Alex Edkins of Metz on pushing limits to make music that seems like it's about to fall apart
Even though the band has been around for five years, Metz just released its self-titled debut full-length on Sub Pop this year. Even prior to that, the Toronto-based trio only released a few seven-inches. Mostly these guys have spent their time focusing on developing as a group by touring and playing shows. Originally, they incorporated samplers and other electronics into their sound, taking a psychedelic approach to songwriting. Now, having stripped their instrumentation down to guitar, drum and bass, the players haven't gone bare-bones so much as they've found more creative ways to use basic elements. Often compared to Big Black and Fugazi, Metz definitely has a fire in its belly.
There is an unmistakable sense of urgency, menace and desperation found in Metz's music that is obviously present in any other punk-inflected music that isn't essentially a museum piece of the subgenre. Even so, Metz will not make you think it's all been done before. We recently spoke with the group's singer and guitarist, the congenial and intelligent Alex Edkins, about his roots in playing music, making music that sounds like it's on the verge of falling apart, and the new album as being a bit like Fitzcarraldo
Westword: Where did you grow up, and how did you get exposed to the kind of music that your own seems to draw from?
Alex Edkins: I grew up in Ottawa, the capital city of Canada. Basically I got into music like most people: listening to my parents' record collection. I started getting tired of that and tried to find something more exciting. So I started looking for concerts to go to downtown and found some like-minded people who were putting on shows and playing in bands in Ottawa, and I realized that there was actually quite the awesome punk and hardcore scene happening there, and I got involved that way.
Had you started playing music before you got involved with that world?
Yeah, I didn't come from a musical family or anything like that. But from a pretty young age, I wanted to play guitar, so I bugged my folks and started learning that way. Through mail order and picking up a zine from a show and blindly ordering albums from different labels and distribution places, I saw what was out there. At that time, there were people in Ottawa bringing in all kinds of bands from all over America that made DIY punk rock, and that's how I got hooked -- going to all those shows.
What bands inspired you early on?
I can't even pick just one. There was so much coming through. Not just heavy bands, but also avant-garde, artsy instrumental music. At that time, bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor would be coming through. Bands like Okara and stuff like that were playing. I missed a lot of the good stuff like Drive Like Jehu playing small venues, but I think it was part of the circuit of North America as a place you came to play.
Did any of those Ottawa or Toronto bands influence what you've tried to do in music yourself?
During university, there were a bunch of people playing in bands. There was a band called Weights and Measures that I really liked. Some of those same members played in a band called Kepler.
Obviously, Metz gets compared to Big Black and grunge and stuff like the Jesus Lizard and Drive Like Jehu. There is that, but your music is also reminiscent of stuff like Fugazi and modern bands like My Disco. What is it about that music that you found compelling when you were younger and perhaps even now?
Those comparisons are all very flattering, because I think the three of us have, at one time or another, been really into those bands you named and that sound. When it came to the three of us playing music, it's something we all had in common. It came naturally to us. We never had that talk, like, "Hey, what are we going to sound like?" That's just what came out. When the three of us got in a room and decided to crank the amps up, that's naturally what came out. We've never discussed our past influences, but I think it's safe to say we all have common ground in those more interesting punk bands from the '90s.
Is there an emotional and sonic space you try to express or embody with your songs?
I think we've always tried to push the limit of our sound in terms of making it seem like it's about to fall apart. That's always been our goal: Push it to the point where people don't know if we're in control or not, or maybe sometimes we don't know if we're in control of it. I feel like that's when music gets very exciting, when it has a musical effect on the listener in the live context. For us, too, the feeling of the volume and the noise of it resonates with all of us and gets us excited.
The lyrical content comes from the music as well, because it's written after the music is done. As far as the themes go, it's usually quite dark or frantic, because it's a product of the music. So we try to get into that headspace before writing the lyrics.
How is it that you met Alexander Hacke, and did he have anything to say beyond complimenting Chris Slorach on his bass tone?
We didn't get that long to chat, but mostly he seemed really excited and was asking Chris about what he was using as far as gear and that kind of thing. We didn't really get to hang out with him, but that was definitely cool.
"Knife in the Water" -- did you borrow that title from Roman Polanski? Perhaps shades of A Certain Ratio. Why did that title suit that song in particular?
Yeah, definitely. It was something about the feel of that movie that I found so on edge, so kind of the edge-of-your-seat type of thing. It doesn't represent anything more from the film than just the fact of that kind of feeling.
Why did you drop the electronics from your band's sound palette?
Basically, it was kind of a natural evolution, I think, or de-evolution -- however you want to look at it. We definitely started off writing much more expansive, kind of convoluted songs. It would have eight different parts, and I wouldn't call it technical music, but it had a lot of twists and turns. Over time we kind of just stripped things back, and we found it was much more enjoyable for us to focus on the three main instruments -- guitar, bass and drums -- and see what we could make by just focusing on those three instead of always thinking, "Hey, why don't I use this sampler right here or we'll use this synthesizer to do this."
It was just becoming too complicated, and we weren't really enjoying it. We figured we would try to make a new sound out of the three old instruments and really focus on making the songs straight to the point -- have one or two main ideas in the song and hammer that home and get out. Before, we'd have ten ideas and try to wrap those all into one song. It just didn't excite us, and the more basic, straightforward punk music, I think, is what really gets us going.
What kind of guitar rig do you have, and what informed your choosing that over maybe some other gear you've used over the years?
We're definitely not too into gear. We like old guitars and stuff like that. I use stuff that I was given by a friend; I didn't even buy it. Two distortion pedals, and I use a delay. So it's a Jazzmaster, and I run it through a Fender Twin Reverb, and I kind of break up the sound in a couple of ways with distortion pedals. Chris is similar. We crank up the amps, and he uses a Gibson RD bass and some distortion. I've got a Pro Co Turbo Rat. Nothing special, that's for sure. I use a SansAmp to push it further from there to break it up.
It's funny -- at our show in Minneapolis a guy came up, and he gave me a distortion pedal and said, "Tell me what you think. I think you'll enjoy this pedal." I don't usually experiment with new sounds or anything, but I'm definitely going to check that one out. I think he was done with it. I forget the make of it, but it was old and had red knobs and looks like it might be an overdrive.
What kind of delay do you use?
A Boss [DD5]. With the record I tried to use different tones for different songs. That's when we take more time and call up all of our friends and borrow all their gear for the weekend. Call in the favors. You don't want to go in and buy something when you can use it for the weekend and put it on tape.
In an interview you did with Stool Pigeon in the UK, you mentioned Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo. Why do you feel making the album was akin to what Herzog did in that film both cinematically and literally?
It was funny. We were outside the jam space and laughing and making jokes. That popped out of my head because we were in the middle of writing songs and doing some recording. The three of us are very opinionated, and we all have a clear idea of how things should sound. Nothing stays unless all three of us agree. That's kind of what I was referring to.
It wasn't like it was an un-enjoyable thing making the record, but it was one of those experiences where sometimes you're beating your head against the wall because everyone's gotta be happy, and it has to be something we can all stand behind at the end of the day. Sometimes it was taxing and something like that, but it's no different from any other band, I'm sure. In the end it was all about us being satisfied and not having any other expectations other than that -- making the record that we wanted to make. That's why it took as long as it did, and that's why I referred to it as "Fitzcarraldo" -- obviously tongue in cheek.