It’s surreal to have your dreams realized, especially when they involve bands you’ve followed since the beginning. You rooted for them to make it big so they could play in your town, lost your mind the first time you heard their single on the radio, and bought their albums with your babysitting money. This is precisely what happened when I picked up the phone to chat with Jimmy Shaw, guitarist and songwriter of Metric, leading up to their DC and NYC shows this weekend (details on that-at the bottom of the article-ed). After ten years of writing songs in a rapidly changing world, Metric still manage to turn out tracks that are painfully personal, often scandalous and always chic. We find something very different, however, in their latest record Synthetica, which captures the artificial atmosphere surrounding big questions about the disconcerting state of the world. Thankfully, Jimmy has a lot to say on the matter.
How was the international leg of the tour?
We started out the album cycle touring strange parts of the world, like Australia and Singapore. Turkey as well. We went to those places before we did any North American stuff. It’s been kind of trippy. You’re in a country at the other end around the world and be playing a song you wrote in your bedroom and there are thousands of people dancing to it. You remember where it came from, and why it existed. It’s a very surreal experience.
You wrote it in your bedroom, and I dance to it in my bedroom. I dance to “Stadium Love” in the morning when I need energy.
That’s kinda the point, right? We always talked about what the point of this band was. The way you just described it– that’s it. The band is kind of like a kickstarter; a motivator. The point of everything we’ve tried to do is to get people to let go and say, “You know what? Fuck it, I do want to do that. I gotta find some energy and get out of the house. I have to get off the couch. I gotta stop being depressed.” It’s a call to action.
Well, it’s working. And usually the action is dance. So I was really surprised to see that the DC show was a seated one. Was that an intentional move, to create a different kind of experience?
I think you’ll find that you’re going to be dancing most of the time anyways, just in and around the seats as opposed to a big concrete floor. We’ve played many many many soft theaters in our time, and people don’t sit down. I wouldn’t be worried about that. The weird thing is, it’s never going to be, or really rarely going to be, a venue that’s completely in line with what you envisioned. The venue has existed way before you were there and way before you wrote the song. The first go around is the shitty bar venues with crappy stages that have five bands a night, seven nights a week. And you start working your way up to theaters, and the clubs get a little bit better but it’s still not great. You slowly move up and up, but there’s no such thing as a 2500 seat venue that’s not like a theater. When you’re at this level it’s all theaters, and the next level is all arenas, which also has a level of weirdness to it. The whole thing is kind of weird. You’re sort of subject to what’s available. You just need to roll in to those venues and play the music you wrote and hope that people get the idea right.
So what would Metric’s dream venue be, as designed by you?
Oh my god, that’s such a good question and I have no idea. I think it would look like a beautiful old ornate weird amphitheater on a ranch in Northern California with a lake. With a bunch of hippies rolling around.
I would totally be there. Emily’s vocals aside, I feel like the lyrics tell a very feminine story, and that the band has been the maturing of this girl; that Metric could be a girl you’d meet at a party. What would that girl be like?
She’d be a lot like Emily. I have run into that girl at parties, and her name is Emily. And she’s awesome to party with. Someone said to me when we finished Fantasies, that all of Emily’s commentary and her opinions and her take on the world, and her gripes about it and issues with it that she’s sang for years and years and years– when we made the record Fantasies – it was balanced with just enough sugar to help the medicine go down. And the person telling me this said that they found it a bit rough. If this was a girl you met at a party telling me her opinions ten minutes in, I’d be really irritated and not want to have that conversation anymore, because I’m at a fucking party so leave me alone. But when she’s doing it, by the time she got to that record, she knew how to mix it in with just enough sweetness, that you wanted to hear the issues and her point. And you were okay with understanding where she was coming from. And all of a sudden you’re thinking, “Wow, this girl is fucking rad. I want to hang out with her for five hours.”
It’s such a striking balance of lyrics and attitude. The delivery is so important here.
Totally. We had a really crazy vibe last night while we had a night off in Wisconson, in this lot that was slanted. Like, roll out of your bunk slanted. And we were parked there for the whole day with nothing to do, just a straight up day off. But we all sat in the bus last night, had a number of drinks, and listened to all of our old records. Seriously, I listened to Live It Out and Old World Underground for the first time in seven years. I hadn’t listened to those in forever. Forever! Listening to all these songs, and it was such a trip to hear the whole thing and where we’ve been coming from for ten years. I just think about now most of the time. I don’t think about the scale of the whole thing. And people listen to this album and go back to that album, probably have favorites from all over, and it’s really interesting for me to understand the scope of our music for ten years. And it’s funny that we bring that up about Emily, because she certainly was angular back then. Some of her lyrics are fucking hilarious. I think, “I can’t believe she said that.”
There are a lot of songs spread out on different albums that I’d listen to in similar moments. If I’m down, I’ll listen to “Stadium Love” or “Live It Out.” They’ve very exhilarating tracks, and I love that you can make the listener feel the same way through different points in the story of Metric. Somehow you still achieve that same feeling.
