Posted November 13, 2013 by Jeff in Tunes

James Shaw of Metric talks about band’s chemistry


On last year’s Synthetica, the Canadian synth pop band Metric explored the postmodern condition in songs essentially about the fine line between what’s real and what’s not. Guitarist James Shaw phoned in from a tour stop in Virginia to discuss the album and the band’s current tour which has it paired with pop-punk sensations Paramore.

The roots of this band go back some 15 years. Talk about the kind of music that you and Emily Haines originally set out to make.
We wanted to exist in the mainstream and be something that didn’t sound that mainstream. We didn’t want to be the commercial thing in the indie world. We wanted to be the credible thing in the mainstream world. The only real thing that’s changed is that we know more now. In some ways we’re more realistic about what fits where. In other ways, our power is broader.

Rock ’n’ roll is about feeling and instincts; it’s not necessarily about training. In some ways, knowing about chords doesn’t get you any closer to portraying the emotion you want to portray. 

How did your classical background inform the music you ended up making?
When I stopped playing classical music and headed into rock ’n’ roll, a large part of the process for me was trying to unlearn what I knew. Rock ’n’ roll is about feeling and instincts; it’s not necessarily about training. In some ways, knowing about chords doesn’t get you any closer to portraying the emotion you want to portray. For me, there was time to unlearn what I knew. There’s no question that in terms of theory and harmonics and chord changes and all sorts of different things, that is still in there. I can’t fully escape my roots.

So what got you into rock?
Living in New York when I was going to school, I was living with Torquil Campbell, who’s now the singer in Stars. We were roommates and he had this crazy record collection. The more and more I was getting dissuaded with school and playing in the orchestra, the more that we would get stoned and listen to records. I started selling off my trumpets one by one and buying guitars and synthesizers and reel-to-reel 8-tracks and it started to transition.

Did you grow up listening to lots of synth pop and New Wave?
In my early teens, I listened to a lot of classical music. The stuff that was popular was older stuff like Neil Young and stuff like that.

Synthetica came out a year ago but talk a bit about the recording process. What was that like?
We did a lot of it in my place in Toronto. What was really refreshing about it was that we really felt comfortable. We did whatever we wanted to do. We gave ourselves freedom and space to explore things musically and not judge things too quickly. In the exploration process, we discovered sounds that were really resonating with us. We discovered lyrical content and tonal stuff and instruments that were really calling out to us and making us feel something. We had enough time and space to go with it and see where it would take it. I think that’s why it ended up as sort of a concept record and has its own sound in the end.

What was it like working with the late Lou Reed on “Wanderlust”?
Emily had done a few things with him. She had played with him in Sydney and in Central Park. When we were working on that song we felt there was something in it that was missing. It couldn’t be her singing against herself. It needed this older voice. She asked him and he was into it. It just happened.

It’s a great memento.
Exactly. On the tour bus, there’s a little board where you can write things and erase them. The board is just things to be grateful for. So everyday if you’re stuck in a parking lot and it’s remaining, this is things to be grateful for. On that board is Lou’s entire life and the fact that it crossed paths with ours.

It’s becoming increasingly more difficult to know what’s going on in front of you.

The album suggests it has a theme about knowing what’s real and what’ s not. Is it a concept album?
It is a theme that has a general thread through all the songs and is more overt at times. It was definitely something we were thinking about it. It appeared in the music. We decided to go with it. We live in an era where a loner can have a thousand friends on Facebook, so are you a loner or not a loner? What is going on? It’s becoming increasingly more difficult to know what’s going on in front of you.

Talk about the instrumental remake of Synthetica that you recorded using entirely analog synthesizers.
It started as an idea that we wanted to try to see what would happen. We didn’t intend on doing the whole album. We went into the studio one night and at 10 we started and 8 in the morning we were done. We moved on to the next song and would tweak it and would tweak it and make it sound beautiful with soundscaping. For me music that sounds like that is a lot of what I listen to. It was a cool experience that takes the pressure off of making an album. We just wanted to make something sonically pleasing. I never really did anything like that. It wasn’t a remix; it was just a shorter version of the record.

And there’s an album app in the works too?
It’s all based on the artwork and imagery we used throughout the record. Half the songs, you get these building blocks of the samples and build your own version of it. It’s very cool. You do things in a very different way. Musicians often don’t discern what the bass is doing or what the keyboards are doing and it gives the listener an opportunity to isolate things and put the back together in different ways. The other style is like a chaos pad and you can draw all over the place and the song filters and delays and does a bunch of cool shit.

Any ideas what the next studio album will sound like?
To be totally honest, I don’t have a clue. I wish I did. I think it will be the same thing. We’ll just go in and do some exploration and see what happens and what we relate to and what resonates and go with what works.

Upcoming 2013 Tour Dates















Camden, NJ – Susquehanna Bank Center

Fairfax, VA – Patriot Center

Bethlehem, PA – Sands Bethlehem Event Center

New York, NY – Madison Square Garden

Worcester, MA – DCU Center

Portland, ME – The State Theatre

Uncasville, CT – Mohegan Sun Arena

Auburn Hills, MI – The Palace of Auburn Hills

Milwaukee, WI – Turner Hall Ballroom

St. Paul, MN – Roy Wilkins Auditorium

Chicago, IL – UIC Pavilion

Cleveland, OH – House of Blues

Nashville, TN – Bridgestone Arena

Duluth, GA – The Arena at Gwinnett Center


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].