Pit Emily Haines against Kim Gordon in a cage match to decide the coolest bitch in rock & roll, and (let's be honest) Gordon would probably take it. But Haines would give her a serious run for her money.
It has been a watershed year for her and her band, Metric. The commercial success that eluded the Canadian indie-rock group for a decade has finally found them, in the form of the biggest pop-culture phenomenon ever: Haines and bandmate James Shaw co-wrote the theme for the latest installment in the Twilight saga with famed composer Howard Shore. While the Twilight connection may alienate fans of Metric's politically charged brand of new wave, Haines retains indie cred by the bucketful: She's a long-time member of supergroup Broken Social Scene, she collaborated with Tiësto, and earlier this year she performed at the Sydney Opera House alongside erstwhile Velvet Underground frontman Lou Reed.
We caught up with Haines for a chat about meeting Reed, musicianship versus marketing, Lilith Fair and her answer to the burning question posed on Metric's latest album, Fantasies: Who would you rather be — the Beatles or the Rolling Stones?
Diana Benanti: What does Lilith Fair mean for you in 2010? Is there still a need for a female-centric music festival in the same way that it was necessary fifteen years ago?
Emily Haines: I didn't really connect with the previous Lilith Fair. The genre was mostly folk music, which is not so much my thing. Usually I've been afraid of the association of gender as a genre, because so often you'll be compared to the most obscure other female artist before it would occur to someone to compare you to a male contemporary. Generally I've veered away from it, but this seemed like a good idea this summer.
You said once in an interview that "it's fucking impossible to market Metric. You can't. I don't know what you're selling." Can you expound on that at all?
[Laughs] I think Fantasies is a record that more people understand. It's actually been easier for us to get out there. In the early years, I actually had a no-marketing policy. Now I look back, I'm like: It must have been nice for those record labels — like, "That just saved us a lot of time and energy!" I don't know, what is it when someone is singing antiwar songs and songs like "Patriarch on a Vespa"? It's really, like, angular, kind of aggressive rock but with this seemingly overly sensitive singer. It was hugely unfashionable to play synthesizers at the time that we were electro — you know, we still are — but when the White Stripes record, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs record and the Strokes record came out, it was all about garage rock, and I was rocking a synthesizer from the late '70s. That was what I meant: I don't know how you sell it. I still think it's a matter of people like the music because they like the music. You can't really tailor it to anyone.
How did it feel being picked by Lou Reed to play Vivid Sydney?
Oh, my God! Amazing. I met him at this Neil Young tribute in Vancouver. There's so much talk about Lou Reed and the way he is. I don't know what it was, but we just clicked. When I met him, I was expecting him to not know who I was, obviously, but he did, and he quoted "Gimme Sympathy" to me. He said, "Who would you rather be/the Beatles or the Rolling Stones?" And I said, "Uh, the Velvet Underground" — which is true. He talked to me about my writing, and it was this validation, kind of, from my father [poet Paul Haines]'s world, the avant-garde New York music scene. It was great. We all went to dinner and talked about Jack Teagarden and Albert Ayler and all these musicians. And then a couple weeks later, he and Laurie [Anderson] invited me to be part of this thing they were curating in Sydney. And that was really incredible. I mean, we sang "Perfect Day" together.
Oh, my God!
It was amazing. Musically, a really interesting experience. He wanted to do this song of his called "Cremation," so just sitting together on stage at the Sydney Opera House, just him on guitar and me singing, this really heavy song about, uh, death. So I was right at home with those themes. [Laughs] Laurie Anderson ended up being the star of the show for me; her work is just fascinating. Talk about carving out your own existence. It was a great experience. He's not intimidating. I mean, he is intimidating. But the point is, he's just a musician.
What was it like working with Howard Shore on the Eclipse theme?
It was also excellent. It's nice that these sort of father figures are emerging. There was a professional, respectful attitude toward my work, which I really appreciated, from both of them. I thought he was going to be like a slick LA guy, but he couldn't be more the opposite. I liked what he had written so far, but it was an unusual task. He said, "Obviously I want you to be you, but it's not about you expressing Emily Haines, it's about you expressing the character Bella." A lot of the progression he had already sketched out through the rest of the score; it was a matter of making it culminate in this song. He'd call and sing things to me over the phone as we were fine-tuning it. The melody that I wrote for the verses and for this song — when you see the movie, it's like in it seven times, so it totally ended up being the melodic motif of the film.
When we were at Abbey Road finishing the score, he's at Royal Albert Hall for two sold-out nights of an orchestra playing the music to Lord of the Rings while he sits in the audience. Amazing, you know? We ask the question, and we also ask ourselves the question: Who would you rather be, the Beatles or the Rolling Stones? And it's like, maybe the Rolling Stones and Howard Shore? The Rolling Stones if they scored films? I don't know. He was in rock & roll before as well. It's cool — it's kind of the same thing with Laurie Anderson. You see "O Superman" at No. 1 in 1981 or something. She signed with a major label, so for that chapter Laurie was that. Then she finds herself doing voiceovers for Rugrats movies, you know? It's the same thing with Howard, you find yourself doing Scorsese's After Hours, then you find yourself doing Lord of the Rings and Twilight. That's really what I'm looking to as a model, not becoming a caricature of one thing.
You had so much luck writing Fantasies in Argentina — are you going to do something similar to write the next album?
Oh, God, good timing for that question. That's all we're thinking about! Especially when the Twilight thing happened, it kind of extended our presence out here in the world. We were all ready to start hibernating. The challenge for me this time, I want to see if I can do the opposite, which is just stay. Not have to do this dramatic departure, definitely not have it be five years between records. Can I just deal with whatever's in front of me, instead of — some would say — running from it? That's the question. We have our studio in Toronto that we built at great expense, now all of us are having an amazing time in New York, and the question keeps floating by, like: Why don't we make the record in New York? I don't know, I'm just really excited to get started, and I think it would be cool if I could just stay home for once and see what that brings.