After almost 25 years as a band, Metric feels free to ‘do whatever we want’

Metric, the Toronto-based quartet of Jimmy Shaw, left, Joules Scott-Key, Emily Haines and Joshua Winstead, released their eighth album, ‘Formentera,’ on July 8.
Metric, the Toronto-based quartet of Jimmy Shaw, left, Joules Scott-Key, Emily Haines and Joshua Winstead, released their eighth album, ‘Formentera,’ on July 8.

Emily Haines and Jimmy Shaw find it a little perplexing that people keep remarking on the fact that Metric is fast approaching its 25th anniversary as a band with some awe when, frankly, this is exactly what they’d planned all along.

The Toronto-based quartet — anchored by the American-import rhythm section of bassist Joshua Winstead and drummer Joules Scott-Key, long adopted as honorary Canadian citizens by Metric’s sizable homegrown fan base — released its formidable eighth album, “Formentera,” on July 8, nearly 20 years after its debut, “Old World Underground, Where Are You Now?” signalled the arrival of one of the smartest and most accomplished new voices in indie rock back in September 2003. Yet while such longevity is a rarity in the fickle 21st-century flicker of popular tastes, longevity is what everyone involved had in mind from the beginning.

“It wasn’t something I ever intended on doing for eight albums, you know? I started it to do it for good, for life. And so did Em,” said Shaw from the newish studio Metric built in a rural church on the Dufferin Highlands to record “Formentera” when COVID-19 threw everyone’s best plans into disarray in 2020. “And I think Josh and Joules want to play music for life, too. They don’t want to do something else.

“We just did the first round of shows and the rehearsals were cool — we’d only played three-and-a-half shows in three years because one of them got rained out after three songs — and it took two shows before the four of us actually, viscerally, and on, like, a cellular level remembered how happy doing this makes us,” Shaw said.

“I didn’t even know what I was missing for the last few years. I didn’t understand what part of me was vacant. And all of a sudden, we play a couple of shows and it was, like, ‘Oh, right. That’s me. There we go.’ I think we’re in it for good, man.”

As Haines observed, if ever there were a moment to walk away from it all, the onset of global pandemic paralysis was that moment.

Instead, however, she quietly trusted that Shaw — with whom she’s been making music since they first met at the Horseshoe Tavern in 1997 — hadn’t “lost his mind” by tearing down Metric’s longtime Giant Studio in downtown Toronto and decamping to the hinterlands with friend and frequent collaborator Liam O’Neil (formerly of the Stills and a sometime sidekick to Kings of Leon) to build a new one in hopes of a fresh start amid the COVID-19 chaos.

“I think we felt from the moment we met that this was lifelong,” said Haines from her own woodland perch a six-minute walk away from Metric’s new clubhouse. “We just didn’t know what form it was going to take. And then the pandemic made it really like ‘OK, if ever there was a jumpoff point this is it. We can’t even get Josh and Joules across the border. Maybe this is it.’ And instead, it turned into the biggest double down possibly of all time beyond other commitments we’ve made.

“Investing in this building and building a new studio was such a bet, right, in the context of ‘What’s the world even gonna look like when we all come back? But in the meantime, let’s double down for the next decade.’ It was so intense.”

Metric was in a more fortunate position than many of its contemporaries when COVID hit since it had just wrapped up the touring cycle for its previous record, 2018’s “Art of Doubt,” and — as Shaw put it — after seven albums “there were enough royalties trickling in to keep everyone alive.” Plans for the next album hadn’t developed beyond “one pretty bad song” when the planet at large shut down, so a new physical environment and a new headspace turned out to be exactly what the band needed to make “Formentera.”

You can hear it, too. “Formentera” — a gleaming blast of barbed electro-rock named for a dreamy Spanish island the band stumbled on in a travel magazine while recording — brims with the confidence and total command of craft that can only be earned by a band that’s put in as much time and effort to become the best possible version of itself as Metric has.

After 25 years at the top of its game, Metric felt completely free to do whatever the hell it wanted.

“Oh, I totally feel that way, man. We were literally saying to each other ‘F— it, who cares? We can do whatever we want,’” said Shaw.

“Just by the nature of making album No. 8, not only can we do whatever we want, we’re supposed to do whatever we want. That’s actually the most expected thing of us at this point, to just go as far as the imagination can go and just try everything. And that was also coupled with this other ingredient of ‘Well, the world’s in complete chaos and who knows if this thing is ever gonna get heard? Who knows what’s going to happen?’

“I mean, we couldn’t get Josh and Joules up here for the first year. And that’s primarily when everything got written. We were like, ‘We don’t even know if we’re gonna be a band. We don’t know if we’re ever going to tour this.’ I didn’t even know if I was going back to the city. I didn’t know if my whole life existed anymore,” Shaw said.

“As soon as we let any preconceived notion of who we are, what is Metric supposed to do, what is a Metric record supposed to sound like — anything like that — go, we instantly just loved what we were doing. And so we became aware of that and started making a mental note to just walk into the studio with the clearest of histories. Clear the cache before we walk in and just do whatever happens.”

Haines concurred that “it was kind of cool to hit that point and think ‘Why not let go?’”

Why not, for instance, open the record with a multi-phased, 10-and-a-half minute dystopian techno-pop banger like the mighty Haines tour de force “Doomscroller” and release it as a single, to boot? Metric has self-released its own albums since 2009’s “Fantasies” without any meddlesome industry “wisdom” to second guess them and still remained an arena-filling mainstream force in Canada. It really has earned the right to do whatever the hell it wants.

“If you’re powerless over everything and you have the revelation of the minimal scope of your control in your life, you have options about what to do with that revelation and that information,” opined Haines. “You could be, like, ‘Well, in that case, nothing is worth doing’ because it’s all a simulation or whatever you feel when you hit those kind of philosophical moments. But you can take that same feeling and have it be immensely freeing, that it’s actually not up to you, anyway, so why don’t you go at it? What difference does it make? So I’m glad that feeling comes across.”

At the end of the day, despite the freewheeling nature of its creation and a greater prominence of sharp-edged electronics in the mix, “Formentera” still ends up sounding remarkably “Metric.” But that’s what happens when you’ve been a band for a quarter of a century: you can’t help but develop a sound.

“That’s been kind of the joke,” said Haines. “We’ll think we’re doing something that’s so out there — like, we’ll have some reference in our mind that’s such an extreme departure — and then you put the four of us together and I start singing, and suddenly it sounds like us no matter what we do. So that’s another side effect as time goes on: we can really be free because there is such a signature thing with the four of us, I think, that whatever we do just starts to sound like us.”

Metric has a long history of big, boffo outdoor shows in its hometown, so one suspects this Friday’s performance at the Budweiser Stage — with lofty support from Spoon and Interpol — will mark the release of a sizable amount of pent-up energy.

Shaw, who with Haines represents part of the extended Broken Social Scene diaspora, is coy about any special plans for the occasion.

“First of all, if I did have some really crazy sh– planned and, like, Gordon Lightfoot was gonna come out and do a duet with Emily, I wouldn’t tell you. He’s gonna sing ‘Gold Guns Girls.’ It’ll be wild. You’re gonna love it,” he laughed.

“But it’s more like the special thing is that this is actually happening. It’s a really f—ing cool lineup and the shows we’re doing now we’ve never done before. And a lot of that is because this record is different for us, for whatever reason. It feels different. And when we’re playing it, it just kind of takes on a new meaning.”

Ben Rayner is a Toronto-based journalist and a frequent contributor to the Star’s Culture section. Follow him on Twitter: @ihatebenrayner


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