A Conversation with Emily Haines of Metric: “The thing I can’t do is let the energy and the fighting spirit die.”

Photo by Bridgette Aikens

Even the darkest hour soon will be over
My friend, it will be over

For me, 2012 was the best year and the worst year. I’m over the worst; still can’t get enough of the best.

It’s the year I discovered Metric, specifically their album Synthetica and the song “Clone,” which truly got me through my darkest hour. “Call me out / my regret / only makes me stronger yet.” Those were the words Emily Haines was singing. They were cogent and perfect, and I’ll never be able to thank her enough for writing them.

Last year, Metric released Pagans in Vegas, and on Friday they will return to The Pageant in St. Louis, a show I highly recommend. Before we get to my conversation with Emily, let’s have a listen to “The Shade” from the new album.

And now, please enjoy my interview with Emily Haines.

Emily Haines: Hi, Jason. Greetings from New York. Where are you?

Jason Gonulsen: St. Louis.

EH: Aww, yeah. We always have a great time in St. Louis. I don’t know … it’s like the secret, like that people haven’t gone there and nobody knows. It’s awesome.

JG: Well, I’m glad you feel that way. The first time I saw you was here at The Pageant.

EH: Oh shit. When was that?

JG: 2012.

EH: Okay, alright, on Synthetica.

JG: It’s weird — I didn’t start listening to you until that album. I heard the song “Clone,” and I couldn’t stop listening.

EH: Oh, cool! Huh. That’s great. That’s our favorite way, and it’s the best way … also, I think, the way most people find our music is exactly that, you know? Zero marketing, and not shoving anything down your throat. I love the idea that every day someone is discovering a song, and then retracing and going, “what the fuck did I just find!” (laughing)

JG: Yeah, and you really bring it on stage. It’s like I felt a lot of things during that show. Do you set out to do that, or do you just stay in the moment and see what happens?

EH: Well, I would say both those things are kind of the same thing, right? We came up as a live band out of New York and L.A. in 2002, and it was a pretty pivotal moment when — at least as I remember it — we were all force fed boy bands from the UK and elsewhere. And not dissimilar to the climate we’re in right now, where it’s like pop … like, pop jail that we’re in. And it was a real exciting time when The Strokes made their record, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs were doing their thing, and White Stripes were doing their thing.

And we had just come back from England, Jimmy and I, where we had been doing the whole circuit of meet A&R guys and doing demos and doing electronic stuff that was a bit ahead of its time, I think; like, you didn’t have a synth you would carry around like I would carry around one. But luckily, as fate would have it, you know, sharing a loft with Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and being around for that moment and then being like, “fuck this, we’re just going to be a live band, that’s really the only way forward.” And I think that’s one of the only reasons we’ve been able to survive, honestly. We then did residencies in L.A. at tiny little clubs, and really made the heart of who we are — the live show. So, what you saw in 2012 was a refined version than what we started out as. We used to be pretty fucking unhinged! (laughs)

JG: I wish I would have seen that, too! (laughing)

EH: I know! Well, it’s funny, this is the thing, and we’ve been talking about this a lot lately as it keeps coming up. You know, we came up in a time before cellphones. Obviously they were around, but you wouldn’t go to a show and stand there and film it, right?

JG: Hell no.

EH: And our shows were fucking insane. Like, if you bought a ticket to a show, that time you had in that room — you owned that time … the things we would say on stage, the conversations we would get into, the crowd surfing…a crazy, amazing time. And I remember when it ended. Because I had said something, and we got off stage before the encore, and already someone was texting me from Europe saying, “I can’t believe you fucking said that.” There was already a reaction, like I was still wearing the same clothes. And then I really had to grapple with this because you know, you see people now who are courting controversy all the time — like they spend their day trying to say something that’s going to piss people off and get them attention. For me, it has the completely opposite effect — it’s like … it’s not worth it to me! There’s no context. We used to have political discussions about race and feminism, and people would fucking bring it and be completely free, and the audience was free and we were free. It’s just not worth it to me now, to have to say something, and then like I have to issue a statement.

So, I am sorry that you missed that. And maybe … I don’t know … I can’t get into telling people how to go to a concert, like people have got to figure it out to not stand there and film it, but it’s not going to come from me. But it would be cool to do a show, right, where it was just agreed that people would just put it away. But somebody would always film it. It’s crazy to think that the way that we live as a culture, the way rock n roll became its existence, is now, with one technological change, is now fucking over forever, I think. Isn’t that crazy to think? I’m glad I was there for that last stab, you know? (laughs)

JG: Oh sure. Like, what if someone had a cellphone when Bob Dylan went electric?

EH: I know! Well, exactly. What would we have? The people who we honor now, would we be able to honor them? Like with everything Lou Reed did, what if we had this endless footage of him doing fucking whatever. I read this amazing thing yesterday that said we’ve demystified the artist that used to give us meaning and value and inspiration. We’ve demystified that and we’ve aestheticized daily life — like everybody’s taking a picture of their fucking lunch. But the things that used to give us meaning, we’ve basically ruined for ourselves because, you know, we honor celebrity, but no one can ever become Patti Smith at this point, can they? I don’t know.

