Stars, and leftover Torquil Campbell quotes
Had a piece in last Friday’s Boston Globe about the Montreal-based pop band Stars. I’ve been a fan of Stars for a few years now, and I’m really, really loving their latest CD (their third) Set Yourself on Fire. Great songcraft. Nice male/female vocal thing going on. And the music, while heavy on the new wave/electronic influences, is actually far more organic than it seems on first listen. They’re part of that Broken Social Scene-centered Toronto-Montreal circle. In fact, Stars’ place in that community of musicians is a big part of what the Globe piece is about.
Had a really nice chat with Torquil Campbell, who co-founded the band and is one of its vocalists. Lots and lots of nice leftover quotes, which I offer now in the usual broken Q&A format. [As usual, the interview doesn't really begin where the conversation begins. There's small talk first, which I leave out, because of how it's small talk.]
Do some of the members of Stars still take the stage with Broken Social Scene?
Oh, we all do. And some of them take the stage with us as well. It tends to be that when we’re together everyone just plays in each other’s bands. That’s the way it always seems to work out, because nobody wants to be left out. And we all just don’t wanna hang out back stage, so people pick up a tambourine or play guitar, or whatever.
I remember speaking with Kevin [Drew, of BSS] maybe a year ago and hearing him tell me how important that cooperation is for him and the band.
It’s a great joy for everybody. It’s something that we’ve never really planned out too much or thought about too much. I think it was just a natural outcropping of the fact that it used to be that the only people who were at each other’s shows were ourselves, so we just sort of did it as a way of hanging out together. And now it’s become part of what we do as bands. But it’s not something that we ever planned out or sat down and thought about. I think we all are very big fans of one another, so we have that experience of being excited to just be on stage with a band you really like and be playing music with them. Yeah, it works out wonderfully well.
And it works out even though you guys are in Montreal and Broken and some of the others are in Toronto?
Well, you know, they’re relatively close. They’re about five hours away. And there does seem to be more and more — I mean, we all grew up in Toronto but Stars live in Montreal and Jeffrey our manager who runs Arts & Crafts has moved down to Montreal recently. We do go back and forth a great deal. And when people are talking about the Montreal scene or whatever it’s sort of deceptive, because really it’s just a group of people who live in a few different cities and all get together to make music. I mean, I certainly lived in Toronto for a lot longer in my life than I’ve lived in Montreal, even though we’re thought of as a Montreal band, because that’s where we live now.
But Stars actually started out in New York, right?
Yes. I was in New York for seven years, acting, and we started the band there, and then when it became something we really thought we were going to do for a while, New York just seemed so prohibitive in so many ways. And it seemed like the scene there, and what was happening musically, was something that we didn’t really feel connected to. And we wanted to go back to Canada, but I think we all felt that Toronto was a place where we’d been children and we had a lot of past there and we kind of wanted to reinvent ourselves and find an identity for the band that was our own away from all of our friends and away from all of the influences of the outside community that we have there. So Montreal seemed like a good place, because it’s so easy to move in here and become an artist. It’s so cheap. So it just made sense for us. It wasn’t like we really knew what we were doing or that we’d been to Montreal a lot, but it turned out to be a good choice, because it’s a place with no market. There’s no place to sell what you’re making, so you have a very long time to just make it apropos of nothing. And I think the results of that is that are that you get people who have a very considered and a very thought-out, unique way of expressing the music that they wanna make. It allows you a lot of gestation period, I guess. And that was a good thing for us.
When you say you started the band in New York, who do you mean? Was it just you and Chris [Seligman]?
Me and Chris were living in New York and then we finished Nightsongs, which was our first record, which was put out on an indie label. And then when we realized that if we had to play it live we couldn’t play it alone, so we got Amy and Evan involved. And they were living at the time in Toronto, and so it wasn’t easy for them to go and move to New York and … . You know, New York’s a funny place. It’s like, unless you’re from there, I think there’s always a sense of being lost in a crowd and kind of struggling to have yourself heard or find a place for yourself over the enormous amount of hype and bullshit that is surrounding that place all the time. So we just … yeah, it was a collective decision to go someplace where we could be influenced a bit more by what was around us and where we might have a bit more influence as well.
So did you find that New York kinda lives up to its reputation as being a city without a real music scene?
