Metric: On Working With Lou Reed (Interview)

Canadian synth-pop band Metric will be in Auckland on December 14th for their first-ever New Zealand show at The Powerstation. The band, featuring vocalist Emily Haines and guitarist James Shaw, will be wrapping up a year-long tour in support of their 2012 album, Synthetica. The 13th Floor spoke to James Shaw just before he was to take the stage at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. We began by talking about Lou Reed. The recently-departed rock legend had made a cameo appearance on the album’s track, The Wanderlust.

Listen to the interview here:

Or read a transcription of the interview with Metric’s James Shaw here:

MD: Your show coming up in New Zealand next month – is this the first time you will have come to New Zealand?

JS: It is, actually. We’ve been to Australia a few times but we’ve never been to New Zealand.

MD: Excellent – well we’re looking forward to seeing you.

JS: It’s actually the last show of our entire tour – like, of the whole last year and a half, the whole album cycle – will be December 14 in Auckland. So it’ll be a lot of fun.

MD: Excellent. Well we get a lot of that down here because we’re kind of the end of the road for a lot of tours.

JS: Yeah, I imagine that actually.

MD: There’s no place else to go once you get down here! [laughs] Is there anything you’ve got planned, that you guys usually do on the last show of a tour, that we can look forward to?

JS: No, we don’t really have like a tradition or anything, but I’m sure that we’ll celebrate, that’s for sure.

MD: Well I was hoping to talk to you a little bit about Lou Reed as a matter of fact, because I know he made a guest appearance on your latest album. And I read Emily’s very nice write-up about him, and his influence on her, but I was curious to get some insight from you on what it was like working with him when he recorded with you last year.

20131028-loureed-x600-1383002312JS: It was a very special experience. He was an amazing man. When he walked into the studio there were a lot of people around, and he kindly asked everyone to leave except for Emily and me and Aaron. I made myself known, who I was and what I was going to be doing on the session, that I was producing the album, blah blah blah, and you know, as soon as he got into it he was so receptive to what we were doing, and what his role was going to be in it. He had a way with words and poetry and there was a moment where we were sitting in the studio and he was mulling over the lyrics and deriving some sort of meaning in his mind about what the song means and where to get the emotion from. And he just sorta started riffing poetically on the general energy of the song, and it was one of those really awesome moments, you know; you don’t really meet poets like that very often, it was really awesome. And him just singing, it was a trip for me, because it’s a voice that you’ve been raised on, you’ve heard a million times, and there’s only one guy in the world that has it. And as soon as he started singing it was like ‘Oh my god, there’s that guy, there’s that voice’. And then having to go on talkback and say ‘Alright, that was good, let’s try it again’ was weird–

MD: I can imagine. [laughs]

JS: –something I never thought I would do.

MD: You’re right, he seems– after he survived the ‘70s with his hard living, you got the feeling that he was just going to be around forever. He was just one of those kinds of people who you could count on to be there forever. It was sad to see him go–

JS: Yeah, absolutely.

MD: –but it must have been a pretty special time working with him?

JS: Yeah, absolutely. I think we’re all very grateful that our paths crossed.

MD: Now I know it’s been about year since Synthetica was released, and you’ve been on the road quite a bit, writing songs and doing whatever. I’m wondering, with the year that you’ve had since it’s come out, does your perspective change at all on the songs or the album in general, after taking it out on the road and meeting up with people and seeing how they react to it?

JS: Um, yeah, I think it just changes because of time. It’s not necessarily because of what’s happened to it externally, or because of its successes or its failures or anything like that. When something’s new to you, when you create something for the first time, it has a freshness to it. And all of a sudden, when you’re so accustomed to it, it’s something that you’ve been living and breathing for well over a year, it changes. It becomes something that fulfils a slightly different role, and [becomes]something that you’re used to, and something that blends into the fabric of your life, as opposed to something that you’ve living and breathing, as a new entity. You get used to it being a part of your existence and you kind of live with it. Having played together for so long, all the new songs end up joining the ranks of everything else.

MD: And have they changed, morphed, evolved at all with the live presentation? Do you guys play around with them much after you get them out on the road?

JS: Yeah, for sure, it just happens naturally. If you could always write the record and then tour it for a year and then record it, that would really be great. But…

MD: Wouldn’t that be nice if, you could kinda go back and re-do all of your stuff that you realised… fix the little things…

JS: Yeah, once you had 200 shows to figure out how to really play the guitar part.

MD: But then we’d never get any new music, probably!

