Shortly after metric guitarist James Shaw met Torquil Campbell who's now the singer in the indie pop group Stars, the two became roommates. Campbell had an extensive record collection, and he and Shaw would often blow off their homework to smoke weed and listen to albums. While that kind of behavior doesn't usually reap any dividends, it turned out to push Shaw, who was studying classical musical, in the right direction. Metric has had a long, successful career — its most recent album, last year's Synthetica, is a heady mix of New Wave tunes with conceptual lyrics about our postmodern world.
"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," Shaw says via phone from a Virginia tour stop. "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. 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."
While the group originally formed in Toronto, it wasn't until the band relocated to Williamsburg, a hotbed of musical activity, that its popularity began to increase. The group signed a record deal and began cultivating a small but loyal fan base that gravitated to its New Wave and synth-heavy pop songs.
"We wanted to exist in the mainstream and be something that didn't sound that mainstream," Shaw says of the band's original impulses. "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."
For Synthetica, the band recorded the bulk of the songs in Toronto at Shaw's studio, and that experience helped the band gel in ways that it hadn't in the decade of its existence.
"What was really refreshing about it was that we really felt comfortable," he says. "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."
The album's concept has to do with knowing what's real and what' s not in a postmodern world where those lines are increasingly blurred. The music video for the title track takes that theme and runs with it. The group used a "quadratic mirroring effect" and a variety of different camera angles to create, as it's put in a press release, "a hypnotic, repeating image of an art gallery collapsing in on itself."
"We live in an era where a loner can have a thousand friends on Facebook, so are you a loner or not a loner?" says Shaw. "What is going on? It's becoming increasingly more difficult to know what's going on in front of you."
One of the other highlights is "Wanderlust," a beautiful ballad that pairs singer Emily Haines with the late Lou Reed. The song serves as a great memento of the former Velvet Underground singer who was notorious for doing things on his own terms.
"Emily had done a few things with him. She had played with him in Sydney and in Central Park," says Shaw. "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."
Shaw says band members are thankful they had the chance to work with Reed before he passed.
"On the tour bus, there's a little board where you can write things and erase them," he says. "The board is just things to be grateful for. So everyday if you're stuck in a parking lot and it's raining, this is things to be grateful for. On that board is Lou's entire life and the fact that it crossed paths with ours."
While the album is about a year old, it's still producing new singles and music videos. Shaw also recently went back and recorded a version of it using entirely analog synthesizers. The digital-only release came out earlier this month.
"It started as an idea that we wanted to try to see what would happen," he says of the remix project. "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."
There's even a smart phone app for the album. The app enables fans to make their own remixes of the songs.
"It's all based on the artwork and imagery we used throughout the record," Shaw explains. "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 them 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."
Currently touring with Paramore, the band is playing a handful of club dates on the days it has off. The Cleveland show is one of the dates. Shaw says those shows have gone exceptionally well.
"We were playing our own show at a place called the National in Richmond," he says. "I don't know what happened that night, but that was my favorite show in memory. Something magical happened, and we played a bunch of old stuff and the crowd was fantastic. I don't know what went down, but it was great."