Over the past two decades or so, the term indie rock has been so abused, it no longer stands for a way of being; we now use it to describe a particular sound or genre more than anything. But Metric, a Canadian synth-pop band that's carved a niche out of an amalgam of punk rock, disco, and electronica, is independent in the true sense of the word.
After three full-length albums, the band — frontwoman Emily Haines, guitarist and theremin player James Shaw, bassist Josh Winstead, and drummer Joules Scott-Key — opted to ditch the idea of a record label altogether (the band released its first album on Everloving and its second and third on Last Gang). And while it was one thing for Radiohead, a band that's been rocking arenas for years, to go rogue, for a rising band like Metric to do the same was a larger gamble — especially considering it was being courted by big labels that might well have been able to impart Radiohead-level fame.
But Metric decided to do it alone. The band had already begun constructing a studio in Toronto, where it was originally based. Metric then hired some lawyers and hashed out what it would take to get things up and running.
"It was really just a matter of what the options really are for a band like Metric in 2009 in the modern state of music," Haines says. "We met with the heads of all the major labels and looked at what they had on offer for us, [but] unfortunately those companies are still behaving as though it's 1986." So the band decided to self-release Fantasies this past April.
In just a few months, it's already doing better commercially than any of Metric's previous releases. Fantasies peaked at number six on Billboard's Independent Albums chart but also made it to number 22 on Rock Albums and number 19 on Alternative Albums.
Although its albums have built a fan base, Haines attributes Metric's success mainly to face-to-face interaction. "We've had the support of lots of small independent record stores for many years, and I think that also helped," Haines says. "You come through town and you stop by Newbury Comics or whatever, get to know people a little bit, and then they're excited for you when the record comes around, and they put it in a window — not because you pay them huge amounts of money but because they actually like the music."
Of course, with a solid product like Fantasies, the music sells itself. But Metric isn't interested in staying small, as the term independent has come to imply. "The challenge for us, and completely the goal, is to be that headlining band on the main stage and have done it on our own terms," Haines says. "We're definitely not aiming to stay on the side stage."
That ambition might come to pass sooner than later. "Help I'm Alive," Fantasies' hooky, bombastic first single, is a song that fluctuates between dark, tense, percussive moments and a light, airy breakdown that breaks through the macabre refrain like sunshine bursting through a cloudy sky. "It's so promising and positive to see top-tier commercial radio stations in the United States take a gamble and play 'Help I'm Alive' and then have it break the Top 20 and give people a chance to like something that they otherwise wouldn't hear," Haines says. "There is an actual, genuine shift happening in music where people working at radio stations want to love the music that they're playing."
It's still rare to see fierce frontwomen in the mainstream rocking arenas and singing about something other than romantic relationships with men (or the lack thereof). And while Karen O and Beth Ditto are notable exceptions, both of them are also signed to major labels: the Yeah Yeah Yeahs on Interscope, Ditto's band Gossip on Music With a Twist, a Sony subsidiary. Still, Haines isn't trying to push an agenda or make herself into a feminist role model. If it appears that way, so be it.
"I've always just tried to represent an actual, three-dimensional writer the same way that the Julian Casablancases of the world [do]," she says. "Of course I'm a feminist. The whole band is. All four of us have the same views on what's wack. It's not like I am, as the girl in the band, kind of representing this one thing." What Haines does represent, though, is a woman who hasn't allowed herself to be limited by anyone else's expectations — as a female or as a musician.
"The greatest accomplishment of our generation of girls is going to be that the first thing mentioned about us as musicians is not that we were girls, and the death of the female musician as a genre," Haines says. "And you know, if that means that I ignore gender in a way that's a different way of being a feminist than previous generations, then so be it."