Metric: ‘You have to have a sense of humour, otherwise it’s all so terrifying’

When Canada entered lockdown, synth rockers Metric fled Toronto and built a studio in a rural church. There they sought psychological escapes in Monty Python, fantasising about Spanish holidays, and making new album Formentera, as singer Emily Haines and guitarist James Shaw discuss.

Metric band

When Canada entered lockdown, synth rockers Metric fled Toronto and built a studio in a rural church. There they sought psychological escapes in Monty Python, fantasising about Spanish holidays, and making new album Formentera, as singer Emily Haines and guitarist James Shaw discuss.

When the world was forced into lockdown during the spring of 2020, people coped in different ways. Some of us killed time with new hobbies, from Joe Wicks’ PE lessons to baking bread. Others turned to Netflix for solace and binge-watched Tiger King. Emily Haines and James Shaw, though? They just ran away. As fast as they could.

“Shit hit the fan,” James remembers two years later on a video call, “so we ran for the hills!”

Since 1998, he and Emily have been the creative powerhouse of synth rock mavens Metric. Formed out of a shared disgust at the torrent of trendy alt-rock bullshit, the Canadian underground had to suffer through in the mid-’90s; their remit has always been in blending sumptuous pop-rock with avant-garde songwriting and astute lyricism. By the time lockdown hit, they’d toured with The Smashing Pumpkins, had three releases in the top five of Canada’s album charts and won five Juno Awards.


Photo: Justin Broadbent

It had been – and continues to be – a career that any musician in the Great White North would rightfully kill for, the previous fifteen years of which had been centred around making music in James’ studio, directly behind his home in urban Toronto. When COVID came, that base was the first thing to change.

“We both have these houses up in the country, about an hour and twenty minutes from here,” James continues. “We thought we were gonna be gone for a month. That month turned into two years. We took a bunch of equipment from our studio and we set it up in Emily’s house. We loved working up there so much that we started looking for a place more permanent.”

A six-minute walk from Emily’s rural retreat in northern Ontario, the pair found their new base: a church. “It seemed like the most perfect thing to do was build a full production facility there,” James says.

“There are four bedrooms, so the band [rounded out by drummer Joules Scott-Key and bassist Joshua Winstead] can stay there. Making music in the city, a cab will go by playing Justin Bieber or you’ll go to a restaurant that’s playing music, and a song idea will get beaten down before it even really gets to stand up. When we started making music [up north], there were no reflective surfaces – just trees. It allowed us to go way deeper and be way more exploratory.”

From Metric’s newfound recording space in their countryside idyll has come a brand-new eighth album, Formentera. It’s an hour of gothic, twisted synth rock gradually metamorphosing into hopeful summertime anthems.

Opening cut ‘Doomscroller’ is a ten-minute behemoth, lamenting the state of the modern world. It contorts from gloomy and pensive keys to a full-band, guitar-powered jam. During it, lead singer Emily forebodingly hums: “Lining up all the numbers under the names / Notify the next of kin of the circumstances”. It’s a lyric that, like everything she writes, she’s keen to leave open to interpretation – even to herself, it seems.

“You could line up so many numbers under so many names,” the vocalist says, joining James on the same Zoom call, “most recently in North America: the atrocity of the killing of those kids in that school [Robb Elementary School, Uvalde]. I don’t know how people function after that. I don’t know how people recover, even those of us who are doomscrolling, let alone the people who are first-hand experiencing those things.”

‘Doomscroller’ is Formentera’s overture, journeying from a moody introduction to a more joyous and lively finish. The rest of the album follows suit. Second song ‘All Comes Crashing’ bubbles with bleak electronica. Lyrically, Emily explores the bittersweetness of falling in love during a period that many felt could have spelled the end of the world: “For all I know, this might be my last night / If that’s how it goes, there’s no one I would rather be lying beside”.


Photo: Justin Broadbent

However, as the latter half kickstarts with ‘I Will Never Settle’ into ‘False Dichotomy’, Formentera is doubtlessly a brighter place. The percussion gleefully bounces as synths shimmer and Emily’s voice raises to a merrier, motivating pitch.

As a result, it’s tempting to view the album as analogous to the Covid pandemic it was recorded in: starting with naught but nihilism, yet, by the end, undeniably feeling freer and more easy-going as the world reopens. However, says Emily, if you interpret Formentera that way, “I like your optimism.”

She elaborates: “I don’t feel very uplifted about the state of the world right now. I feel like it’s really fucked! This might be it. Maybe we get a summer [of freedom] and then who knows? One of the throughlines of this record is the illusion of control over things: coming to terms with how small your scope of power is.”

Because of this, Formentera repeatedly alludes to either confronting adversity head-on (see ‘Enemies of the Ocean’s’ “Out under bright silver skies, I accept it / Quick skip to the end, let you go”) or psychologically escaping it. That’s why the album takes its name from an island off of Ibiza. In their church studio, Metric had a travel magazine out and open on a page about Formentera, which soon became a symbol of freedom for the band during Canada’s oppressive lockdown.

“We were so claustrophobic,” recalls Emily, “and I think the idea of it had been, like, ‘Maybe we’ll open the page every day and get inspired by a new place?’ But we just turned to Formentera and never left that page. When we wrote that song [the album’s title track, ‘Formentera’] that same day, clarity came with it: ‘We have got to create this escape for ourselves intellectually.’”

That theme even slyly penetrates Formentera’s cover. The font the album’s title is printed in is exactly the same as the logo of the 1985 black comedy Brazil, which was directed by Monty Python member Terry Gilliam. It’s a nihilistic yet farcical film about a dystopian city run on increasingly stupid and nonsensical laws. At the end, protagonist Sam is tortured into insanity, losing himself in a merry fantasy about finding a “happily ever after” with his girlfriend. It’s miserable – yet, at the same time, he’s found that psychological escape.

“That film really, really resonates,” says Emily. “We needed the Monty Python take on those dadaist and absurdist movements that humanity has historically summoned to deal with the insanity of living in a time where, like, the US government was being overthrown. You have to have a sense of humour, because otherwise it’s all so terrifying.”

Metric may remain sceptical about the state of the world but, in the summer of 2022, it seems the era of lockdowns is over. Covid cases are decreasing, live music is back, and the four-piece are set to tour Canada in August. As the world reopens, the band have their to-do list clearly sketched out, and at the top of it is affirming themselves as an international tour de force.

Metric Formentera Album Art

“The challenge is going to be maintaining a global presence,” says Emily. “One of the reasons that we love doing what we do is to travel and meet people and participate in life in other places. I just don’t want us to disappear.”

With Formentera being as sharp and evolutionary as it is, that’s very unlikely.

Formentera is set for release on July 8.

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