Emily Haines is not known for keeping her thoughts to herself.
As part of Toronto’s Metric, the notoriously outspoken singer-keyboardist incorporates her political beliefs into wildly infectious synth-rock songs. On 2003’s Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? (Everloving) and last fall’s Live It Out (Last Gang), Haines tackled such unlikely pop-song subject matters as war, Big Brother, and the emptiness of consumer culture with thrilling, often thought-provoking results. “Buy this car to drive to work/ Drive to work to pay for this car” — from “Handshakes” — is a typical sentiment. She’s even more articulate in Metric interviews, discussing everything from voter disenfranchisement to the futility of trying to create real change through music.
It’s strange, then, that Haines is tight-lipped when it comes to her solo debut, Knives Don’t Have Your Back, out Sept. 26 on Last Gang. During a phone conversation from England, where Metric performed at Reading Festival two days prior, she sounds annoyed by the mere idea of talking about her album’s lyrics. “Do you think you can put it in words?” she icily counters when asked to elaborate on the central theme. “If I have to name the narrative, then there’s no point in having had one there at all.” Clearly, she prefers to keep her own songs open to interpretation.
Thing is, Knives is such a huge artistic departure both musically and lyrically for Haines that some insight might prove helpful. Rather than rely on the propulsive energy and shout-it-out choruses that define Metric’s sound, Haines (who also moonlights in Broken Social Scene) has recorded an album of soft, piano-based hymns more intent on capturing a mood — and a seriously somber one at that — than whipping audiences into raucous, dance-floor frenzies. Recorded with help from members of Sparklehorse, Stars, and Broken Social Scene, the album is hardly recognizable as the work of the same feisty woman who fronts Metric.
Haines, however, insists she didn’t approach Knives’s songs any differently than those of her band. “I spend all my time at the piano,” she explains. “For Metric, we’ve always just adapted my piano songs into a rock ’n’ roll format. So it was interesting [for Knives] to keep some of them for myself and leave them as is. Because I’ve always written more music than anyone could be asked to digest, I just chose the songs that I realized it’d be kind of sad if I never, ever put them out. It’s taken me a while to get up the nerve to release them though.”
The product of a rather lengthy incubation period, Knives was written over four years and recorded in as many cities — namely, Toronto, Montreal, Los Angeles, and New York. So it’s a bit surprising that the album comes off as such a cohesive collection of, as Haines puts it, photographs from her past. “It ended up feeling like snapshots over that period of time,” she says. “When I look back and listen to these songs, I feel like the last four years have been some of the most intense.”
As song titles such as “Our Hell” and “Nothing and Nowhere” suggest, the result is almost abysmally bleak. Turning her focus from political anger to personal turmoil, Haines ruminates extensively on pain, loss, loneliness, and despair. “Are we breathing? Are we wasting our breath?” she sings in “Crowd Surf off a Cliff.” Even more unnerving, “The Last Page” finds her cryptically singing, “Death is absolutely safe.” But while the entire album could pass as a heartrending document of one woman’s extremely troubled times, all Haines will say (and only after much prodding) is that Knives is “essentially about being grateful for what you have, even when your life is shit.”
When she comes to San Francisco this week — a sequel to her July 2004 Cafe du Nord appearance, where she offered a rare sneak preview of an in-progress Knives — Haines will be accompanied by bassist Paul Dillon and Sparklehorse drummer Scott Minor, whom she’s enlisted to help her “nail that Plastic Ono Band vibe.” She’ll then head back to England for another Metric tour and to start recording the band’s third album. Later, if time allows, she hopes to play more solo gigs and eventually perform again with Broken Social Scene.
In other words, while fans may find it odd that Haines is suddenly mum about her solo music, they can take comfort that she’s fast becoming one of the busiest artists in indie rock.
“It’s weird,” she says. “When people say to me how busy my life is, I suppose that I really am ridiculously busy. But to me, it just feels like being a musician. That’s what I wanted to do and that’s what I’m doing. I’m making music. It’s not a job. It’s my life. It’s my friends and my family. So the more the better.” SFBG
EMILY HAINES AND THE SOFT SKELETON
Fri/22, 9 p.m.
Cafe du Nord
2170 Market, SF
Has anyone ever chosen a more appropriate band name than Annie Hardy?
Speaking with the 24-year-old singer and guitarist of Los Angeles’s Giant Drag, I find it impossible to imagine a moniker that better captures the depressing nature of both her band’s narcotic grunge-pop songs and her own almost comically defeated outlook on life. She expresses so much bemused disappointment in conversation, in fact, that the name almost seems like an understatement.
"Sometimes real life ruins all your fun," says Hardy with a chuckle, calling from a tour stop in Minneapolis. She’s not kidding, though — at least not entirely. Throughout our chat, the Orange County native airs a laundry list of grievances about the record industry, from frustrating decisions made by her label to the constant comparisons of her band — which also includes 27-year-old drummer and synth player Micah Calabrese — to the Breeders and PJ Harvey.
