Even since the release of their debut 7” in 2009, Ottawa post-hardcore noise rockers METZ knew what their sound was – a swollen, feedback-laden assault that disguises a knack for not just melodic but rhythmic hooks, galvanised by the trio’s clear sense of instinctive, visceral unison. Sub Pop provided the platform and level of creative independence, while METZ and II laid the groundwork to establish the band as their genre’s current torchbearers, with each release incrementally building on the craftsmanship & sense of dynamic interplay of the last.
Ahead of the release of their third – and most fully-formed – LP yet, Strange Peace, which saw them record with Steve Albini for the first time, DiS caught up with vocalist & guitarist Alex Edkins.
DiS: You’re three albums in as a band in no small way indebted to much of the music recorded by Steve Albini throughout the 80s and 90s, as well as having a fearsome reputation as a live band. At this point, did you feel like going to record with Steve Albini was an elephant in the room?
Alex Edkins: It's funny y'know, because we're obviously – well, I don't know if it’s obvious – fans of the cool records he's done, but I think there was a certain part of us that wanted to avoid working with him. There were so many people who would either, in a loving way, nag us, or in a more teasing way be like: "So when are you gonna do that?" We know Bob Weston, and our sound guy Matthew works at Chicago Mastering Company which is closely affiliated with Electrical Audio, so there were a lot of things connecting us to the idea of going there.
I think it clicked when we were in LA and we jumped in a rental van, and there was this Mclusky song that came on – it was off Does Dallas. We had been racking our brains wondering what we were going to do. We had all these new songs that had a new sound and a new feel to them – I wish I could remember what song it was – but we said: "Woah! That's the drum sound that would fit these songs really well.” This dry, smacky thing that's pretty iconic with Steve, but it wasn't totally full-on Jesus Lizard Steve; it was somewhere in between. So, we all went: "Ding ding ding! Shit, maybe we have to do this after all” because we had been telling ourselves we weren’t going to do it, that we wanted to be in full control. We want to make our own way and make our own sound, and I feel proud of the fact that we did that on the first two albums. In a lot of ways, we still did that on this album because we recorded with him in his fashion – in his no-bullshit kind of way – and then we took the tapes away from him. So it's a collaboration in a way that I think is pretty unusual for how he does things.
With you growing up in music with such an awareness of the influence of Albini, you must have been acutely aware of his recording methods at this stage and felt an added pressure. But when you have a drummer who hits as hard as Hayden, it begs to have the Electrical Audio sound at least once.
Absolutely! And it was one of those pretty funny moments where he showed up, he stood in front of each of our amps and said: "Play!" and he's like: "OK, sounds good", then stands in front of the drums: "Sounds good. OK, go get dinner". So we go get dinner, we come back, everything's mic'd up, and we start tracking like that. It was 40 minutes prep, then I think 2 takes in and we had a track. We were laughing hysterically because the drum sound was just...to be in that room and hear that smack was really funny to all of us. We were just like, "Oh my god".
The METZ sound is definitely one that sounds born out of spontaneity and raw energy.
That's it, and it's something we had never done to that extent, so we had to go in there and know that basically we really had to have our songs together and our heads wrapped around them in a way we never had before. There's no turning back, so if someone screws up, then you just start again, and after working that way, I really came to see the value of it. I really can see why he does it that way and it just makes a huge difference as far as feel and, in a weird, or in quite an obvious way, it simplifies the entire process; there's none of that “fix-it-later” kind of stuff. It was really refreshing for me to know that we just had to step in there and get it right the first time.
It sounds like Strange Peace is your most crafted record so far in terms of dynamics, and there are some new melodies in the forefront. Did you approach it with more of a sense of dynamic and melody in mind this time?
It's really just a matter of us evolving and growing. There was no real endgame, there was no goal to try and do things, but that's where we ended up. I think it's a much more varied and diverse record than we've ever made, and our test has been to go with whatever gets us excited and doing the things that we did on this album were what was getting the three of us stoked. Taking time to breathe and having space in the songs was something very new for us, and it felt totally like the right direction.
It definitely feels like there’s more of a narrative on Strange Peace. One of your most restrained songs to date, ‘Caterpillar’, feels like a breeze block has been lifted off your head, before 'Lost In The Blank City' drops it back on.
Yeah, I love that – it's stating the obvious, but if there's no quiet, there's no loud, and on our other records, the intention was to just beat you over the head for 30 minutes and then get the hell out. This time we wanted to do something that you could live in a little bit more, and hopefully, there's more depth to it.
