Photo by Alysse Gafkjen
When I call Emily Haines, she’s feeling positive in spite of the “crazy week” leading up to the release of Metric’s sixth studio album Pagans In Vegas. “It’s a glorious, beautiful day here in Toronto,” she says. It is, and when she says it, there’s a tone in her voice so serene and cheerful that it’s easy to envision her staring in wonder at sun-drenched surroundings, birds singing, and trees swaying in the soft breeze. I have no idea, of course, if her mood today is out of place: Haines and I aren’t old pals or anything. But for a singer who drops a Dylan Thomas line in the gloomy, claustrophobic first track (“Lie Lie Lie”) on her newest record—“rage against the dying of the light”—I think I could be forgiven for not expecting her tone to be as upbeat and laidback as it is.
Then again, as she explains later in the conversation, Haines has a lot to smile about. After 15-plus years of making music with Metric—a steady, uphill climb—she says she feels no urge to take creative energies outside her main gig. The oft-mentioned follow-up to Pagans, due sometime in 2016, is proof of that: while Metric’s M.O. has evolved into glitchy, driving, stadium synth-rock, the as-yet-untitled record was recorded live off the floor during stops on the band’s stadium tour with Imagine Dragons, all over the United States. Nashville, a church in New Orleans, and Studio D in Los Angeles (“where Fleetwood Mac made Tusk,” Haines notes) were among the stops. The tour as the band’s first experience being really in the mainstream, Haines says, and “ironically, we found ourselves being this art-rock band again, which is who we are anyway: weirdoes." The recording stops proved to be essential for good health on the road. “It saved me,” Haines says. “The contrast of trying to engage 10,000 people a night, and then being able to go into this quiet world of subtle piano lines, it was a dream."
But back to the present. Or, more accurately, the past: Pagans in Vegas recalls all many long-running Metric influences—Depeche Mode and New Order chief among them—and shuffles that nostalgia in with crystal clear modern sounds. Haines explains that although the album title was an afterthought, it sums up the album appropriately. “Picture bigfoot at a slot machine, and that’s kinda how we feel,” she laughs. It’s a blend of old world primitiveness and the glitz of modern technology. Nostalgia is poured on heavily, even in the band’s recent marketing. In advance of the album, they released The Shade EP on cassette, and have a hotline (1-844-66-METRIC) set up, that Haines advises me to call at 4:20. It allows access to “in the year 2005”-style history lessons (mainly ones about Metric albums) and song snippets. “Why, hello there!” a disembodied voice chirps. “Are you lost? Distorted and confused? Then you’re in the right place.”
Even though the nostalgia and visits to the past are fun, it’s also a reminder that Metric has been around for a while, and that can take its toll. Just before we say goodbye, I ask Haines if she has anything else to add—a question that rarely garners a response. She tempers her earlier cheeriness with an answer that is more along the lines of what you’d expect from a road-tested veteran like herself. And while she touches on some darkness, there’s definitely no indication that she plans on killing the lights anytime soon.
"It's not easy to keep pouring your heart out,” Haines says. “I feel lucky to be a musician. You won't hear any complaints from me about that life. I chose it. But I know, for everyone, it's a struggle to stay positive, the more informed you are about what's happening, the more defeated and worthless you feel—speaking for myself—just powerless, so often, to impact any real change on the world we're in. So I hope I can inspire people and motivate myself in turn."
Noisey: Vegas is a place that's full of "pagans," and it seems obvious that the record deals with those kind of themes: either to do with “pagans” or the kind of themes you'd see sprout up talking about a place like Las Vegas.
Emily Haines: Yeah, and it's funny, too, obviously we're using everything loosely—not evoking any particular religion or anything. But to me with the word, and in my research of the rituals and associations with it, some people have the reading of like, you know, sinners, right? That pagans are debaucherous and sinful in Vegas, where everyone is debaucherous and sinful. But for me, my association is even more with my general research of the term and history, the idea that as human beings we have these basic rituals that we've all partaken in from the beginning of culture. It just looks different: you gamble with stones or something instead of roulette tables. But I associate pagans with being really spiritual and connected to the Earth, and actually kind of soulful. So it's interesting to see the various readings. I'm sure there'll be more.
The other interesting thing about the term 'pagan' is that it's used to refer to almost anything outside of Christianity, I think, as well.
That's true, right, yeah. And it's interesting 'cause I didn't want to delve too into it and get too on the nose about it, but I liked that as a meaning. It's kinda like the name Metric: there's not a huge idea behind it, but I like that it's not the Imperial system. (Laughs)
What to you stands out about this record compared to past Metric records?
