Recuperating from a night of olives, inebriation and half a bottle of cough syrup, Emily Haines and James Shaw of Metric spoke exclusively to FAULT ahead of the forthcoming fifth studio album Synthetica and a host of UK shows throughout the summer. More from Metric in FAULT Issue 11, out this Summer.

Interview by Jacob Perlmutter

Image © Jacob Perlmutter


At the launch last night you described Synthetica as a particularly fun record to work on, what made it so?

Shaw: We’re just feeling relaxed, getting along better than we have in the past…

Haines: The music business is hard – it’s just like a dull headache that you constantly have to deal with, and that side of things really interferes with the creative process. Over the years that’s stirred a lot of wrangles but by the time we started Synthetica everything was set, we know who we’re working with, we’re out of the deals we don’t want to be in, our studio is up and running smoothly, full of great gear: it just felt like finally we had the foundations for the music to play out, before it was just constantly dealing with other problems.

How does this particular period feel, with the album completed but yet to be released? Incredibly tense or relieved that it’s now out your hands?

Shaw: From touring our previous record, Fantasies [2009], we moved so quickly and relentlessly into the follow-up. It was not until after the mastering of Synthetica that we actually took a break, which is nice because the work is done and we feel confident in the album. The debut single ‘Youth Without Youth’ came out yesterday and we’re getting really excited about it all.

Lou Reed features on one of the standout tracks, ‘The Wanderlust’. What is it like having his contribution to something you’ve created?

Haines: Just great. One of those moments you would never have anticipated being the most natural thing in the world, it totally made sense. I wrote to him and he casually responded “yeah sure”.

Shaw: That email correspondence was hilarious.

Does it feel like his identity has been stamped onto it?

Haines: Truthfully we actually had to rein it in a little bit. It was about getting that balance right. In the studio we kinda got carried away, he insisted the two of us face each other in the vocal booth – it was like Lou and I in a face off – whilst he threw in all kinds of improvised stuff over the entire song. I think sometime we should revisit those sessions and produce an alternate version of the track.

The artwork for the new record is faintly reminiscent of Mike Oldfield’s iconic Tubular Bells [1973]. Did you have much involvement in the selection of the artwork, and how closely does it reflect the overall mood of the record?

Shaw: We have one hundred per cent involvement in pretty much every single aspect of the entire thing, and artwork is a huge part of it. For Synthetica we worked with Justin Broadbent, a frequent collaborator, he just seemed like the obvious choice.

Haines: It took a while to get it right, some serious hours around the clock.

Shaw: It’s not just about being representative of the sound of the record, but rather building a larger vision behind the whole project. The artwork translates into other elements such as staging, having a whole visual concept gives the album cohesion, congealing into one solid idea.


In the past you’ve covered Elliot Smith’s ‘Between the Bars’, Buffalo Springfield’s ‘Expecting To Fly’ and more recently Tom Waits’ ‘Strange Weather’. Have any of those artists profoundly impacted your own writing? 

Haines: Our collective working habits are divided quite conveniently. James is constantly looking for incredible vintage pieces of equipment – microphones, synthesizers, beautiful things. I have an equivalent obsession with scouring out those incredibly written songs. It’s an astounding craft, when someone does it right, you just can’t believe that three minutes went by in which you’ve experienced so much. I’m always looking for songs like that, an architectural accomplishments that just stands on its own. I recently came across this writer named Benji Hughes, it was four o’clock in the morning at the back of a New York bar, he was about to perform to a tiny handful of people and I was just stunned. That’ll be our next cover.

Elliot Smith’s songs always seem to whizz by…

Haines: Exactly, it’s just some sort of time vortex, I don’t know what happens, but it’s like time has stopped and you’re manipulating the elements in slow motion…

Do you feel there is a danger with synthesizer settings, whereby a particular type of tone can become quite dated, or do these things always come back around?  

Shaw: I think everything comes back around. During the recording of Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? [2003], producer Mike Andrews queried whether our sound would be considered stylish, but I didn’t really care. Everything comes around in cycles of decades, if you persevere with your own thing it’ll eventually collide. A synthesizer’s custom preset will feel disingenuous, whereas an old instrument with dialogue settings arranged exactly as you want will sound unique.

Haines: We’re sort of in the retro futuristic world with Synthetica, ironically referential to prior conceptions of future sounds. It’ll be interesting to see how it sounds in five years’ time.

How are you enjoying cups of tea?

Haines: I’m drinking so much tea! It’s really helping me.

Emily – were you indeed born in India? 

Haines: My parents were living there, mom ran a school and dad was writing the lyrics for what would become Escalator Over The Hill [1971], this crazy seminal jazz record. Carla Bley, the composer, recruited Jack Bruce from Cream and others from more avant-garde backgrounds and created this inventive opera piece.

Has the avant-garde informed what you currently do?

Haines: Well I think it drove me into the arms of the three-minute pop song. I’ve been writing my whole life, and they encouraged me as a kid, but I’ve seen the fringes of society and I have no desire to inhabit them. Not out of any rejection, but I’ve always aspired to have Metric on the radio.


Would you say Metric, along with Stars, Do Make Say Think, Feist and other side-projects or acts affiliated with Broken Social Scene, have a wide shared fan-base?

Haines: Not really, and it never really has been. Broken Social Scene audiences are a demographic of peers, whereas with Metric it has always been a younger crowd, really high energy.

At the time of writing ‘Anthem for a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl’, off the acclaimed Broken Social Scene album You Forgot It In People [2002], did you anticipate how special it was and how well it would be received?

Haines: It’s funny, because those were such early days – we hadn’t even put out Metric’s debut album. Kevin Drew has been a life-long friend and we’ve always worked on stuff, yet of all the things that have happened, that’s one moment where I remember the details pretty well, at least in my part of the process.

We were jamming in their basement, Brendan Canning was sitting there strumming and this riff became implanted in my head. I must have walked around humming “used to be one…” like a metronome, ambled around this shitty neighbourhood until the lyrics surfaced and then going into the rehearsal. I don’t even know if we recorded it before we performed it live at the Horseshoe, someone has footage of it somewhere… It’s lovely that it seems to mean so much to people. It was such a special moment for all of us as friends, time goes by, things change, but that song stays the same…

You have a track on the new record entitled ‘Breathing Under Water’. Where did the idea come from? 

Shaw: I think it’s one of those dream-like states, when you’re dreaming but you don’t know you’re dreaming and all of a sudden you’re flying in your dream and you can barely believe it, it’s sort of the same thing as flying.

Haines: And being in an unknown world of some kind, an underworld where you wouldn’t expect to survive but you are, or are you?

Would you rather be an aerial or an aquatic creature if you had to choose?

Haines: If I had the choice I’d be aquatic

Shaw: I’d rather be a fish than a crustacean, although shells are pretty cool

What would be your ultimate song to fight to?

Haines: I suppose it would be ‘Monster Hospital’, that one with the Mexican street gang imagery…

Shaw: No, that was for ‘Patriarch On A Vespa’. And it was a Puerto Rican street gang.

Haines: Okay, got that wrong. Failed at my own quiz.