Torquil Campbell of Stars
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Canadian outfit Stars started out as an electro-pop bedroom project manned by Torquil Campbell and Chris Seligman, but it's since blossomed into a solid quintet that isn't afraid to occasionally rock out. The expanded sound has been accompanied by a growing fan base, which started to blow up while the band spent two years touring in support of 2005's Set Yourself On Fire. Once they returned home, Campbell and fellow singer Amy Millan—both of whom have contributed to Broken Social Scene—remained busy with side projects, the former with Memphis and the latter as a solo artist. Now Stars is back on the road behind its latest batch of romantic-pop story-songs, In Our Bedroom After The War. The A.V Club recently caught up with Campbell to talk about inspiration, singing pretty, and why Pitchfork writers need to get laid.
The A.V. Club: There's a press release that says all the time you spent on the road behind Set Yourself On Fire caused "great personal turbulence amongst the band." What happened?
Torquil Campbell: I think that's a bit of press drama, really. There was no particularly exciting personal drama, it was just that we'd been working for two years and we'd been playing the same music for two years, and we were exhausted. They love putting stuff like that in press kits, but nothing happened that's any more interesting than anyone's daily bullshit.
AVC: It would seem like spending that much time on the road would change your relationship with one another.
TC: I don't know. We've all known each other for so long—I've known Chris since I was 8 years old. I guess it did, but it changed it in ways that I could never possibly articulate or even maybe understand, because I'm inside of it. It's not like there was a moment of revelation or anything about people, it was just a continuation of our relationship and our experience together making music.
AVC: How did touring for two years affect the new album?
TC: Obviously it continues to be about people understanding each other better as musicians, and I think the more you play live shows, the more you get connected to the idea of songs and music starting with plugging in and playing together. The band started out as a bedroom project, so we made records in a bedroom—and we still do that, to a certain degree—but now it starts with all of us instead of one of us. [Drummer] Pat [McGee] and [bassist] Evan [Cranley] and Chris feel more and more like songs start with them, rather than with an idea inside one person's head. So it made us a more collaborative band than we already were. Coming up with ideas or being creative is, on one level, very calculated, and on one level, it's something that happens by osmosis, and that you don't really notice. It's very hard to stand outside it and say what changed. I know we all decided that the record was going to be darker and slightly slower and something that started in the rhythm section, that the melodies would begin in the rhythm section rather than in the string section or the keyboard. But past that, you do what you can when you're in the room making music, and you just hope that it's something that interests everyone in the band. It's very much survival, in a way, when you're in there as a writer—there are other people coming up with ideas, and you have to survive with them. You have to keep up with them.
AVC: How much did you and Amy going off and doing your own things affect the new record?
TC: Not very much. I think we both learned a lot about how to sing, because when you have two singers, you can take a break every once in a while during the show. We were made aware of how much effort it takes to be the lead singer all the way through a show. So I think it made us better in that way, because we were able to go out and do entire shows on our own. In that way, I think it changed things. But Memphis, or what Amy did, those are just extensions of friendships. Most of this music is made as an excuse to be close to people and hang out with them and connect to them.
AVC: With the last record sort of taking the band to the next level, did you feel extra pressure while making the new one, knowing there were more people anticipating it?
TC: No, because the pressure to impress and to get close to the people in the band is so much greater than—when you're inside the studio and you're making the record together, you're just aware of the fact that you want the people around you to like what you're doing. That pressure is so intense, and always has been, that there's no room to think about anybody else. It's about pleasing Evan, it's about pleasing Chris, it's about giving Amy something to sing that she believes in. It's about giving Pat melodies that he can make up interesting sounds to. Obviously you're aware that there are more people listening, and we hope people like it, but ultimately it doesn't affect us very much. As long as we make the music and people connect to it and have a reaction to it, good or bad, that's all we can do, really. The music stops being ours as soon as it's made, and then people just have to make of it what they want to make of it. I feel a lot of pressure to impress the guys in Broken and the guys in The Dears and the guys in Metric and the people I grew up making music around, because they're my close friends and I respect their opinions a lot.
