When Metric first started releasing records in 2003, the Toronto-formed, New York-nurtured band were playing synths against a tide of sepia indie rock. The Strokes had spawned hundreds of tribute acts: keyboards floundered while Telecasters thrived. Now, nearly 10 years on, synth-pop reigns supreme while rock is repeatedly, if inaccurately, deemed six feet under.
Metric have survived the ebb and flow by doggedly continuing to do what they're good at: danceable pop-rock, with both synths and guitars, carried by the charisma of singer Emily Haines, an old-fashioned sort of star cut from the cloth of a traditional showman. Their fifth album, Synthetica, comes with a blurb about how it's a record concerned with the idea of a nightmarish, futuristic pop star; but really, it's about a nightmarish futuristic idea of everything.
Hungover and jetlagged, Haines and bandmate Jimmy Shaw are tucking in to a pub lunch in London. They're chattily aggrieved about the state of pop, feminism and the planet. We discuss internet porn, Rihanna, last year's riots, pensions, reality TV, voyeurism, the "fucking insanity" of the US right, police brutality, Canadian conservatism and the Mickey Mouse Club. "It doesn't seem like the world at large is doing much to protect kids – culture has completely fucked over the next generation," says Haines, explaining the ideas behind their glammy first single Youth Without Youth. "Hey, guess what? You can look forward to horrible pollution and climate change and hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt. No jobs. Thanks guys. Cheers for the plan."
"But there are some really great apps," Shaw cuts in, drolly.
If that sounds like an "it was better in my day" chat, well, to some extent, it is. Synthetica is a contemplative record that acknowledges something is broken, but doesn't know how to fix it. "We ran over train tracks and smoked a joint or whatever," says Haines. "Kids now who are 15 or 16, it's meth. I can't imagine growing up with the internet like they have. They've seen levels of porn I've still not seen."
On the other hand, I suggest, people do tend to romanticise the past. "That's what I've been feeling, too," she agrees. "From architecture to music, there are all these things I would think of as better, but then you think of the actual climate at the time. My dad [the US poet Paul Haines] saw signs in restaurants that said, 'No blacks.' They wouldn't give women a bank account. There's been so much progress since then."
"The world has never got worse," adds Shaw.
On the song Dreams So Real, from Synthetica, Haines turns the focus back on the music itself, singing: "Have I ever really helped/ Anybody but myself/ To believe in the power of songs?/ To believe in the power of girls?" She explains that this represents several strands of thought coming together, not just about music, but about young women and their relationship to the world: "There's a whole generation of girls who are so feminist that pole-dancing is their way of expressing it. It's a fucking joke. It's brilliant for sexist guys." Does she still get asked the "What's it like to be a woman in rock?" question? "Not so much now, because they see the look in my eye," she says. "It's an unnecessary distinction. It's a pink ghetto. This has been pissing me off for a long time. But then you don't want to be an angry woman. You're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't."
Dreams So Real has another thread running through it that sees Haines pining for what she sees as a lost age of musical unity. "Thousands of people gathered around listening to Bob Dylan songs, Hendrix playing All Along the Watchtower, that level of communication happening on a mass cultural scale. I was feeling like, 'Ah, man, I haven't done that.'" That sense of music's past power informed Metric's previous album, Fantasies; one of its biggest songs, Gimme Sympathy, had a hook that ran: "Who would you rather be, the Beatles or the Rolling Stones?"
It's a rhetorical question, but in the process of recording Synthetica, they found the answer, after recruiting Lou Reed as a guest vocalist on dreamy track The Wanderlust. "We met him at this concert in Vancouver," Shaw says. "He was one of the guests, and we were all playing Neil Young songs. He started talking to Emily and quoted Gimme Sympathy at her, which was amazing."
Haines smiles as she recalls: "He said, 'Emily, who would you rather be, the Beatles or the Rolling Stones?' I said, right on the dot, 'The Velvet Underground, Lou.'"
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