Almost a decade ago, Emily Haines of Metric mantained that bringing glamour to the indie-rock game was braver than looking like "one of the guys" to be taken seriously as an artist. "I was completely limiting myself by thinking that it's superficial of me to be a girl, to wear a fucking skirt," she frankly told the Montreal Mirror. She was right, of course, although few other left-of-the-mainstream rock women have followed suit this decade – by and large, the idea of proudly investing in image is still regarded as the bastion of pop stars, who have come to resemble aliens dancing in their underwear.
Then again, Haines is her own kind of vanguard: too sharply tongued and socially aware to fit the usual pop chanteuse mold, yet too keen on a massive hook to let it escape her grasp. She also understands the power of a performer's aesthetics and how they enhance the dynamic between artist and audience far too innately to ever let her style standards slide. These strengths, of course, are what make Haines an outsider to some but an icon to many – especially young females in search of an intellectual kindred spirit who isn't afraid to look great.
On Synthetica, Metric's fifth album, Haines' social politics manifest around a very central crisis: In 2012, what is real, what is fake, what can one do that matters and what will be forgotten? Questions surrounding existential identity are clearly on Haines' mind, making Synthetica not only the band's highest-charting debut for a record but also a revelant personal and political statement. Haines called Rolling Stone from Europe to discuss vanity, the place of feminist ideals, rocking Margiela and why more women need to be rocking, period.
Is Synthetica's "artificial vs. real" debate a natural progression of themes from 2009's Fantasies or is this a new strand of thought?
Every time I write, and I've been writing my whole life in a way, I feel like I'm working towards an idea. I wish I could say it was some highly cerebral and deliberate path we took with this record, but it's not how things work for us. The process is really intuitive and it's not til we're finished that we know what it is. I guess my whole life I've held a fascination, and urgency, for the question of: How do you maintain yourself? How do you stay the person you are, while still evolving in the quest for answers, progressing in your personal life, career and so on? There's a great Woody Allen movie where no matter where the cast goes, they stay the same, though their background changes. I like to think about that image.
Is that identity-defining pursuit for you more based in the concerns of growing older and more famous, or in exploring how the total integration of technology is corrupting your own growth process?
It's both, though technology isn't really the culprit. By and large, the benefits we've received from technology far outweigh the downside – mainly by just being able to get the crap out of the middle, the conventional music industry stuff that slows artists down. But it's also a pretty bleak time for music. The manufactured pop world is taking over again – it's all in cycles, but it doesn't seem to be an era where there's a huge level of respect for artists who are thinkers, who are interested in discussing social justice. We need more people who are pissed off, who care. As soon as someone tries to do something charitable, immediately everyone's irritated. Now that we're on the road, playing big shows, figuring out where we fit in, we're re-exploring yet again what this record is about, realizing: Oh God, what kind of era are we living in?
A lot of people are reading into technology angle of the record's themes – it seems these questions of managing our digital vs. so-called analog lives are on everyone's minds, especially those active in social media.
[laughs] Yeah, well it should be called anti-social media, because everyone from yogurt brands to detergent companies are in on it. What's the point? Why the hell am I going to follow, like, Tide detergent on Facebook?
I saw a deodorant with an Instagram.
But how has your own relationship with the internet evolved, since, say, 10 years ago?
Well, back then, it was really kind of just like, "Hey, do I have an email?" And most of the time, the answer to that was, "No, I don't." I do feel a huge change. For us, we wanted there to be something like iTunes – we simulated it for years, doing a mail-order versions of CDs I'd personally make myself and send them off. I was happy when iTunes came along! So I find that aspect of the digital world useful, but I still connect to my real friends the old way. I don't really use social media beyond getting the band's music out there.
A lot of young girls online have lookbooks and seem desperate to get their image out there. There's a mirror in the packaging for Synthetica – do you think we've become more vain as human beings?
I think so! You know, I love how that mirror worked out with the packaging. Justin Broadbent did the art direction, and though I was involved with the design, I was still shocked. When I opened up the album and saw my own warped reflection staring back at me, it blew me away. It works so well. It speaks to the idea of, in order to get anyone interested anymore, does it have to be about them?
Since you find a shortage of inspiration in contemporary music overall, do you find current art or fashion more lively and innovative in comparison?
