Study Guide

Help I'm Alive Technique

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  • Music

    Metric's sound can be best described as show-meets-studio. By that, we mean that the band's tracks all have a decidedly "live performance" feel; they're raw and gritty and reflect the energy you get at a concert much more than a squeaky-clean studio track recorded to antiseptic perfection. 

    With "Help I'm Alive" in particular, the transcendent effect of the music is evident. Emily Haines' voice seems to come from everywhere, taking over the track with its power. This is due in part to the fact that Metric, for many years, was a touring band; they were doing shows nonstop and put almost all of their songs through what they called "the road test." 

    A song passes "the road test," guitarist James Shaw explains, if after dozens and dozens of performances, it "gets better and better and you get more and more excited to play it and every time you do the song gels more and the crowds are reacting better and better." He admitted that many of the songs that the band put to this test in 2007 didn't pass, forcing Metric to go back to the drawing board and rework everything. 

    As Haines puts it, "That was always kind of a goal, is to be able to play the songs enough live to really have them become themselves before you record them. In the past, it's hard, if you're not a touring band. You have some idea of how to develop the song, but a lot of it is imaginary. So in this case, we've been able to play the music a lot and we can just capture what we already know works." 

    With Fantasies, the band members attribute the album's unique and varied sound to the many places where the music was made; some songs are painfully intimate while others sound as though they've been played for hundreds of thousands of people. 

    As Haines explains, "For me, the major influences on the record were the places we wrote it: Bear Creek, this utopian farmhouse studio, and then our own studio in Toronto, which definitely brought in the electro, dance and rock elements because the city feels so good right now and so many of our musician friends were around. And then for me, being in Buenos Aires, most of the songs I brought to this record came out of being in exile with just a piano and a guitar. And then in the final stages, mixing at Electric Lady in NYC brought everything around to where we first met Josh and Joules." (Source)

    Shaw adds, "The warehouse in Vancouver was such a colossal live room, vibrant. We went there to find an over-the-top giant drum sound, one that would make you feel like you were in—all these different references—a stadium, space church. We had this big image of pterodactyls flying through canyons and the preacher wearing silver at the helm of the space church, totally retarded imagery like that. We traveled around trying to find these crazy studios where we could get that drum sound. I think being in a lot of different places affected our overall sound in the long run."

    Haines also plays a Pro One Synthesizer to add to the band's melodic range. It's a versatile synth with lots of modulation and sequencing possibilities. Of her Pro One, she says, "I've had mine for about eight years. There have been times when notes have stuck, and there have been little problems, but we seem to be able to do self-repairs on it. I really like that it's an unpredictable instrument, because that's what makes it a musical instrument." 

    Metric is also, as Haines puts it, "for lack of a better word, upbeat" (source). She attributes the bands unique sound to the songwriting duo of herself and Jimmy Shaw. Basically, Haines will write a melancholy piano ballad and then give it to Shaw, who infuses it with fun and vigor and synthesized beats; it is no longer the "sad-girl-with-piano" thing that Haines tries to avoid. 

    At the same time, it's not all bubblegum for this band: Metric gets deep with their music in a way that transcends the sugary pop we hear often on the airwaves.

    "It's youthful, full of energy," says Haines. "It's dance music! But it's never doing that with the spirit of trying to hide what's f----d up. It's in spite of what's f----d up, it's acknowledging what's f----d up. We don't want to be from the Jackson 5 school of positive music, where it sounds like people faking happiness under most dire circumstances. That's, musically, the last thing I want to do with my time on Earth."

  • Calling Card

    Metric has only recently won huge mainstream pop success in the United States, but the band has been around for years. And the band's four members have, of course, been playing music even longer. 

    Lead singer Emily Haines turned to music as a kid growing up in a typical suburb in Ontario, Canada. "Probably out of boredom," she later recalled. "My brother would often invite me to come hang out in his room and listen to records. I spent many rainy afternoons crouched on the floor beside his turntable in awe of what was possible. Later, he bought me my first recording device, a Fostex X-12 cassette four-track. I used it to record my very first songs. It really helped me compose and develop arrangements. He loved to remind me that the Beatles had achieved greatness with just four tracks. He told me to aim high." (Source)

    Fast-forward a decade or so: Haines is now in Toronto, feeling safe and uninspired. Jimmy Shaw, meanwhile, grew up playing trumpet, not what you'd expect from a rock guitarist.  He explains, "I was a classical trumpet player as a kid, I played in orchestras, went to Juilliard, I was totally supposed to play the trumpet in the classical world. It was when I started listening to a few other records, Steely Dan, I thought wait a minute, I want to rethink that. I want to do that instead, that sounds like way more fun. After listening to rock. I think as a 17-year-old watching the Smiths' last concert, ploughing through bottles of Jack, I thought, 'I wanna try that.'" (Source)

    When the two met, it was instant musical chemistry and they took an overnight Greyhound bus to New York with the sole intention of forming a great band. Says Emily, "It was a fantastic cliché and we made it real. We arrived in the city with nothing. Looking back, I know we could have made it easier for ourselves, but I'm glad we didn't." 

