Thrival Countdown: Q&A with Metric’s James Shaw

Metric will play at Thrival Festival in Hazelwood at the end of September. Courtesy of Alysse Gafkjen.

During his enrollment at the Juilliard School, James “Jimmy” Shaw, co-founder of the band Metric, found the curriculum a little stiff — his professors, he said, didn’t appreciate his abundant creativity.

So within the first month of attending the School of Music, Shaw started a band, sold all of his trumpets, took a train to Harlem, New York, to buy weed and wrote hundreds of songs that would ultimately inspire his work as the guitarist of Canadian indie rock band Metric.

Shaw and lead singer Emily Haines founded the band in 1998 but then it was called Mainstream. Since then, bassist Joshua Winstead and drummer Joules Scott-Key joined the band, together renaming it Metric.

The band will return to Pittsburgh for the sixth time to headline this year’s Thrival Festival in Hazelwood on Sept. 24. Thrival is an initiative of a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit Thrill Mill, Inc. and will include three days of interdisciplinary and interactive programming of art, food, education, city policy and technology before two days of outdoor live music from national and local bands.

Metric is best known for “Black Sheep,” a song the fictional band, The Clash at Demonhead, covered in the 2010 film “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” The song was also a feature on both the “Twilight Saga: Eclipse” and “Cosmopolis” soundtracks. The band, whose sixth and latest album “Pagans in Vegas” came out earlier this month, has been grouped into the indie rock, new wave and synthpop genres.

Before Metric’s performance at Thrival, Shaw told The Pitt News about his time in college, building the band’s setlist for the music festival and keeping creative momentum in an 18-year-old band.

TPN: What advice do you have for college students trying to make it in the music industry?

JS: One, you should probably bring up with your therapist that you have an issue with masochism. If you don’t have a therapist, you should get one, because the music industry will batter you up for sure. But, more than anything, there’s no money in it. You have to be doing it for the right reasons. If you’re doing it for the right reasons, don’t do it for the reward, because there’s no reward. The reward is you and your life and creation and the people that you meet and the time that you spend. Time spent is time owned. You have to be in it for the path. The path, if you dedicate your life to it, is an amazing path. It’s completely rewarding on so many life and spiritual levels. But don’t give two sh*ts what anyone else says — it ain’t important.

TPN: Metric has performed at Pittsburgh’s Mr. Smalls Funhouse Theatre three times. What was it like playing there?

JS: I remember it all too well. The first time we played, we played with Broken Social Scene. We ended up back on stage and jamming until six in the morning. We were all staying in the rooms, and the people who run it are super cool, and they let us have a run of the place. It was amazing. It was that time that made us go back however many times we went back because it was sort of like, ‘oh my god, we’re playing at the legendary Mr. Smalls again.’

There’s a few places in America where someone with an idea puts that idea into action, like, ‘I’m gonna buy that church, I’m gonna build a rehearsal studio, I’m gonna build a venue.’ And it kind of exists off the grid — it’s not corporate-owned. It just sort of stands on its own. I think that’s so punk rock and awesome. We just love doing it for that reason.

TPN: How did you build the setlist for Thrival?

JS: We haven’t built a setlist yet. We’ll probably build it about 20 minutes before we go on stage, regardless of the fact that people have been bugging us for it as of a week ago so they can design lights for it and do all the things the crew has to do and needs to do. We’re very reluctant.

When we start an album cycle, we usually go in with a pretty set setlist. When we do a two-month tour, we usually really settle into a set and really develop the nuance of the spacing between songs, the phrasings — the larger picture. At the end of album cycles, a lot of the time, when we just start doing one concert or a festival, we need to show up, and we need to be excited. We’ve been playing the same music for a long time, so we usually really change it up at the last minute. Emily goes, ‘Oh, by the way, we’re playing this song tonight,’ like 20 minutes before we go on, and we’re all like, ‘OK, we haven’t played that since 2007,’ so we all grab headphones and try and find it on Spotify, and then we go out there and wing it.

TPN: Metric has been together since 1998. How do you stay inspired to come up with new material and ideas?

JS: New material and ideas have never really been an issue for us. Emily’s ridiculously prolific — I don’t know what you’d have to do to that woman to make her songwriting stop. Probably give her everything she ever wanted, which is impossible.

In terms of inspiration, I think the driving force really is the fact that the four of us still really like each other. Even when it’s not necessarily something musical, just a little dormant, which is gonna happen over a 20-year career for sure, and there’s nothing you can really do about it.
The fact that the four of us really still like being in the same room together and really still just like playing music together — it really keeps it alive. I really can’t imagine what it would be like if I didn’t love those three. I can’t really imagine showing up, kind of feeling uninspired and then meeting up with three people that I really didn’t feel like seeing. That would suck. And it’s never been that way.

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