The Beauty of Imperfection: An interview with Emily Haines
After a string of bold videos, including ‘Dressed to Suppress’, ‘Dark Saturday’, and ‘Now or Never Now’, Canadian alt-rockers Metric announced their return with seventh album ‘Art of Doubt’ (MMI/Crystal Math Music). Produced by Justin Meldal-Johnsen (M83, Beck, Nine Inch Nails) and mixed by Tony Hoffer (Phoenix, Depeche Mode and Air), ‘Art of Doubt’ sees the foursome go back to their guitar-heavy roots with powerful riffs and punchy vocals a-plenty. As Metric took a breather after their 38-date arena tour across North American with the Smashing Pumpkins, we had a moment to catch up with lead-singer Emily Haines on the rooftop of Berlin’s Soho House to talk about routing for more guitars, building a small empire, and finding beauty in the flawed. You can catch Metric playing at Berlin’s Kesselhaus in der Kulturbrauerei tonight for Halloween.
KALTBLUT: So first things first, how has touring with the Smashing Pumpkins been?
Emily: It’s been full on! It was good. I mean it’s a daunting thing that not every band is able to do, especially a band at our level and our seventh album we’ve headlined our own arena tours where we brought Death Cab with us, so the timing was really perfect when they invited us and it was, it was sort of counter-intuitive because most bands, when you go into a new album cycle, you would test out the new material in a club or something, but we tested it out in front of 15,000 people a night! Which was perfect.
KALTBLUT: And it was totally well received?
Emily: It was actually, yeah! As opposed to when you have a ticketed show for your own fans where there’s a sense of obligation to the old materials. In this case, it was like we’re under no pressure at all. So in retrospect, it was, it was a very good decision. I mean, Billy Corgan’s terrifying, but that’s a separate story! (Laughs)
KALTBLUT: How did you guys end up talking?
Emily: I guess we were submitted for the tour and then he listened to the album that was originally going to be a handful of dates and he personally invited us. Also, when I say terrifying, I mean, his reputation proceeds him. We had interactions with him that were intriguing!
KALTBLUT: What was it like heading back to Canada at the end of the tour?
Emily: We went and did a radio show and then headlined a festival with The War on Drugs and Florence in Vancouver as the sort of peak of that.
KALTBLUT: That’s such a good ending! Was it kind of nostalgic in a way?
Emily: It was great! I mean, it wasn’t so nostalgic. It’s more like the beginning.
KALTBLUT: You’ve performed so many times in so many venues, solo and in a full band. Do you have a preference between smaller more intimate gigs and packed out arenas with the band?
Emily: I mean, the band is the band. Metric is definitely a four-person experience, but I have my own solo career and Jimmy and I do a lot of acoustic stuff together. So it’s, you know, I understand that it’s interesting for people to hear the songs stripped down and I’m happy to do it. But the records we make in the band, the level of production, that’s where we like to be.
KALTBLUT: And how was it coming back from doing solo work and returning to Metric? Did it feel natural, as if coming back home to the family?
Emily: Yeah, we’re very unusual for most artists, I think. We never really stopped writing as a band. So when we came off of the last album, it’s like, we have our own studio, so projects just emerge. It’s like, “Oh okay, let’s produce this other artist” or, “this is a good time for me to do a solo record”, which Jimmy is totally involved in, and then flowing into Metric. But I think as a writer from that perspective, it was really good because I had worked through a lot of personal stuff at the time I came to the process of making a metric record. I was really, we weren’t really ready for exactly who the four of us are and that was very much what this album is about is you know, Justin Meldal-Johnson, he produced it and he really took the approach of, you know, it’s great that you guys experiment and you explore. It makes sense at this stage in your career you’re going to do that, but I feel like I know the essence of who you are as a live band and I want to get that on tape and I think he did it. It’s been, like, the Holy Grail to try to find that!
KALTBLUT: Personally, it’s been really something to see you perform as a solo artist and then see Metric as a full band. It’s such a great contrast, especially live. But now with this new album, you really get the feel of Metric returning to its guitar-driven roots. Was this intentional?
Emily: I guess the main difference is just that we brought in, we brought in Justin and a lot of people have been saying that it reminds them of our very first album, which is funny because he’s from that era of the band. He was in LA and he was around when we were starting out in Silver Lake playing our little club shows. I think there’s something about, you know, as we’re saying, it’s like a friendship at this point that we have with our people who listen to our music, our fans, like, all of those things are contained in us. We have those songs like ‘Monster Hospital’, the Mstrkrft remix that did really well over here. Our early shows here were so punk and scrappy and then the band evolved. Then you graduate to larger venues and it becomes more refined and there’s more production that, that searing guitar that you get in ‘Dark Saturday’ has always been a part of who we are. I’m starting to realise that when you build a life around this, this is the template of sounds and then it’s just really what’s being featured on any given album. So ‘Pagans in Vegas’ featured the whole synth side of the band a lot more, which is a major part of who we are, but… I like the guitars (laughs). Especially now the poor guitar is really taking a beating, so we’re advocating for the guitar!
KALTBLUT: You brought up the first album and how people have been comparing it, do you ever just look back and reflect on how far Metric has come? Or maybe take influences, bringing the old back to the forefront?
Emily: Well that’s what’s kind of a trip is the feeling, and you can probably relate in your own progress in your own work, where you have an ambition and the dream of what you want to do and then it’s just so many steps that are seemingly unrelated that you have to take. And so our job was kind of like 15 years ago when we made that record and then it’s taken us this long, to be like, “Okay cool, so remember that idea that we had?” (Laughs). Because it’s just like, running the label and going through all the processes of agents and the business side and like so much emails, so much different admin, different projects. But just to stay afloat and to build a small business, which is what we’ve done, you know.
