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Pagans with synths

Metric takes a digital turn

From left: Joules Scott-Key, Emily Haines, Jimmy Shaw and Joshua Winstead of Metric

For over a decade, Canadian rock outfit Metric has herded a cult-like following through a five-record discography, each album full of soaring riffs, crashing beats and fist-waving anthems. Tunes like “Help I’m Alive” and “Combat Baby” are quintessential Metric, but the band’s latest album, Pagans in Vegas, presents a more digitized turn. 

Emily Haines’ insistent soprano—familiar from the days when I was a brooding 17-year-old girl myself, listening to Broken Social Scene in my bedroom—is all there on Pagans, but is more smoothed out by production than ever. Taking heavy cues from Depeche Mode and their ’80s pop comrades, Pagans in
is a deep dive into the band’s synth side, and fans have choice feelings.

Tulsa will have the opportunity to witness this new turn live on Nov. 17 when the band makes a tour stop at Cain’s. I chatted with guitarist Jimmy Shaw to hear why this fiercely independent rock band is opting for a more electronic turn.

The Tulsa Voice: Pagans in Vegas feels like a departure from where you’ve been in the past (it’s synthier than ever). Can you talk a bit about that evolution?

Jimmy Shaw: An interesting thing happened. We decided to take 2014 off completely, which really didn’t work because by April of 2014, Emily [Haines] and I had realized that we’d written two whole records. And I didn’t really know what I was writing for. I was just writing because it’s winter in Toronto and you’re either like, snow-shoeing or writing. And she was just writing because she was traveling and she had her little guitar and she was just doing what she always does, you know? And she was in New York and writing on piano. And that’s when we would normally go, OK now we have the basis of material to start sketching out a Metric record. And we would take the piano songs and we would add live guitar and bass. And we would take the synthy stuff and we would add live sounds and guitar and bass. And that’s how a lot of Metric records got made. 

And this time around, the synthy stuff sounded a lot more fleshed out. It didn’t want to change into something else. It felt like it was wholly living in its little world, and it was working just fine. It just wanted to be that. It didn’t want to go through some huge transformation. And same thing with Emily’s predominantly piano stuff. It felt like it needed to stay in the moody cinematic and not get bumped up by like 40 BPM, and have a rocking guitar and a dance beat put behind it. 

So we allowed the two things to reside on either side of the origins of where Metric music comes from, what our musical background actually is. 

Pagans is one of the records, and there’s another record that we recorded while we were on the road with Imagine Dragons that is really the other side. It’s got the piano stuff, it’s kind of moody. 

TTV: I heard it’s going to be kind of a complement. 

JS: They definitely complement each other in the way that salt and pepper complement each other. They’re really opposite. I mean if people are going, “Oh my god, you really did something way off base,” I don’t know what’s going to happen next because it’s so far. But whatever man—it’s music. People listen to ’90s pop and then they listen to Diana Krall late at night. 

TTV: It’s kind of ridiculous to think about getting worked up over bands doing new things.

JS: Yeah, I don’t know, it’s like: I went into my studio, I smoked the same weed that I always smoke, and I made music. Yeah, it was on a different instrument, what am I supposed to do? 

TTV: What was it like taking lead vocals on “Other Side?” Is that something you’d wanted to do for a while? We don’t get much of that in other records.

JS: It’s cool. I mean, I don’t really like singing, because I feel like there’s a huge amount of responsibility that comes with it. You can’t drink as much on tour. You can’t like, get lost after the show and smoke a pack of cigarettes and end up in a gutter and sing the next day. Not that I do that every day, but I like to know that the option is there. 

But it wasn’t really a plan, but when we were finishing it, the record needed one more song, and it was there, and I don’t know. Everyone really supported me to do it. Emily was like, we totally need it. The record needs it. It’s part of this whole experience. Just shut up and do it. 

TTV: “The Shade” is a big standout on the new album. Any favorite tracks or tunes you’re really stoked about?

JS: I really like “Cascades” because I feel like it’s sort of the epitome of what that record is to me. It’s really the leaving behind of all those other instruments that we’ve used for so long. And not like we’re going to stay there forever, but I just think it’s so cool. It sounds so different to me and really referential to all the music I loved—all the early German and Noibot work. I don’t know, I just really enjoyed making that. 

TTV: A lot of Metric’s members have key ties to other bands—bands that have been hugely influential in the world of indie music. Does that ever influence your songwriting?

 JS: To be honest with you, if it’s influenced the songwriting, it was influenced by the fact that I was trying so staunchly to not let it influence it. I mean, Broken Social Scene was a completely different thing that I, and probably anybody else, ended up in by accident. And it was never like the music that I would’ve designed. It was just part of my personality mixed with 16 other peoples’ personalities, and what they would do with magic. You know?

But I saw a lot of other people try to incorporate that into their four-person planned band, and it just didn’t work. So for me, I made a lot of conscious efforts to just ensure that influence didn’t cross a line. You know, that is what it is, but Metric is what it is. 

TTV: Talk about some of the standout shows of your career. To you, what makes a show great? 

JS: Every single person’s willingness to participate. 

I could name shows like Radio City where Lou Reed sang “Pale Blue Eyes,” and that was probably the thing I’ll remember, like, one second before I die.  

There are these shows that happen every once in a while, and there was one show on the European tour. I don’t know why it was in Munich but it was in Munich, and it was a small show, kinda shitty club, but every single person in the room was willing to just like go there. And when that happens, the energy just spirals upward and goes out of control, and the roof blows off the joint. 

It’s kind of the point of rock ’n’ roll to do that. It’s like, free yourself, and free everybody else in the room of whatever bullshit that’s going on in the rest of their life, and for 45 minutes or 90 minutes, nothing else exists other than that sound at this moment. And when that happens and really connects, and it’s the responsibility of every single person in the room to make it happen. But when it happens, it’s like church, man. It’s like rock ’n’ roll church.

For more from Megan, read her article on The War on Drugs.

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