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Metric learns how to stop fighting, explore its 'Fantasies'

June 4, 2009 |  8:35 am

After spending the better part of the decade touring and building a following on independent releases, Metric was finally in the position it had sought to be in for much of its career. Yet being courted by major labels didn’t provide the Toronto-headquartered rock quartet any validation. It served as a wake-up call.

Metric took nearly five years between the release of 2005’s “Live It Out” and this spring’s “Fantasies.” During the gap, the band built its own Toronto studio and started a record label, Metric Music International, and realized that thriving just outside the mainstream isn’t such a raw deal after all.

“This wasn’t intended to be a statement,” says lead singer and songwriter Emily Haines. “We just exhausted all options."

“Fantasies,” in many ways, is a celebration of perseverance. It’s Metric’s loudest and most streamlined album to date; keyboards with a new-wave gloss complement stadium-ready guitar riffs. Anxieties are conquered in the reverberating “Help I’m Alive,” and characters come to grips with reality via the interstellar atmospheres of “Twilight Galaxy.”

It may not all be classified as happy, but much of it feels like an ode to autonomy.

“We took meetings with the head of every major label in the United States,” Haines says. “These companies aren’t structured in a way that they can do anything but say, ‘I’ll give you half a million dollars.’ That’s basically your buyout, and then they meddle in the trajectory of your career, your creative identity, the timing of your releases and then you’ll make 23 cents per record. … If you were going to open a dry-cleaning business, and the bank told you those were the terms of the loan, you’d borrow the money from your brother.”

Or, if you’re a Canadian band, Big Brother.

Metric's decision to work without a label was made easier because it tapped a nonprofit funding entity available to Canadian artists and some government aid. With a little help from the Foundation to Assist Canadian Talent on Recordings, Metric received a loan of about $50,000 to help cover recording costs, as well as a smaller government grant. (The success of "Fantasies," which has sold 34,000 copies in the U.S. since its release in April, according to Nielsen SoundScan, has allowed the band to pay off the loan in full, co-manager Mathieu Drouin said in an earlier interview.)

“It’s the equivalent of programs for small businesses that exist in other countries,” Haines says. “There’s an inherent respect, a value for art, in Canada. … I feel bad for our American friends who don’t have an equivalent start-up support. But it’s not a recipe for success any more than being an heir to millions.”

And don’t talk to Metric about paying their dues. A veteran of waiting tables, as recently as 2003 Haines was spending her days entering data for one of the music industry’s failed attempts at an online subscription service, the defunct Pressplay.

"You need five grand to make your demos, go on tour, buy some gear and pay your friends," Haines says. "Ideally, it works for itself like a small business. It either grows or not grows. If it can grow, the architecture is there for it to be potentially infinite."

Look for Metric’s profile to continue to rise. In 2010, the band will a have song in “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” a film based on the popular graphic novels from Bryan Lee O’Malley. Directed by Edgar Wight (“Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz”), the picture stars Michael Cera as a budding rock 'n’ roll bassist, and unreleased Metric song “Black Sheep” will represent one of the bands in the film.

Haines says the song would have been released on “Fantasies” had Wright not approached the group. “There was a debate as to whether or not it should go on the record. The guys [in the band] didn’t know what I was talking about in it, and I couldn’t really tell them. It has images of things in space -- real estate in space. It’s some of the more esoteric lyrics I’ve written, which totally worked for Edgar’s movie.”

Haines' mood on "Fantasies" is much more relaxed than it was on 2005’s tension-filled “Live It Out,” which was a little more hopeless, a bit more angry and decidedly less fun. There’s nothing on “Fantasies” as desperate as “Glass Ceiling,” where guitars sound like paramedic sirens and the corporate rat race wipes away one's personality. 

“We needed to stop feeling like we’re fighting,” Haines says. “We were fighting against the [political] administration, the music industry and ourselves. Something clicked, and we all just decided we were going to start creating the reality we want to live in. I sound idealistic and childish talking about this. But this is my life, and I know I’m not an angry person, and I refuse to become a bitter person.”

-- Todd Martens

Metric at the Wiltern, 3790 Wilshire Blvd., on June 8. Tickets are $18.50, not including surcharges.

Photo credit: Big Hassle Media