Stage Times: Metric

Emily Haines picks her best, worst and weirdest gigs – from dodging bottles to winning over Lou Reed

“It’s very ‘Metric’ for things to be so absurd,” announces Metric’s singer and multi-instrumentalist Emily Haines with a smile. “We went from being up to our ears in snow for three years, listening to all these French records – Air, Sébastien Tellier, and so on – to finishing the album in Paris at Motorbass Studios with Jimmy [Shaw – guitarist] playing Frank Zappa’s Les Paul!”

Formentera II’s roots lie in the dark days of COVID, but it has flowered in its wake as the world opened up again. During the pandemic’s first flush, however, the band ditched their Toronto base for a rural hamlet. Shaw bought an old church, converted it into a studio and convinced his bandmates to take the plunge (“What if the neighbours had complained about the noise?”, posits Haines. “If there had been a problem, we would have been screwed.”) 

No complaints and no issues, it was a gamble that paid off. Creativity flourished, and the band wrote 18 tracks in that space. “There was a lot of internal debate about how to best share Formentera with the world,” she continues. “The last thing we wanted to do was drop 18 songs on people, especially considering that one of them is [10-minute epic] ‘Doomscroller’!”

By splitting the album into two parts, fans have been able to digest Formentera piecemeal. And anyone fearing that part II is the dog-eared offcuts need not worry. Formentera II not only elevates the double album’s first part but, arguably, surpasses it altogether. Ranking up there with the band’s finest work, it flits between glistening new wave and spacey dream pop, propelled by pulsing bass and Day-Glo synths. It’s a fine collection.

On the eve of Formentera II’s release, Haines sits down with us eager to delve into the giddy highs and the terrible lows of Metric’s gigging history. “I’ve been having a really good time preparing for this conversation!” she enthuses. “I love these questions!” 

The gig that made you want to perform

“When I was eight, my parents took me to see Dionne Warwick at Radio City in New York. The experience of being in that city and seeing such a legend really affected me. And so, I said to myself that I would come back one day and play that venue. And, amazingly, I did!”

The first

“Jimmy and I formed Metric as a duo in 98 and we moved to New York to pursue my ‘Dionne Warwick’ dream. We’d made some demos and signed a publishing deal but ended up having an adventure in London, where our manager whisked us around trying to secure a record deal. It didn’t work out. When we came back to New York, we were disillusioned. We hadn’t been assholes before we left, but we’d left on our high horse. Our tails were between our legs when we came home. It was kind of a bust – we had to get our jobs back and everything. And yet, we were fortunate to return to the most exciting garage rock scene in the early 00s. A bunch of those bands – Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Liars and TV on the Radio – lived in our loft. Jimmy and I were inspired to think, ‘F*ck this, we’re not going to audition for A&R guys for the rest of our lives. We’ll put a band together and play live surrounded by all these great bands.’

“We were friends with Interpol drummer Sam Fogarino, and his wife had a vintage clothing store called Beacon’s Closet. It had a little music section. I remember wandering in and asking Sam to stock a CD of our music that Jimmy and I had burned. It turned out that one of his wife’s friends was the girlfriend of [future Metric drummer] Joules Scott-Key. Cut to Jimmy and I playing this terrible show at a venue called Fez, and Joules is in the audience. 

“Afterwards, we were super depressed. We went to Williamsburg where Nick and Karen from Yeah Yeah Yeahs were doing their side project, Unitard. Jimmy and I were watching their show, and Joules comes up to us, saying, ‘Hey, great gig!’ Jimmy fires back, ‘No, it wasn’t! We need a drummer’, and Joules says, ‘Well, I’m a drummer.’ Jimmy hired him on the spot. Only later did everyone in the neighbourhood say, ‘I can’t believe you got Joules Scott-Key. That guy is impossible to pin down. He’s the best drummer in New York!’

“The first proper Metric show we played with Joules was at New York’s Mercury Lounge. Back then, I suffered from crippling stage fright. I would play seated behind a massive keyboard that we’d call ‘Bobby’. It took me years to stand up. Now they can’t get me to sit back down again (laughs)!”

How do you feel about the term ‘indie sleaze’?

“I don’t mind it. It sums it up. I’ve done [Meet Me In The Bathroom author] Lizzy Goodman’s podcast, and our joke is that we want to do a separate book called Meet Me In The Washroom about the rest of us! After all, it was our loft that all these bands were based. We were right there. LCD Soundsystem rehearsed right across the way. But it’s cool. We had a different trajectory. We went to Toronto after 9/11 and that’s where we ended up getting involved with our old friends in Broken Social Scene.” 

