BMP 2009: James Shaw of Metric on Canada's music scene and self-releasing Fantasies

After realizing they probably knew just as much - if not more - about our changing musical landscape as anyone, Metric released their latest album, Fantasies, themselves. And, of course, it's their most successful album to date, bolstered by massive radio hit "Help, I'm Alive." They're now pretty much the second-most successful band to emerge from the Broken Social Scene collective - doesn't look like anyone's going to knock Feist off the top of that particular mountain anytime soon - and they're playing the WFNX/Boston Phoenix Best Music Poll show this Saturday at City Hall Plaza. That's a free show; we're not sure if we've mentioned that yet. We talked to James Shaw on the phone from the airport in Toronto.

What is it about the new one that you think people are responding to so well?
It's a good question. I think that we had a mantra going into the making of the record that there was a slightly abrasive quality about the records that we'd made beforehand in terms of trying to shove what we felt like was the truth in people's faces, demanding people listen to what we were saying sonically and, ever-so-slightly, lyrically. The idea behind the making of this record was more that we would make it like a sonic embrace and allow people in in a more calm way. And then once they decide to listen to what we have to say, the sentiment is exactly the same. The enticement is a little bit different. We called it the sonic hug.

Did you anticipate this kind of reaction at all?
I'm not very good at expecting anything. I take what comes. There was hopes for this,a nd I'm happy that it's happening the way we envisioned it happening, but I'm not sure that we expected anything. 

One of the more difficult parts of what we were taking on was not so much musically, but in the self-release of the record. The only thing that we expected was that it was going to be a lot of work. And it is. But it feels good doing it.

Talk a little bit about the self-releasing: does that make the whole thing more of a personal thing for you? Is it more of a labor of love this way?
Totally. One of the first things we did after the release of the record was we went to Europe, and just me and Emily did five days of driving around England and continental Europe in a minivan with a one-person crew, going to radio stations, sometimes four or five cities a day. It would have been really easy at moments to be like, "why the hell am I doing this?" And then we realized it was our idea, and no one's forcing us to that. No one's even asking us to do that on the label side. We're demanding it ourselves, because, for better or for worse, we've seen enough to know what's supposed to happen. Once you know the way that the industry works, there's no going back. We decided to take that knowledge and apply it to ourselves, as opposed to applying it to whining about why it isn't going the way you think it's supposed to.

This all seems like a lot of work from your end. Yet your time working on the business and promotion side hasn't prevented you and Emily both from being fairly prolific. How would you say you've been able to balance that?
It might sound cheesey or cliché, but I think we just enjoy what we're doing. Whether it's talking to a tour manager about some sort of game plan that involves online promotion or radio or something, or whether we're in a rehearsal studio working on arrangements for songs. I think that the whole thing has become a labour of love, and there's no giant delineation between making music and creating the infrastructure for how the music is going to work to the rest of the world. I think that the cliche of the rock star as the guy who doesn't want to know anything - "don't tell me; don't give me any information, I'm just going to be over here, stoned, lying down in the corner, playing the guitar, because I'm so bohemian" - maybe that worked in the 70s, but I don't really feel like that's the case anymore. We sort of accidentally learned a whole bunch, and once you know it, you can't really un-learn it. And there was a moment where we decided to do this ourselves, and we decided to love every moment of it, and savor the entire process, as opposed to going through it, going "I wish this wasn't like this. I wish someone else was doing this." Because most of the time in the music industry, when you let someone else do it, they do it for their own benefit, and it usually benefits just them and their organization and their company, and it usually doesn't get done the way you want it to.

So you didn't necessarily set out to learn this stuff
Not really. In the inception of making this record, we were three record deals in. And knowing how to negotiate my own record deals at this point, and knowing how to navigate our way through different grant systems, and how to put on tours and how to put them on effectively - how to put them on financially effectively, how to blow all the money possible - it run the gamut of all of the experiences that you have, other than being really successful. I just ended up sitting back going, "Okay, we've met with all of these major labels, and we've met with everyone, and we've seen some offers. Why is it that none of these offers make any sense whatsoever?" We started thinking maybe these offers are usually written for people who don't know if it makes sense or not. But considering that we do know enough to use a general calculator, these numbers don't make sense. If we just do this on our own, and we put these people in place, and we set up our own label to the extent that any real indie does - we hired as many people as would work on a big indie level - it would just make so much more sense. It would feel cool. We all feel like the music industry's changing to such an extent that most people, even the powerful ones, are pacing around their office with their tail between their legs, not knowing what the hell they're going to do next. And we had an idea of what to do next. And a lot it's just about forging relationships directly with fans. Music's supposed to do a really basic thing: I sing, you listen. A lot of really smart and different savvy people put themselves right in the middle of that interaction a long time ago, and it's been hard to get them out of the way ever since.

Tour just ended for you guys?
It ended June 20, I think.

How was that?
It was amazing. It was a phenomenal US tour for us. Everywhere was sold out - bigger rooms than we'd expected to play. Places where lineups around the block, like Denver and Lawrence, Kansas, that we didn't expect. These are places you have to go when you're across the country, but I don't think we expected the crowd response that we had. The band just feels really good, and everybody's in a really great place, personally, emotionally, and with our inter-band relationships. Everyone was playing their asses off. It was great.

