Interview: Susie Floros
Photos: Ian Ruhter & Tim Peare
Originally featured in Snowboard Mag Vol. 10, Issue 4 | The Olympic Issue
Jimmy Shaw is a founding member, producer and lead guitarist who also contributes synthesizer and backing vocals to Toronto, Canada’s beloved band METRIC. Though some may see Jimmy as the guitar player with mystique beside front woman Emily Haines, Joshua Winstead and Joules Scott-Key, Jimmy is a driving force behind the band and has been pivotal to METRIC’s longevity and success the past 15 years. I was able to catch up with Jimmy during METRIC’s Synthetica tour where we talked about music, life, creativity and independence.
Choosing music as a way of life: When did you know that this was it and that you were going to create music for a living?
When I was a kid I was a classical trumpet player, and I went to all these different music schools and orchestras up until the time when I was about 20. I lived in New York with a guy named Torquil Campbell who is now the singer in a band called Stars. We had been really close since we were kids. We lived with a couple other guys, like Chris Seligman who’s also in Stars, and we just started writing songs. Halfway through school, studying classical music in New York, I ended up selling most of my trumpets and buying an 8-track, a guitar and a synthesizer and started writing pop songs. I think at that point it became clear to me that it was gonna be the thing that I wanted to do. There were so many rules and so much conformity in classical music. There was no room as one member of a 110-piece orchestra to actually express yourself as an artist. You were a cog in a machine and that has its own merit for sure, but it just wasn’t for me. I needed to feel like when I had a shitty day I could just wail on the instrument, and when I was feeling nostalgic and peaceful I could play that way. I just needed to be able to play the instrument depending on how I felt, and I think rock and roll was my escape into that world. As soon as I found it I realized it was what I was gonna do for the rest of my life.
Speaking to those early collaborations, you were a founding member of Broken Social Scene. Do you still play with that band as well?
They’re on sort of a hiatus that they’ve been on for a couple years now. I don’t know exactly when they’re gonna come back or if they’re gonna come back or what’s gonna happen next, but I know that if something does happen next there’ll be an open invitation for me and Emily to come and join.
It seems like a cool artist collective and it must be a pretty fun environment to be a part of.
Yeah, it really is. It’s the most ridiculous band, you know. I’ve been onstage with 24 people! It’s a trip.
When you and Emily founded METRIC it was ’98. What’s it like working with the same band for 15 years now? I imagine you’re a pretty tight-knit family.
It’s definitely a tight-knit family. The only part of it that is a downside is that it’s boring sometimes. Life on the road… we wake up and it’s like, “Hi, how are ya, nice to see your face again.” But the four of us get along so incredibly well. I think that there were times that were difficult. We didn’t really know if it was going to last and I think we all made a concerted effort to continue to grow as people and grow in the same direction and stay close with each other and just not give up. Early on, I used to say all the time that the only key to success is not giving up. If you just keep doing it and doing it, one day the world is bound to recognize it. I think for us we’ve just done what we do for so long and are relentless about it and we enjoy it. We enjoy each other’s company and we love playing music with each other. The reason I’m late at this interview right now is because we just did a two and a half hour soundcheck because we were up late last night on the bus and we started listening to all these old songs from Live It Out and all these old records of ours. And we were like, “oh my god, we’ve gotta play this stuff!” So it was relearning songs we haven’t played since 2005 and it was awesome! It all just kind of takes a couple times and then it’s just right there under your fingers like it’s old hat. It’s really cool.
What songs have you been playing from Live It Out?
Earlier today we were practicing Glass Ceiling, and will probably end up playing Ending Start tonight, which would be really cool. For years and years it was very much like we would find our setlist at the beginning of a tour, and we’d just sort of settle into it and the repetition would allow for other sources of musical exploration. It’s what you do in the songs, what you do in-between the songs and how you connect them. It’s more like improvising with the whole set phrase mark, but on this tour we’re experimenting much more with really flipping up the setlist drastically every single night and seeing what kind of tricks we can pull out of that old hat.
“Music is essential in so many different ways, in so many different places, times and settings. There’s 4 a.m. music and there’s 9 a.m. music and there’s 2 p.m. music and dinner music and sex music and there’s angry, drunk music.”
You have a large catalog to pull from too.
