Metric's Emily Haines has probably soundtracked your life
Plenty of music groups move from the indie world to the musical mainstream, but few bands both shuck and move fluidly between those designations as readily as the band Metric. With six albums under their belt, music features in films as big as Twilight: Eclipse and as niche as Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, and stadium-size shows in their home country of Canada, Metric’s built a reputation off of signature themes and sounds — lead vocalist Emily Haines’s distinct gently rasping voice, critical examinations of gender roles, and forays into electronica inspirations, to name a few.
HelloGiggles had the chance to speak to Haines as the band rehearsed for their latest tour, in support of sixth album Pagans in Vegas. Covering everything from “warped womanhood” to teenage idols to the logistics of touring, Haines reflected on how the band and she have grown in their almost two decades together:
HelloGiggles (HG): The band is coming off a big year — you toured with Imagine Dragons and dropped your sixth album Pagans in Vegas, and now you’re off on your next tour. How many total tours has Metric done by now?
Emily Haines (EH): It’d be interesting to calculate… We’re on our sixth album, and there were several years when we were starting out that we were playing [Los Angeles’s] Silverlake Lounge every week. We were really getting the foundation of the band together, and were on the road forever.
Once [Metric’s debut album] Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? came out in 2003… those two years, we were playing 250 shows a year or something. We really gave it, but now, it’s unusual how things played out with this record. I’m really happy about it — it’s kind of nice to do the headlining tour after the record’s come out, and everyone’s heard it and we road-tested everything on the Dragons run.
HG: The timing of tours has always intrigued me. What differences do you feel when you tour right when an album is breaking, versus when you have time to settle with an album?
EH: It all depends; it’s all a science and an art at the same time. There are a lot of things that are just “the way it’s done,” but we’ve always had the attitude of disobeying that and rolling with whatever comes our way and whatever feels right at the moment. It was a completely spur-of-the-moment decision to take that [Imagine Dragons] tour; we hadn’t even finished writing the record and just thought it was a chance to get things going. Like, “Sure, sounds like fun!” There’s been a lot of that in the way that we’ve made decisions. Some people swear by certain ways of doing things, and we’re really based on… We can do what we want, so that’s what we do! The kids are running the shop.
HG: I saw the band play at Coachella three years ago, and just by following your career, you’ve played just about every kind of place.
It’s rare for a band to continue to put out great music and to keep such consistent themes — what kinds of things do you find that you’re always coming back to in your writing, and what kinds of things, especially for Pagans in Vegas, did you come up with just for that album?
EH: It’s a bit like, looking back at my whole life at this point. I guess I’ll know when I’m dying, not to be morbid. You don’t really know what it is that’s been fascinating or… There’s obviously something that I feel like I’m here to do, and I have made a lot sacrifices and dedicated my entire fucking life to doing it. To be honest, I don’t totally know what that is; it’s never been driven by commercial success or even the perfect “niche” indie acceptance. Both of those things have been not the point.
I find myself asking the same question, actually! Lyrically, everything I do, the work I’m most proud of is the writing — that’s what the whole thing is built upon for me. So when I look at it, I think there are consistent themes of trying to maintain some essence of who I am and by extension helping other people hold onto that while still bravely going out into the world. Like, what are the good things about yourself to keep, and what are the things that are meant to be constantly evolving and improving and changing? We all have that essence of ourselves that we can remember from being a kid or whatever moment it might be. Maybe some people don’t feel like they’ve ever felt that yet. I’m not even really sure where I stand on that… But I’m fascinated by the ideas of authenticity and integrity, but not having it mean that you then withdraw from the world.
My father [Paul Haines] was a writer and I feel like that’s what he did. I like putting myself in front of people who are asking, “What the fuck is that?” Hence, Imagine Dragons. It’s really, really entertaining for me. It’s a strange pursuit, but how lucky am I to find three amazing musicians to embark on this journey with me?
HG: The moment that you realize you’re onto something is when other people don’t tell you that you’re crazy, and instead join you.
EH: True, I guess that’s why! I’m lucky that these guys… I mean, Jimmy [Metric band member James Shaw], we’ve been together since ’97. There’s a 9 in there. It’s a total point of pride to me.
I’m at a rehearsal right now — we’re in this huge airplane hanger, sort of a U2-style environment. It’s a massive production, and there are all these lighting rigs and people running around. It’s pretty sweet, to think back to where it all started.
HG: This is something that I’ve always wondered about: How do you program the lights for the fifty different venues that you play during a tour? So it’s all done beforehand at a place, and then you bring that stuff over?
EH: Ooh, this is getting super tech-dork; I can do that. One of the benefits of the tour that we’re embarking on, it includes the Hollywood Palladium in LA and other big theaters, the Hammerstein in New York, and then arenas in Canada. What you can do is, you construct and bring your whole rig with you. We travel with a huge truck, two tour buses and trailers, and about ten people. We’re very much a little village, and it’s kind of part of the sense of, I don’t know, value and worth that I feel from the work that I do is that we employ a lot of people.
