shaw also perform in, championed when they returned with its album, Hug of Thunder, last year.) This is one of the ways Shaw draws a parallel between Art of Doubt and another Metric record, Old World Underground, Where Are You Now?, which celebrates its 15th anniversary this year.

“There’s definitely a similarity between the political landscape in 2003 and 2018,” Shaw points out. And out of these politically turbulent times came Metric’s most “urgent” sounding music. Shaw states both albums’ message to the world plain and simply as, “the f--k is wrong with all y’all, man?”

In contrast, Shaw says the albums between, specifically 2009’s Fantasies and 2012’s Synthetica, showed off more optimism, a feeling that Haines argues she has continued to carry into the now. “I feel like I’ve been through a lot and I’m not down for the count yet,” she says. “I feel optimistic that, given the shot, I can defy time. I really do.”

And for all the darkness, doubt and questioning Metric’s new album addresses, it’s the silver lining that takes you through to the other end of the tunnel.

It’s best captured on the album’s centerpiece — or as Haines calls it, “an essay” — “Now or Never Now.” Over a six-minute track that sonically pays homage to acts like New Order and LCD Soundsystem, Haines sheds her fears and sprints ahead, never looking back and only focused on what life there’s left to live — to seize. Because, as she reassures herself: “Everything that’s under my skin/ where I end and begin/ still belongs to me” — an adage that Metric, as a band, powerfully wears on its sleeve.


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