Metric - Just The Once (Official Video)

The worst

“In 2003, our first album had only just come out, and we played a fundraiser for presidential candidate John Kerry in Miami. We’d been put up at a nice hotel. There’d been a nice dinner, drinks, lots of little treats and intellectual chat about politics. Then we went straight into this Canadian Tour with Billy Talent: a hard rock band. We were an art rock group at the time. We sold our own clothes. I had the word ‘Love’ written in masking tape on my sweater. We were used to playing in New York and LA: we’d never really done hardcore touring, let alone in this genre, where the fans are known to be super loyal. 

“The tour stated out okay. We played a small town in Quebec. When we arrived in Ottawa, however, it was scary. We took to the stage and the crowd started throwing stuff at us. The women at the front were the worst, which was sad because I’m all about the girls. I was used to being like, ‘Come on, homies, we’re gonna party. I’m here with you.’ This time, however, it was the ‘c’ word for days – and not in the charming British way you guys use it. For some reason they threw Rolaids at us, bottles, caps, everything. It escalated quickly. There were altercations. Jimmy swung his guitar at the front row. I remember looking down and seeing my little masking tape “Love” rolling off and I started crying. It was scary – we had to get off the stage. 

“Now I look back and I think the audience was right. We were weak and we needed to pull it together. The concept of songs as armour came to me from that tour. The next album we made was Live It Out, which includes ‘Monster Hospital’. That tour helped us to develop the rockier part of our sound and we have remained great friends with Billy Talent.”

The best

“You know my much-lauded Radio City show, where I said to myself, ‘I’m coming back here’? Well, to my eternal astonishment, we played Radio City in 2012 during our Synthetica tour and we were joined by Lou Reed onstage.”

How did you meet Lou Reed? 

“His best friend, [the producer] Hal Willner introduced us. Hal was a New York institution when it came to connecting people. Sadly, both he and Lou have since passed away and I really, really miss them.

“When I met Lou, he said, ‘Emily Haines, who would you rather be: The Beatles or The Rolling Stones?’ He quoted a line from our track ‘Gimme Sympathy’! Amazingly, I didn’t freeze, and I replied, ‘Lou, I’d rather be the Velvet Underground!’ He and Laurie [Anderson – Lou’s wife] then invited me to have dinner with them, and we developed a bit of a friendship. They invited me to perform with them in Australia where they were curating a festival. I sang ‘Perfect Day’ and ‘Cremation (Ashes to Ashes)’ with Lou, and then we did a show in Central Park together. Around that time, I suggested he appear on our next record. We recorded the track ‘The Wanderlust’ at Electric Lady, Hendrix’s old studios, which I have video footage of, but I’ve just never shared with anyone because it’s too precious. 

“Lou had a reputation for being a bit, you know, crusty, but I didn’t put on any airs with him and that seemed to work. His manager started calling me the ‘Lou Whisperer’! At that show in Radio City, we performed ‘The Wanderlust’. I took a really big risk. I prepared the band to play a medley where it went from ‘The Wanderlust’ into [Velvet Underground song] ‘Pale Blue Eyes’, which, famously, he never wanted to play again. It could have really pissed him off and he could have walked away. Once he was onstage for the soundcheck, I said, ‘By the way, we’ve figured out a way to just roll into ‘Pale Blue Eyes’, if you’re into it?’ For whatever reason, he went along with it. We didn’t suck, which helped, I think, and he sang that with us onstage!

“It’s such a bummer that our culture is so celebrity focused… famous people only hanging out with famous people. When I hear myself talk about Lou, I’m not trying to put on airs or be like, ‘let me tell you a story…’ Maybe there will be some other experience in my life that supersedes it, but that [connection] ran deep [for me]. That’s why I talk about it.”

Metric - Black Sheep (Brie Larson Vocal Version) ft. Brie Larson

The smallest

“The Crocodile Club in Seattle, 2003. Our debut record, Old World Underground, Where Are You Now?, had just come out. Only two people were at the show: Joules’ brother and this guy Adam, who was busy flirting with the bartender. Adam was friends with Ryan Hadlock, a great producer who had a studio called Bear Creek. He’s worked with The Lumineers and all kinds of great artists. Adam headed out mid-show and brought Ryan Hadlock back with him. We ended up becoming friends, and years later we wrote most of our [2009 album] Fantasies at his studio.”

The weirdest

“There was this early regional show that we played. At the time we were such a small band, nobody knew who we were. Our agent was trying to generate some money, so he had us play a beer festival in Toronto. It was a community event, and we were in the middle of playing one of our songs when one of the organisers came over dressed in lederhosen and said to me, ‘Hey honey, I’ll take that mic from you.’ I was like, ‘Err. Okay!’ We stopped the song, and he announced to those gathered that the ‘beer braised rabbit is ready to be enjoyed the dining tent’. It was hilarious.”

Metric play London’s Courtyard Theatre on 17 October. Find tickets here

Photo credit: Justin Broadbent