Back in April, Metric singer Emily Haines posted an open letter to fans announcing the release of the band's fifth album, Synthetica. As the title implies, the album revolves around the theme of the real versus artificial, and how the quickening pace of society manifests itself in individualistic ways. But it also just rocks, with slicing guitars crashing up against Haines' voice that's equal parts growling and purring. Fuse spoke with Haines about her sci-fi leanings, role model reluctance and finding her way through "the maze."
Synthetica’s themes of the real, unreal and imagined reminded me of dystopian sci-fi authors like William Gibson or Phillip K. Dick. Are you a sci-fi fan?
Oh my God, I love that you’re asking me this because I spoke to a journalist in Germany who called the album a sci-fi pop opera and that’s maybe the best thing anybody’s ever said. My bookshelves are full of Phillip K. Dick, but I didn’t pick them up at all while writing Synthetica. I suppose the ideas could have already taken hold, though, and I certainly hope to have been influenced by him somehow. The Man in the High Castle, A Scanner Darkly and especially Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said are a few of my favorites.
Anything else sci-fi related that influenced your writing?
Jose Saramago’s Death With Interruptions is not considered sci-fi, but I loved this book because, like Dick, the story is based on an unreal premise that reveals a lot about what we accept as immutable fact. [The plot revolves around one state in which people suddenly stop dying and loved ones must drag suffering relatives across the border to die, an act severely punished by the government.]
By reversing what we all accept as man's common goal—to escape death as long as possible, and to maintain "order " by keeping belief systems in place which promise appealing variations of an afterlife—Saramago forces the reader to consider and question his stance. For me, this is the same kind of disorienting, thought-provoking experience that I got from reading Neuromancer, Brave New World and 1984. In an age where traces of antidepressant drugs are found in the water supply, declaring "Soylent Green is people!" doesn't seem so far-fetched. What interests me about the fictional future is the way such narratives can connect the most outrageous and far-flung predictions to easily identifiable present-day trends. There's nothing wrong with a little healthy paranoia.
The first line in the album is the less-than-subtle “I’m just as fucked up as they say” on "Artificial Nocturne."
[Laughs] No, not very subtle, and it was funny because what I originally had for the beginning of that song was a completely obscure [line]. I was hiding behind this wordplay trickery and [guitarist] Jimmy [Shaw] was like, "This song is great, but what are you talking about?" It was not good writing and very circuitous; all descriptions and no content.
That line sets the tone for the rest of the album.
Yeah, Jimmy was like, "You have to say what you actually mean." When we played that song at Sasquatch, I was really feeling out what my delivery was. It’s a hell of a thing to proclaim, because we start the show with that [song] and instantaneously I realized that it’s a complete moment of bonding with the audience. This is a passionate group of people we’re talking about, from the musicians to the listeners. And it was a beautiful moment where I felt like this was a total statement of solidarity; that we’re all flawed and we hide out in the back together, we live at night but we’re good people and we’re honest.
It was like a communal catharsis.
That’s exactly it, and I didn’t know what it was going to be like. I didn’t know if it would seem overly confessional or self-absorbed and it didn’t. It felt the opposite, like a rallying cry for the outsiders.
Do you think about how the album will be received 10 or 20 years from now, or is it more about what you’re feeling at that moment?
We were evaluating what changed and the pace of things, and the fact that you don’t really stop to reflect. It used to be that you write a journal, and that maybe when you’re dead, people would read it. But now it’s like there's no room for that kind of reflection and honesty. We were trying to get to the bottom of some things and find what’s universal about the themes that kept coming up for us in the making of the record. It was our fifth record and this one was my most enjoyable writing process ever.
It was weird; I always feel, to a certain amount, that the songs are writing themselves, but in this case, we had hundreds of fragments of ideas that were there, and we would freely interchange between songs. So interesting things started to happen, where an idea was a solid idea, like, “I can see the end, but it hasn’t happened yet.” Like there was one phrase and melody that was such a cohesive thing, but it was on its own and unclear where it belonged. It found its way on “Breathing Underwater” as the natural place to contrast with the other lyrics, but the whole thing had this feeling that we do live in a fragmented existence, and we in fact embrace it and then still end up putting together conventional songs. But it’s almost like each song is part of the whole thing in an era where everyone says albums don’t matter.
You’ve mentioned how certain Metric albums have helped you through different struggles in your life. What's the most important thing you learned about yourself through recording Synthetica?
A song like “Dreams for Real” was hanging over me for years. It was this feeling that I’m actually not contributing anything and music doesn’t have any real function and we believe in a romantic notion of that magical era in the ‘60s and ‘70s when it felt like musicians and artists were leading the world. And having an impact and just being honest with myself that I don’t know if I’m doing any good.
Was that a harsh realization to come to?
Yeah. And when it comes to the question of girls in music and that whole scene, which I generally ignore and avoid altogether and it’s worked wonderfully for me so far, people are like “What do I do? I’m a woman in music. Is that hard?” And I’m just like, "I have no idea what you mean." That’s been my solution, which is not an entirely honest response. I just think about what young women have to look to if they look to me or, God forbid, what they see in the manufactured pop world as the direction to go and clues they’re getting on how to behave and who to become. For so long, I questioned the value of my contribution.
You've talked about the impact that “Help I'm Alive” had and how you didn’t realize how many people would relate to it. Have you accepted that you're now a role model whether you want to be or not? Or are you still coming to terms with that?
I accept it to the extent that I’m glad that the music helps people. I’m not going to modify my behavior for the idea that I can give anybody any answers, though. You listen to the lyrics and the statements that we make as a band, it’s more questions than answers for sure. I don’t feel like I have any wisdom for anyone really.
Metric is celebrating their 10th anniversary and you've said “I’ve come to accept certain things ... about devoting your life to a band, but I still struggle with others.” Can you elaborate on those struggles in terms of where you are now in 2012 versus 2002?
I think it’s more just trying to get my head around the fact that this is what will have been what I did with my life, you know? It’s on. The day we finished recording [2003's debut album] Old World Underground, Where Are You Now?, my father passed away. When I look back, and anybody who’s lost someone close to them will know this once they come out of the fog years later, it was coinciding with the beginning of me just touring and working and immersing myself in the band. I was so driven by grief. Sometimes I feel shocked or concerned that so much of my career has transpired under the fog of that grief or the disorienting effect of death. And I’m very happy that I’m out of the fog and now I look forward to more years of making music where it’s not coming from such a place of such pain.
Is it a tangible feeling while you’re recording the new album or was it more like once the album was done, you were able to reflect back on that?
With this album, we were free of a lot of the things in the past that, in retrospect, made things harder than they had to be. Contractual problems, business problems, personal and emotional issues, relationship problems, all these things that have been barriers to becoming the writer that I want to be. I feel like some of those things lifted and I don’t believe in pursuing unhappiness as a source of inspiration. I really have never done that; I just still manage to be a dark soul nonetheless, you know? I love the idea of this vulnerability and honesty on the one hand, but then the music behind it has such confidence and energy and strength.