Emily Haines thinks her band Metric could find more mainstream acceptance if she and her bandmates followed a few rules. “Just play a nice song with the guitars that aren’t too loud, make the vocal wispy with some reverb, give us that little bit of feeling that we want, but not too much—music to placate,” she says in the courtyard of the New York’s Crosby Street Hotel. “I will soothe you, but I will not f—king placate you.”
She’s running on just a few hours’ sleep after playing a show in Toronto the night before, and later that day she’ll head to Las Vegas, where Metric played the Life Is Beautiful festival. It’s the first time she’s been to the city since making the band’s sixth studio album, Pagans in Vegas. The title refers to “people with a conscience, for better or worse, playing around in the arena of unconscionable behavior,” according to the band’s official announcement. But taking a gamble in a casino is also Haines’ metaphor of choice when describing the band’s decision to create its own company, Metric Music International, and record and tour outside of the traditional record-label system. “We’re betting again on what feels what right to us with zero regard for the consequences, which is a bit nerve-wracking,” she says. “But so far so good.”
The latest result of that bet is an album that completely inverts the band’s sound. Pagans in Vegas, released last month, connects the dots between ‘80s synth-pop á la Depeche Mode and modern-day electronic dance music, relegating guitars to a minor role for the first time in the band’s career. It’s also the first of two records the band had in the works: a companion album, mostly recorded while on the road with Imagine Dragons this summer, is expected early next year. The upcoming set was recorded entirely on instruments pre-dating 1970 and features a 20-piece orchestra as well as a New Orleans brass band that Haines promises will “freak people out.”
In another words, it’s anything but music to placate.
“It should complete our mission of establishing once and for all that we are musicians, not a brand,” she says. “[Touring with Imagine Dragons] allowed us to be the total art rockers that we are again. Opening for them, we were like aliens.”
The twin projects emerged from what was supposed to be a year off from making music, during which Haines and Jimmy Shaw, the band’s other principal songwriter, departed from their usual songwriting process. Haines, who wrote some of Pagans in a Nicaraguan eco-lodge only accessible by helicopter, typically composes material on a piano, which she and Shaw would then arrange for a live band; Shaw often writes music on synthesizers before translating it to guitar. “For the first time, he was like, ‘I don’t want to take your beautiful, cinematic, elusive creepy stoner jam and speed it up 30 b.p.m. and make it stadium-ready,” Haines says.
While Pagans opens on a cynical note—“Got to be sedated to be seen/ On the cover of your magazine,” Haines sings on the entertainment-industry critique “Lie Lie Lie”—the band’s songwriting experiments produced some of their most positive, optimistic material yet. Instead of panicking about the state of her life (as she did on older songs like “Help I’m Alive” and “Breathing Underwater”), Haines is on the mood to celebrate on tracks like “Cascades,” a five-minute robot trance she says is about “loving being alive, the feeling of going strong with whatever it is that’s compelling you on.”
“What happened last week with the creation of this show has been the happiest time, like this is the happiest I’ve ever been in this band,” she says. “Good sh-t’s happening, and it’s totally going forward. I don’t know if it’s new people or old people or the same people—I think it’s a mix—but it’s the only way.”
TIME: You write a lot about sifting through what’s real and what’s fake in an increasingly connected and media-saturated world. What does that mean to you as someone who doesn’t have a desk job that involves staring at the Internet all day?
Emily Haines: The sad thing is, we’re all doing that. Getting emails from Lou Reed [who collaborated with the band on 2012’s Synthetica] is a heartbreaking experience. You don’t want to see a Lou Reed Gmail. Everything is email. We’re all the same. Musicians are just sitting around doing emails as well. It feels as though it’s our obligation. The joke is like, “Read the entire Internet!” [like] it’s our f—king duty. You don’t have to do it! You don’t have to know everything.
In one of your recent email letters to fans, you address anonymous Internet commenters and basically tell them to get off the computer. Do you struggle with trolls?
Oh my God, it’s fine, we don’t even have a significant proportion. It’s not like, “Don’t read the comments because it’s full of hate!” It’s just like, “Don’t read the comments, go do something else.” With music, it’s been used so much as bait—it’s always the thing that’s taking you to the other website or the other place, there’s never just it. This is it. It’s not selling something else. It’s selling itself.
So is the message of Pagans in Vegas one about unplugging and tuning out?
No, it’s about tuning in to what we actually want. I’m not saying anything original, but I do think that the feeling I’m championing is desperately needed right now. I’m up for the job, and I’m going to do it for the next couple of years. We’re going to bring such strength and positivity and love to the people who want to feel it. It is totally tuning in. Stop taking it all in, filter it out—what do you want to experience? What do you want to feel?
It’s the terrifying feeling that we’ll never ever be in one room ever again. We know our band is pre-iPhones, man. We’re pre-everything. We’re lucky enough to be around before all this happened, when you would play a show and all that would happen would be in that one room. Maybe someone took a picture, but that was it. I embrace it now that it’s like, Periscope. Let’s do the whole f—king thing.
You’re down with a fan broadcasting your gig through their phone?
Oh, for sure. This is the time we’re in, let’s do it. You still have got to find the room. Carve out a place and make an experience that isn’t constantly interrupted and isn’t constantly fragmented. That just sounds so miserable, to never get that pure immersion in something.
I get what you were saying earlier about the Internet, though. I recently gave up hate-reading certain websites.
Okay, so hate-reading. That’s what I’m talking about—looking for proof that the world is as f—ked as you suspect it might be. Sometimes in the past I had a similar problem in hotel rooms with watching the worst infomercials, like if I watch it long enough, I’ll get to the rotten core of the economic system and the lizard brain of the human being. What are you doing? Turn off the TV and read a book! It’s there, okay? The worst is there. Is that what you’re going to go toward your whole life? Is that the goal?
I want to ask you about “The Shade,” the first single from the album. The song seemed like such lyrical departure for you, to the point that I was almost startled by how frank you are singing about love.
Me too. F—king terrified of that song. I was freaked out. I tried to rewrite it and insisted on rerecording it, where I put in all these dark undertones. It was horrible. It was like having someone just ruin a beautiful sunset. It was like sitting on the edge of a cliff with your friends, sharing a joint and looking out at the sunset and then just having them, like, puke.
What do you think about the pop world? In the video for “The Shade,” Jimmy tears up a magazine that’s supposed to look like Billboard.
Yeah. Come on, we’re in the game! Nobody’s doing what we’re doing. We’re the best. At what we do, we are the best, and what we do is…we aren’t really sure, but we do it with all our hearts.
I mean, okay, people have millions and millions of dollars [and] can shoot anything out of a canon. There’s huge-scale productions. Yeah, we’re not doing The Lion King, but for the organization that we are and the people that we are and our dedication, our creativity, our love and our commitment? No f—king way. I’m not saying that in a competitive way. I’m saying it in an owning it way.
I’m a bit sick of always feeling like I can’t ever own anything. It’s been 15 years. It’s the sixth album. We have a huge body of work, and I think I’ve made a real contribution. I’m into it now, just like, “Yeah! Let’s do this!” I’m not really waiting for someone to give me permission anymore or say, “Oh, you come up at the door, we’ll open it. You’re allowed in now.”