    Living in a carbon monoxide-infused industrial apartment in Manhattan where the oil-run heating system would randomly run out during the coldest winter nights wasn't exactly luxurious, but dealing with situations like this only made the duo stronger and made for some funny memories.

    "Friends from those days tell me their impression of me was of a stressed out and skinny Lady Macbeth with cropped black hair," Haines says, "consumed by her desire to bleach the stink of cat piss from her concrete floors, charging up and down Bedford Ave burdened with buckets and cleaning supplies, haggling with Sydney (the guy who sold used furniture that was basically garbage) or jogging with the junkies in McCarren park."

    Around this time, the pair realized that a bassist and a drummer were essential. Serendipity delivered Joules Scott Key and Joshua Winstead at the perfect time in 2003 and Metric was officially born. After recording their first three albums, Old World Underground, Where Are You Now, and Live It Out, and touring almost nonstop, the bandmates decided to take a break from each other for a minute in order to write some new tracks in 2007. 

    After putting many of these new singles to the "road test" to see how they and their fans liked them, the four musicians went on a recording journey from one studio to the next and the end result was 2009's Fantasies. Always determined to follow their own path, Metric abandoned corporate record labels to produce and distribute Fantasies entirely on their own. 

    As Haines explained to an interviewer, "It was strange having some real choices for the first time in our career while also feeling like whichever deal we chose was going to end up being restrictive and force us to compromise creatively. At one point, we just said 'oh f--- it, let's gamble,' took a deep breath and decided to put this record out worldwide our own way. I do think the old music industry has been more interested in trying to shut down the future than in developing new ideas. That's why Metric decided to put together our own label for worldwide distribution and make our international headquarters. The future is here and Metric delivers!" (Source)

    So, there you have it: a talented band, crazy recording locations, some killer lyrics, synthesizers, drums, and Emily Haines' haunting, powerful voice over all of it. And they did it all on their own.

  • Songwriting

    "[Paralysis] is a common feeling among musicians," Metric singer Emily Haines once told an interviewer. She went on to say:

    You're still so disoriented from all the touring and the first thing you're meant to do when you get home is get "inspired" and start writing your next record. For me, inspiration isn't something I sit around at Starbucks with my laptop waiting for, you know? For as long as I can remember, I have written songs because I wanted to, because I was experiencing something that couldn't be described except through a sound. God help me if that ever changes! It does mean I have to trick myself into thinking I don't care if I ever write another song again and embark on questionable endeavors, like f----g off to Buenos Aires and not knowing a single person or having any idea what I was doing or what was going to happen. Until the day we die, our lives are unwritten, which is sometimes a terrifying thought. For me, not as terrifying as feeling like everything is static though. (Source)

    "Help I'm Alive" is a song loaded with visceral imagery. We might even be able to get away with re-titling it "An Ode to the Human Cardiovascular System." Keats could have totally written this, if only he'd lived long enough to hear a proper backbeat. Everything is blood and heartbeats and a racing pulse. The speaker clearly has a serious case of the butterflies, and her sympathetic nervous system is taking notice. 

    Emily Haines says that even if her songs have a dark twist to them, it really isn't her fault. Her writing is simply a product of the world around her. She said, "I was raised to comment on the world around me, and if it was all—you know—daffodils, there would be a lot of songs about daffodils. But, it's not, so it's not really a conscious decision to be disappointed." (Source)

    Yet, aside from her overactive organs, she works through the panic, eventually coming to realize that she still does maintain control over her life: 

    If we're still alive
    My regrets are few
    If my life is mine

    What shouldn't I do?
    I get wherever I'm going
    I get whatever I need. 

    This is the ultimate "take that" statement to anybody who'd try to stand in her way. She not only admits her faults and weaknesses, but in doing so, overcomes them to become ready to do whatever she wants with her life. It's the same rush of liberation we get when we pass through any major milestone in life—whether a breakup, graduation, a new job, quitting an old job, a change of scenery, or a new vocation. It's scary, uncertain, but ultimately powerful in its freedom. 

    Of her personal songwriting style, Haines says:

    Writing for me comes from a process of trying to piece things together. [...] The function of music in my life is to help me understand what the hell is happening. This new record was about ending the fragmentation of my existence. Everything in the world right now—all the technology, the way we listen to music or watch films—everything has changed so much in my lifetime. People are allowed to have multiple identities—you're somebody online, you're somebody else in public—in multiple dimensions, scattered across the world. [...] I wanted to bring all that into one place, one band, one record. [...] I want to be one person. (Source)

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