Chatting with Jimmy Shaw of Metric
Metric have had a landmark year. Their 5th LP Synthetica debuted at #2 in Canada and #12 on the Billboard 200. Their singles “Youth Without Youth” and “Breathing Underwater” have been dominating the airwaves across North America, and the band completed a U.S. tour that included stops at high profile festivals like Sasquatch, Lollapalooza, and Osheaga. We had the chance to catch up with guitarist Jimmy Shaw by phone on some time off as the band prepares to hit the road across Canada, starting in Victoria this week.
Alex: Metric just wrapped up a US tour a couple weeks ago. Sounds pretty iconic; you played amazing venues like Radio City Music Hall and had Lou Reed join you on stage.
Jimmy: That was one of those moments in life where you can’t believe it’s happening. It wasn’t only that he joined us for the encore, but we seguewayed from “The Wanderlust” into “Pale Blue Eyes”. I was playing guitar for a Velvet Underground song and Lou Reed was singing. One of my favourite moments.
Alex: I’m fascinated by songwriting. In another interview you explained this idea of an artist becoming themselves more than everyone else and therefore the emotion they express is completely universal. You mentioned “All I Need” by Radiohead as an example. I feel like Emily really accomplished that with the opening line on Synthetica, “I’m just as f***ed up as they say”. Would you agree?
Jimmy: Totally. It was really funny when she came up with that. She had all these convoluted lines and I said “Emily I don’t know what you’re saying. Like it’s pretty and all, but what the hell are you talking about?”. And I kept going on that and she got a bit frustrated as she does when I push on her and she said “I’m just trying to say I’m f***ed up!” and I was like “OK, say that!”. I was so supportive of it being the opening line; it really makes the whole thing about a proclamation of who you are, where you are at, and not being ashamed, you know?. Owning your faults. It became the greater context for all the other points on the record, even as we got into her things about the future and technology. About being OK with yourself.
Alex: You wrote Fantasies on the road “with your fans”. I remember you guys playing “Stadium Love” at V-Fest back in 2007. Was it a conscious decision to write Synthetica completely in secret and under wraps?
Jimmy: I guess semi-conscious. It wasn’t a big concept. We just didn’t feel like it. Once we started in the studio we got really wrapped up in it, and took no breaks. The songs weren’t really asking to be played. And Synthetica just flowed. Fantasies had so little flow, it was such a f***ed up process. Torturous. Synthetica wasn’t like that.
Alex: You and Emily have both said you have your own writing style; she writes on the piano and you speed it up and make it “danceable”, or you write full arrangements that she then gives lyrics and a melody to. What tracks on Synthetica were your writing style?
Jimmy: There was quite a bit. “The Void” was like that, “Synthetica”, “Nothing But Time”…”Youth Without Youth” was little of both. So many things started out one way and got “frankensteined”, or cut up, or we’d like cut part of a song out and put it into another one. It was really patchy. It was like instead of 10 songs we had 22 verses, 13 choruses, a bunch of intros and outros, and the whole thing kinda became Synthetica all together.
Alex: With Fantasies you released a couple B-Sides like “Waves” and “Black Sheep”; any possibility we’ll see any from Synthetica?
Jimmy: Going back to what I said about Synthetica being more like pieces, there’s a couple pieces that need more work before they see the light of day. There was so many pieces that the stuff left over is not songs.
Alex: You produced Eight and a Half‘s debut this year as well, and it was recorded at your own Giant Studio I understand?
Jimmy: Partially; at the end they were kind of lost and they came to me and asked to bring it into the studio to see what’s finished and not finished. I think it was like 10-12 days at the beginning of January, oh f*** like 2 years ago now? We wrapped up the process there. That process made me connect with Liam for Synthetica. He was only supposed to be in Toronto for those 10 or 12 days and I asked him to stay for 3 more days and he ended up staying for a year and producing our record. And out of that Liam and Dave are now an integral part of my studio. I mean, a studio is like a living, breathing entity. They care so much for the place, it’s blossomed into this amazing relationship.
Alex: I’ve always loved that Metric’s live presence has not changed that drastically over the years. That Sequential Circuits Pro-One has always been center stage, regardless of whether it was a tiny club, a theatre, or an arena. Is there other gear that you have had forever that will always be part of the bands live presence?
Jimmy: There’s something about that Pro-One. It’s funny, in the studio I have so many synthesizers in my nerdy synth-world that are way better than it, but it just sounds like Metric. Especially when Emily plays it. There’s just something between her and that keyboard. We’ve tried switching it out dozens of times but it doesn’t work. I guess I have my yellow Jaguar, it’s more from Live It Out, but its a Metric sound. But ultimately, the Pro-One.
Alex: Tell me about “Lost Kitten”. I understand that the song itself was “lost” for a bit as it was considered for Fantasies but didn’t make it. Lyrically its similar to “Hustle Rose” from Old World Underground…how long has it been kicking around?
Jimmy: It was a part of the process of making Fantasies. It was deep in Fantasies but I couldn’t make it fit, esthetically. I could change the song to pull it towards the record, but it was losing the point of the song. I didn’t want to pull the record towards the song and I knew it was a good song and it would come back. Then in the middle of making Synthetica, I had completely forgotten about the song, hadn’t heard it in like 2 years, and our manager Matt called and said something like “Remember “Lost Kitten”?”. He had found a demo, listened to it and wanted it for a movie or something and said to pull it up. Went into the studio and all me and Liam found were the kick, snare, and bass line. We couldn’t find vocals or anything else. We searched the hard drive for hours and hours and I just said “f*** it, I remember it, lets do it now”. We worked on it and were done in 6 hours. Emily walked in at like 11pm or something, fueled by martinis, sat down, re-wrote it, went and did like 2 vocal takes and that was it. It became a centerpiece of Synthetica. I was comfortable when the rest of record wasn’t sounding like it because I could pull the record toward it.
Alex: Metric will be embarking on their first cross Canada arena tour next month, and you’re taking your best friends Stars. Anything you can let us know about it?
Jimmy: It’s going to be bizarre. I mean I grew up with Stars; I’ve known Chris since I was 7, Torq since I was 15…there will be moments of “what the hell happened?”. Little nerve wracking for Metric, as we’ve never been comfortable doubling our audience overnight. We’ve grown so architecturally, moving slowly and securely. But there’s nowhere to go after the theatre. You go from like 2500-3000 to 10,000. Bit of a scary one. We built a crazy stage for it, should be awesome.
Alex: Jimmy, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me today. See you in Victoria and Vancouver!
Jimmy: No problem, see you then Alex!
Metric kick off their cross Canada tour with 3 B.C. tour dates:
November 9th in Victoria, BC – Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre
November 10th in Vancouver, BC – Rogers Arena
November 12th in Kelowna, BC – Prospera Place
Tickets for all 3 dates are available by clicking here.