Metric: A More Attainable Form of Paradise
photo: Justin Broadbent
When most critics first heard “Doomscroller,” the 10-minute epic that opens Metric’s eighth LP, Formentera, they marveled at its sheer heft. The Toronto indie-rock band have never shied away from big artistic swings, but this one was grander than usual—a genuinely cinematic, multisection piece that builds from creeping modular synthesis to crushing full-band sing-along, channeling the collective pandemic anxiety of sifting through one depressing headline after another.
But if the song had led them there, Metric were prepared to burrow even deeper. “We were so committed to what makes sense to us creatively, commercial considerations be damned,” says singer/keyboardist Emily Haines. “If we’d felt like something else needed to happen after the euphoric band ending, I’m sure we would have added another fucking five minutes. But it felt like we got where we needed to go.”
The same applies to Metric on a human level. While Formentera nods to a beautiful island near Spain, which they used as a fantasy travel locale after spotting the name in a travel book, the album was created within a more attainable form of paradise—their own recording studio, set up in a converted church tucked away in an idyllic, remote area an hourplus north of Toronto. The space, established by multi-instrumentalist Jimmy Shaw and collaborator Liam O’Neil (The Stills) early on during the COVID-19 crisis, became a safe haven from the world’s broader insanity, kick-starting a prolific period that still hasn’t ended—even months after the album’s release.
“We were kind of figuring, ‘Let’s just wait for the world to figure its shit out,’” Shaw says of their impetus. “We grabbed a bunch of gear from our studio down in the city, where it’s been for 15 years or so, set up a little makeshift thing at Emily’s house and wrote an insane amount of music. We really enjoyed the feeling of being in the country and being away from things. We found this amazing converted church right down the road from us, and it felt like the perfect thing to do at the time. We moved our studio up there [from our longtime home base in Toronto]. By January 2021, we had everything moved in, pseudo-wired and functional.”
It was—Shaw says, noting the obvious—a “weird time.” “On the one hand, you feel extremely grateful to just be OK, and on the other hand, you don’t feel OK,” he says. “Part of it was the most freeing thing ever, but it was also totally terrifying.”
Another thing that the band felt was terrifying: trusting this all-in studio experiment to pay off, both artistically and practically, as the world spiraled into chaos. “I was so worried because I was just trusting my musical partner and spiritual advisor that it’s gonna sound amazing,” Haines says.
But it did: As the material continued to flood in, the band turned the five-bedroom residential studio into a home—soaking in their settings between chasing drum sounds. “There’s no one really around, and the people around are so cool,” Haines says. “It’s not a town. It’s very remote.” Shaw interjects: “The word I’ve probably used the most in 2022 is ‘hamlet.’”
To paraphrase Taking Heads, the studio turned out to be a good place to get some tinkering done. And Metric— co-founded by Haines and Shaw as a duo in 1998, before expanding into a quartet with bassist Joshua Winstead and drummer Joules Scott-Key—were eager to keep pushing. They couldn’t, Shaw jokes, just bang out a lazy “pandemic record,” even though that would have been a whole lot easier.
“The first couple songs we did, I was like, ‘Oh, man, this is gonna be so great. We can just make a not-very-good record,” he says with a laugh. “Then it was like, ‘Nah.’”
For years, the band has held a unique position within the world of indie music: popular enough to continuously make a dent in the Billboard charts—2012’s Synthetica notably hit No. 12 overall—hip enough to attract tastemaker reviews and versatile enough to open Smashing Pumpkins’ partial reunion tour in 2018. But Formentera expanded the band’s universe past gleaming New Wave hooks and synth-pop atmospheres, arriving at some unique combinations. The title track is somehow funky and muted, built for stoned stargazing and romantic swiveling—a combination of vibes that Shaw astutely describes as “space BeeGees.” Elsewhere, the slow-churning, light-show-worthy “Enemies of the Ocean” is lifted by the swooning strings of the Budapest Art Orchestra, recorded through a live conference session.
“Everything was shut down,” Haines says of that experience, “and we felt this vicarious connection to these people all wearing masks in some room in Budapest.” It was a surreal game of telephone, communicating with the musical director and conductor—and hoping their brief collaboration wouldn’t turn out to be a financial drain. (It wasn’t.)
The biggest revelation, though, was the sprawl of “Doomscroller,” which came together only through the band’s “nose to the grindstone” effort. The initial seeds came from a piece of modular synthesis music by Shaw and O’Neil.
“There are so many ways you can describe electronic music, and with much of it, I feel nothing—just soulless,” Haines admits. “But what those guys do, creating sounds from nothing, expresses and matches these things that I feel. [The New York Times’ Jon] Pareles described them as ‘trolls’ in his review of ‘Doomscroller’—it sounds like the feeling of being in a rabbit hole between QAnon and a Confederate flag. [Laughs.] [Shaw and O’Neil] had this piece of music that generated that [feeling], and I had one of my most instantaneous writing experiences because I just wrote it. The vocal on it is the first vocal I did. I set up the mic and just sang it.”
Then came the bigger creative puzzle, following the other musical segments as they tumbled out.
“We were like, ‘Man, how are we gonna get outta here?’” she says. “It sounds cohesive and conceptual [now], but it was actually the opposite. It was one foot in front of the other emotionally: ‘I feel this, and now I feel this.’ It was progressive: ‘We’re stuck here now, and we have to keep going until we make it out the other side,’ which is that euphoric ending where you get the band unvarnished and just playing together.”