I do, actually. It's important to keep in perspective that the mainstream pop world is the mainstream pop world; it's never going to change. I am more sensitive to it now since I'm playing bigger stages and closer to it all. I keep wanting to find someone to look up to, and it's like, "Oh, really, this is it?" I don't see any future superstars that I'd want as idols right now, which is a little discouraging. But there's always inspiration in film and yeah, fashion can provide it, too. I was just with the Margiela crew at Silencio, Paris [David Lynch's nightclub], actually. There's the perfect answer to your question! Between David Lynch and Margiela, it was such an exciting vibe.
Margiela seems like a great match for you. What did you enjoy about the designs?
Inside this amazing shirt, it's literally lined in flames. And on the back of the jacket, there's a simulation of fire, done in yarn.
What qualities are you usually drawn to in clothing?
I'm definitely post-sequins! I'm enjoying really structured stuff right now; I'm sort of feeling this 1950s Brat Pack idea. I like button-up white shirts, my leather jacket – as usual, trying to find that balance between strength and femininity. Of course, onstage there are technical requirements, which can limit what you wear. On that note, again, I don't find much inspiration in what artists are wearing now: what's with all the underwear?
Now it's mutated into this kind of cartoonish space-age direction. The modern pop star prototype seems to be "aliens in underwear."
[laughs] That's hilarious. Well, I'm glad I'm not alone in feeling this way. Don't get me wrong: I respect showmanship, I get it. But to me, a lot of what I see is just weird, not hot and uncomfortable. I'm happy I get to work with designers doing something cool, modern and different.
In the early days, you struggled with the idea of being taken seriously as a female artist, and originally dressed plainly to downplay image. Then you embraced glamour in defiance. Is that still the band's M.O.?
Yes. That problem still exists; it's still the same battle. Do I need to wear a plaid shirt with a stain to be taken seriously? I mean, no, that's ridiculous, and that's not an option, never will be. The whole band embraces image; it's partially out of respect to the audience. We owe them a great show; we put so much into production and the visuals and, yeah, the clothes. And I'm really glad I made that decision. Superhero onesies? Maybe not so much my thing now, but that worked for me about five years ago. I'll always continue to try stuff, and I'll always be me.
Since the Nineties, I've noticed an overall decrease of social, particularly feminist, commentary from female performers, in both the mainstream and more alternative realms. Does it concern you?
The song "Dreams So Real" on the record addresses this pretty directly. I think everyone is scared; it's an odd time. Everyone is delving further into absurdity instead of dealing head-on with what's going on the world. There seems to be little interest or patience in addressing where we're at as human beings, whether in terms of environment, climate, anything vital. How about a "Human Species Progress Report?" Right now, we're at maybe a C-.
And yet, your record, which is chock full of ideas, just debuted at Number 12 in the US, Metric's highest debut here to date.
Yeah, well, that's the thing. We KNOW these things are on people's minds, that we aren't the only ones thinking about it. We see it in our audience's faces every night. Our song "Youth Without Youth" is being embraced by alternative rock radio, our record's gone gold in Canada already. I'm happy to debate these things, but I actually have a lot of hope that things are changing, and that more concerned voices are going to be heard. Not everything can be a bestseller, but it's going to matter to someone. The ones who inspired me were never the ass-kissing chart-toppers, anyway.
Do you feel obligated to send a positive message to the young girls who look up to you?
No, but I hope I can help. I know how it feels, in childhood, to find that voice that cuts through the bullshit and speaks to you, gives you something to admire. It's an honor to be in that role for fans, but I won't change anything about myself or do anything differently. I don't even know what that's like; the idea of pandering is so strange and horrible and I'm sure I'd fail at it, anyway.
On a related note, I enjoyed that you proclaim "You should never meet your heroes," on the record. But Lou Reed is on there. Is he a hero?
It's funny, when I hear it now, I see why people make the correlation, but it's actually unrelated. It was more about the idea of, "Why do you need to see a musician making an omelette? Why are you more interested in watching them in the bathroom than making incredible art?" And we're in a time where we're privvy to an endless montage of behind-the-scenes access. That can really screw with you how you view someone you (once) respected!
At its worst, it can destroy mystique, and it also makes you wonder how anyone so accessible can be idolized.
I know! Now kids follow their favorite musicians on Twitter and it creates this artificial sense of closeness; it's so confusing because we do have a genuine closeness with our fans. They tell us their stories – how they bought their first record when they entered high school, and now are graduating from university. It's special. But now, the message is that we're connecting to fans by Tweeting them. My question is, if that's the new intimacy, then how did we do it before?