Her biggest gripe, however, seems to be that music journalists tend to make a big deal about her rather, uh, creative song titles: among them, "My Dick Sux," "Kevin Is Gay," and "You Fuck like My Dad."
"I just couldn’t think of titles for most of the songs, so I thought I’d use funny stuff," Hardy insists. "But I did that without thinking about releasing it and having it be reviewed and having certain people, like the British press, just focus on that. They make it seem that titles like ‘You Fuck like My Dad’ are more important than the music. It’s stupid.”
“So I don’t know if I’ll keep doing that [with the titles] in the future," she continues. "That’s a pain, though, because it’s just who we are. It was us just having fun."
Of course, most people probably wouldn’t describe Giant Drag as fun. On its full-length debut, last fall’s excellent Hearts and Unicorns (Kickball/Interscope), the band split the difference between Mazzy Star and Nirvana, unleashing a din of droning, heavily distorted alt-rock that’s perfect for Hardy’s angst-ridden outbursts: "No number of pills will fix my life today," she sings at one point; at others, "I haven’t felt so well for so long now" and "From here on out it’s only pain." But whereas, say, Kurt Cobain was quite vocal in interviews about his pain, Hardy remains tight-lipped.
"A lot of those songs are about experiencing something down or sad and angry," she explains. "But I really don’t like to discuss what they’re about."
Not that she hasn’t spilled plenty of her guts, at least in her music, since 2004. That’s when Hardy, who’d been casually recording cover songs and writing her own material, decided to take a friend up on his offer to have her open for his band. Rather than make Giant Drag a solo project, however, she asked Calabrese if he’d like to join.
"I was like, ‘Look, Micah, either you can play with me or I can go it alone.’ Micah was like, ‘Nah, I won’t let you go out like that,’” she says. "We thought about getting a bass player, but one day Micah started playing drums and the synthesizer at the same time. We were like, ‘Oh shit, that’s funny — but it also works.’”
After a rocky start — Hardy claims the first shows "sucked" — Giant Drag began to garner local radio support and landed popular monthlong residencies at the Silverlake Lounge and Spaceland. Then early last year, the band became a sensation in England with the release of its Lemona EP (Wichita). "Over there we started to sell out shows, and it was gnarly," she says. "Then we’d go to Omaha, and everyone would be like, ‘Who the fuck are you?!’ — except for one 80-year-old guy standing in the front row who drove four hours from Kansas to see us."
Of course, Giant Drag’s American fan base has grown considerably since then. Hearts and Unicorns continues to receive plenty of blog buzz, national press has been largely positive, and the duo played a well-received set at Coachella this spring. In fact, the main thing holding the duo back from a mainstream breakthrough seems to be that it’s no longer 1993, when similar acts such as Mazzy Star and, yep, the Breeders ruled MTV’s buzz bin.
Giant Drag’s label hasn’t given up hope, though. This spring Kickball Records rereleased Hearts and Unicorns, tacking on the band’s woozy cover of Chris Isaak’s "Wicked Game" in an attempt to gain airplay. Not surprisingly, the decision rubbed Hardy the wrong way.
"Micah and I both think [the reissue] doesn’t make much sense. I guess the label wants to give it a big push and have some sort of Alien Ant Farm thing go on," she snorts, referring to the one-hit wonders who became famous for their cover of Michael Jackson’s "Smooth Criminal."
"But that hasn’t happened yet," Hardy adds, hinting that life may not always be a giant drag after all. "So I’m not upset — well, not really." SFBG
Giant Drag with Pretty Girls Make Graves and Whale Bones
Sun/4, 8 p.m.
Great American Music Hall
859 O’Farrell, SF
"I don’t want to be compared to Blondie all the time, but I can absolutely see why people do it," the Sounds’ Maja Ivarsson says.
Calling from a tour stop in Albuquerque, the charismatic Swede readily acknowledges that as the blond vocalist of an infectious, synth-driven band that’s heavily influenced by ’80s music, she’ll never escape the shadow of Debbie Harry. Unlike most of today’s retro revivalists, however, who are so desperate not to appear derivative that they barely admit to even their most obvious influences — Interpol and the Killers, you’re fooling no one — Ivarsson doesn’t mind the comparison. In fact, she takes it as a compliment.
"The Blondie thing is flattering because it’s a great band," she continues. "At the same time, I can see why people want to be their own band. But I think it’s kind of silly to get upset about it, because every band that you’ve been listening to since you were a kid has been compared to something before that. It’s the way it works."