METZ are renowned for touring and performing quite relentlessly. Do you write on the road, or did you need some time with it?
Writing isn't something we do on the road; we usually have to take a breather, but it's funny how short the breather is. I think we take maybe a week after a long tour and then we're back in the room working stuff out because we’ll just have all these new ideas happening. I don’t know how long it took, but I know for sure I spent a couple months messing around at home. I did a lot of writing and demoing by myself, and I brought it into the guys, and that's the real test – that's when you see what you have, if it works with the three of us, so we fleshed things out that way.
Do you ever find yourself overthinking your writing, or is it guided by that kinetic energy of what's happening when the three of you are in the room?
Yeah, for sure. Sometimes, I'll have something, just a blueprint or a sketch of something, or a demo, and I'm sure that it's the best thing, and it just won't jive with the 3 of us. I wonder: “What the hell? I don't understand why it's not working”. But it has to tick off all the boxes, and I'm not sure what those boxes are, but you just know. We have the tendency of just playing stuff to death. We practice in this factory and it's just disgusting and dank, and our neighbours are just like: "You guys are here every day, all day, and you never shut up.” That's how we do it until we either love it or hate it – and then we trash it.
Do you have a mission statement you try to adhere to?
I think if there's a mission statement, it's just to be honest. Just to make things for reasons that you think are important, so like you were saying, it's really important not to overthink things and not to get bogged down with: "Oh, are people going to like this?". It's never been something that we’ve worried about, and some days are easier than others to stick to that, but I think when you start writing for an imaginary crowd, you're screwed, and you'll probably end up hating the music too. So it's real simple; we try to be honest with the lyrics and follow your gut when it comes to everything about the band.
It goes without saying that it's been a turbulent time as of late, and it matches the mood of your music generally. In terms of your lyrics were there any things about modern living or anything that informed them, that you found yourself writing about?
I always think of it as my anxiety medicine. My way to work things out on the spot. During the time of the record, it was certainly a pretty heavy time. The US election was really on the forefront, and that was just an unbelievable thing that we watched happen. I think I was in a state of shock in a lot of ways, and also on a more personal level, I was expecting the birth of my son, and I was feeling pretty unanchored. I was feeling like "What is happening here?" and you just hang your head in disbelief. Of course, my son is this fantastic thing that has changed my life in an amazing way, but the title of the record and some of the themes of even the artwork, is this idea of Strange Peace meaning the calm before the storm, or that eerie feeling before something terrible or a huge change happens. The album cover is full of these ideas of rebirth, so those are the broad themes.
Do you ever try to intellectualise your lyrics, or do you write to serve the music that’s already written?
Lyrics are always last for me, and they can be difficult. I don't consider myself someone who's always scribbling in a notebook. That's not something that I've done, so it's always very much for the song. That being said, I despise waxing poetic about it. I think music is, in a lot of ways, very self-indulgent, and I think even worse would be to then discuss and go deep and explain every meaning. I really hope that it's something that can just be taken in by others and they get what comes to them. That's what I do with the music that I love, and I have no idea what was intended, but I get so much from it. So that's the intention.
We can't all be Father John Misty.
[laughs] The snarky, all-knowing irony of that guy. I can't handle it. When there is no sincerity anymore, it kind of makes me cringe.
You need to strike a balance between that: "I'm sitting up in a tree on shrooms observing at you all" cynicism, and cringe-worthy super-sincere heart on your sleeve.
You nailed it, you gotta be somewhere in between, and it can be tough. Obviously what I do isn't narrative based – I'm not taking you on a journey – it's just snapshots. But now I'm doing what I said I wouldn't do, so forget about that.
Your touring schedule has historically been quite relentless. Do you find yourselves busier now on the road since five years ago when the first album came out?
We are and we aren’t. We did some Canadian touring then, but Hayden [Menzies, drummer] had some border issues, so we couldn't get to the States, and it handcuffed us a little bit. But we really love playing live so it's been a beautiful thing. It's been something that we take a lot of pride in and feel fortunate to be able to do, but that said, we're not getting any younger and it does hurt physically. It ain’t pretty sometimes, but we really love it. We've got up until Christmas planned out, and that's pretty heavy touring, then the plan is to do more in 2018, but that's not set in stone yet. We want to do the record justice and play it at the same time. I don't think we'll be out there for three-month tours like we used to – it's just not necessary anymore, which is cool, but we'll be out there for sure. We’re getting better at balancing our family life. It becomes a necessity, and what's cool about that is that if we're at home, we can just try to focus on making music, and we can up our output that way, so that's a really cool up-side to it.
