(Metric: L-R, Jimmy Shaw, Emily Haines, Joules Scott-Key, Joshua Winstead)
IS IT ASPIRATIONAL OR CRUEL for Metric to tempt us, one might even say flaunt before us, the idea of a sun-and-sand island escape? Hell, even the idea of travelling?
The Canadian quartet’s new, eighth, album, Formentera, is named after the postage stamp-size Balearic island, on the Mediterranean side of Spain. A quick ferry ride from Ibiza. A long bloody way from closed-in/Covid-afflicted Australia – and America and Europe and Canada. Yeah, thanks guys.
On screen before me are the two principal culprits, Emily Haines and Jimmy Shaw (keys/vocals and guitar, respectively, alongside Joshua Winstead on bass and Joules Scott-Key on drums) and Shaw has the grace to soften the blow.
“It’s nice get back out there but it’s hairy out there, man,” says Shaw, who is just back home from a European press trip. “That’s the reality.”
But Haines cares not for our sensitivities and just rubs it in. “If you do decide to take a trip, may I recommend Formentera,” she says with an evil grin as Shaw guffaws guiltily beside her. And yes she’s been there. “It is truly an enchanted, mellow place.” Adding slyly, “we are hoping the tourism board looks kindly upon us.”
Of course Formentera is a lot like their erstwhile hometown of Toronto, right? Well, that was the point, as the band wrote and recorded the album during the darkest days of some dark couple of years.
“You can imagine us, deeply locked-down, four winters-deep in the studio and we’re not going anywhere so let’s open this book and see if there’s a page we can transport ourselves to. And Formentera was the page,” says Haines. “So we made an imaginary sonic oasis, as opposed to the physical one.”
The island also has the advantage of sounding like the name of a really good metal band, and I suspect not that deep down inside Shaw and Haines, welling up inside the electro/rock outfit who have been friends and collaborators of Broken Social Scene, Lou Reed and David Cronenberg, is a metal head keen to bust out.
“You know what, I feel so seen,” Haines says. “Finally.” To which Shaw says “I just wish I could play that fast.” And she responds “I wish I could scream.”
Describing Metric as “the band that took on what looked like a small, but turned out to be a monumental, task of melding electronic and rock”, Shaw now looks back on “a 20-something year odyssey” and feels pretty satisfied, unfulfilled doom metal dreams notwithstanding.
“I think we’re getting better and better at it. For a little while it seemed like we had to make a rock record and then we would make an electronic record: the pendulum would swing over three or four years. But now it swings from a verse to a chorus, which I think is a better approach, but I wouldn’t dare to say what kind of band we are.”
Like the dream of Formentera for the rest of us, maybe he should consider that a life quest that will never be attained. It’s the journey, man, the journey.
More seriously, how important was it for them to have that dream, that just out of reach goal of Formentera, when making this record? Consider for example, as some have noted, how the album could be split into three sections of anxiety and trepidation (Doomscroller, All Comes Crashing and What Feels Like Eternity), a point of transition (Formentera), and the almost buoyant reach for some kind of paradise (Enemies Of The Ocean, I Will Never Settle, False Dichotomy, Oh Please and Paths In The Sky).
It's a record which, firstly in Haines’ lyrics but then you realise in the music too, charts a progression through fear of the unknown and everything being out of control to acceptance that not everything can, or should be, controlled – and that’s fine too.
“This is exactly how we felt,” says Shaw. “It’s funny the way that it happened because we didn’t necessarily design the record to be that way but we realised [after finishing the recording] that that was the narrative it was painting and that that was what we had just been through.”
Learning to let go of the idea/myth of control was a big step for all of them. “The freedom that actually comes from that is quite powerful, if you can tap into it and get past the fear,” says Shaw.
They can even point to that truth in their own recent lives. In early 2020 Haines had just moved to Los Angeles, setting up in a new apartment, keeping a cabin in the rural Mono Hills outside Toronto, near where Shaw and his wife were set up, on the basis that “it would be good to have a place, Children Of Men-style, if the world ever goes crazy”.
On a quick trip back to that cabin a few months later, she found out just how crazy when the borders closed and she wasn’t going anywhere. “I still haven’t been back to LA,” she says.
At the same time Shaw found an abandoned church nearby and convinced the rest of the band that they not only could but should buy it and build a studio in it.
“I was not drinking the Kool-Aid,” says Haines. I was like, what? In the middle of no foreseeable touring, in a completely unknown global reality, let’s invest everything we have in making this a new headquarters?”
It was ridiculous. But it worked, and seems, as with the album’s sequencing, retrospectively brilliant. “Today we’ve shot videos there, we’ve made gourmet feasts for 15, it’s like a boutique hotel, and we made the entire album there. It’s our archives, it’s everything,” Haines says.
(That said, building a studio in a church is fine, but I would be way more impressed if they actually built a church. “You’re not wrong,” says Shaw. “The impressive level would be way higher.”)
Big building to one side, the album’s opening track, Doomscroller, is without question, at least from this reviewer's perspective, the best thing Metric have ever done: a whole life’s work in one 10 minute block of drama and electronica and rock and something else, paralleling a personal blast of existentialism. How did they pull that off in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the apocalypse?
“At some point in your life you’re going to do the best thing you’ve ever done in your life,” chuckles Shaw with a degree of Canadian self-deprecation. “It was a very early song for us in the writing process for this record and it just kind of came to be. And again, it wasn’t the plan. I’d love to say we sat down and thought let’s make a 10-and-½ minute epic that encompasses five genres of Metric, let alone other bands, and start our record called Formentera with it, but we didn’t know.
"But what we did know was that we were on a tip and what we were doing was resonating with us. And when it resonates with us, it usually resonates with other people, so we went with it.”
They didn’t just go with it; they went all the way.
“I think that song allowed us, very early on, to believe in the notion that we were going to go as far as our imagination could possibly go,” says Shaw, building himself up further the longer this answer progresses.
“Because we did that song and we sat back and listened to it and thought okay what that might be the best thing we’ve ever done in the only key ingredient was pushing ourselves to the end of our ability, the end of our imagination, letting every single thing that made sense go, and no previous conceived notion of a song that should be like this or needs to have this, all of that stuff out the window and just make right now what makes sense right now.”
He stops. Haines watches. I almost cry hallelujah. Inspired, I might build myself a church now. Who needs a Mediterranean island?
Formentera is out now.