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Metric’s Jimmy Shaw on new sonic territory and the next album

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Once a band finds its sound, it can be tempting to rest on what works, that magic formula that continues to satisfy fans years later. Of course, experimenting beyond that reach can be a double-edged sword that draws equal parts intrigue and ire from those who have remained faithful to an artist.

To that end, Metric’s latest album, Pagans in Vegas, is a testament to a band that doesn’t pander to what’s expected in order to placate—quite the opposite, actually. The Canadian act has spent the better part of 15 years solidifying its collective identity as synth-rock darlings, its previous albums calling to mind anthems like “Help I’m Alive,” “Monster Hospital,” “Stadium Love,” “Gimme Sympathy” and “Youth Without Youth,” but Pagans—while still easily identifiable as Metric at its core—added a new dimension to the band’s already colourful sonic palette.

“Our impetus going into it was: let’s just let this music be what this music is, as opposed to something that we’ve done in the past, you know?” says guitarist Jimmy Shaw while in—where else?—Vegas. “It felt very much like Fantasies and Synthetica were sort of like brother-sister records, and we didn’t want a third kid: we wanted a whole other thing. It gave us confidence to have songs without drums or without guitars—just go full into whatever we were feeling at the time, which is what we ended up doing.”

Indeed, the guitar chords that existed in abundance on Metric’s previous two records are far less discernible on Pagans, giving way to keyboard-and-synth-focused instrumentation—the lead single, “The Shade,” is a prime example and offered an accurate preview of what fans were in for this time around. Shaw notes that he was increasingly drawn to synths and found himself moving further away from “rock ‘n’ roll bar chords” in favour of stronger melody lines and single-note licks. But how does this shift impact Metric’s live show?

“It hasn’t really, weirdly,” Shaw says emphatically. “Even stuff that was based around a live band playing on record, it still goes through a moment of adaptation to getting it into what we’re going to do onstage, and this stuff was the same thing. When we play ‘Cascades’ now, there’s a lot of synthesizers going on, but Joules [Scott-Key] is still playing the drums, Josh [Winstead] is still playing bass for half the song, I’m still playing guitar for half the song. Generally these things are still on the record, but it’s still very much the song.”

He happens to be explaining this while the infamous High Roller is in sight—the biggest ferris wheel he’s ever seen, at that—which he uses to further illustrate his point.

“It’s like the records are the little pods on the ferris wheel that go all the way around; they’re like the extremities of ideas, whereas the live show is the hub in the middle,” Shaw says. “It all kind of comes back into the live show, and that show is really the essence of the band. It’s the four people there onstage. It’s something we’ve never really done on record,  have it just be the straight essence of the band. It would have been much easier to do in 1971, when there were no other options. But now there’s so many options, and records are so rarely done like that, that it’s almost like a gimmick to go into the studio, turn on all the microphones and just play all your songs. … So they ended up being these ideas and conceptual pieces of which you take parts of and bring it back to the thing, which is the stage.”

The divergent nature of Pagans could be attributed to the fact that when Shaw and frontwoman Emily Haines began writing new material, it wasn’t necessarily with a new album in mind. The band had planned to take much some time off after touring Synthetica, but the pair soon began writing songs separately (Haines in Nicaragua, Shaw in Toronto). While writing apart isn’t necessarily new for Haines and Shaw, he notes that they were both executing much more complete, cohesive ideas than they had in the past.

“A lot of the stuff I wrote that ended up on Pagans was during this process where I was just going into the studio everyday—it was mostly winter in Toronto, and there’s not a whole hell of a lot to do—and so I would just get up in the morning, go into the studio, make a coffee and just do something for the sake of it, because it’s fun,” Shaw explains. “I was convinced I wasn’t writing for Metric. I didn’t think I was writing at all; I was just fucking around in the studio, you know? But I made myself come up with complete ideas on a daily basis and then go back and attempt to finish them early on. … Just a complete, three-and-a-half-minute idea and then put it in a folder, put it in a vault and listen to it later.”

Shaw notes there’s an inherent pressure when he and Haines get together to write—someone travelled to be there or there’s a time limit—but the ability to flesh out fully formed ideas independent of one another meant that when they did meet up they had two very distinct sides to their work. Rather than “bending the material” and having it all coalesce into one record, Shaw and Haines decided to make two albums. There’s no release date for the second one yet (the album’s working title is LP7), but the upside of Metric being an independent band working under its own label (Metric Music International) means its got the freedom to see it through on its own terms.

“We recorded the album last summer while on tour with Imagine Dragons, but we were so busy, and it was a classic Metric thing where we probably bit off more than we could chew,” Shaw says with a soft laugh, noting that when the band wrapped the tour the release date for Pagans was only a month away, which meant being slammed with promo and press—leaving little time to give a yet another new album any thought. “We didn’t even really get a chance to listen to what we’d done in the summer until almost Christmas, when we had the space of mind to sit down in the studio and listen with some sort of objective view on what we’d done.”

Listening back to the tracks made the band realize the album was nowhere near finished, Shaw recalls, but he adds that there was a positive flip-side to that in the sense that there was also the opportunity to make the record so much more than originally planned.

“I think what this one might end up being is a combination of everything we’ve done, whereas Pagans was a new thing that we’ve never done,” Shaw explains. “At this point everything from parts of Live It Out—which is the most raw, sort of punk just straight-up rock band—to parts of Pagans where there’s no rock at all, and probably something like ‘Help I’m Alive’ is the thing that resides right in the middle. I think we can now encompass all of those things and bring it all together, including the acoustic stuff and including Emily’s solo record and everything else that we’ve ever done. So ideally, I think this thing could be a giant stew of everything that we’re capable of.”

Tue, Mar 29 (6:45 pm)
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Rexall Place, $30.50 – $60.50

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