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Interview: Metric’s Emily Haines Finds New Inspiration With 'Synthetica Reflections'

By Jessica Mlinaric in Arts & Entertainment on Nov 18, 2013 7:10PM

Credit: Justin Broadbent

Canadian quartet Metric return to Chicago on Nov. 24 to play the UIC Pavilion in support of Paramore. Still enjoying the success of 2012’s Synthetica, which was nominated for a Polaris Prize, the indie-pop band recently released a companion album on iTunes. Synthetica Reflections offers an atmospheric take on the tracks performed entirely on analog synthesizers. Accompanying the album is a Synthetica app for iTunes, which allows users to remix and filter Metric songs. Chicagoist caught up with lead vocalist Emily Haines somewhere between New York and Boston to reflect on technology’s effect on the music industry and how some things never change.

Chicagoist: You just released Synthetica Reflections, and you have an app that accompanies it. How did you decide to release an app?

Emily Haines: I don’t think it was really a natural progression, actually. I don’t think we would have ever been like, “Hey let’s put out an app for no reason.” We were approached by Scot Snibbe and the whole [Snibbe Stuido] crew who had such beautiful ideas and we thought it was a great opportunity. We’re really happy with it. We thought it was an unusual point of view to experience the artwork in a way that you otherwise couldn’t. It’s like an updated version of when you get vinyl and open it up. You listen to this record while you look at the pictures and lose yourself in the image. I feel as though what they created with us is an updated version of that experience.

C: Digitally, you often lose that experience of opening up the vinyl or CD case and getting to explore the artwork. How involved were you guys with the design itself?

EH: We are really involved in everything we do, yet in all of our collaborations the attitude we take is let the person express what they’re good at and give them guidance to make sure it’s consistent with our vision then let them run with it. So that’s what we did.

Part of the idea was to design it in a modular way, so it’s just really an entry point right now. I’m excited already about additions or upgrades that can be created. We want to hear feedback from people about what other features they’d be interested in. We’re looking at ways to have it be an evolving thing.

C: Can you speak to the way releasing music has changed since you guys have been a band? Whether its transitioning to putting out music on your own label or having the opportunity to partner on an app to accompany your work?

EH: I think we’re in an unusual position being in a band for ten years, making it through all those changes and straddling a lot of those times. When we started out, we were still firmly in the world of having a piece of paper and a pen at the merch table for email lists. When we were struggling through issues with recording companies, who we have always had sort of a contentious relationship with, we’d have involvement, but the general model was always troubling for us. We used to do all kinds of creative things in the days before iTunes. We had a little mail order thing where we would put together a custom made CD, write a little note, and personally mail our music to people because we had no way to connect.

With the advent of iTunes we felt that this could be more perfect. What a band like us needed was to have the tools in our hands to be able to get a lot of the bullshit out of the way and just make some music and let people listen to it. Ignore all of the branding that goes with what label are you signed to and what your identity is based on that.

Releasing Fantasies ourselves worldwide, and particularly in the U.S., was really scary. In 2008 it felt like, “if we fail we fail.” Then that was really successful, and for a minute there it felt like the online revolution was succeeding against these power structures. Maybe we’re entering a whole new era where musicians will enjoy more power and freedom. Then after a few years we had a bit of an awakening that things aren’t really that different, and the same power structures are in place.

Our manager was invited to speak on a panel for a conference that also included the manager for U2. What was really interesting was that afterwards the U2 manager said, “I really respect that you guys have been going up against that system and I can see why the old school major label system needed to change. You’re right, but if you think those guys are scary wait until you have to deal with Apple and Google and then you’ll see.”

So we’re still dealing with powerful entities, and in some ways they are more helpful to us and in some ways they’re not. I think it’s an interesting question though, and it’s still evolving. One thing we know is it’s not going back the way it was, but I don’ think we’ve necessarily arrived at where it’s headed either.

C: How did the band come to re-imagine the Synthetica tracks for Reflections?

EH: Like a lot of things we do it sort of just happened, and it’s been exciting to follow it through. In 2012, around the same time that we were finishing up Synthetica, we wanted to do an ambient version of “Artificial Nocturne.” It was instantly so interesting when the whole band was in the studio and we felt it transforming into this whole other performance.

We just wanted to keep going. Each of the songs have their own other character that came through, they don’t all sound the same. We ended up staying out really late at the studio that night, I think it was like a 9 a.m. departure. We were really happy with it, and we released a few of the songs in the deluxe edition of Synthetica. I really wanted it to be heard as one piece because it’s quite meditative and stoner-friendly, same thing with the app, they’re both stoner-friendly.

C: As you all started exploring that familiar material in an unfamiliar way did you find anything surprising?

EH: Always. That’s something that amazes me about the craft of songwriting. The architecture of the song, if it’s built properly, can withstand all kinds of things. We’ve experienced that with our acoustic version of our songs. Oftentimes the most produced and synth-tastic songs are the ones that end up sounding the best acoustic.

For some reason the acoustic version of “Synthetica” the song has this sort of homey, almost country feel to it which was never the direction that it went previously. It was a similar process with our Reflections tracks, varying tempo and range, taking melodies and changing the phrasing changes the mood of what this other rendition is saying. There’s a certain thinly veiled math element that drives us to explore what’s possible in music. I am still in great awe of the three minute song.

C: Can we expect to hear any new material on this tour?

EH: Actually yeah, it’s been new-old. It’s been a really interesting tour. These really big shows with Paramore are excellent with great crowds, great venues, and loads of energy, it’s like getting to play a festival show every night. Then on the side we booked a bunch of smaller theater shows to sort of return to the earlier days of the band. They have been really exciting for us to play stuff we haven’t played since 2005 and seeing how those songs fit with the rest of the repertoire and how far we’ve come since those days. It’s a nice combination of things; they’re not new but the songs do feel new. They feel fresh which is an incredible thing.

I’m excited about ending out this year on a really high note. There’s a lot of new people discovering our band and what we represent, how we’ve done things and managed to be ourselves through all the years. I’m excited for what’s next. It’s wide open.

Tickets are available at the UIC Pavillion box office or online via Ticketmaster.