Metric Fight the Comfort of Nostalgia

Metric Fight the Comfort of Nostalgia

Canadian-American indie rock band Metric have been around the block many a time — 20 years, to be precise. Since making their full-length debut with 2003’s Old World Underground, Where Are You Now?, they’ve raked in several Juno Awards, an impressive number of chart rankings and movie soundtrack placements. And though they’ve yet to have their major pop breakthrough in the United States, they say they’re not hurting for one anytime soon. 

“You know [when] people talk about artists making their best work when they’re hungry? We still have that same hunger, in a sense, as when we started,” bassist Josh Winstead tells Rolling Stone over the phone. “We’ve never had that defining, giant hit. When we did Old World, we did have that feeling of being the band that just wanted to make good music together, as the four of us. The through-line is a very strong connection to artistry. That’s where we’re back to again, and it feels really great.” 

Metric’s seventh album, Art of Doubt, is buffed to a similarly high shine as their last one, 2015’s Pagans in Vegas. But whereas Pagans evoked Depeche Mode and The Cars, Art of Doubt reprises the post-punk furor of Metric’s early days, long before all the accolades and world tours — the latest of which was an opening gig for alt-rock legends Smashing Pumpkins this summer.

Back when the Pumpkins were dominating rock radio in the Nineties, Metric was just a wink of an idea between vocalist Emily Haines and guitarist Jimmy Shaw. The pair became key members of the Toronto indie-rock collective Broken Social Scene not long after that; in 2000, when Haines and Shaw moved into a shabby loft in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, they shared rooms and rock history with some of the musicians who were forming bands like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Liars and TV on the Radio. After recruiting two Americans, bassist Joshua Winstead and drummer Joules Scott-Key, Metric began work on Old World, an oft-overlooked gem from what we now know as the dance-punk renaissance of the aughts.

Fifteen years after Old World, today’s Metric are just as plucky and curious as they were when they started, but when asked about it, they prefer not to dwell on the era too much. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge Interpol fan,” says Shaw. “But I think of the people who see Interpol to relive that 2003 feeling. We never really encapsulated 2003 — or ’06 or ’09 or ’12 or ’14 or ’18. We’re on an eternal, weird one-degree rise, which means that we’re making music of today and not trying to rehash something that was of a moment.”

On the bright side, never having That One Big Hit affords the band a kind of freedom seldom afforded to their peers. To see Metric open for Smashing Pumpkins was to observe, in real time, two pathways available to the alternative rock band in 2018: While the Pumpkins’ identity is inextricably tied to their Nineties catalog, Metric are steadfast in working to evolve and embody sounds that bound into the future with every record. With Art of Doubt, they’ve decided that they want a future that just happens to include guitar rock. “I know that there’s more people who like the sound of laptops,” says Shaw, who was happily accompanied by three other guitarists on the Pumpkins tour. “But we’re not all dead at this point, so we’re holding it tight!”

While Shaw produced every Metric album from their sophomore LP, Live It Out, through Pagans, for Art of Doubt they called in Justin Meldal-Johnsen, known for his work with Beck, Nine Inch Nails and M83. Together they found a sound where Metric ride currents of pulsing synths and brash guitars towards something more timeless.

“We went for this long walk in the Redwood Forest and had a long conversation about how the recording process needed to feel a lot more like how it feels when we get onstage,” Shaw says, recalling a key moment during the Pagans tour. “We had gotten further and further and further away from that process — especially with a record like Pagans. Figuring out how to put that record on stage was pretty difficult, ’cause it wasn’t made with the four of us playing instruments together. From that day on it became about sounding like that band that we started as, and still are, every time we get up onstage.”

It’s hard to ignore the ways that today’s global political landscape appears bleakly similar to, if not a heightened version of, the one that produced 2003’s Old World. At that time, the Iraq War had stoked the ire of many rock acts, including Metric; their sharp-shooting debut arguably interrupted the brooding, apolitical stasis of New York indie rock at the time. “Our falling bombs are her shooting stars,” sings Haines of children under American siege in “IOU”; she turns to fire back at the culture that feeds off the psychosexual appeal of war in “Succexy,” where military and hypermasculinity collide into one middling wargasm. (“All we do is talk, static split screens/As the homeland plans enemies.”)

On Art of Doubt, Metric dredge up that same coddled first world existence to receive more of Haines’ witty barbs. Backed by the taunting groans of guitars on “Dark Saturday,” she dresses down the young socialite who roves the funhouse of extreme wealth free of consequence. (“She’s a tourist of the world beneath,” Haines sings, “I said ‘Everything, I’ve built from nothing’/She said, ‘I’m so rich, everything’s free!’”) In “Dressed to Suppress” and “Die Happy,” Haines reflects on those who seek love and fame by hiding behind idealized projections of themselves online.

It’s always [with] the same amount of grotesque awe,” says Haines. “I try not to fucking shelter myself. I try to be present in what’s happening around me in the world and keep some sort of compass on how things are evolving and changing, and how I’m changing within that.”

Although Metric has never been “the band that’s gonna change the world one dance party at a time,” as drummer Scott-Key jokes, a drive for progress has always steered Metric — not just politically, but artistically speaking. While it’s easy for bands to cash in on nostalgia, Metric have been steadfast in dodging such complacency since their onset. Forward-thinking, yet healthily self-effacing, Art of Doubt wrestles with the impulse to constantly create with your head turned back towards the past. This thesis is never more clear than in the single “Now or Never Now,” a cautionary tale of clinging to your old habits like a wallflower at a discotheque. To be forever young, imply Metric, is to be forever in stasis.

“It’s not about arrogance and it’s not about overconfidence and it’s not about being sure,” says Haines. “It’s about going towards what you don’t know and being willing to be challenged. If you’re doing it right, you will always be in pursuit of that feeling, of that questioning.

“It can be hard,” she continues. “Because you feel like, ‘Oh my god, I’m like Sisyphus.’ I’m not getting anywhere here, ’cause I still have the same amount of doubt! But the point is, you’re progressing because you’re developing new ideas, you’re going toward things that you don’t know. So that despite how much effort you put in, you’ll still find cracks in your own logic and ways to grow as a person.” Metric are not the kind of band to simply grow up and blow away — they’re in it together, for the long haul.

Metric kick off their world tour this week alongside the Latin Grammy-winning Mexican band Zoé. Art of Doubt is out now.

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Published at Fri, 26 Oct 2018 17:29:58 +0000