Arts·Q with Tom Power

Metric look back on some of their biggest hits

Twenty years ago, Metric burst onto the scene with an undeniably infectious album called Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? Emily Haines and Jimmy Shaw join Q’s Tom Power to talk about some of their early music, plus their new album.

The Canadian indie rock stalwarts have just released their ninth studio album, Formentera II

Composite head shots of Jimmy Shaw, left, and Emily Haines of Metric.
Composite of Jimmy Shaw, left, and Emily Haines of the band Metric. (Vivian Rashotte/CBC)

Twenty years ago, Metric burst onto the scene with an undeniably infectious album called Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? Since then, the beloved indie rock band from Toronto has released eight more studio records, including their latest, Formentera II.

Singer Emily Haines and guitarist Jimmy Shaw sat down with Q's Tom Power to reflect on the early days of the band, finding their sound, and the song that changed everything for them.

We've included some highlights below, edited for length and clarity. For the full discussion, listen to the Q with Tom Power podcast, on your favourite podcast player.

Combat Baby (Old World Underground)

Tom: So that's Metric and Combat Baby from their first album, Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? … That record does well, that must be at least exciting or gratifying?

Jimmy: It really was. When we did the Mod Club shows on Old World in like 2003 or something, maybe 2004, we put up one and it sold, and we put up another and it sold — I mean, we ended up doing four shows and that was the first moment that was like, OK, this is going to go. It doesn't mean you feel OK. It doesn't mean you have more than five bucks. It doesn't mean you have somewhere to sleep. It doesn't mean anything other than the room's full and there's a reason to keep going. I think that for us, that was the first time there was a real reason to keep going. Like, this is working.

Tom: There's a reason to keep going. That's what it is. It's not that you got something out of it, but you've been given a new reason. 

Emily: That's a good distinction.

Help I'm Alive (Fantasies)

Tom: Let me play another clip. From 2009, that's Metric and Help I'm Alive. Very big song for your band, Jimmy. How did that song change things for you guys, or did it? 

Jimmy: It was a weird one because we didn't really know how to continue after Live It Out, like there were problems. We had taken some time apart and gotten past the five years on the road, and started addressing all of our own individual stuff, and finding out where to live, and, you know, Emily made a solo record. There was all this stuff happening and we were trying to put it back together so we could really keep going. And, yeah, that song kind of changed everything.

It wasn't intentional at all. Emily had sent me the song and we were working on it and it was slower. Then I came into the studio one day and I was like, 'I think I got it. It's got to be way faster.' I had the whole idea of how to do it and we did it. It's like all these problems converged to make us release this song before we were supposed to, and choose it as a single when we didn't think it was a single. It was like 25 things went wrong and resulted in the most right thing possible. We got lucky. 

Emily: It was not considered a valuable asset on the record. It was barely on the record.

Tom: Interesting. Because it became the biggest song. 

Jimmy: We had to put something out well before the record, it was like seven months before the record because we'd agreed to do this tour. So we put it out and then it just took off…. It just took on a whole life. And for us, thank God. Because, you know, we had gone independent at that point. We were putting out Fantasies on our own, for the first time. We had rolled the dice big time and if the dice had come up wrong, we wouldn't have made it. So that song kind of made us make it. 

The Wanderlust (Synthetica)

Tom: Synthetica is my favourite Metric record. And that, for people who don't know who are listening to this, is The Wanderlust with Lou Reed on backing vocals…..

To me, there's no one who better represents the conflict between the culture and the counterculture like Lou Reed does…. So, Emily, I know you knew him, and I know you were close, and I know he's on this record. Did you learn something from him about how to navigate all that? 

Emily: I was looked at and heard in a way that, for whatever reason, he didn't see the superficial trappings….

Like, I'm this chick playing the synthesizer, jumping around or whatever, everything's sparkly — you know, whatever you want to see, you can see. But for some reason with Lou, he appreciated the writing and he seemed to understand that I really was unvarnished, and my main purpose is to just try to find something authentic. So I don't know that there's anything to learn from him as a sort of role model other than I felt, really, like it gave me proof that I was on the right track — the way I've approached my life and my purpose as a writer….

Lou also made records that were really challenging for people. I sometimes just get a little queasy with grasping this is how history works, that everyone looks back and they just can't put a big enough crown on people who, at the time, couldn't earn a living … then suddenly everyone's so cool and loves this artist that was getting completely buried. 

Tom: I think life is more meaningful when they're real people, when the people who make the work that we admire are real people, and they're humans, and they have to buy groceries. I find that much more exciting. 

Emily: Yeah, getting an email from Lou is very weird. I didn't want him to have an email address. It really messed me up.

Who Would You Be For Me (Formentera II)

Tom: That's Metric with Who Would You Be For Me from their latest album, Formentera II. I love that song, by the way. I really do love it. Can you tell me a little bit about it?

Emily: I wrote that song in 2019. I was — surprising no one — adrift…. I couldn't decide on a title for a long time and then [I grasped] that Who Would You Be For Me is actually the point of the whole thing.

Here I am trying to be like, what does New York need from me? What does L.A. need from me? What does this relationship need from me? What can I do for everybody? Constantly in this mode of conforming and adapting, and just trying to fit in the world, and [then] just flipping it, finally, late in the day and at great expense. Finally sort of getting the memo internally that you could also approach your life where you consider what would work for you. Who would you be for me? I could be the girl for you, you know.

I'm sure your listeners are like, 'Dude, that's really basic,' but I'm late. I'm late to the memo. It's kind of a transformative thing. It can apply to your work and your relationships and pretty much everything, if you can just flip it and consider it. And to all of you who've lived your whole life that way, congrats. 

WATCH | Metric's interview with Tom Power:

The full interview with Metric is available on our podcast, Q with Tom Power. Emily Haines and Jimmy Shaw also share the band's origin story, what it was like performing with Lou Reed, and how pushing through failure can propel you to greatness. Listen and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.


Interview with Metric produced by Matt Murphy.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Vivian Rashotte is a digital producer, writer and photographer for Q with Tom Power. She's also a visual artist. You can reach her at vivian.rashotte@cbc.ca.

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