Of course, the Sounds aren’t the second coming of Blondie — they’re even better. On 2003’s Living in America (Scratchie/New Line), the Swedish new wave sensations sound like they spent years deconstructing their favorite early-’80s hits, cribbing notes from Missing Persons, Kim Wilde, and, yes, Blondie, to create a danceable pop-rock album so outlandishly catchy it sounds less like a band’s debut than a collection of greatest hits. If that seems too good to be true — and really, songs like "Mine for Life" and "Dance with Me" kind of are — it helps to remember they hail from the country with probably the most hit-makers per capita in pop history, including ABBA, A-ha, Ace of Base, and Max Martin.
"We’ve been brought up with great, great melodies and songwriting," Ivarsson says. "We’re just suckers for hit music, even music like that Kelly Clarkson song, ‘Since U Been Gone’ — it has a great hook! Maybe it’s not your favorite artist, but if you took that hook and added your shit to it, you could build a great pop song out of it."
Surprisingly, they weren’t always so smitten with such accessible songwriting. Formed in 1998 while still in high school, the Sounds started out playing six-minute rock epics that Ivarsson describes as "dark and weird and very arrrgh." When those songs failed to find them a fan base, however, they decided to shift direction and try their hands at new wave. "We were just like, ‘Oh, dude, this is the way we’re going to sound!’" she recalls. "It was so much more fun. It was cheesy, but it was good cheese!"
They weren’t the only ones who thought so. In 2002, after the Sounds signed a major-label deal with Warner Sweden, Living in America went putf8um and earned them a Swedish Grammy before getting released stateside a year later on James Iha’s Scratchie Records. Tours with the Strokes and Foo Fighters, as well as a stint on the 2004 Vans Warped Tour, ensued, along with massive word of mouth surrounding the band’s glamtastic, adrenalin-spiking live show. Unfortunately, the Sounds’ success here still fell far short of what they have back home.
That may change with the recent release of Dying to Say This to You (Scratchie/New Line). Helmed by Jeff Saltzman, who produced the Killers’ Hot Fuss (Island), and mixed by Paul Q. Kolderie (Radiohead, Hole), the Sounds’ second album is an even better blitzkrieg of retro wrist-pumping anthems — glitter-punk riffs! Euro-disco keyboard lines! Ivarsson’s tough-gal taunts! — that’s so relentlessly catchy it practically dares America not to listen. And while many people who’ve tired of the ’80s revival will do just that, it’s their loss: Stadium-ready stompers such as "Queen of Apology" and dance floor confections like "Tony the Beat" prove that sharp hooks — even when rooted in Reagan-era nostalgia — never go out of style.
Why should it matter, then, that we’ve heard all this before? The Sounds may not be today’s most innovative rock band, but they’re one of the most efficient when it comes to creating exuberant, unabashedly poppy rock. So it’s best to follow Ivarsson’s lead and shrug off the fact that her band will probably always be seen as Blondie wannabes. They’re not, of course, but nor are they overly concerned with anyone else’s notions of originality, authenticity, and indie credibility. Rather, quite refreshingly, the Sounds simply want to show as many people a good time as possible.
"We don’t think it’s anything to be ashamed of if you’re a great pop band — pop means popular, and it’s a pretty good sign if you’re popular," Ivarsson says, laughing. "In the beginning, only hip bands and elite people knew about us, and they were like, ‘This is my band.’ Of course, they don’t like us anymore, but that’s OK. As long as the people like us, then we’re happy. We just want to get you down."<\!s><z5><h110>SFBG<h$><z$>
With Morningwood and Action Action
Mon/1, 7:30 p.m.
333 11th St., SF
On their hysterical Web site, We Are Scientists send out a warning to would-be critics.
“Journalists beware!” the New York trio declares. “An example has been made of a reporter who dared to impugn WAS!” It turns out that a certain writer, who had gone out of his way to trash the band, was recently busted for fabricating part of a story in the Village Voice. The lesson to be learned, according to WAS, is that criticizing them results in some serious karmic retribution. “If [writers] must vent negative feelings,” the band helpfully advises, “they should cloak them in a thick blanket of bone-dry sarcasm so that most readers think the article is actually positive.”
WAS may have their tongues planted firmly in their cheeks, but they have reason to feel a bit defensive. After all, singer-guitarist-heartthrob Keith Murray, bassist Chris Cain, and drummer Michael Tapper are often snubbed by indier-than-thou listeners, particularly in the blogosphere, who begrudge the band for its radio-friendly sound and burgeoning success, which, since last summer, has included a heavily hyped UK tour opening for the Arctic Monkeys and a major-label record deal. What’s more, despite forming in 2000, they’ve been largely dismissed by critics as latecomers to today’s trendy post-punk party.
