Interview: Metronomy

Sharon O'Connell

By Sharon O'Connell

on 03.17.14 in Features

Love Letters


It’s fair to say Joseph Mount is a man with a mission — to keep himself entertained, challenged and engaged at all times. To this end, the songwriter, vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and producer has moved his band Metronomy through fizzy, Hot Chip-styled synth pop; leftfield electronica; brassy soul-pop; and the glossy, West Coast fusion of Steely Dan. Now, another shift. With fourth album Love Letters, Metronomy have launched their own take on ’60s Motown soul, updating it with notes of contemporary R&B-pop, recording it in an analog, 8-track studio and — for the first time — bringing Mount’s heartfelt, wryly observational lyrics into sharp focus. It’s a mix that has drawn appreciation from the creatively disparate likes of Michel Gondry (who produced the eccentric video for their “Love Letters” single) and Josh Homme, who was moved to describe Metronomy’s sound as “dance music for the non-asshole set.”

Sharon O ‘Connell spoke to Joseph Mount between a hectic schedule of gigs about the importance of keeping things fun and the unlikely patronage of Homme.

You’ve made a striking shift with Love Letters, in terms of both scale and sonics. Was making your fourth album a challenge?

I equate the idea of doing something different with what anybody should be doing if they’re trying to achieve something in whatever career. Your goal should always be to improve and test yourself and move forward. Perhaps the way that I steer things is too much for some people, but I do it in the spirit of having fun and learning — just trying to get more out of music. It’s never to be deliberately difficult or confusing.

The decision to record in Toe Rag — a studio with a reputation for raw, lo-fi garage-rock productions — seems almost perverse for a synth-pop band. Why there?

The overarching idea I had with the new album was to make a record in an analog studio of the same kind that they were using in the ’60s. Musically, I never want to do anything derivative; I think it’s fine to talk about influences and to present an idea, but apart from that… I wanted to record in a ’60s way and use that to embellish the look of the band onstage and the album artwork.

Your lyrics deal with issues of loss and longing, distance and separation and some carry a real sadness. Yet you’ve been happily settled in Paris with your girlfriend for some time now and have a one year-old baby. Is it naïve to assume every singer’s songs are necessarily autobiographical?

The way I listen to music is never to automatically assume that what I’m hearing is real in the autobiographical sense. There are obviously types of music where the point of it is a certain kind of expression or the fact that it comes from a certain place, but I don’t ever assume anything about the people that are singing or performing. I just listen and enjoy it at face value — but I can understand why people do. My girlfriend sometimes pulls me up on lyrics because she’s reading them as very personal and I have to say to her, “Look, it’s not what you think!” I do know that people want as much information as they can have and it probably helps to link lyrics to the person singing them, because that’s exactly what a voice does — it connects — but if you read a book and the author writes some kind of horrible murder scene, it doesn’t mean they’ve committed a murder to be able to do that.

So, you’re sometimes adopting a character — or at least imagining a particular emotional state?

There’s no kind of theory to my songwriting — I do it all quite instinctively — but if I was to analyze it, then yes, it probably is to do with characters or situations. But if you start talking about “characters” and giving it this literary tone, then you’re beginning to assume something about what you do; you’re turning yourself into a kind of director or writer. I’m a musician and I’m not ready for that next step. I read an interview with the Belgian musician Stromae, and he was saying he imagined he was a director, telling the story of these characters. I thought that was quite a good way of putting it, but I really hate that. To describe yourself as an auteur is quite pretentious, if all you’re doing is writing songs. I would talk about myself more pretentiously in terms of production now, but I’m not ready to extend that into lyrics!

Because the new songs are sparer, your lyrics are more prominent, revealing a “poetry of the everyday” quality that Frank Ocean uses to such poignant effect. Are you an admirer?

I don’t really have favorite lyricists. The only attitude from the past I like is the Beach Boys’, when Brian Wilson started going a little bit crazy and working with Van Dyke Parks — songs like “Vegetables” and “I’d Love Just Once to See You,” off Wild Honey. I also think Frank Ocean has a good, open approach to writing lyrics, using normal, everyday words but making them sound quite nice. There’s a line [on "Super Rich Kids," from Channel ORANGE] where he talks about the showerhead feeling “so amazing” — which is a great thing to say. I’m trying to make my lyrics more interesting. I think it’s important to take that seriously, because for lot of people, it’s a huge part of their enjoyment of music. Since feeling differently about lyrics, I’ve started to see there’s more scope for fun and doing more imaginative things with them. Before, I wasn’t as at ease with the process of lyric writing, so I probably held back a little bit, but this record is for me the first one where the thought put into lyrics has level pegging with the production side. It’s something I didn’t think I’d enjoy as much as I’m beginning to enjoy it.

How is it that Josh Homme came to big up Metronomy so publicly? Has a bromance developed?

It’s quite odd. At one point, somebody from his studio [Pink Duck in Burbank, California] got in touch and asked if we’d ever like to record there. I thought that was interesting and wondered if it meant he’d heard our music. I’m a big fan of his. When we were playing Coachella, I looked to the side of the stage and there he was — not dancing, but certainly enjoying himself. Then we had a really nice couple of days in L.A. with him and his wife, Brody [Dalle]. I’ve taken quite a lot from his music, inspiration-wise; I love the way he makes his guitars sound and I like his production a lot. And I thought, well, if I like his music, why wouldn’t he find my music of interest? It’s nice — he’s a good person to have on your side.