"I'm just as fucked up as they say," Metric's Emily Haines sang at Los Angeles' El Rey Theater on June 20th, hitting the packed crowd with the provocative line that opens the Canadian indie crew's fifth album, Synthetica. "It's become a rallying cry," Haines tells Rolling Stone, speaking from a Berlin hotel room a few days after the show. "It's funny how that proclamation works live. It implicates me and everyone else. It was meant to imply solidarity with the audience, and all people who live in music. It's basically asking, 'What's wrong with us?'"
Actually, Metric is doing just fine. Synthetica entered the Billboard 200 chart at Number Twelve last month, selling a very solid 27,000 copies. And while fan favorites from the band's 2009 breakthrough LP, Fantasies, inspired rapturous sing-alongs at the El Rey – where the crowd included Twilight star Robert Pattinson – new tunes like current single "Youth Without Youth" received equally enthusiastic cheers.
Metric released Synthetica on its own Metric Music International, in collaboration with indie label Mom + Pop (home to Sleigh Bells and Andrew Bird) – building on the success of Fantasies, which has sold nearly half a million units globally. "Fantasies was a bold move, but it ended up selling more in its first week than the previous album had in four years," Haines says. "It's groundbreaking to finally be able to establish ourselves on our own terms. There's no line of credit, and every dollar we spend is real, but it's incredibly rewarding: It's a huge gamble, but we're running the show."
The new album takes Metric's icily sexy sound to new levels, drawing on the ten-year history of the band (which also includes producer-guitarist Jimmy Shaw, bassist Joshua Winstead and drummer Joules Scott-Key). "Synthetica is the summation of Metric – the punch line to the story, making sense of a lot of things that happened along the way," Haines says. "It's a synthesis of all our years together, recalling our experiments with new wave and punk rock and the sweet, innocent electronic work of our early days."
The krautrock-flavored title track imagines today's manufactured pop stars as Blade Runner-style humanoid androids. "I was influenced by Italian radical architecture and retro-futurism," Haines says. "We're living in the future, and it's Aldous Huxley, Orwellian shit – maybe better, and maybe worse, than what they envisioned." She credits media theorist Marhsall McLuhan with inspiring "Youth Without Youth," along with Francis Ford Coppola 2007 art-house film of the same title. And the brutally self-questioning lyrics on "Dreams So Real" ("Have I ever helped anyone but myself believe in the power of songs?") came from a real moment of doubt: "I woke up in the middle of the night, overwhelmed with nihilistic disappointment at how artists don't lead the fight anymore. I sat down at the piano and wrote the whole song. It had this shaking quality, like Patti Smith on 'Piss Factory.'"
On the dreamy "Wanderlust," meanwhile, Haines duets with one of her idols, Lou Reed. "I've been obsessed with [1978's] Street Hassle my entire life," she says. They met two years ago at a Neil Young tribute concert where both performed. "Lou quoted the lyrics from [Fantasies'] 'Gimme Sympathy,' asking me, 'Emily, who would you rather be – the Beatles or the Rolling Stones?'" she laughs. "So I replied, 'The Velvet Underground.'" Haines and Reed later performed together in Sydney, Australia and at a Shel Silverstein tribute in Central Park; they didn't record jointly, however, until Metric realized something was missing from "Wanderlust" during sessions at New York's Electric Lady studios. "When I sang the song alone, it sounded like Annie," Haines says. "It needed a world-weary counterpoint – and if anyone knows resilience, it's Lou. He insisted we sing in the booth together, which was pretty vibey."
The cinematic qualities of Metric's music have paid off with several significant movie placements in recent years. Their song "Black Sheep" proved pivotal in 2010's Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and Academy Award-winning composer Howard Shore teamed with the band for "Eclipse (All Yours)," a key part of the soundtrack for 2010's The Twilight Saga: Eclipse. Shore went on to collaborate with Metric on the score for Cosmopolis, David Cronenberg's upcoming Don DeLillio adaptation. The film, starring Pattinson, is due to hit U.S. theaters in August, while the soundtrack arrives July 10th. "I hope the film work continues to develop," Haines says. "It's so complementary, and really feeds our other work. It brings more energy to the band itself, clarifying what it is we do."
After a few warm-up dates including the L.A. show, Metric are launching an extensive worldwide tour, hitting major festivals like Lollapalooza alongside headlining slots at some of the largest venues the group has ever played – wish fulfillment for a band that included a song ironically titled "Stadium Love" on their last record. "We wrote that about our fantasies, and now we're playing to 12,000 people in Canada," Haines says. "We're playing Radio City Music Hall, where I saw Dionne Warwick with my parents when I was a kid. It's quite sobering to realize we really are writing the script. It's a weird time to be pushing something forward: it's doomy out here, but music and art will save us. It's not time to scale back."
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