Have any of you sustained any injuries? Some of the shows get pretty physical, even violent.
Most of them aren't; we try to go for more of the kind of joyful ecstatic kind of violence, but once in a while, due to our own clumsiness, we'll end up hurting ourselves. Chris [Slorach, bassist] has this tendency to constantly hit his head on his tuning pegs if you can imagine that? It's like headbanging, he'll cut his forehead wide open. He's also had a bass head fall off his amp, onto his head. Nothing that serious, but there's been a couple of bloopers.
There are only a couple of bands I've seen that really match what your live performance is like, and one that springs to mind is the Oh Sees, in terms of letting the energy come first. It's a really powerful thing.
Oh man. We were just in Atlanta and we saw them. It's really something special – they rolled in late, no soundcheck, and went onstage to a sold-out show and it sounded like a million bucks. Our jaws were on the floor. I think I've seen them 40 times – they're incredible, just one of a kind. It seems like the flow of a set is just…it seems like breathing to those guys. I can't say enough good things.
Beyond some of the classics, are there any modern acts you're actively influenced by?
Well, one of the big ones that was in a small way a part of why we went to work with Steve too, happened through Graham Walsh, who we've done a lot of recording with and who mixed this last record. He asked "Hey, do you have any interest in a couple of these records?" and one of them was a Scout Niblett record. I was like: "I'll take that for sure" and I got really into it. I kind of got obsessed with her stuff and bought a couple records, three or four of 'em, and she did records with Albini, so it was just reinforcement. She does some really interesting vocal & drum songs, and super heavy guitar riff stuff, and I was just blown away by it. My latest fascination would be her music.
There was a band that sprang to mind when listening to a couple of tracks on the new album, and it's probably in your blood, are you fans of Clikitat Ikatowi?
Yeah! Wasn't Mario [Rubalcaba] in that band? From Hot Snakes and Rocket From The Crypt? We have a running joke in our band about them in our van. One of our friends from Chicago, he grew up with us, he's from the East Coast of Canada, but he played in bands and grew up listening to a lot of that kind of stuff. One of us put on a track on the stereo and he asked: "Aw hey, is this Clikitat Ikatowi?" and the response was "No, it's Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska". I've never seen anyone get it more wrong in my life, but it was hilarious. So now if someone puts something on, we just ask "Is that Clikitat Ikatowi?". If you don't know it, that's the answer.
On that note, there are a lot of the qualities of SST Records found in METZ’ music – who would the most important SST band be, or a lesser-known gem from back then?
Ah…off the top of my head? It’s not strange stuff, but an honest answer, not as cool, but lately, I've just been saying: "It's just Hüsker Dü, all day, every day." They're probably my favourite SST band. It just blows my mind. You listen to it over and over and over and over, and you put it on again one day and you get something else from it. I can just find something amazing in it every time I listen to it.
No one does the simple complexity thing quite like Hüsker Dü.
We saw Bob play in Toronto, and he played a bunch of Hüsker Dü stuff, but even his solo stuff – it boggles my mind because it's open chords with a distortion pedal and is nothing groundbreaking in that way, but in every other way, it's just perfection. And you're left wondering: "How does he do that?" I don't get it.
Even the Sugar records are essentially Mould doing alt. rock arguably better than the Foo Fighters and the like.
He’s just got that thing that's one of a kind that no-one can touch. Even if they were to play the exact same chords on the exact same guitar, it wouldn't work.
It can be hard to find a definitive sound for some bands, but as far back as Metz recordings go, the actual sound is there from the start. The rhythmic hook is the first thing that grabs you – was that style of playing intentional from the start? Strange Peace decidedly starts out as a METZ album as we know it, and takes on a life of its own as it progresses.
We always liked the idea of embracing limitations and using them. Even at the time, being in a three-piece was a bit odd. It was a time when people had 12 people in bands and we came out of nowhere in Ottawa and we don't even want to have the ability to do all this superfluous stuff, so we just kept it super basic. The idea for Chris and I was always to try to make bass & guitar sound like one swarming beehive, where we're basically a note off, but we'd be bending in and out of each other in that way. That was kind of a thing that we got pumped about doing. Keeping our effects boards pretty sparse, and just trying to bend the hell out of our guitars and using amp feedback as a way to try to get new sounds. I think we did that in some ways, but you also can fall into your own routines. It still sounds like us on this new record, but in a lot of ways, it's gone to a very new place where we've taken chances and stepped out of that comfort zone.
Strange Peace is out now via Sub Pop. For more information about the band, including forthcoming tour dates, please visit their official website.