Virgin Festival preview – an interview with Metric’s James Shaw
– by Shawn Conner
With Fantasies, its fourth album, Metric is making headlines for more than just its music.
The Canadian/American hybrid had always done things its way, more or less, but with Fantasies the band struck out on new territory – declining major label offers, it released the record on its own in most parts of the world (Arts and Crafts handled the record for Mexico and Last Gang in Canada).
Both the New York Times and the L.A. Times have featured the band as exemplars of a new type of business model we may be seeing lots more of. We reached guitarist James Shaw at his family’s cabin in the woods three hours north of Toronto, where he was relaxing before leaving for Vancouver to play the Virgin Festival (July 25 & 26) at Deer Lake Park, and whiling away the hours by playing his acoustic guitar.
Shawn Conner: Were a lot of the songs for Fantasies written on acoustic guitar?
James Shaw: I think Emily tends to do that more than me. When I do my writing I tend to stroll into the studio and start with drum machines and keyboards and bass-lines. When she writes, she tends to start either with an acoustic guitar or a piano.
SC: The five-city acoustic tour the two of you did earlier this year, what was the inspiration behind that?
JS: One of the things we sort of discovered, that became a part of this record, is what we call “the campfire test.” Basically, it meant making sure we could play songs in a stripped-down form and rely less on production tricks and sounds and filter sweeps, sonics, to get the emotion across. The sonics are always there, and they’re important, but you don’t want them to be what’s relaying the emotion. They’re the dressing, the sauce, but not the thing itself. So we made sure we could do that with all of our songs. We found by the end of the record we had the ability to play the entire record that way. So we wanted to explore that a little more. And having played Canada with a full band last December, we just wanted to do something around the release of the record in these little small theatres, and did it across the country that way.
SC: How did the sets change from the first city to the last?
JS: They got more and more abstract. By the second one in, we had this idea that it would be very much like a David Lynch-type experience. Ideally, if we could have the whole show lit by car headlights, that’s what we would’ve done. We went for that mood – super-super dark and spacey and a bit trippy.
SC: And this record was recorded in a Toronto studio, Giant, you’ve set up with Sebastian Grainger?
JS: I’ve always had a studio wherever I’ve lived. It’s something I’m vaguely obsessed with. Something I’ve always done is keep my eyes out for old vintage gear. I wanted to take it a step further and build a real room with a real console and a big live room and go all out. Sebastian has been a good friend of mine, and I put it together with him. And we ended up both making our records there. Lots of people in Toronto have made their records there since. In Toronto there are so many musicians, and they all sort of live in roughly the same neighbourhood. But the main studios are all out of town, and they’re expensive. They feel like they’re from a generation past. So I built this one right downtown, in the neighbourhood where everyone lives. It feels like the community joint.
SC: What’s the difference between a newfangled studio like yours and the old ones you’re talking about? An Xbox?
JS: Haha. I think it’s more the idea that, in generations past it was pretty standard that bands would have a hundred thousand dollars and up to make records, and they could spend 12 hundred dollars a day on studio time and still be in their for six weeks. Labels were spending that kind of money on records ‘cos they were making that much on records. Today there are very very very few bands, like maybe you could count them on one hand, that spend $100,000 on a record. More people are spending 10 or 20. This room has as good gear as I could get, all the stuff that you would want but the rate’s more like $2-300 a day instead of between $13-1500 a day. It’s more toned down to the extent where it’s feasible for people making indie records.
SC: The days when the Rolling Stones would fly down to the Bahamas to record an album are probably over.
JS: Well, I think Compass Point is still there and I’m determined to go down there, at least for a day. It’s funny, when you go to the studio’s website, there’s only one photo of the studio itself, the rest is of the sky and the water and the beach.
SC: Is that the studio Happy Mondays went to record at and thereby bankrupted their record company [Factory, as detailed in the movie 24-Hour Party People]?
JS: It was either there or Air Studios, which is in the Bahamas as well.
SC: Speaking of finances, did you find releasing the record the way you did was a lot more work for you guys?
JS: It’s been a lot more work, there’s no question about it. It’s like my manager always says, risk is relative to reward. This has been a lot more work, it was a lot more financial risk, but there’s a lot more to gain. It’s feeling like at this point it’s starting to turn, the reward is starting to come. The making of the record, the paying for it, the setting up of the release, the endless legal negotiations of setting up worldwide companies, it’s all done, the record’s out, it’s doing well.