JS: That’s true.

MD: And your musical relationship with Emily, you’ve been working together since 1997 or so. How has that evolved as well? How do the two of you work together now; is it different than you did when you started out?

JS: I think in essence it’s not different, in essence I think it’s the same. But we’re very much used to how we do things now, and the process has become much more fluid and it’s become simple in a lot of senses. We’re used to the idea of debating and fighting over something we both feel passionate about, whereas I think years ago it almost used to scare us both a little bit, but now we’re sort of accustomed to the intensity of the musical relationship.

MD: How do you feel the position of the band is in? I get the feeling that you’re kind of one foot in the indie side and one foot in the more mainstream music and I know you own your own label now, so that kind of by definition makes you an indie band. [laughs] But I get the feeling also there’s a certain amount of career momentum that’s going on with the band, so how do you look at where you are in the state of things?

JS: Well I mean it’s a really good question; it’s hard to say. It’s definitely something we ponder a lot, but also it’s very very hard to see from the inside. It’s really hard to know where you’re at. I have a friend who worked with Chris Martin at one point, and he said that no matter what, Chris Martin always thought that the band could be much much much bigger than it was. And yet they’re like one of the biggest bands in the world. So I know for us, there’s never going to be a moment where we don’t think that we could be doing better. Even when we’re doing better than we ever could’ve thought we could. I think that’s never gonna stop, and that just kind of is what it is. In essence, that’s the seed of ambition, you know. For us, you made a good point, we do sort of have one foot on either side of the field, and I think that was always the point, to have one foot on either side. And we definitely operate like an independent band, and I wouldn’t change that for the world. We do whatever we want, whenever we want, and we release whatever we what, and the only time we ever have input is if we ask for it. There’s a lot of freedom in that, it really creates a life that you can design according to your own free will. But on the other side you give up some stuff by having that. Metric will never be a band that will have a five million dollar push that will make sure that everyone in suburban homes round the home will know who we are. And that’s something we have to come to terms with, in knowing that we can’t put both feet in the mainstream, because it just won’t really work, unless we’re totally willing to give up all the freedom that we’ve built, which I don’t think we are. So Metric is, has been and will probably always be a band that’s riding on the fence.

MD: And musically, how does that manifest itself; when you went to record Synthetica, did you keep in mind, was it in the back of your head, how you were being perceived and who the audience is? Or do you just make the music and see what happens?

JS: To be honest with you, I think everything that I was just describing was a way for us to actually maintain the music that we always wanted to make. That system was devised to support the music that we wanted to make. The music wasn’t the afterthought; it was the career that was the afterthought. When we heard [the music] in our heads, it had one foot on either side. So it was just being honest and making the music we wanted to make, and then trying to figure out how the hell we were gonna be that band that was going to have one foot on either side.

MD: So speaking of music, since it’s been a year since the most recent album has come out, is there new music in the pipeline? Are you writing? Are you in the process of thinking about the next album, are you performing any new songs?

JS: Um, there’s definitely some movement. There hasn’t been a tonne, but we’ve been working on some stuff this year, and sort of mulling over what’s gonna be next. I think that the world of music is changing so fast and so drastically that it’s hard to know exactly what to do. Not necessarily just musically but in terms of its release and in terms of the industry and in terms of the media, and how you’re going to get it out to people. I’d like to free up my brain to not feel confined to the old school way of having to release music in LPs and, you know, five month set up time and touring album cycles… all of those things just seem more and more archaic to me. I think before I go into the studio and really start just making music, I’d like to have some sort of general sense of what excites me about that new brave world and then sort of go in knowing roughly where we might end up.

MD: Yeah, it’s an interesting situation that most musicians and artists and bands and artists find themselves in these days. There really is no set model to go with – you can choose to go with the old way or you can try and find your way among what’s happening now–

JS: Absolutely, I mean it really is the Wild West, it’s great.

MD: But also it’s gotta be kinda scary, because you might be going down the wrong path – I don’t know, I would be worried if I was you I guess! [laughs]

JS: Absolutely, there’s no method anymore, so it’s really hard to know what you’re supposed to do. In a sense, it forces you to just use your imagination.

MD: Okay, thank you very much, so we might just wrap up. If you can just give folks here in New Zealand an idea of what to expect from a Metric show; you haven’t played here, do you guys kind of feed off of audience energy?

JS: Oh, absolutely. The people that come to the show, they need to know to bring the energy, ‘cause we’re gonna bring it; it’s a high energy affair and it’ll be a lot of fun.