Stars strives for virtuosity

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Torquil Campbell is not shy, and he’s not very modest, either. On a rainy afternoon in Vancouver’s West End, Stars’ outspoken frontman strolls to a friend’s for dinner and chats casually on his cellphone about writing songs that last, and getting good—really good—at what he does.

In 2004, Montreal-based band Stars released its third album, Set Yourself on Fire. The band then toured with Death Cab for Cutie, and that’s when it went from being a labour of love to a full-time job. “They put us in front of the perfect audience,” Campbell says of Death Cab. “They were exploding at that moment, and our record sales tripled in six weeks.”

Theatre was Campbell’s first passion, and although he gave up the stage for music nine years ago, he considers playing in a band a more organic form of acting.

“That, for me, is one of the really fun things about being in a band. There’s a world that you invent together. You get a gang together, and you invent that world together, and you invent that approach and that aesthetic and that feeling, and if people enjoy the music, they enjoy it to a certain extent because of the world you create around the music.”

So what is the world that’s been created around the band’s seventh LP, The North, released September 2012?

“This one is a collection of the characters and the scenarios and the topics that we’ve taken on in previous records,” he says. “When we started out we agreed that we wanted to make kind of a greatest-hits record with a bunch of songs no one had heard before. We were going to approach each song very individually, and rather than try to come up with a concept or a sonic world for the album to live in, we would let each song kind of speak for itself and demand what it needed and then follow that.”

A band can’t be defined by its nationality, Campbell says, but he admits that Stars has a few things in common with its Northern contemporaries: “We are all beneficiaries of Canadian content laws…and the whole massive amazing government subsidization over the last 25 years. So are Arcade Fire, so are Tegan and Sara and every other band that’s come out of this country that’s benefited from that. Those years where we weren’t breaking even, those grants allowed us to go to the States and go to Europe and find an audience. It’s been obvious proof of the benefits of arts funding.

“When we were coming up in Montreal, there was us and the Dears and Arcade Fire. We all discovered arrangements at the same time and were incorporating strings into our music. So there is that open sound to Canadian music.”

Also, “people tend to be nice and supportive here,” he says with a laugh.

Stars albums are known—and loved—for their dreamy, well-produced blends of rock and catchy pop with dual vocals, a sound that hasn’t changed much since the band’s first release, 2001’s Nightsongs. So is anything different about this one?

“No, but it’s much better.” Campbell says. “I’m not trying to be a dick about it, and I’m not trying to blow our own horn, but I do think it’s very difficult to write and perform the kind of music we make, that has a lot of weird pre-choruses and second parts that don’t make any sense but are somehow catchy. We chose a kind of music early in our careers that is very difficult to execute, and for the first few records, we executed it with charm but not with a lot of virtuosity, and I think we’re virtuosic now.”

One could easily say that having access to more resources doesn’t hurt, either, but he disagrees. “The record that we spent the most on was [2007’s] In Our Bedroom After the War, and for me in a way that’s kind of the weakest record. We just had so many options.

“You’re defined in a way by what you can’t do—I really believe that,” he continues. “Your limitations are there to make you understand what your abilities are. And Stars, we don’t spend a lot of time trying to be what we aren’t. We spend a lot of time trying to be really fucking good at what we are.”

As their skills in the studio increase, and as they get older—three of the members are now raising children—Stars is looking at easing off on touring and focusing on putting out albums. “If that is actually realistic I don’t know, because in this day and age, records aren’t really a thing you make money with; they’re a promotional tool for your tour,” Campbell allows.

Even if his band’s mission is unclear, the singer is certain of one thing: that the members of Stars will always make music together. “For us to get into a room one day and say, ‘That’s it, we’re calling it,’ I just can’t envision a scenario where that would happen, to be honest, “Campbell says.” It would have happened already if it was going to happen.”

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