A lot of critics have praised the boldness of sequencing “Doomscroller” as the first track. But as Shaw notes, they didn’t really have another logical option. “What else do you do with that? It wasn’t until right at the very end that we decided to put it first,” he says. “There was no choice. You’re basically gonna ruin any other song by putting it in the middle of the record. It would be like the Grand Canyon.”
Metric wound up with what Shaw describes as a “ton of other music”—an open-floodgates productivity likely sparked by the desire to connect, to feel something, during this time of widespread human detachment. On that level, the band’s live shows, Shaw says, delivered a “huge amount of catharsis.”
“That was maybe the clearest thing that’s happened in the last two and a half years [since the band’s gigs before the pandemic],” he adds, mapping out the U.S. leg from Asheville, N.C. to New York City. “People were showing up, and the shows were selling out. People needed the energy and the positive reinforcement. We needed to see their faces. Every part of the equation was actually clear.”
What isn’t quite clear to Metric is where they are now in the record-tour cycle: They have tons of leftover ideas and aren’t quite finished promoting Formentera, but they’re already back to experimenting in their beloved studio, trying to find a foundation for whatever comes next.
“One of the reasons we may sound slightly confused right now is that it’s been confusing since [getting off the road],” Shaw says. “Now we’re not really sure we’re in an album cycle. I know we technically are; we’re going to Europe, and there will be all sorts of stuff to do next summer. But also we’re working on new music, and it doesn’t feel like it did a year ago or six months ago. I think back to February or March 2022, and it feels like a completely different time. I’ve never experienced this in my life where, in the course of one year, it can feel like three different historical time periods. Catharsis by the boatload happened on that tour. Now the question is: ‘Where is the exchange of energy happening?’
“We’re trying to figure out where one phrase ended and when the next one is gonna begin—and what that sounds like and what it all means,” he continues. “Usually, for us, that happens five months after the last show of an entire album cycle, after becoming human. For whatever reason, this time we finished the North American tour, and within 10 days, we were back up at the studio and trying to figure that out, which is a little brain-exploding.”
Haines concurs, noting that she wants to “stay in the feeling” of Formentera, keep the antenna up for the “new material that’s being constantly generated” and, when possible, “find time to just do nothing.” The last task is the toughest: “I struggle with that because that’s when I have existential angst,” she says. “Any time I’m trying to be a civilian, I just feel kind of aimless. When you’re in the work, there’s something so concrete that we’re very close to achieving that’s very meaningful to us, and the only way to get there is to stay in the work. It’s occurred to me that, if I really had my shit together, then I actually wouldn’t be a musician at all because I would have sorted out how to function. Until then, that’s the job of the song, so that’s what I’m gonna keep doing.
“In our case, it’s this abstract thing we’re pursuing,” she adds. “It’s as though, when the sonic template presents itself and the lyrical through line presents itself, I’m also gonna understand more about myself and the world and my life and what’s happening in a bigger sense. We’ve now established that [the palette] is broad. Then you add in the idea that the songs have to be useful, and that becomes its own thing too. Within our own repertoire, what have we already done and what’s missing and what do people actually need from us? It’s cool, though. I’m into it. It’s a meditative part of the process right now.”
Given their intense schedule with Formentera, Haines and Shaw haven’t been available lately to tour with Broken Social Scene, the ever-shifting Canadian indie-rock collective with whom they’ve collaborated with on and off since the early 2000s.
“Those friendships are just the deepest,” Haines says of the group. “We actually just saw all those guys at that Andy Kim [Christmas benefit show in Toronto]. The timing right now is that we’re kind of in different orbits. They’ve been doing their [20th anniversary] You Forgot It in People tour this year, and it’s never really matched up with where we’re at. So we’re just letting that play out, and it’s a very cool moment for them. It’s less about those original members—us and Feist and the whole crew. It’s more about all the new people that are inhabiting those songs, Meryl Streep included, hilariously.” [Streep famously jumped onstage during a New York City gig to sing “Anthems for a Seventeen Year Old Girl,” a haunting You Forgot It in People track fronted by Haines.]
“They tour with different people. It’s such an unusual and amazing thing to have those songs live on and be performed by all those other people,” she continues. “I’m sure there will be another record some day. The last time I wrote with them was ‘Protest Song’ on [2017’s] Hug of Thunder. That was a great moment. I had a solo record out. I was cruising with them, went to Europe and played a bunch of shows. I would not be surprised if there was another record, but I think, while the friendships are all good, ‘different orbits’ is the best way to put it.”
“You have to remember that the first word [of the name] is ‘broken,’” Shaw adds with a laugh. “If you ask any member, whether it’s the most important member or the one who’s only ever played tambourine, no one’s gonna have the same answer about [anything].”
Ultimately, though, Metric are fine not having all the answers. After 25 years, it would be easy—and probably profitable— to settle into some kind of formula, or at least ease on the brakes a bit. But they just can’t.
“Now, I’m back to being obsessed, even more than before, with going forward and trying to define the arc of what’s supposed to happen in music,” Haines says. “You’re sort of tolerated as you continue to make records, as opposed to the idea that we’ve yet to do our best work, that we’re heading for it, and we’re getting closer to this thing that only we’ll know when we get there. It just adds to the sense of functionality and wanting to do right by people.
“I have a lot of trouble with the nostalgia stuff,” she adds. “If you’re gonna keep making records, it’s like, ‘Oh, shit, we have been around for 20 years.’ What are you gonna do—pretend that’s not true? But do you reach a point in your life where all you do is look back? I find that so terrifying. The idea that your best days are behind you is not an option.”