JG: I don’t know either…

EH: This is dark … this is dark. But I like talking about it!

JG: Well, it means everything to me and obviously to you…

EH: Well, as a writer…

JG: God, you’re such a great writer. Like, you’re one of my favorite songwriters.

EH: Oh, thanks man. Aww, thanks!

JG: Well, I mean it, and it’s why I gravitate toward music. I like the words. And I read something where you said about “The Governess,” that you had to go on a solitary journey. Do you have to go on these journeys to get away from, I don’t know … people? (laughs)

EH: (laughing) Yeah, totally. Do you know the expression, “a thought grid” … have you ever heard that before?

JG: No.

EH: It’s Jimmy’s mom that said it first, years ago. And it’s like the idea of when you’re in a certain place, you kind of just fall into that way of thinking. You’re just absorbing … the human brain …. you know, human beings are incredible. We’re not just gadget holders, you know, we have all these capabilities. So, it’s … there’s nothing better to get over yourself than to go some place where nobody gives a fuck, not only about you but about all the culture references, you know?

I had a similar thing when I went to Buenos Aires, which that has also changed, obviously as things do, but in 2007, there was a real disconnect, it just felt like, and to a large extent it’s still like that there, they are still quite remote culturally. And they have all kinds of shit going on that is totally unrelated to what is going on here. I really like going out in nature, too. It’s kinda the only spiritual…it’s the only thing that gives me that spiritual epic feeling.

Photo by Jason Gonulsen

JG: What do you do when you go to somewhere like Argentina? Like, do you have a particular place you go?

EH: (laughs) Well, usually it’s about going some place I’ve never been, so with Argentina I literally looked up, “room, piano” … I was in a bad place at that time, but I did find an amazing apartment that had a piano that was furnished. And Nicaragua … was just like, wow … I mean, people still have a stigma about Nicaragua, and I was interested in going into the jungle-y kind of setting. I take a guitar, but I don’t think about it too much, like I don’t go with the intention. It’s great. Just talking about it makes me wish I was doing that right now. Right into the belly of the beast! (laughs)

JG: I hear you. My dad is from Turkey and …

EH: Oh! Have you been?

JG: Yeah, three different times.

EH: We’ve been there twice. Yeah…yeah. We played a festival there. My dad was a writer, and one of the last things he did was a piece for a music magazine called Five Spot On the Bosphorus, and he was covering a Jazz Festival, and when I went to play, he had passed away by then, and there was this amazing jazz beau guy who was waiting at the venue to meet me, and sat in the street drinking tea. Why aren’t you living there? I mean, shit’s getting weird.

JG: I might have to think about that.

EH: I know, I know. Depends on how things play out, right? (laughs)

JG: Well, I could talk to you about this all day, but there are so many things I want to ask you, so I’ll move on. You open your new album with “Lie Lie Lie” and there’s a line you sing, “everybody told me take whatever you can get.” What does that mean to you, and what are you thinking of when you sing that live?

EH: Well, I grew up romanticizing the role of the artist and culture as a sort of beacon of integrity. And then I think we’ve seen that that was story that either stopped being told or everyone forgot or was not as powerful as I was raised to think it was. The counter-culture movement that my parents were part of, and everything that those people stood for, you know, even the role of avant-garde jazz and changing the way people communicated and race and people’s ideas about music — maybe that was just a blip. I was raised to feel like that was the foundation and we were taking it forward.

But then when I actually entered the marketplace and saw the reality of what we were doing, it was just as though I was listening to a story that nobody even had any idea what I was talking about. Obviously, Metric, what we stand for and what we’re doing, we really do feel pretty lonely out there in terms of trying to be like, does anybody know what we’re referencing with the way we behave and the way we conduct ourselves and the stuff that we don’t do? But, increasingly, I feel though partly for women and partly in general, the spirit is, you know … sell it if you got it .. sell it. And that’s sort of what I guess I was grappling with in that song for sure.

JG: Well, you know, Emily, I have so much respect for what you’re doing, and I have not seen a show on this tour yet, so I’m looking forward to that. And you mentioned something about the shows, about how strength and positivity were going to be the focus. How is that going so far?

EH: (laughs) The strength and positivity? You know … talk to me … we’ll see. The thing I can’t do is let the energy and the fighting spirit die. It’s very reassuring and interesting to have a conversation like this with you to remember this is the nature of art and the language that it’s speaking — it’s like, things are unspoken — that is what I tried to convey as a robot in “Cascades,” lyrically as well. But I know it’s not going to be always obvious that there are people out there who 100% get the message and that we’re making a difference and we’re making a contribution and it’s positive. So, I can’t feel like a victim right now.

Metric w/ Joywave at The Pageant in St. Louis. Friday, March 4th. 8pm. $26-28.50. Purchase tickets here.

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