Random Rules: Torquil Campbell of Stars

Random Rules: Torquil Campbell of Stars

The shuffler: Torquil Campbell, best known as the male voice of Canadian romantic-pop outfit Stars, though he's also spent time playing with Broken Social Scene, he has a terrific side project called Memphis, and viewers who didn't blink might have seen him acting in episodes of Law & Order and Sex And The City. Stars are currently touring the world in support of last year's In Our Bedroom After The War, and they're planning to hit shelves again this summer with an EP of B-sides and live tracks. Campbell did his Random Rules with an iPod Shuffle, so he had to do some intelligent guessing with some of the songs.

The Good, The Bad & The Queen, "History Song"

Torquil Campbell: This is something I stole off the Internet—it's a concert of The Good, The Bad & The Queen. I was trying to steal their record, but all I could seem to find was a concert. I like it a lot. The idea of the band is so fucking awesome that I'm not even sure I could tell whether it was bad. You have Paul Simonon and Tony Allen and Simon Tong in your band? That's just too happening. You don't even have to make any music after that. You can just do the photo session, and it's already really good. Sounds like a small room, and people are fucking losing it—I think it must be London.

Prefab Sprout, "Walk On"

TC: This is a B-side from, I think, 1982 or '83—it was made about the same time they put Swoon out. He's my single favorite songwriter ever, and he's a huge, huge, huge hero of mine, and one of the four or five bands that I seriously couldn't live without. I have listened to them since I was like 12 or 13 years old, and stuck with them even through the period of time when everyone else hated what they were doing. I'm just so completely devoted to Paddy McAloon and think he's so brilliant. If we lived in a different era, he would be George Gershwin and everybody would give him Grammys and he'd live in a penthouse in New York. Instead, he's an alcoholic who lives in Newcastle and nobody listens to his records.

He apparently has 20 albums or something written, and about seven recorded that he's never put out, including a musical about Michael Jackson's life that's supposed to be absolutely fucking incredible. And he's not allowed to put it out, because the wacko will sue him if he does. [Laughs.] He put out a record a couple years ago called I Trawl The Megahertz—it's the first record he put out under his own name, and it was mostly instrumental string music. But it also had this 25-minute spoken-word piece that's just one of the most beautiful things I've ever heard in my life. Anybody who cares about what's happening in music today should hear this record, because it's unlike anything else out there. Stars was called Stars because that's Paddy McAloon's favorite word—the whole idea of stars being a great metaphor for life and for art, because it means "movie stars," and it also means the deepest, most profound aspect of our universe, and that's sort of what pop music should be, this mixture of totally idiotic and completely profound.

Slick Rick, "La Di Da Di"

TC: Well, what can you say about this? It's absolute fucking genius. Fucking incredible. It's from 1984, '83, and it's literally just like—Slick Rick went to jail before it was hip to go to jail. He's truly underrated. He's sort of the only pansexual rapper I can think of—he has the really drawling kind of delivery. It's almost sort of queen-y. I think he was born in England, and then came to New York or something like that. I know he was definitely in New York when he was making records, and he did time in jail—maybe it was in England, I don't really know. But I got put onto him in my teens as well. That's one of the great things about marijuana: it helps you listen to hip-hop and Pink Floyd and understand that both these things are wonderful. I listened to a lot of Slick Rick in high school. I just think he's fucking hilarious. He's really funny and really nasty. He's a nasty guy, which I think is hard to achieve and still be playful and fun.

Mulatu Astatke, unknown song

TC: This is some fantastic Ethiopian jazz from the 1970s that a friend of mine gave me, and a lot of it, I think, was used in that Jim Jarmusch film Broken Flowers. It's fucking sick, man—it's like this sort of funk-jazz. It sounds awful in concept, but it's all on, I guess they're Arabic scales or Ethiopian scales, so everything has this incredibly Eastern, exotic, melodic sense, but really, really funky 1970s rhythm section.