I think it's the boldness of the sonics. Jimmy and I took this time off in 2014 and both had written quite a bit of music. He had gone deep into the studio and his relationship with these instruments—I've never seen anybody like this. The instrument gives him the song. He just has a real connection, a soulmate connection with these instruments like the [Yamaha] CS-80, which is a real unusual synth, and all this modular synthesis he's gotten into, he goes in to the studio and that's how he creates. For me it's totally the opposite. I get as far away from myself and anyone who knows me as possible, and take like, the shittier the guitar the better, throw it in a backpack and go. So what stands out about this record is that it's not guitars and synths and layers of everything, it's not everything. It's very much one thing. And this follow-up album that's based on the writing I did is very much the opposite. So that's coming in 2016 as sort of the companion album to this. It really set us free, actually, to go as far as the songs take us on Pagans, knowing the other album is live off the floor, whole band playing together, no synthesizers, no click tracks, piano-driven, orchestral, cinematic stuff.
It's more like a follow-up to my solo record [2006's Knives Don't Have Your Back]. It was kind of an amazing moment to arrive at as a band 15 years in or whatever it is, that in order to evolve, we don't have to go outside of Metric. I was kind of struggling with that, like I don't want to make a solo record. I want to play with the band I dedicated my life to building. And I think Jimmy felt the same. He's a lead guitarist known for pretty intense guitar playing, and he's the one who wanted to make a record with no guitars. It's similar for me. I'm happy to have developed the chops to rock the faces off of stadium-goers, but that's not the only thing I am. And the music I really wanted to make, I got to make, but with Metric. So it's a really exciting time.
Bands have to evolve or else they get stuck.
Yeah, and it's terrifying to think that space you want to occupy—I think everyone feels this, it's not about being a musician or an artist or whatever—that's the challenge every day: being true to the person that you are and evolving. I'd like to think that, for the people who are into what we're doing, we're giving them that. We've all kind of grown up together and ideally we'll grow old together.
Did going away to Nicaragua and Spain affect the creative process for Pagans at all, or just the upcoming album.
Well, actually yeah, because a couple songs from those sessions ended up on Pagans. "Lie Lie Lie", that was one of the most unusual writing experiences I've ever had. I was living in New York; I just had to get out. Again, it's away from myself more than anything else. So I found this place where I took a helicopter—it was a very Dennis Hopper kind of moment—and went to this place in the jungle, a tree house, eco kind of hideout thing. And I didn't have plans to write, I just had plans to get my shit together and feel good about life. But I brought my little guitar, because why not? I was sitting outside with the monkeys and the first thing I found myself writing—first of all, there's a tuning that came out of that trip that's one of my favourite tunings I've ever written in—and the first thing I wrote was "Lie Lie Lie" and as soon as I had that, it felt like it was this piece of equipment or weaponry, or a tool in my arsenal that I needed. So that song, which I think is a big part of the spirit of Pagans, came from those travels. It's lyrically pretty forceful. I kinda feel like people who know me and know what we stand for, it goes without saying where my views fall or not as a feminist, and my humanity and everything that makes me ideally an authentic human. But I just like to realize after years of the band getting more successful, and moving into radio and bigger arenas, maybe that was not so clear anymore, and maybe I'm not quite so outspoken anymore. And I just wanted to have a song to show anybody the door, if there was any ambiguity about who they think I am, I kinda felt like I needed a song to scare off the people who couldn't handle it.
You've said the aim of the record was to "capture the romance of another time without falling into nostalgia." How do you manage to balance a tight rope like that?
I embrace nostalgia and I've taken it pretty far with, you know, the artwork and the way we're releasing stuff, like the cassette, The Shade EP. I love cassettes. My brother has a record store. Everybody loves the vinyl now. But he almost closed the store because no one was buying vinyl. He's had the store for like, 20 years. Luckily he didn't get around to shutting down. And he says kids are way more drawn to cassettes than vinyl. Vinyl's like your parents and hipsters and old people. But cassettes, on the other hand, are great if you wanna get a new band, get a four-track and record your stuff, and circulate your music among your friends without having to circulate it on the internet. So I'm a big advocate of cassettes coming back and really enjoyed doing the artwork for that. And then our deluxe package, which I always enjoy making, is a time capsule with like, a really great little video friends of ours made, his daughter digging around in this gravely no-man's land which is Las Vegas in 2040, and she's digging in a hazmat suit. She's like five. She digs around and then finds this box, a wooden keepsake box of relics from another time. So I'm embracing nostalgia, because I think you have to own the time that you live in, and I'm all for adapting and I think we're very progressive and open-minded and trying to be part of positive change and embracing what's happening in the music world, but you also have to remember like, I do remember rotary phones, and phone booths, and I liked them. I did like Underworld and Depeche Mode and New Order and Joy Division, and all these references we've made quite clearly on the record. There's that thing of everyone being so afraid of being old or whatever it is that they're so insecure. My 20s were an absolutely extraordinary time. Why wouldn't I own that? My high school years—I'm still friends with those people, and that music that meant a lot to us is still ours. That's kind of the spirit of it, which all happened by accident, but I'm now seeing clearer as, like... I want to remember phone booths!
Matt Williams is a writer living in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.