In the summer of 2006, I sat surrounded by my peers on a blazingly hot afternoon in Atlanta, Ga., listening to famed consumer advocate Clark Howard deliver my high school’s commencement address. I don’t recall the specifics of his speech, but the general idea was clear: never commit to a plan so fully that you let good opportunities pass you by. Six years later, Howard’s words echo in my ear as Canadian indie rock band Metric’s guitarist Jimmy Shaw describes his approach to music.
“Coming to a conclusion of what you’re going to do before you do it,” Shaw says, “that can really stunt you. Because then, as soon as you start, you’re like ‘but that’s not it.’ I don’t try to do things, I just do them.”
Do them he did. In a letter to fans, family and friends, Metric frontwoman Emily Haines described Synthetica, the band’s fifth studio LP, out today on Metric Music International, as the culmination of the band’s more than 10 years together, coming forth in the sound they had always hoped to realize. The description is about as perfect as can be. The album is gentle and assaulting, comforting and confrontational. As she says, the album is “about insomnia, fucking up, fashion, all the devices and gadgets attached to our brains, getting wasted, watching people die in other countries, watching people die in your own country, dancing your ass off, questioning the cops, poetic justice, standing up for yourself, sex [and] the apocalypse.” The album is Metric.
Shaw is calling from Los Angeles on a sunny afternoon, just returned from a string of quick shows introducing Synthetica to the world, starting with an album-rehearsal-turned-fan-concert and culminating in a scenic performance at The Gorge during the Sasquatch Music Festival. Now he has a few days’ breather before setting out full-force in support of Synthetica.
“We want to have energy,” Shaw says. “We don’t want to put on a show that makes people stand there and and just stare.” One of the long-established mantras of the band, he continues, is that, on hearing the music, the first thing you should want to do is dance. Then if you want to feel something, you just have to listen. The depth is there if you want it, but it’s never jamming itself down your throat, leaving the music inviting and fun.
A technique emerged for the band as Synthetica came together. A board posted in the studio played home to ideas—everything from a single word or three-chord progression to a sentence or entire verse—scrapped from other songs but put aside for future use. “Whole songs were written on this board,” Shaw explains, “and that contributed to the idea that we felt like we were writing an entire record as opposed to writing song after song.”
Again, they didn’t set out to make the album this way; the process came about on its own. But intentional or not, the board of ideas worked. Synthetica feels like a cohesive whole, each song flowing effortlessly into the next with precision and poise. According to Shaw, this is also a reflection of the band’s confidence in itself, both technically and musically, to be free in the studio—the confidence to know that if they want to do something, to love it and stand by it. To do things, from beginning to end, on their own musical terms. “Not necessarily against the industry,” he clarifies, “but against your own demons.”
The album’s title track drives with the same energy as Fantasies’ “Gold Guns Girls” and “Satellite Mind,” while lead single “Youth Without Youth” echoes the heavy drums and repeating motifs of “Help I’m Alive.” But rather than serving as standalone items—entries in a collection of songs—Synthetica comes together, each song building on the next. “It’s more optimistic,” Shaw describes, “and yet it’s also darker. It’s more intimate and it’s more honest, and yet it’s more brave.”
Near the end of the record, Haines is joined during “The Wanderlust” in a call and response by the legendary Lou Reed. His vocals echo hers in a way so fitting that you forget that, aside from this track, Haines’ voice sounds throughout Synthetica in solo. Shaw describes the collaboration as spawning from a desire to avoid the pop cliché of “Emily singing to Emily,” and when the band was unsure how to approach the situation, Haines decided to call Reed, an old friend with whom she had collaborated in the past. Reed agreed immediately, giving Shaw an experience he describes as “a total trip.”
“I mean, who better to say the word ‘Wanderlust’ than Lou,” Shaw describes, excitement in his voice. “To hear someone’s voice—that is part of the reason you play music in the first place—coming through the microphone when I’m sitting behind the recording console, just totally blew me away.”
But moments like this are not totally unexpected for Shaw and Metric these days. The band may never have seen a meteoric rise to stardom, but a steady increase in popularity over the years, surged recently by a slew of licensing agreements, most notably the performance of their song “Black Sheep” by fictional band The Clash at Demonhead in Edgar Wright’s 2010 film adaptation of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, has assured Shaw that he made the right choice on how to spend his life.
“Our relationships have really developed with each other,” he says. “We all have a continuing hunger for growing as human beings, and growing as musicians. We’ve really grown into a family. We’re really close and we love playing music together and traveling together, and we sort of maintained this unified vision, which is quite rare, in a way, for a band after this long.”
Shaw expects a lot of time spent on airplanes in his future. Van rides and band rooms and days spent 23 hours on the move. Nights in crowded clubs, historic theaters and legendary outdoor arenas. It’s a bizarre life, he describes. One that takes over, that becomes an entire reality unto itself. One that he loves.