For over 20 years, the Toronto, Canada-based intellectual alternative pop/rock group Metric have been perking up listener’s ears with daring and blissfully created music. Fronted by singer/keyboardist/lyricist Emily Haines and guitar and synth wizard Jimmy Shaw, the group are international, playing all corners of the world. They are rounded out by Joshua Winstead on bass and Joules Scott-Key on drums. This past summer they released their newest album, Formentera, which is similar to the last three albums while also venturing into uncharted territory. As Jimmy Shaw told us, “In most all the records we’ve made, I’ve either produced or co-produced.” We figured it was high time to speak with him and find out more.

Feature Photo: L to R: Jimmy Shaw, Joules Scott-Key, Emily Haines, and Joshua Winstead

I know you’ve been collecting gear for almost two decades. The first piece of gear in your collection is a nice tie-in to the band’s whole story of strong independence and DIY.

That’s a great place to start. It goes so far back. I remember in the late ‘90s, we were living in New York City and doing all these recordings and demos. We had this friend [Chris Taylor] who was a lawyer in Toronto and doing all these big deals for people, like Nelly Furtado’s first record deal. He got us a demo deal with Warner Bros. Records. They gave us $5,000 to record five songs. My thought was, “Cool! I’ll buy$5,000 worth of gear, and then we can record a million songs.” Warner Bros. was like, “No, that’s not how it works. We need to see a studio invoice for $5,000.” Great. How did you manage to find a way around that? I was like, “That doesn’t make any sense. Why would I go and spend$5,000 somewhere else, and then when you say ‘no’ to my demos, then I’m back to square one?” I think that very first move was the lesson of, “Oh, the industry’s not going to let us do this. The industry’s not going to want us to be able to control our own thing.” They like to see the money funneled back into what they can control. I don’t even know if it’s really that sinister; it’s just the way that it’s worked for so long. They don’t know what column in the accounting book to put “the musician bought their own equipment.” It was a very strange thing. I fought them on it. I won. I took that five grand, and I went and bought a Mackie D8B, which was one of those early digital do-it-all consoles. DAWs at the time were so rudimentary, and you couldn’t open many plug-ins. The Mackie D8B had an EQ and a compressor on every single channel. That made me feel I could work entirely in the DAW and do what I needed to do. I’m not sure at that point if I’d gotten anywhere near the sonics of what a preamp could do, what a proper microphone could do, or what a proper mic position would do. I hadn’t got to any of those places yet. Warner Bros. did turn us down. We kept going with it; we ended up doing an independent deal and finishing this record [Grow Up and Blow Away]. They gave me a budget to mix it. I went to the studio [Mission Sound] in Brooklyn, and I was sitting in front of this Neve 8028. I had no idea what I was doing at all. Not a clue. The owner came in, and he said, “Hey, your mixes sound good, but have you noticed that the meters are absolutely pinned? You’re boosting 10 dB of 20 hertz somewhere. It’s not even audible, but you’re destroying it.”

Jimmy Shaw

What other earliest recording experiences did you have? Did you have a 4-track cassette recorder when you were a teenager?

Yeah, for sure. I grew up as a classical musician. I was a trumpet player in high school. I went to these junior high and high schools where music was a very, very important part of it. It was a public high school, but they had these crazy music programs. I got into this school in Philadelphia called Curtis Institute of Music when I was 16. I was playing in orchestras, and then I went to The Juilliard School and got my BA. When I was at Juilliard, I ended up living with Torquil Campbell and Chris Seligman, who are both in the band Stars now. I started realizing that I hated classical music. I hated everything that it stood for, the fact that the art form itself refused to move into the future. There’s zero consideration for the fact that human beings have changed, and entertainment has changed. I wanted out. Torquil had this crazy collection of four thousand records. He started playing me everything from Primal Scream [Tape Op #96], to The Smiths, to Prefab Sprout, to the Cocteau Twins. I didn’t know any of this music. We decided to start writing songs together. As a trumpet player, I probably had four or five trumpets. I sold all of them except for my main one, a B-flat trumpet. When I walk into an orchestra rehearsal, and it calls for D trumpet, I have to transpose on sight. I bought a Tascam TSR-8 reel-to-reel [tape deck], a Fatar MIDI controller, a Yamaha QY10 – a mini sequencer/drum machine, a purple Ibanez guitar, and a couple other things. I put together this little studio, and we started writings songs. This was probably ‘94 or ‘93? This was super rudimentary shit. I used to go to Sam Ash and Manny’s Music on 48th Street, stare at all the gear, try to figure out what everything did, ask too many questions, and irritate all the sales guys. This was back in the days of Akai S900s.

The samplers?

Yeah, tons of samplers. I had S900s for a long time. I’d buy sampler CDs with 1500 snare drum sounds on them. I was a very, very early Emagic Logic user. I used Logic for the longest time. It probably wasn’t until into the 2000s when I moved off of Logic. I was using everything at my disposal to create whatever we possibly could.

When did you start collecting synths?

