Metric's Jimmy Shaw Takes the PV Q&A

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Interview by Scott Sterling

From the tense, dramatic opening moments of Metric’s latest album, Synthetica, the sense of both terror and anticipation at what’s to come in a world blazing a technology-powered path to an uncertain future is palpable. Engrained in the album’s dense and expansive take on modern electro-rock is the buzz of digital communications, and trying to find a human connection in an increasingly plugged-in world. Synthetica is the culmination of five albums and almost 15 years, over which the band has earned Juno awards; launched their own independent record label [Metric Music International]; contributed song “Eclipse (All Yours)” to the Twilight Series: Eclipse soundtrack, and most recently, helped score the latest David Cronenberg film, "Cosmopolis" [starring Twilight star Robert Pattinson] with composer Howard Shore. Metric guitarist and founding member Jimmy Shaw recalls it all quite vividly.

PureVolume: Do you still feel like a Canadian band, or has the world claimed Metric due to all of your success?
Jimmy Shaw: Toronto has always sort of been the band’s spiritual home. It’s probably my home more than anybody else in the band. Emily too, but she’s more of a traveler. The band met in Brooklyn and moved to L.A. — we’ve always sort of wandered. The energy of Toronto keeps you in check. You can never really be a superstar here. It’s why the Stones like to hang out in Toronto all the time. No one cares! I was hanging out at a local bar around the corner from my house called the Dakota Tavern last night. I got onstage with the local band that plays there every Sunday night, and just wailed on some cover songs. I ran into a writer for one of the biggest newspapers in Canada. He was saying that it’s so gangster that I would still do something like that. But really, my life is pretty much the same as it’s always been. We’re not the band that’s suddenly only going to hang out at the W Hotel or wherever just because we’ve had some success.
PV: Over the past decade, it seems like Canadian artists such as Metric, Arcade Fire, and Broken Social Scene have been at the forefront of revitalizing the music scene and influencing the culture
JS: I think a large part of it is that the music community is really tight up here. Back in the day, like 10 years ago, there was so much energy needed just to break through the border to Buffalo, New York. You could be doing 20,000-capacity venues in Toronto, and play to maybe a hundred people in Buffalo. We all literally had to band together and support each other just to break through. There was no sense of inter-competition at all. I’ve seen the other side of that, though, like when I was living in Brooklyn in 2002. In Toronto and Montreal, it just wasn’t like that. Death From Above and Feist couldn’t be more different, but they’re friends and do anything to help each other.
PV: Now that scene is an integral part of the music industry.
JS: We all went for a pretty esoteric job by being in bands, and in a way, a lot of us got the job. It’s an amazing, bizarre thing to have accomplished. I’m not complaining at all, but it’s a weird life. So the more you can surround yourself with people you know, love, and most importantly trust, the better.
PV: What was it like launching your record label, Metric Music International, for your last album, Fantasies?
JS: It’s been a lot more than I thought it was going to be. We were still in the middle of making Fantasies, and trying to make sense of how it was going to be released around the world. The band was entertaining a bunch of offers, but it was all just so wrong. I’ve been in this business for too long not to know what these record deals really mean. It’s like rape on paper, it really is. Quite frankly, I don’t want to be bought out of my freedom. That was the band’s mantra — We’d rather go down on a plane we built than travel around the world coach on somebody else’s dime. The label took a long time to build, and the release of Fantasies was complete chaos, for numerous reasons. It was hard, but over the course of the record, we started to see the little freedoms that having our own label could afford. We realized that we could remix a song and release it online in one day if we wanted. There was no having to check with the legal department and then waiting six weeks. That artistic freedom was the beginning of a really inspirational, creative time.
PV: The new album, Synthetica, really does play like the culmination of everything Metric has done before, only amplified. The songs sound ready to fill areas and large festival areas. Was that big sound an intentional move?
JS: This is one of the only times we didn’t really go in with a purpose at all. It was more like we went into it with momentum. Over the three years touring for [2009 release] Fantasies, we saw such a huge blast of growth that we’d never witnessed before. This was years eight, nine and ten as a band, so it wasn’t like we were fresh out of the gate at all. We were just having so much fun. We took that energy into the studio and just did whatever came naturally. With our other records, we’d have specific intentions. This time, by not doing that, we tapped the whole palette of what we’re capable of at this point. About halfway through the process, I started to see what we were creating. It does have this sound, size, and certain esoteric, dreamy retro future quality to it. The more those things became apparent, the more I followed them.
PV: There feels to be an overall theme to the album that speaks to the general feeling of being future-shocked by technology, and just dealing with it on a daily basis.
JS: We didn’t know that theme was happening until about halfway through the record. We’re all having the same subconscious feelings about how the world is changing so fast, but no one really knows what any of it means. You can have whole relationships with people over text messages, and I don’t know if that’s real or not. It’s not the same as having a conversation. You think you’re getting to know someone, but when you meet in person, you see you don’t know the other person at all. That’s a rising reality for so many people. We’re all so connected that you can find out what’s happening in Beijing in just a few minutes. But do you really know what’s happening there? I’m not sure that you do. There’s no process of conclusion on this record, but there’s definitely the process of asking a lot of questions.

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