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For Metric frontwoman Emily Haines, all these questions came to a head on the evening of March 30, 2008 at the Phoenix Concert Theatre in Toronto. She was all set to perform the sombre piano-based ballads that comprised the two releases from her solo venture, The Soft Skeleton: Knives Don't Have Your Back and What Is Free To a Good Home? — much of which were written following a time of great sadness and personal loss. But having performed those songs so many times since Knives' September 2006 release, Haines had an epiphany during that Phoenix show — she didn't want to be sad anymore. And she didn't want to play those songs. So, about 40 minutes into the show, she stopped "Dr. Blind" mid-verse and said just that: "I don't want to play these songs anymore." Instead, she spent the next half hour talking to her fans, encouraging them to join her at the piano on stage and, for the grand finale, pulling a kid from the audience for an impromptu duet on Metric's "Live It Out." She was up for anything — except playing those songs. Some disappointed Soft Skeleton fans in the crowd probably thought the show was a trainwreck. But for Haines herself, it was about getting her mind back on track — to the business of completing Metric's long-awaited fourth album, Fantasies.
"Writing for me comes from a process of trying to piece things together," says Haines. "The function of music in my life is to help me understand what the hell is happening. This new record was about ending the fragmentation of my existence. Everything in the world right now — all the technology, the way we listen to music or watch films — everything has changed so much in my lifetime. People are allowed to have multiple identities — you're somebody online, you're somebody else in public — in multiple dimensions, scattered across the world… I wanted to bring all that into one place, one band, one record… I want to be one person."
But in order to come together, Metric first had to drift apart. After touring non-stop between 2003's breakthrough release Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? and 2005's frenzied follow-up Live It Out, the four members of Metric sought sanctuary in sideline pursuits — Haines threw herself into the Soft Skeleton and took a soul-cleansing sojourn to Argentina; guitarist/co-founder Jimmy Shaw built a neighborhood recording facility, Giant Studio, on Toronto's burgeoning Ossington Avenue strip with his neighbor Sebastian Grainger; while the Oakland, California-based rhythm section of bassist Joshua Winstead and drummer Joules Scott-Key toured their own garage-rock offshoot, Bang Lime.
"We didn't have a moment where we stopped," says Haines. "When I look back at the touring, it really was like 300 days a year for those three years [between 2003 and 2006]. After that, I thought if we went straight into recording the next album right away we would end up just writing about being in a band on the road because that's all we had experienced. We had to reconnect with our humanity first."
Says Shaw: "We allowed this record to take a year and a half whereas for Live It Out we didn't let it take more than 10 weeks. We just allowed it to take its own process, and whatever that process was going to be, it was going to be, and we were relaxed about it. We wrote when we could — we would get together for a month and then take a couple months to do our own personal shit again."
Formed in Toronto but, at various times, based in Montreal, London, New York and L.A., Metric boasts the sort of history that requires one of those connect-the-dots redlined maps you see in an Indiana Jones movie — and the story of Fantasies is no different. First stop: Bear Creek, located outside Seattle, Washington.
"The four us went out into the woods as a band with no expectations and did whatever we wanted" Haines recalls. "We were coming from London so it was a serious contrast - it felt like we had left civilization and all that mattered was music again. We wrote a lot of songs there including 'Gimme Sympathy', 'Collect Call'… and 'Black Sheep', which isn't on the album 'cause it has a life of its own. When I listen to the finished record, I feel like all its warmth comes from that place in the woods."
In their recent episode of the Bruce McDonald-produced IFC documentary series, The Rawside Of…, Metric can be seen performing these songs in stripped-down, acoustic versions, and following the taut, barb-wired rock of Live It Out, it would've made total sense for the band to pursue a simple, back-to-basics approach further. But as the scene shifted over the course of 2007 and 2008 — back to Toronto and then New York, with Haines' Argentina retreat in between — so too did the shape of the album. And through rigorous road-testing of the new songs, the mercurial material gradually solidified into a singular sound.
"We toured the new songs a lot," Shaw says, "because you might play something 30 times live before you start to realize, 'Why did I get bored every single time I got to the second verse?' and 'Why does the ending always suck?' The songs went through a lot of surgery, and we really feel like we sculpted them and got the best out of them. I felt like I could hear the sound of the whole thing in my head — it was really big and really dreamy. There were images of chasing invisible butterflies and pterodactyls coming out of their shells and flying off prehistoric cliffs. The sound of the record was more based on the idea of soaring pterodactyls than on that of another band, or some '70s sound."
Adds Haines, "For me, the major influences on the record were the places we wrote it: Bear Creek, this utopian farmhouse studio, and then our own studio in Toronto, which definitely brought in the electro, dance and rock elements because the city feels so good right now and so many of our musician friends were around. And then for me, being in Buenos Aires, most of the songs I brought to this record came out of being in exile with just a piano and a guitar. And then in the final stages, mixing at Electric Lady in NYC brought everything around to where we first met Josh and Joules."
But Fantasies is not so much about where Metric has been as where it takes you. While Haines' missives from inside the VIP room (as cutting as ever on motorik rockers "Gold Guns Girls" and "Front Row") would suggest the titular Fantasies are of the unattainable (or even undesirable) variety, the album's gilded surfaces and textural density — a heady amalgam of psychedelia, disco, electronic and rock — supports Shaw's assertion that the title is meant to evoke a certain "dream state" quality. And no song better encapsulates the utter surreality of dreaming — that peculiar combination of bliss and terror — than Fantasies' massive glam-rockin' closer "Stadium Love," a song meant to be heard in the building it's named after, but whose candy-coated "ooh-ooh-ie-ooh" chorus just might distract you from all the crazy shit happening during the verses in between.
Haines explains: "I had just gotten back from Coachella, and I walked into the studio and noticed on the bulletin board that Joules had written 'spider vs bat,' i think he had been obsessively watching all these National Geographic animals-fighting-each-other-videos in his hotel room. For me, that phrase triggered an entire narrative that was about a gladiator-style enormo-dome where everything turns in on itself, with every form of aggression on display for spectators: monster trucks ramming into each other, bull fighting, sweaty men wrestling. And then you have these animals completely disconnected from the logic of their natural habitat, so you have a swan pecking the shit out of an elephant and pigs biting the necks out of tigers, and bats attacking spiders. And then in the seats, the spectators are kicking the shit out of each other too. There's this completely blurred line between spectator and participant, and we're all trapped in this fucked up Noah's Ark. The images came to me all at once, and I wrote the lyrics on the spot."
And so an album that began its life as an acoustic jam session in the bucolic woods outside Seattle ends in a cartoon orgy of bloodshed in some mythical arena that exists in the darkest recesses of Emily Haines' mind. Each extreme represents a fantasy in their own right: the ideal of hermetic artistic purity versus the spectacle of excess and decadence. Being yourself versus being what they want you to be. Emily Haines stared down these very polarities on her own that night at the Phoenix, but with Fantasies, Metric are now free to define their reality on their own terms. So when, amid the daydream electro of "Gimme Sympathy," Haines invokes that age-old existential dilemma — "Who would you rather be: The Beatles or The Rolling Stones?" — it's only because she already knows the answer: neither.