That’s been the point of making music with Emily. She’ll come in with these incredibly sad songs, and I’ll speed them up by something like 40 bpm and throw a beat behind it, and try and make it full of energy. Depression is real. Sadness is a totally key element in life and you can’t avoid it. At the same time, it’s really easy to be sad. It’s really difficult to be happy, and that’s a daily thing that you need to decide. And taking those lyrics and taking her intentions and taking her frustration and infusing it with an energy that makes you want to make your life positive– I feel that’s a really important thing to have done.
I can definitely hear that in Fantasies and Live it Out, but I hear something completely different on Synthetica. I know the London riots broke out during recording and derailed the process, and I’m sure it was a big lyrical influence, especially in “Youth Without Youth.”
Yeah, for sure. I think a lot of stuff influenced that record. That record was more us looking at the word and trying to express what we see and think, maybe more than in any other record. The others have been “this is what I’m doing,” and they were very personal. There’s very little that’s personal about Synthetica. It’s really about looking from a real state of confusion. We really don’t have any answers on that record at all, but there’s a lot of fucking questions. We’re definitely not shying away from asking some of those questions and asking, why are things the way they are right now? Is it better? Is it okay? Is it a good thing that things are this way? Is it confusing? Reassuring? I don’t know. We live in a totally bizarre exponential time right now where things are moving insanely fast. We had a conversation about that last night. Everyone talks about five, ten, twenty, even thirty years from now. But I’ve never heard someone say more than thirty years in a long time. We can’t even fucking remotely imagine what the world is going to be like in thirty years, let alone a hundred. Everything we know in history happened in the last hundred years. Everything! It’s fucking crazy, and we’re moving at a rate that’s literally thousands of times faster than a hundred years ago. What the fuck is going to happen in the next hundred years?
I’ve heard a lot from friends about how they can’t really connect to Synthetica, but I think it might be discomfort as a result of all the questions.
I’m finding that right now, people are really avoiding asking any questions, which I find very strange. At the moment, I find myself concerned. I’m not shaking my head at it; I’m not saying that we’re necessarily going in the wrong direction, there are just a lot of questions. The common theme right now in everything else is “Don’t think about it at all, just party on and don’t worry, everything is going to be just fine.” It so could easily not be fine. That’s just the wheel. Music seems weird to me right now. I find that the whole thing is incredibly shallow.
We can’t seem to have any ballads without a danceable radio edit that ruins it.
Yeah, exactly. Most radio songs right now– let me guess, it’s about a breakup. Nothing against those songs, really. But with everything we’re talking about, you’re either in the club, or you’re breaking up. And that’s about it. Are there any other themes going on? There seem to be just three. And trust, me I go to clubs and I fucking party.
So what are your “THAT’S MY JAM” songs in the club?
I don’t know. I don’t really know what it is, I just know what it is when I like it.
You’re not losing your mind over the newest Kanye album?
Kanye is fucking amazing. Kanye is the best and I love him. He’s an amazing caricature of himself and he has no problem with it. There’s something about his honesty that I really respect. He’s not trying to be anyone other than who he really is, and he doesn’t give a fuck what anyone else thinks.
I was going to ask about people you’d collaborate with, but I think we’ve got that one covered.
Definitely, and I feel like the whole wave of electronic music that’s happening right now is really amazing. I’m continuously getting more and more into that style of production. When I listen to pop records, I don’t really know who these people are for the most part, it seems to be the same ten of them on the same record or some shit. There’s something about modern production that’s really fascinating. I’m really curious as to what would happen if we took a lot of modern style production that has one lyric about bootys in the club over top of a beat for 25 minutes, but you actually said something over top of it– what would that be like? I mean really beautiful, impactful lyrics and melody over top a very modern style dance production. I really wonder what that would sound like?
Alright, last question: Did you sacrifice any important parts of your creative process to achieve the artificial atmosphere of Synthetica? Did you sacrifice anything you normally include in an album?
No. I feel like things weigh in on the other side. I’ve sacrificed sleep and comfort, I’ve sacrificed money and I’ve sacrificed levels of success because I never wanted to sacrifice a single note of the music. That’s not a complaint. It is what it is. Especially with Synthetica, I’ve made pretty much exactly the record that I wanted to make without second guessing it at any step along the way. And it didn’t matter to me if there were any singles on the record, or if it was more catchy or less catchy or more hooky or less poppy or more rock. I didn’t really give a fuck. I just went into the studio and followed my inspiration. When I look back at it now, I’m really proud of it and I think it’s some of the best work I’ve ever done. It’s definitely making a decision, and that decision is definitely going to keep the band or sway the band into a specific place in the world. And what people think about us, the level of success that we have, the kind of rooms that we play, the kind of radio play that we get– there are bigger things to look at, and it’s weighty. We decided to take some stuff on. Not everyone in the world feels like doing that right now.