It’s really amazing. Right around the release of Synthetica we were in Los Angeles and there’s this amazing radio station called KXLU that we always listen to. We were in this cab ride late night and we had all been drinking, and we started talking about this song, “Ending Start,” and I couldn’t for the life of me remember how the song went. Like any single note, I could not fucking remember! And Emily calls in to KXLU and says, “Hey, this is Emily from METRIC calling and I wanted to know if you could play a song of ours because Jimmy can’t remember how it goes.” And the DJ was like, “Oh, what song?” And she said, “Ending Start.” And he was like, “That’s really weird because I have Live It Out in my hand right now and I was gonna play a song from this record. I literally have that record in my fucking hand!” So I’m sitting in the taxi listening to that song on the radio going, “Oh my god, I can’t believe it. I produced that song on that record and I had no recollection of it whatsoever.” It fuckin’ blew my mind.
METRIC is an independent band, putting out self-releasing albums with you producing most of the tracks and content. Have you found that going this direction has allowed you more creative freedom?
I don’t think we could have more creative freedom than we have right now. If we had more creative freedom it would basically feel like someone just dropped you off on the tip of Antarctica and you were allowed to do whatever you wanted to do. We couldn’t be more free! And in a lot of ways that’s amazing. In other ways it gets confusing sometimes because you can just do whatever you want, and sometimes guidance is a good thing. We do whatever we want, whenever we want to do it, and we don’t have to answer to anybody, which is fantastic. But also, there’s definitely a side of us that wonders what would have happened to METRIC if we ever had the power of the real machine behind us. We’ve never had real marketing. We’ve never had a major label push when they decide, “this band’s gonna go,” and they make you fuckin’ superstars. We’ve never really done that. I still don’t regret that the slightest, I think it’s completely the right thing for us to do. But it is hard every once it a while to not wonder what may have happened.
Let’s talk about the evolution of the music and progression from older albums like Live It Out to Synthetica.
Progression is never really something that you plan. It’s something that happens. You’re gonna know more when you’re 50 than when you’re 20. All of those experiences that happen to you; every tiny little thing, every single face that you see walking down the street, every time you get yourself into shit, every time you don’t pay your taxes and get completely fucked! All of those things are gonna lead you to being the person that you are. And the exact same thing goes for music. We just did what felt natural at every single turn. What that inevitably does is guide you down a long, winding road into new things and new ideas and new sounds. I think at the beginning of every record we really take a little bit of time to experiment and see what feels right at that moment in time. See what’s connecting with us to see what lyrically is gonna continue to inspire us, and sonically is gonna keep us interested. It’s a natural path. We’ve been on a natural progression for a long time and I think we’ll just stay on it.
There’s a heightened emotion in the acoustic songs you and Emily have released like Synthetica and the Plug In Plug Out album. Is it fun to break the sounds down and go to the core of a song?
Totally. I think that something we discovered with lyrics is you think they mean one thing and then you completely change the context of the music, the instruments and the sounds, and they take on whole other meanings. You say a line with the power of a massive rock band behind it and tons of guitars and sound and distortion and energy, and then you strip it right down to a couple strings on an acoustic guitar and everything gets more vulnerable, more tender, more emotional and more personal. I think we just became fascinated with exploring both sides of every single song that we write. Being able to accent whatever the thing that the moment dictates. Music is essential in so many different ways, in so many different places, times and settings. There’s 4 a.m. music and there’s 9 a.m. music and there’s 2 p.m. music and dinner music and sex music and there’s angry, drunk music. And the more in-depth you become as a musician, just being able to suit all of these things, the bigger your palette gets and the more capable you are of being a musician for every moment.
Since this is a snowboard magazine… Will you be watching snowboarding in the Olympics this year?
Maybe, I don’t know. I have issues with the Olympics that I should probably not go into.
This issue is The Olympic Issue, with a play on the word issue…
It just seems like there’s a lot of bullshit that goes along with the Olympics and the one thing I just never really understood is that worldwide cities, cities of 3 million to 30 million people, put in multi-billion dollar bids to get the Olympics. There’s so much money at stake and the only people who don’t get a fucking cent are the athletes. That doesn’t seem right to me. It seems like straight-up extortion. The municipalities, the cities and the governments absolutely love the money coming in. But it just destroys cities; they just tear the goddamn places up for four years and build these massive things that then for the most part don’t get used afterwards, and there’s just so much wrong with it.