By Mary Dickie
Metric’s latest album takes pop on a trip. Singer Emily Haines assures Mary Dickie this is no fantasy.
The word “synthetica” might evoke images of Lucite bangles by Alexis Bittar or acrylic-embellished Christian Louboutin heels, but Metric had something much loftier in mind when they made it the title of their latest album. They chose a name that addressed the “real vs. fake” debate permeating today’s Auto-Tuned, silicone-enhanced pop culture. It also represents a step forward sonically for the Toronto new wave /indie rock band, with a more futuristic, even cinematic sound.
Synthetica began with Metric singer and keyboardist Emily Haines writing about a “nightmare robot” character inspired by a replicant from the cult sci-fi movie Blade Runner. At the same time, guitarist Jimmy Shaw was becoming obsessed with the sounds he was getting from vintage synthesizers. Eventually, they realized that those synths were a potent symbol of the intriguing grey area between human and machine.
“At the time of their invention, synthesizers were the sound of the future,” says Haines. “When we imagine the sound of an alien spaceship landing, it’s not a guitar riff, right? It’s some tweaked-out synth. But we found that those instruments actually seemed the most human of all—they’re just pulses of energy. So a lot of our preconceptions got turned on their heads.”
As they worked on the songs with bassist Josh Winstead and drummer Joules Scott Key, Haines and Shaw let the theme lead them. “We’d be writing and we’d stop and say, ‘Where’s this going?’” she says. “It was like asking the oracle what the hell we were talking about, and it just became clearer: the idea of what’s artificial and what’s not in an age when so many things are manufactured.”
Haines stresses that Synthetica is not a concept album, and when Metric plays live, don’t expect her to dress as a replicant—or a conventional pop star. “Seeing women on stage in their underwear amazes me,” she says. “I mean, they look great, but that’s not going to happen with me anytime soon.” Haines admits her stage style has evolved over the years, though, from scruffy T-shirts to a more glam look that includes sequined tanks and sparkly mini-dresses. “I had a uniform in the days when we played clubs,” she says. “There was no point in having much more. You’d throw your bag in the back of the van, and what are you going to bring—a wardrobe? So for two years I wore a black skirt with pinstripes, wedge boots given to me by Agnès B and a top I got at a thrift store, with a neck that stood up. I was honing my frenetic dancing style and I always felt really comfortable in that top. Then I lost it, which was momentous.”
Recognizing the importance of presenting a sharper image during live shows, Haines began to put more effort into her look. “I had friends make me a few things and then I started to get the idea of coming up with clothes for the stage,” she says. “It was homemade at first, certainly not high fashion. The most important thing was to be free in my movements. You’d be amazed what I have to do to perform—it’s like preparing to be launched into space. Nothing can be hanging, dangling or catching, nothing I can trip over, nothing that’s going to move—things have to be really set.”
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