The synth thing happened to me a little bit later. Metric started when Emily [Haines, Metric singer and lyricist] and I got going in the late ‘90s. We met Joshua and Joules in 2000, 2001. Emily and I had gone to England and come back, and we’d done record deals that didn’t work. It was all in the era where the industry felt like they knew how to turn one person into a massive star in two days with one song. Then, all of a sudden, there was The Strokes and The White Stripes. That’s when the guitar thing happened for me. We went back to New York, met Josh and Joules, and we became a rock band. All we wanted to do was get in a shitty vehicle, drive to the next city, and play a rock show. We put out Fantasies in 2009, which was our biggest record. There were synths used on that record. Synths were always a part of what we did, but it wasn’t an obsession of mine. When we made our first record [Old World Underground, Where Are You Now?] in 2002, and by 2003 we were working with a producer named Michael Andrews. He said, “I think you need to lean into the idea that Emily plays this mono synth up at the front and center of the stage. No one’s doing that. Metric will probably be uncool for a minute, and then really cool later on.” He played The Cars’ records, and he’s like, “That’s the vibe.” Big, chunky guitars with mono lead synths and dry drums. We based our first record off of that sound, where synth was prominent, but it wasn’t like synth music. You’d never say that The Cars were a synth band, but the synth is very prominent in a rock ‘n’ roll way. It’s not used as a textural instrument; it’s used as a lead instrument. We went that way, and we stayed that way for the first two or three records. Then, around 2009 and 2010, I started hanging out with Liam O’Neil of the band The Stills from Montreal.

You worked with Liam on Formentera, right?

Liam had actually worked on [our fifth album] Synthetica with us first. He was a deep part of Synthetica. Then he worked on [our sixth album] Pagans in Vegas. He didn’t do [our next record] Art of Doubt, but then he did Formentera. He was a huge part of Formentera. He’s been this weird fifth member for a long time. He’s also the keyboard player in the Kings of Leon. He’s the best, friendliest, most awesome dude, and ridiculously talented. It was around that time, ‘09 or ‘10 maybe, that me and Liam, and his ex-bandmate Dave [Hamelin], were hanging around my studio a lot. We started getting really into synths and started jamming on synths all the time. Dave started coming in with crazy Eurorack [synth module] gear. He brought in Serge [Modular] and a couple of Buchla [synths]. I got into 5U [modular synths] and started building a big 5U system. I traded a [Sequential Circuits] Pro-One and a bunch of cash for a [Yamaha] CS-80, and I traded a [Roland] Jupiter-4 and some cash for a [Roland] Jupiter-8. I got an ARP 2600 from Bill Skibbe [Tape Op #44], who owns Key Club Recording in Michigan. The synth collection started coming together. All of a sudden, the control room was a 56-channel Trident [console] that was being dwarfed by a thousand oscillators. We renovated the studio, swapped rooms, and made the big live room the control room. That’s where people were spending most of their time, as is quite common with electronic music. That’s when the synthesizers started to get out of control, and Metric fans started to ask, “What’s going on? Why is it that when a guitar player produces records, there’s no guitar?”

Do you treat your guitars a lot, where there are almost synth-like sounds?

Yeah, I do. I’ve never really been a guitar-guitar player! Like, when you’re in a guitar store, you see a guy walk in, and he picks up a guitar off the wall and he plays “guitar licks.” [laughs] I don’t even know how to play a guitar lick. It’s not in my character! Maybe it’s because I came from classical music, but I’m not totally sure I know how to play a blues scale on the guitar, which is a very weird, gray area in my musical knowledge. I think that it’s good, because it keeps me who I am. I might be the only guitar player who doesn’t know how to play a blues scale, and I’m proud of it.

I noticed on your recent videos and pics that you have a huge patch bay for modular synths.

I use a lot of modulars. The thing that I never liked about synths was that I’d scroll through settings until I found something pretty close to what’s in my imagination. Then I’d tweak and tweak, and it would get closer and closer. With modular I have to start with my imagination. I have to know what every single element is, because I have to make every single element of it. I find that once I got past the hurdle of knowing how these instruments work, and how every single module interacts with each other, what all the functions are, and where it crosses into chaos, then I could start to dial into what’s in my imagination. I could get closer to it much, much faster, and without the aesthetic pain of having to hear 50 of the completely wrong sounds first.

How often do you come up with melodies based on a sound?

To be honest, it happens a lot. Way more than you would think. Especially on the new record, a lot of the tunes were written because a year before the pandemic happened, Liam and I would sit at my studio and do a bunch of crazy jams. We would make weird sounds, make a weird beat, record it for 45 minutes, and then edit it down to 12 minutes. Make all the cool parts and put them on top of each other. When we played that for Emily at the beginning of the pandemic, she was like, “Oh, I can write all over this.” It was coming naturally to her. I find it much easier to go to a modular synth and write a song than to pick up a guitar. If I pick up a guitar, almost no matter what I do, it sounds like 50,000 tunes I’ve heard before. If I go to a modular synth, almost no matter what I do, it sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard before. The palette is so much more wide open. It’s so easy to come up with something that’s not instantly referential for me.

Let’s talk about collaborators that you’ve worked with. When it comes time for serious writing, do you bring in a producer?

Who else has helped along the way?