AVC: When you brought Amy into the band, did you sense the vocal synergy between you right away?
TC: Yeah, I really did. It was an extraordinary feeling to find someone who was able to interpret the kind of world that I was trying to create, and understood that world so much without us ever really talking about it. Amy and I have developed a very close relationship, obviously as friends, [and] also a relationship that we've never really talked about with each other, this relationship between our voices and this understanding of how to share a song and how to share musical space, and almost share the same octave, the same notes. And create a situation where we sound like two sides of the same voice, in a way, like we sound like the male and female half of one person. I feel incredibly privileged by that relationship, because I do think that it's very hard for two singers to find someone that complementary for themselves, and for two songwriters to find a way to write for each other, with each other, but also alone, and negotiate the space in between and create songs that both of us can participate in.
AVC: You've talked and sung about George Bush in the past, so the title of the new album seemed to imply that it was going to be a political record, but it isn't. So what was the inspiration?
TC: The bedroom is this place that everybody in the world shares as an idea of where you go to heal yourself, and where you go to kind of be reborn each day and wake up a different person. I wanted to make a title that was, like all of our titles, simultaneously very negative and very positive. Read one way, they can be looked at as hopeful, beautiful ideas, and looked at another way, they can be looked at as very dangerous and sad. Pop music that shares those two tensions is something we aspire to, to make things that are simultaneously pretty and ugly, hopeful and despairing. Because I think that's pretty much the way life tends to be, and we're trying to make music for people's lives.
AVC: Were you were trying to convey any specific messages on this album?
TC: I don't know if there were any messages. I think it was much more the idea of creating a world where people could walk into it and make their own messages and sort of think about things in their own way. The message is always the same from us: We want you to forget about this band. We want you to remember the songs and remember your own life, and remember your own potential for beauty. We don't care if you know who we are, we don't care if you think we're cool, and we don't care if you even own our records. We just want to, for a moment, make you aware that four chords and some beats can alter your perception of life and can make you think that life is a very strange, very beautiful thing, and that your life is somehow special. That'll always be the goal with this band. We don't have any solutions. We're not very powerful, exciting, unusual people. We're just trying to make powerful, unusual, exciting music, and make people feel that that music is a part of their lives. That's all we really care about.
AVC: In response to Pitchfork's review of the new record, you wrote a pretty scathing blog post that included a line about art being dead. Do you still stand behind what you wrote?
TC: I simultaneously completely stand behind it and utterly disavow it. This is the thing about the fucking Internet—anybody can say anything, and sometimes what they say is profound and fascinating, and sometimes what they say is pretentious nonsense, and sometimes it's both at the same time. I don't need people to think I'm a nice guy or that I'm even a sane guy. I'm trying to make music and to write words and to operate as an artist in the public world by inciting feeling in people—inciting love, inciting hatred, inciting laughter. I feel like Stars gets criticized a lot for this aspect of who we are, that we are so forward in our wish to communicate, and we are so open about the fact that a lot of what we do is ludicrous and melodramatic and untrue and silly and all these things.
God bless Animal Collective, but they really have, in their own strange way, made indie rock a much more conservative place than it should be. If you can create intellectual distance from your work, then critics will feel clever for getting it and give you good marks; if you create music that fucked-up 13-year-old girls might enjoy, then critics will feel like you're trying too hard and not give you good marks. The Pitchfork phenomenon in particular is bizarre because it seems to have altered the fundamental way in which people get into music. I really do think that people should probably lose their virginity before they start writing reviews for Pitchfork. You should keep things in order in your life before you become an éminence grise—you should do some drugs and fall in love, and then start judging people. Because then you'd actually know something about life, as opposed to just being afraid of it and, you know, thinking Menomena are important.