Metric guitarist James Shaw is a little taken aback at the constant questioning of the trendy Canadian band's decision to launch its first cross-country arena tour this month.
Since he and singer Emily Haines founded the Toronto-based band in 1998, Metric has made the rounds of small clubs and concert halls, patiently building a faithful fan following and a cult profile that spiked with the 2009 release of Fantasies, which won the alternative album of the year at the 2010 Juno Awards, while Metric was chosen group of the year.
With the release of its fifth album, Synthetica, in June, the indie-rock darlings have continued their skyward trajectory with personal bests. Synthetica broke into the Billboard 200 at No. 12 (No. 2 in Canada) while touring the United States with stops at famous venues like Radio City Music Hall and choice festivals like Lollapalooza. That the synth popsters also played with Lou Reed and recorded for noted producer Howard Shore on the soundtrack for David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis only built their confidence in the decision to access a bigger stage.
The last time Metric hit town in 2009 it filled the 1,600-seat Burton Cummings Theatre, but on Saturday it steps up to the MTS Centre, with opening act Stars. Shaw is surprised so many people don't see the arena tour as simply a natural evolution.
"It's like, no one asks Carly Rae Jepsen (of Call Me Maybe instant fame) why she's playing the Bell Centre (in Montreal)," says Shaw, during an interview held only hours before the tour was to launch in Victoria. "With us, it's such a strange thing. We're so not that band."
Shaw, Haines, bassist Joshua Winstead and drummer Joules Scott-Key have always been a quartet with ambitions set very high and they have been relatively inflexible with what they would do to get there, says the 37-year-old Shaw.
"We have all been fascinated with the idea about how far we can take this," says Shaw, who trained at Juilliard as a classical musician. "One of the things I know about this band is the bigger the stage, the more comfortable we feel. Emily is like a creature onstage; the more space you give her to roam around, the more she expresses herself."
Shaw suspects that tall poppy syndrome is what's driving the insistent inquiries about the band's aim to become arena headliners. It's a Canadian thing to react to success with suspicion -- and a tendency to cut down or attack people whose talents elevate them above their peers.
"It's a huge part of Canadian culture, putting false limitations on others to keep ourselves in the same stratosphere" he says. "We're not comfortable letting one of our own skyrocket to the top. It makes people generally uncomfortable in this country. It's completely the opposite in the U.S. They expect you to skyrocket to the top and you're a failure if you don't."
Part of the band's underdog appeal has been its DIY philosophy, which manifested itself most distinctly when it rejected multimillion-dollar contracts from major labels and founded its own stand-alone company, Metric Music International. It took complete control of its own destiny, which meant more money in the Metric pot but a lot of tedious financial reporting.
Five years later, Shaw calls the decision to go it alone without the financial backing of an established record label the best thing the band ever did.
But the public shouldn't get the impression that he and Haines had a clearer crystal ball than anyone else.
"At the time it wasn't this giant triumphant, 'F the world, we're going to do this on our own and we will win,' and there was this giant high-five," he says with a chuckle. "It was more like, 'Of my God, we are so screwed and we have to do it this way.'
"I didn't want to die on someone else's plane. I wanted to be responsible for whether it flew or dove."
Piloting Metric as one of its CEOs is a heady job for Shaw, but one that has its built-in turbulence. Shaw says that what he is learned is that rock 'n' roll bands hemorrhage money and that accounting for it on the road is a "400-pound migraine."
What's worst is that you can't whine or pull a rock-star hissy-fit about over-scheduled promotional tours or crappy accommodations, because you're the one who booked it. The music business is in continual flux and knowing what to do next is like rolling the dice, he says.
It's like a giant online poker game," Shaw says. "If you pay attention to all the variables, it makes it easier to win. If you know where your fans are, you can do something cool about connecting to them."
An unanticipated perk of Metric's business model is the number of bands that now seek out Shaw and Haines for advice on going solo in the music industry. That's something Shaw never expected, given that for so many years they felt like "rogue freaks" doing everything the wrong way.
But that's the important message behind Metric, says Shaw. The idea that you have to believe in yourself and choose your own path, no matter what everyone else says, is at the core of Metric.
"If there is anything to disseminate to people that would be it," says Shaw, who is excited that he will be sharing this tour with his oldest friends in Stars.
That doesn't make preparing for the future and determining what's next any easier.
"That's a good question," Shaw says. "It's a question that's been the topic of many conference calls in the last few weeks. We've always known what the next step would be. I don't know what to do after this. I don't see the next step. We're excited by that."
óè MTS Centre
óè 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 17
óè Tickets: $56.75 and $40.75 at Ticketmaster