The second guy who was very important for us was Gavin Brown [Tape Op #147]. Gavin was the Tasmanian Devil of rock. He had a very, very different approach to everything that we’d done. One of the first things I learned from him is that the finished result does not necessarily come across as what happened in your process. He had a highly technical, very methodical approach that relied a lot on engineering and editing. It doesn’t necessarily come across that way. That was the way that he preferred to do it. He was the first guy who came forth and said, “If your song doesn’t work on an acoustic guitar, then your song doesn’t work.” He used to call it the “campfire test.” That completely changed my approach to music. I wouldn’t say that every single piece of music I’ve made since has to work on acoustic guitar, but if we want the song to fly as a song itself, it does need to be able to stand up on one instrument – maybe even no instrument. Sing the song in the backyard for some people.

Hence the acoustic “Dirt Road versions” you put out on vinyl?

Yeah, exactly. These acoustic takes became an intrinsic part of the way that we would approach music. When we’d get the arrangement of a song up and about to be fully recorded – the song, structure, key, tempo, and arrangement – that’s when we’d bust out the acoustic guitar, play the song from beginning to end, and ask, “If you were sitting around a campfire with ten people, would that work?” A lot of that came from him, in the more holistic approach. Gavin wanted to have a little bit of the “Rick Rubin thing” going on. He has this guru-esque vibe around him, like when he’s “feeling it,” it’s happening. The third person, Gus van Go [Gustavo Coriandoli], was an incredible collaborator on this last record. Liam and I were up north with Emily for a year and a half during the pandemic, writing and recording. My wife and I have a place in the country that we bought in 2015. When the pandemic hit, we packed up the car and went to our place in the country. We thought it would be a month or so, but we stayed up here for two years. We loved it. Emily has a place five minutes down the road, so we were bubbled with her. Kings of Leon put everyone on hiatus, so Liam flew up here right at the beginning of the pandemic, lived in our guest cabin, and we all hung out here for the better part of two years. Initially we set up a very small studio at Emily’s house. A computer, [Avid] Pro Tools, ARP 2600, a Moog One, a guitar and a pedalboard, a Wurlitzer, a piano, a [Roland] V-Drum kit, and a bass. We wrote the entire record with that setup. At some point during the pandemic, we realized that we wanted to move studios, because we liked being out in the country. We found this amazing space, a converted church that’s up where Emily and I have houses in the country. We moved the studio up here, and my old studio we rented to Gus van Go. Gus was the original manager and producer for The Stills. Liam had met him when he was 16. About 20 years ago, he moved down to New York and had a studio in Brooklyn called The Boiler Room. He worked on a ton of Canadian records over the last 10 or 15 years, but in Brooklyn. When the pandemic happened, he wanted to move up to Toronto. I rented him my studio [Giant Studio] and I moved out to the country. Then we hired him to be the third guy working on this record. I knew that I then needed someone to turn around and produce me. Gus was an amazing guy to do that, because his forte is putting a band in a room and making them play together. He has an amazing sense of exactly how to get the right sound. We were mapping a lot of these drums out. We were in such a small space; we had no drums, no microphones, and no room. We were building these V-Drum kits out of other peoples’ drum sounds.

I noticed you used a lot of triggered drum sounds.

Yeah, we do.

But your drummer’s natural tone is pretty close to those types of sounds.

Yeah, for sure. On the new record there are almost no triggers, but we were basing them off of samples. We were like, “This is the sample we used to map out the song. Now let’s make the actual drum kit sound like that.” Weirdly, as we moved into this church, we were going in the direction of wanting the tightest, driest drum sounds that we could possibly get. We put the drums up in the apse, which is the semi-spherical little space at the end of the church where the preacher would speak. It’s designed to send sound out into the room. We baffled the hell out of that little space. We got this amazing ability to record drums where the close microphones are extremely tight, yet we could still put two microphones way out into the room, 60 feet away. Pull up those microphones, and it sounds like the drums are in an arena. It’s crazy. To have the ability to have these two sounds happening at all times, just with a fader move, was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had recording drums. For me, drums have always been a challenge. You want tight? You go into a tight room. You want big? You go into a big room. I don’t necessarily always want the same thing, even within the same song. This was the first time I got both. Gus was a huge, huge help in doing that. When we were doing these recordings, I’d be sitting at the console doing mic pre gain and EQ on the microphones themselves. He was in the drum room selecting the drums, tuning the drums, and making sure they were the right skins. Joules would start playing, and Gus would sit at Pro Tools and start mixing in real time before we even started tracking. It was all happening so fast. Liam was focused more on making sure that Joules was playing the fills properly, was getting the feel right, and playing the parts right. We became this three-person producer team. We would joke at the end of every night, “I’m never making a record without three producers ever again!” Being able to divvy up the work responsibility that much made the job so much more pleasurable. It’s not like there’s one person who’s dying at Pro Tools while everybody else is drinking tequila in the back! [laughs] It’s so important to surround yourself with people that support every single idea that you have. Everything that I do, or someone else does, gets supported. It gets boosted. No idea ever gets shot down until it has full legs. It’s so easy to shoot down an idea before the idea has even been seen. That’s such an important part of going as far as we can go.