On its recent debut, With Love and Squalor (Virgin), however, the band distinguishes itself from ’80s-influenced peers such as Hot Hot Heat and Franz Ferdinand by elevating relationship anxiety to an art form. In songs like “The Great Escape” and “Inaction,” propulsive, herky-jerky rhythms underscore Murray’s dread about car-wreck romances that he can’t quite peel himself away from, singing, “Everybody knows how it’s gonna end / Why doesn’t someone stop me?!” The entire album, in fact, is permeated with a nervous, deeply compelling tension due to Murray’s panicked yelp and lyrics that, in his words, attempt to express “a core of existential despair.”
If that sounds pretentious, at least it’s more refreshingly earnest than, say, the arch observations that Franz Ferdinand pass off as profundity in last fall’s lame hit “Do You Want To.” It’s also catchier than anything the ’80s revivalists have released since the Killers’ “Somebody Told Me”
"Our mission is to make you dance & if yr not gonna dance, just stay at home," the Gossip once posted on the K Records Web site. But even if the best introduction to the Portland, Ore., blues punks is through their notoriously sweat-inducing live shows, two left feet needn’t deter anyone from checking out the trio. With three albums, two EPs, one live record, and a handful of singles, split releases, and compilation tracks to the band’s name, there are plenty of ways for wallflowers to enjoy the Gossip in the privacy of their own homes. Try these career-spanning highlights — a greatest-hits mix that, even if public displays on the dance floor ain’t your thing, should get you busting moves in the bedroom mirror.
"WHERE THE GIRLS ARE," "SWING LOW," "BONES," THATS NOT WHAT I HEARD (KILL ROCK STARS, 2001)
After 2000’s promising self-titled debut on K Records, Thats Not What I Heard offered the first hint that the Gossip’s gutbucket blues were more than just a vehicle for Beth Ditto to wail about her unquenchable sexual desire. Sure, there’s plenty of that — "Where the Girls Are" and the gospel-queering "Swing Low" are irresistible testaments to graphic Sapphic expression — but it’s "Bones," the story of a woman who offs her abusive husband then hits the road, that best captures their explosive energy.
"I WANT IT (TO WRITE)," FLYING SIDEKICK: HOME ALIVE II (BROKEN REKIDS, 2001)
"Put your hand up my skirt! Push it in, pull it out, make it hurt!" Ditto shouts. It’s the relentless hand claps — as subtle as a barrage of open-handed bitch slaps — and Gories-ripped riffs that truly turn this ode to, uh, digital love into their filthiest romp. Talk to the hand, girl!
"(TAKE BACK) THE REVOLUTION," ARKANSAS HEAT EP (KILL ROCK STARS, 2002)
With references to women workin’ hard for the money — too hard for too little, that is — and small towns full of even smaller minds, this rallying cry sets the Gossip’s slow-burning political fury ablaze. On "(Take Back) the Revolution," Ditto demands an overhaul in how people think about class, gender, and body image. "All you do is criticize my body, my hair, or the clothes I wear," she hollers at the haters. Certainly for many "kids stuck in a shitty small town," to whom Arkansas Heat is dedicated, it provides much-needed hope.
"CONFESS," "FIRE/SIGN," MOVEMENT (KILL ROCK STARS, 2003)
Movement‘s title doesn’t refer to artistic growth — the band’s second album is essentially more of the same. But frantic, frug-worthy stompers like "Confess" prove that’s certainly not a bad thing. Then there’s the raucous "Fire/Sign," which comes off like Ditto’s ominous, don’t-go-there warning to a gay friend not to be wasting time on undeserving dudes. "Now Mary, what are you thinking?" she tsk-tsks, assuming her role as rock’s fag-haggiest soul mama.
•<\!s><\i>"SNAKE APPEAL," "NIGHT SCHOOL" 7-INCH (KILL ROCK STARS, 2003)
•<\!s><\i>"SLEEPERS," REAL DAMAGE EP (DIM MAK, 2005)
These little-heard gems suggest that, like her band’s deceptively simple music, sometimes less can be best when it comes to Ditto’s voice. "Do you understand what a mess you’re making?" she calmly asks her thoughtless lover on the girl group–<\d>inspired "Snake Appeal," letting the subtle, oh-no-you-didn’t tone in her voice provide a bigger eff-you than any bloozy bombast ever could.
"STANDING IN THE WAY OF CONTROL (LE TIGRE REMIX)," "STANDING IN THE WAY OF CONTROL" 12-INCH (KILL ROCK STARS, 2005)
Considering the dramatic depth of Ditto’s voice has always rivaled that of today’s finest dance divas, it’s surprising that it took the Gossip so long to get their asses to the discotheque. If only they’d do it more often: This Le Tigre remix upgrades an already superb dance-punk track into the sort of deeply uplifting anthem for which shedding your inhibitions — along with some serious blood, sweat, and tears — under the mirror ball is made. Now you too can dance — for inspiration.