It’s a marketplace, so it’s very hard to make a scene, because you’re either in the market and you’re selling your stuff and you’re doing great, or you’re not in the market and you’re serving salads to people in restaurants. It’s such a struggle to live there and to make a living out of it that I think it leaves artists very little time to have the energy to make great art. And I don’t know if always was that way. I don’t think it was. I think there was a time when you could live cheaply in New York. But it’s sort of killed it’s own reputation in a strange way by becoming such an enclave of the rich. It’s not very good for indie rockers.
[I'm taking out a little bit of chatter regarding who'd be on stage with the band for the Boston show, which Torq wasn't entirely sure of and which consequently made for quite boring conversation.]
It’s still fairly amazing to me that you’re able to just add and subtract pieces with such fluidity. How … I can’t figure out how it’s even possible to prepare for shows that way.
There’s the five of us who are the core of it. We’ve rehearsed so that if worse comes to worst we’re capable of doing a show that way. But the music is very layered and ornamental and it’s kind of easy if musicians are good to get them to come in and add another layer. It doesn’t alter very much what we’re doing. There’s a lot of space in our music, so it’s easy to find space for other people to play, which we like to do. It’s nice to have other people come in and give their perspective on what we’re doing.
But, then, your music, on the record, at least, sounds incredibly carefully crafted.
[Laughs.] It’s torturously carefully crafted.
And yet you’re able to let people come in and just add to it sort of as they will.
[Lifted some stuff for the Globe piece from here.] … And again, I mean, all these people who are playing with us are people who are dear friends of ours and who know the music very, very well, and who we kind of idolize in a way as musicians, so it’s … . What am I gonna do, tell Andrew Whiteman not to play guitar on my song? I’m a huge fan of his work. And it’s like, even if he sc
rews up, it’s just exciting to have him there. And I know that sounds kind of weird and Pollyannaish, but it literally is the way that it goes down with this crew of people. There’s a great deal of kind of idolization of each other. And I think in a way we’re each other’s heroes. So if your hero fucks up, who cares? It’s still your hero. They’re still there playing with you.
Does that play a role in your songwriting as well? Or, that’s probably too broad a question. I mean, how do you go about writing?
Well, with this record in particular, Stars tend to isolate ourselves a great, great deal when we’re writing. That outside influence doesn’t really come in. On Set Yourself On Fire we wanted it to, but for some reason in the end we decided we had to say what we had to say exactly the way we wanted to say it, and not let anybody else be responsible for it. The one person who always seems to get involved is James Shaw who plays in Metric, who was my first guy that I was in a band with, and the first guy that Chris was in a band with, and is a dear friend. And he always seems to show up and participate on some level. But with Set Yourself On Fire, we were very determined to make it a record that we wrote in a room together as a band with a drummer playing. You know, the previous two albums had been in a bedroom with a computer and the song would start with a beat or a bass line or something and we would slowly, slowly layer something together that eventually became a song. With this we wanted very much to make sure we were writing songs that kind of stood up immediately on their own just being played in a room.
[Pulled more stuff for the story from here -- all the stuff about the full-band writing process.]
Maybe it’s just that I’m outside it and I don’t see it at work, but it seems like a pretty complex and … . You know, it seems like I’m always hearing songwriters — and I guess this probably goes for anyone who does any kind of creative work — tell me that they worry that it’ll go away. You know, that ability to write. And you’ve got that times four. Or five. Am I assuming too much, or is it that much scarier your way?
It is. It’s a constant sort of source of amazement to me. And it’s not always easy. And there’s always that thing of having finished a record and thinking, Christ, can we actually do that again? That was such an intense and subtle experience. Can we recreate that again? And, you know, we have three times, so hopefully we’ll be able to do it again. But it’s rare that you find people who you can do that with and I think that was just dumb luck. We had a sense that this particular group of four people were capable of writing songs together. And it worked. And it’s, you know, it’s one of those things that you don’t really talk about for fear of jinxing it. We never sat down and sort of went, wow, this really works this way and, wow, I like it when you do that. It’s sort of an unspoken thing. Nobody wants to mention it in case it all disappears into the ether. It’s like writing. It’s like can I write this again? When I sit down today will I be able to do what I did yesterday?
So then, what? You can’t help but tempt fate by taking those songs and inviting a bunch of other people to contribute to them?