Was there some moment other than seeing the crowds at Lawrence that made you say "this is it right here, this is why I do this"?
I think for me there was a moment near the end of the Wiltern show in Los Angeles when everyone brought out their modern-day lighter, which is their cell phone, and we played this really toned-down version of "Live it Out." The room was really big and tall. The back of the balcony seems like it's sixteen stories high. The room just lit up with this crazy electronic light, and it was so dark that I felt like I was sitting on a dock looking up at the stars. I don't think I'll ever forget that image.

When you tour the states, is there anything about Canada that you miss?
It's basically the same thing. The cliche of when you're on tour it being bus to stage to backstage to hotel - it really does become that. There's very few moments that you can really sense the giant cultural difference between one place or another. Especially Canada and America in a lot of ways - there's a lot of awesome music lovers out there, and it's hard to tell where you are when it's just about a dark room enveloping music.

Ah, so you don't get upset when you don't get your Tim Horton's coffee?
[Laughs] No, I don't. Although, I read in the paper a couple of days ago they're opening one in New York. I try and stay away from the fast food as much as I can.

That's a good policy. I wanted to ask about Canada, though. Around the time when You Forgot it in People came out, it seemed like - in the States, anyway - there weren't a lot of Canadian bands that we were hearing about, and then all of a sudden we were hearing about dozens of Canadian bands. Do you think that's attributable to anything, or is it coincidence. 
I think it's attributable to a lot of things. For ten years before that moment, I had noticed how many amazing musicians were in Canada, and what was happening in Canada, and how musically important I felt like it was, but how unrecognized it was getting in the rest of the world. I felt like there was something that was going to - for lack of wordplay - break at some point. It had been culminating, and all of these bands were getting better and better and better. And there was going to come a moment where something was going to break through, and the rest of the world was going to start paying attention. It was [You Forgot It in People], and I think one of the reasons that it was that record is because everyone was on it. It wasn't just a Canadian band. It was a Canadian band that embodied four other Canadian bands, or five or six or seven. It's the Harlem Globetrotters of Canadian indie rock. It was something with it that happened among everyone's attitude in Canada at the time. We took that opportunity to promote the shit out of each other. There was no competitive feeling. There was no feeling that if one band was going to get noticed, the other one wasn't. It was precisely the opposite. If one band is going to get noticed, take that two seconds, or one paragraph or American media to talk about the other five Canadian bands. It was this sense of here's this tiny little hole, and all of a sudden, there's thirty or forty really talented musicians up here, all got their hand in, and tried to pull that hole wider so that we could all fit through. I think that that made a giant difference, and it's something that I've never seen anywhere else. I lived in NY for a long time, and the scenes that happened there were very closed: a couple of friends would support a couple of friends, but that was the extent of it. And there always is in America this much more competitive sense, like who's going to get on the cover of Spin magazine. The more you help someone else, the less likely it is that you're going to be that person. So we didn't have that sense in the beginning.

Do you think that cooperative sense explains why so many Canadian musicians are in multiple bands?
I do. It's not part of their mental makeup [to think] that's a weird thing to do. It seems like it makes so much sense, you know? Why wouldn't you be in three bands if you have the time to do it? All music is, at the heart of it, is getting a chance to hang out with your friends all over the world. So if you get a week off, why wouldn't you go somewhere else and hang out with the other friends you haven't seen in a few months, and play some music. 

Do you think it's reductive the way we lump every Canadian band together like this? Canada is a big place... 
Not really. Population-wise, it's smaller than California. It feels like it makes sense to me. There is an identity in the way that Canadian musicians approach their music. One of the things that I think is really cool about it is the fact that there's almost no consistency in sound whatsoever. Feist and Death From Above [1979] could not sound more different. And yet, somehow, we're all referred to in the same scene, which makes sense, considering we all hang out together.

Are you going to be doing any more production work soon?
I am producing a band right now called Flash Lightnin'. I have the first two weeks of August blocked off to go back in the studio with them and try and wrap up these sessions. They're a really good band. They're three crazy, crazy great players, and you can play them AC/DC, and they'll just play it back for you, note for note. It's pretty awesome. Really influenced by the Stones. They sound like a really old school, good-time rock-and-roll band.

This is maybe not a question for you, but do you know of another Broken Social Scene record in the near future?
I know that they've started work on some stuff. They've been going to a studio in Chicago, and doing some recording. I don't know exactly where it's going and what will happen to it. In typical Social Scene fashion, it's incredibly hard to know, even the day before release, if it's going to be released. 

I do know that about five or six days ago, serendipitously, everyone was in town, and played a free show in Toronto. I think it was the only time that I can remember - I guess at Lollapalooza everyone was there, but it was all the core members and none of the extraneous, because it was Lollapalooza. This was all the core members and some extraneous. I really feel like the show that just happened was not only one of the most magical experiences of my life, but it was definitely the best Social Scene show that's ever happened. It was unbelievable.

I saw some of the videos. Which leads me to my somewhat silly final question: what are the odds that we hear "Anthems" at the August 1 show you guys are playing in Boston?
[Laughs] Probably not that good. 

That's what I figured.
It's been known to happen. But [the odds are] probably not that good

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