It’s not the same as a DJ showing up with a laptop and walking out with a million dollar check. It’s very much a lot of effort, and the people at each venue, there’s huge camaraderie and that old idea of the circus in the best way. We have this woman, Megan, who’s done our lights for us this year. Her designs are amazing and yeah, we bring everything!
HG: I imagine that as you get deeper and deeper into touring and album cycles, things get more elaborate with each round. That must be fun, to expand on what you can do every time.
EH: Yeah, more things are possible. It’s interesting because people oftentimes ask me is, do you prefer the smaller venues or the big rooms or the festivals? To me, I do love the whole production; I love being part of a team and with all of us working together. We’ve got [events specialist and creative] Jon Morris from the Windmill Factory here with us. Working with a team of people and creating this massive show to be put on for thousands of people is really fun, but at the same time, I have this total longing for the most simple show. Like, how about me at a piano? No lights, no equipment; just me walking in the door. I kind of like the whole spectrum, but the big production is super fun.
HG: You do, or you do have, that more intimate structure with your previous project, Emily Haines and the Soft Skeleton. So that was one way you were doing it.
EH: Someone messaged me on Twitter saying that [Soft Skeleton album] Knives Don’t Have Your Back has been out for ten years, coming up, and I should do a tour with just myself and a piano, which I actually think is kind of an awesome idea. I’m thinking about that!
HG: Going back to what you were saying a little bit earlier… The first Metric song I ever heard was “Patriarch on a Vespa.” A lot of the themes that come up in that song, about female presentation and warped womanhood, have continued on even through Pagans.
How have these ideas evolved as cultural and global conversations about “Feminism!” and “The role of women and music!” and the way that women in music talk about themselves, and the way that people outside of music talk about women in music… These conversations have evolved very interestingly from an outsider perspective, and I was wondering how it’s evolved from the inside.
EH: First of all, “warped womanhood” is an amazing phrase. But in that song and in other songs where I’m addressing it, I’m not writing about being a woman in music; I’m writing about being a woman and playing music. That’s a big distinction. I haven’t really focused on the part of it that’s the work… It’s more larger realities and challenging those larger realities and preconceptions of behavior and presentation, and really just working it out. Ideally, as is the case in general, just trying to articulate, hopefully somewhat poetically, something universal that other people are going to connect to. I know a lot of guys that like that song too!
I think the biological wristwatches and that idea of like, “Fuck, we have to contend with all of these other realities”… The nature of the female body, and how much you identify with your gender, that’s a question. Some people identify really strongly, male or female, with their gender. That’s who they are. I don’t feel like that — I feel like a person, and one of the things that I’m dealing with is that I’m a woman. But, first things first, and I’m glad that that song did something for you.
HG: Part of it, at least for me, is that I started listening to Metric when I was a teenager, and I think there are actually studies that show that the music you listen to then shapes how you feel for the rest of your life. So I’m glad that I stumbled into your music because it does offer a lot of wiggle room for how to feel, and how to feel about being a woman; not ambivalence, but acknowledging that it comes kind of loaded.
EH: And navigating it, yeah. It’s cool too, this idea that we aren’t just this thing that you hear when you’re a teenager and then you look back and are embarrassed by it. The idea is that you’re not embarrassed because you liked it when you’re a teenager, and as you’ve grown up, the music has grown up with you. That’s one of the things that I feel so strongly, and it’s really emotional for us. We really do meet people all the time who’ve spent their life with us! People have come to seven, ten Metric shows.
There were records for when they were in high school and grappling with certain things, and then they graduate from school, they get married, they have their first child, and we’re there with them in this very strange parallel world. Usually, you have to be in a more mainstream medium to keep that kind of presence. The hit TV show for twenty seasons or whatever, you know? But it’s very cool to me that when they find us, they usually stay with us. It keeps me going, because it’s tiring!
HG: On that note, what music did you keep from your teenage years that’s driven you? It doesn’t have to be a direct Metric influence.
EH: I had basically the best thing ever happen, which is that Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground were major influences, and then in my adulthood, I had my work bring me directly to the man himself. That was highly unusual and a really magical thing to have happened before we lost him, that we connected.
[Lou] was familiar with my dad’s work as a writer with Carla Bley, who was an important jazz artist in New York, and she’s still an amazing, amazing artist. But she made an album called Escalator Over the Hill in the ‘70s, and my dad wrote the lyrics. Lou was familiar with that world and Albert Ayler and all these other musicians in New York at that time. Through those connections, I was introduced to Lou, and I ended up being able to introduce my brother to Lou right before he died. That was pretty amazing, and his influence still stays with me because he’s kind of the fucking best writer. It’s just there, and nobody would ever hear it in my stuff; it’s not like I’m trying to… I can’t do Lou, and god help anybody who tries.
The singularity and, in fact, whatever peoples’ opinions are about him and his past, it was amazing to see where he arrived at as an older man and as a father figure to me. He was a Tai Chi master and his relationship with Laurie Anderson was so rich and amazing. So, that guy. That one.