Yeah. But again, as I say, it’s like we come from such a communal approach to music and there are so many other bands involved in our career — it’s sort of like, if they hear what we’re doing and they don’t like what we’re doing then it can’t happen. Almost. In a way. It has to be part of some kind of collective decision that we’re all making to make a certain kind of music. Certainly, there’s no veto power there, but you feel their passion or their loss of interest and it means a lot. It moves you forward into directions that you might not otherwise go But there’s a lot of options. We’re very lucky, you know? There’s all kinds of people around and in that sense it makes it easier, because there’s always energy. There’s always somebody who’s willing to help out or has an opinion, or, you know, has something to contribute.
[I ask him whether this collective approach, which one sees elsewhere in indie pop these days, though certainly not to the extent to which it's manifest in Toronto/Montreal is something that's been there all along and I missed it, or if it's something new. And the first few sentences of his response are in the Globe piece. It's the bit about the expanding gang mentality of pop bands. And I think the rest of what he had to say is interesting. So we'll pick up his response after those two sentences.
... I think that it's partly a sort of outcropping of the way our generation perceives family, and have lived in the world. You know, the family structure is not the way it used to be, and people are making their friends their family. There are communities of friends that kind of look after each other more and more in our generation. People are living together as roommates and not getting married as early -- all that kind of stuff. And so there is much more affinity to the idea of a community, being a cog in a wheel, you know. And I think that pop music has to expand somewhere, right? It's got to get more orchestral. It's got to get more complicated. I'm always in favor of there being great four-on-the-floor pop bands, but in order for the musical form to last, people have start pushing it into different areas. Just like jazz kind of imploded -- you know, like, jazz started with orchestras and with horn sections and arrangements and all those things, and eventually bebop came along and it was like, no, we're gonna do this with three guys or four guys, I think kind of the opposite is happening in a way in rock and roll. People are getting slightly more grandiose in what they feel they might be able to do with rock and roll. And because of that they need more people. They need more instruments. They need more arrangement. So I think it is new. I think it is a relatively new thing.
You know what occurred to me as you were making that comparison to jazz -- talking about that inverse movement -- is that it seems to me that as jazz bands got smaller, the music started to require more from its audience. And in the same way it seems that as rock bands get bigger, their music starts to require more of its audience.
I think that's true, too, and I think the audience wants to participate more. I think we live in, obviously, dark, dark times. Often very frightening and very confusing and very alienating times. And I think I think what a lot of pop bands are choosing to do at the moment is try to create community experience where people feel together and supported and sort of hopeful in the idea that there might be a whole bunch of other people who are feeling the way they do. And I think the audience wants to have things demanded of them. They want to go to shows and have their lives be affected, feel like something important is happening to them. And rock and roll for so long in the '90s was an interior thing and was so much about people's inner experience and about irony and about darkness and that kind of stuff, which is all valid and beautiful, and there was some great music made. But the natural progression, I think, becomes to try to head out into the sunshine a bit more and try and find some universal points, some points where we all agree to experiences that we've all shared, you know? [Here's where he told the story, that's in the Globe piece, about the audience response to "Your Ex-Lover Is Dead."]
I find it really interesting to think about the fact that you’re using bigger bands, more instruments, to look at little moments.
I really enjoy that aspect of it. Pop music is a pretty simple form, you know? There’s a 4/4 beat and a bunch of chords. But what it’s good at is really acting as a signpost for people about certain moments in their life. And when they come to a concert
and they’re cheering and they’re singing along, they like the song, but it’s not so much the song they’re celebrating as it is their lives, their own lives, the feelings that those songs evoke for them about themselves. Everyone is the epic star of their own movie. Everybody else in the world is just a minor character in that huge drama that is their lives. Every single, solitary person is living out that huge drama, and has massive hopes and makes massive decisions and goes through massive moments of fear and joy. Life is epic, even if it’s only happening inside you. Everybody sitting on the bus is having some huge fucking emotional experience — if they’re anything like me, and I think they are. So that’s the dichotomy of pop music — it’s one of the things I like most about it — is that it can be simultaneously very grand and very important and portentous, and extremely dumb and throw-away and simple. I think that’s what the name Stars refers to. There are stars in the sky. there’s the universe, there’s all those profound questions about life. And then there’s Jennifer Anniston and what we know as stars in our world.
[And that's about it. I tell him I think that's a good note to end on. We make a bit more small talk. And that's that.]