Emily Haines, the ethereal soprano behind alt-rock outfit Metric, was at a precipice: Along with band mates James “Jimmy” Shaw, Joshua Winstead, and Joules Scott-Key, they have carved out a particular niche of electro-based indie music that has been both critically acclaimed and commercially viable for well over a decade, doing it all on their own terms and winning over legions of fans along the way. She’s been heralded as a female icon and an outspoken intellectual. But with their newest record, Pagans in Vegas, something had to change. To do that, the band flipped the script on what it means to make electronic music, manipulating acoustic instruments and recording those sounds directly to tape. The resulting record is a new direction for the band, both musically and lyrically. A bold move to be sure, but Haines has never been one to let the grass grow under her feet. The band is currently on tour supporting Pagans, making a stop this Friday, February 26 at The Palladium.
Many identify Metric as a Canadian band, but fewer know you were born in India. How did your parents end up there?
My parents lived in India for close to ten years. They were teachers for the international schools. My mum was doing work with the untouchable kids, early education stuff. So my brothers and sisters grew up there, but they left shortly after they had me and brought me to Canada. I took my mum back a couple of years ago, and that was an amazing journey. It’s such a magical place, and so many strange things happened. My mum was recovering from an illness, so I found a place for us to kind of hide out. It was outside Bangalore, and it was like an all-natural yoga retreat sort of place. We befriended the person who was staying next to us and discovered that he had also been delivered by the same doctor at Dr. Sharma’s Nursing Home in India, in Delhi. It was one of those statistically improbable, beautiful things that makes me feel like life is full of magic if we take a look at it. What are the chances of that?
Growing up you were exposed to the arts, correct?
Yeah, that was definitely the world my parents lived in, and it showed me what was worthwhile and valuable and instilled in me that the people you should respect and appreciate were generally brave in the arts. They didn’t make too fine a point of it. But you look back and you realize that things rubbed off on you, right? Teaching by example. After my father passed away, I published a book of his works called Secret Carnival Workers, which is a line from one of his poems and captures the feeling that he gave me about this world of artists that inhabited New York City in the late ’60s and early ’70s—Carla Bley, Albert Ayler, Robert Wyatt—all these amazing people living in downtown Manhattan. Lots of history and mythology that I have carried with me from them, that’s for sure.
When did music become the clear path for you?
It always was. I had a lot of other interests; I was quite dorky when it came to school. From as long as I can remember, I was always the best at writing. I was fortunate to find teachers who didn’t force me to do things that weren’t me, didn’t force me to become the greatest sight reader in the world, or go to conservatory piano. I really wanted to write.
Do you remember the first song you wrote?
It was called “Cranberry Tree.” A song about a tree (laughs). I was about five. I totally remember it. The thing I remember the most is taking it to my piano teacher at the time, and she thought it was boring. I got a new piano teacher after that! It’s the kind of thing when I look back on my childhood, there was just no money around, none of the trappings that I would now think I need to have a family myself or things that we aspire to—none of that was there. But I felt like I lived in paradise. Our backyard to me was like Central Park, and it really wasn’t, to the point where I wrote a song about a tree (laughs).
Your new record feels like a departure from previous offerings. Tell us about that.
It was really fun to take a completely different direction. Jimmy, just for the love of it, was hanging out in his studio, working away on this stuff in his obsession with modular synthesis. It’s a completely different world from what we think of as electronic music. Pagans was recorded all to tape, which you normally think of for acoustic instruments—authenticity, tape. We have all these associations. To us we’re like “Modular synthesis? Everything played live, not acoustic, to tape.” That’s part of why we get that retro sound. We had this loose idea of dedicating Pagans to that sonic palette with ideas Jimmy had come up with, really just for fun, and then following up on the next record with more material that comes from my direction, which is more the cinematic, atmospheric ballad stuff. So that’s the shape of what we’re doing. It’s hilarious; we thought Pagans was very accessible, and now I think it sounds like a total freaky art record, which is great (laughs). We have zero interference with what we make. Someone should probably tell us not to do something, but nobody has been able to succeed at that. Hence, Pagans in Vegas.
We’ve lost a lot of musical heroes in recent years, including Lou Reed, with whom you worked toward the end of his life. What did he impart to you?
There was a mentorship on his part, and it does go back to my dad and his writing. I know Lou was aware of that world and cared about Albert Ayler and New York in that era. He had an opportunity to be a father figure but in a way, as Jimmy put it the best, he saw me as a writer. He saw me as I wanted to be seen. There’s all kinds of ways to see me, right? Everyone’s seen me in shorts, that’s for sure—jumping around, head-banging, the synth pop and all the genre words, being female-fronted and all that shit. You gotta wear something: The sound is the clothes that you wear, in a way. But with Lou, he just heard my writing, and that was amazing. I’m just glad we got our moment.
Metric plays the Palladium on Friday, February 26.