Billie Holiday, "Sophisticated Lady"

TC: I feel like there's so much we lost in songwriting that we don't go back and look at. The ways these people arranged songs was so incredibly beautiful and succinct, but it was like a novel. The verse was a chapter and the chorus was a chapter and the things in between, the bridges and the end sections, were so considered, and every single note was so heartfelt. You can hear in the music that it was—of course, it was a brutal world, and people were doing horrible things to each other—but there was a softness in masculinity and in young people. This is the shit that people got drunk to, and that's beautiful to think of, that people were willing to be that gentle and whimsical and fanciful with each other. It was probably recorded in the late '30s, early '40s. It's got those very jazzy, almost bebop chord structures, but super, super mellow.

Death Cab For Cutie, "Summer Skin"

TC: This song reminds me of being on tour with them, and how quietly powerful they are as a live band, how fucking on it they are every night. Ben [Gibbard] is the kind of guy who, you look at him, and it seems odd that that much music comes out of someone who looks so normal. But he's a fucking machine. He can play the shit out of everything, and in a very confident, almost brash way. He's one of those people who just has music deep in his nervous system, and he doesn't even really have to think about it. It's a gorgeous track—it's the one that reminds me the most of Stars, in a way. It's like where us and Death Cab intersect, because it's got that kind of looping rhythm to it that we used on "Heart" and a couple of other songs. It's built around the bassline, and a lot of our songs are built around the bassline, because Evan [Cranley] is a great player and Nick Harmer is a great player, and they sort of have a mutual-admiration society.

Orange Juice, "Felicity"

TC: This song is just so good, it puts everything to shame. Orange Juice was a band that, when I was like 14 years old, I literally would sit and look at their sweaters for three hours. I found more in these guys' sweaters than most people find in religious texts. I was so obsessed with Edwyn Collins and everything about what these guys did: mixing sort of '60s guitar music with '70s soul music, and their haircuts and their shoes. The whole thing just seemed to me to be absolute perfection. I've spent my whole life trying to rip it off and be a part of it for even five seconds. A lot of people don't know this, but Franz Ferdinand and all that shit is just an unbelievable reproduction of the energy and style that these guys invented. And The Smiths ripped off Orange Juice—Johnny Marr totally ripped off these guys' guitar-playing. This is 1981 that this record comes out, and Johnny Marr is like 15, 16, and I think he was listening to a lot of funk music and a lot of early rock 'n' roll, and would probably have gotten to this place by himself, but I think he was definitely influenced by the way these guys play the Rickenbacker, the way they took the Rickenbacker and made it kind of punky. Like hammering it a little bit more, and by using it as a rhythm guitar as well as a lead guitar.

AVC: Have you kept up with Edwyn Collins' career?

TC: Oh yeah. He's had a terrible medical thing happening the last couple years—he had an aneurism and almost died, and had to have brain surgery. He was really fucked-up for a while, but he's apparently a lovely man and has produced a lot of great records, too. But thank God he made some money because he had that hit, "A Girl Like You."

AVC: That song probably helped some people find out about Orange Juice.

TC: And Domino did an Orange Juice greatest-hits kind of thing, and Josef K, another band that was on Postcard Records, along with Aztec Camera, and all that stuff. That stuff was so crucial to me. That's what's so awesome, and still is awesome, about pop music: You can be living anywhere, you can be living in some shitty Midwestern city like Toronto, like I was, and you can invent your own world and have your own rules and your own culture, and you can share it in this kind of invisible way with people all over the world, just by loving a band.

All those guys were hanging out together and making records together—it was very much a scene. It was all northern Britain—Newcastle, Manchester, Glasgow—so I think they all knew each other. There's an incredible book about it called Rip It Up And Start Again. It's not completely about that, but that scene up there after punk was such a genius place to go with music—to make it softer and to make it more feminine and more playful was such an awesome idea. Keep punk's energy, but bring melody back. Those guys realized that the most badass punks in the history of music were the people who were making soul music in the '60s and '70s in America. The whole way they made records, everything about it was just the essence of punk music. If you don't know those records, then you really don't know anything about pop music. That stuff is, to me, the most important stuff there is.