Now it’s starting to come back to us. I actually got forwarded a link this morning; we were on the cover of New York Times dot com yesterday. Which is really really cool. We had a big article in the LA Times business section. It feels like we took a big risk, and we weren’t really sure if what we were doing was the right thing. We had an instinct that it was, and now it feels really cool to be getting recognition not just because we made a record that people are liking but because we’re playing a minor role in changing the industry when it needs to be changing the most.
SC: I would imagine when you first began talking about doing something different, you probably had in the backs of your minds that doing it the same way just wasn’t going to cut it this time.
JS: It wasn’t even so much like, “The old model’s gotta go.” It was more like, what we were being presented with wasn’t making any sense to me. The amount of money that labels are willing to part with, and the amount they want in return, is ludicrous. If I had no option, I would have to do this. If we didn’t have any fans, if we didn’t have a built-in fanbase we’ve built ourselves in the last five, six years.
But the reality of our situation is we have a few hundred thousand fans world-wide who are going to buy our record no matter who put it out. We were in this really cool fortunate position where we were between being an unknown band and Trent Reznor. We looked at all our options, and talked about it, and came up with this idea. Our manager thought he could go to a bunch of the companies that were the ones that generally get hired by record companies, like distributors and publicists, and do our own deals directly.
It made too much sense to ignore. For better or for worse, Emily and I feel like we’ve been through enough in the music industry that we have a really good sense of how it works. I felt like there were moments when we were talking to majors where I thought, God, I wish I knew less. Then I could just sign this and feel really good about myself and have a big ego and go, “Whoo-ho, we got signed.” That wasn’t the case. It was more like, “Oh God, if I do this, it’ll be the end of us.” So we just did the most obviously smart thing to do.
SC: There’s a deluxe edition [including art, extra tracks, a 7″ single, lots more] on the website that looks really fantastic. How is that selling?
JS: It’s been great. We put up 500 copies at the very beginning and sold them out in three days. Since then we put it back up for a few dollars more with one less thing, so it’s not quite as special as the first batch. One of the things we felt that was really important in setting things up this way was that we forge a relationship directly with our fans without including someone in the middle.
That’s probably how music started in a lot of ways. Over the last 50 years, some really really smart people have wedged themselves into that little space. We wanted to create a direct relationship just through the Internet which is so doable these days, and offer things nobody else can offer, and at the same time not have it be exclusive like you can only get it from us. You could buy it at every record store in the world, at a clothing store, at a goddamn Home Depot. Buy it anywhere you want. But if you want to come to us directly, we also have a forum to buy it from us.
SC: And I wanted to ask you about your Stonehenge story. [After leaving Glastonbury recently, the band stopped to check out Stonehenge just as the guys from Spinal Tap, who had also played the festival, were leaving. There’s a picture of Metric with Harry Shearer on the group’s web page.]
JS: Isn’t that crazy? Literally, when we got back in the van after that happened, we were just silent. For like an hour. Every five minutes someone would go, I can’t believe that just happened. It was so funny. And it’s rarely two or three days on the road that goes by without a Spinal Tap quote happening. We definitely all have the sense of irony that Christopher Guest had.
SC: What are your thoughts on being on the shortlist of nominees for the Polaris Music Prize?
JS: I think it’s just a really cool thing. I like the idea of prizes that are not entirely based on sales and numbers and success stories. Canada has a real tendency, in a really good way, to even out its support all across the board. They’re not always getting behind the big player, they like to award all the people who play the game. I like that there’s an award that crosses a lot of boundaries, and can have people like Joel Plaskett and K’naan and us in the same category. It seems like it’s a pretty uniquely Canadian thing. As everybody says, the clichéd thing, it’s an honour to be nominated.
SC: You’ve already played one Virgin Festival, in Halifax. Was there anything about the festival that you liked in particular? Like, its efforts at sustainability?
JS: Yeah, I noticed that. And it just seems like it’s totally the age of the festival, and that’s awesome. They’re so fun. Six, seven, eight years ago, there were barely any festivals in North America, let alone in Canada. And now there’s a whole bunch across the country. Festivals are great. It’s a chance to see all these different bands next to each other. It doesn’t always have to be within one person’s aesthetic. I think it’s cool we get to play after Dinosaur Jr. And then in Vancouver we get to play after Sonic Youth. To me that’s just massive. I couldn’t ask for anything more.