KALTBLUT: A small empire
Emily: Yeah, empire sounds way fucking better! (Laughs). But yeah, it was a funny feeling to be like, we’re like, “Okay, great, so we’ve got that underway. Let’s, you know, let’s go back and make the music we wanted to make.”
KALTBLUT: So, at what point did you feel ready to release the album? Did you find yourself working on older unreleased singles, or was it all brand new?
Emily: Yeah, there’s a mixture of that that got represented. Our approach is we always start with a lot of material and then it gets kind of ruthlessly whittled down. So we probably brought it down from 18 or so songs to 12. There are ones on there that, there was a mixture, like ‘Underline the Black’ is one that I wrote in Buenos Aires in 2007 that was going to be on ‘Fantasies’ and didn’t make the cut and then kind of disappeared. But I, I have a sort of like secret missions of the songs where I’m advocating for them, where I’m thinking “I will get you out in the world one day”. But it’s um, it’s a pretty hilarious relationship I have to the songs and people are like, you know, “What’s your favourite?”. I love my children, all the same, you know, I can’t choose one.
KALTBLUT: With there being such a mixture of singles, old and new, would you say that it’s a bit of a mismatched album without such a rigid structure of a particular theme? The titles and videos give the impression that overall, ‘Art of Doubt’ focuses on something quite dark
Emily: It’s the least concept album we’ve ever made, that’s for sure. But there’s definitely a freeline and that’s how I think the tracks that got chosen were chosen. For me, it’s not particularly dark, it’s more just reality based, you know. It’s not that my process is different than any other time. I just look at the world around me and that’s what comes in.
Emily: For sure. I like the phrase ‘Are of Doubt’ because it can be read so many ways and in our case I liked the idea that, you know, coming to terms with the fact that it doesn’t matter how much progress you make as a writer, as a musician, you’re, you’ve chosen something that is unattainable, there’s no finish line that you’re going to cross and share and then you, you know, there’s no way to measure success. Whatever I accomplish, I’m always going to find things to doubt and question myself because that’s where all the good shit is! Questioning myself, questioning the way that I see things trying to grow. I think that stands in stark contrast to the current political climate or the arrogance, the things that we honour and celebrity and just like, you know, self-aggrandisement and arrogance and self-importance. Not only do I find it repulsive, but I also find it boring. And it’s funny because we sort of feel as though we tolerate it the way we tolerate bullies. Meanwhile, I have such a sense that there’s so much else happening in the world here. The people that are not seeing that way, I would never present themselves that way, who are continuing to think and like all the good shit’s happening with the people who are questioning things not the people who are claiming to know everything. What a snooze fest! (Laughs)
KALTBLUT: I feel this also reflects on your recent videos for the album. Working with Justin Broadbent, how did you build this new minimal aesthetic, with videos like ‘Dark Saturday’ shot in B&W, in remote locations and completely on an iPhone?
Emily: Well it depends on the piece because we’ve worked with Justin on ‘Synthetica’ as well. He did the album art for that and some videos for that, but in this case for ‘Dark Saturday’ we just knew what we wanted it to feel like. We could have used any number of cameras, I think his choice to use an iPhone was great because I feel like he kind of freed us all. We’re all so trapped in our phones and I felt as though the way that he constructed that, the isolation of each person and that we’re, well, it’s just so shitty. We’re just all alone. And then he, you know, the idea that he, the way that unifies us in certain key moments, but that we’re trying to find each other but we’re all just stuck in our separate realities I thought was kind of a comment in itself. And then for ‘Dress to Suppress’ it was a similar feeling of in general around this record. We’ve been trying to stand by that principle of sometimes it is the first thing that you do that is the best thing. So just to capture one take of us just playing the song, you know, and it was funny in that case because what we ended up going with was his first go around. He ended up, like we all do, with so many things, like, “Okay, so that’s the idea, now I’m going to use my great lens and have it all mapped”
KALTBLUT: “Now I’ll put a filter on it”
Emily: Exactly! And then we looked at it where he was in control and he’d lost it. We ended up with the original and it’s similar to what we’re trying to convey with the album cover is this idea of like, you know, I just love it. It’s such a deeply unsatisfying shape, like, it’s unresolved and it’s so dominant and we’re just kind of squeezed in the corner and that I love that it could be a representation of your doubt and also the same thing, he’s (Justin) like, “I have this idea that it’s just all this negative space being consumed by the absence of something even, but something like this.” And then he again tried to find it. We got paints, he’s a visual artist, he tried to do all these things. It was like, it’s your first, your first move. So that became another meaning for ‘Art of Doubt’.
KALTBLUT: I remember waiting a while for the cover to come out actually
Emily: Did it shock you?
KALTBLUT: Not exactly shocked. I kind of liked that it was a little rough around the edges. It wasn’t overworked and almost abstract
Emily: I’m glad that came across! And I love that it bothers me, which is why we decided to go with it too. The responses have been positive and yeah, just that I think people are getting the point. It’s not a pretty picture. It’s for me, it’s very much how I feel in 2018 in the world. It was just like, “Fix it!” Like, fuck! (Laughs). Especially when we’re now so used to the fact that we can perfect everything and nothing is presented to the world except you know, completely blemish free and that’s also a sort of frustrating non-reality to inhabit. And it couldn’t be more opposite like, you know, to our earlier point is like, that’s where all the interesting stuff is happening. When people are flawed.
Art of Doubt is out now via MMI/Crystal Math Music.