Stars singer Torquil Campbell embraces pop-music anarchy

Robert Plant. Mick Jagger. Maybe even Ozzy Osbourne or David Bowie. These are just a few of the names that spring to mind when casual conversation turns to ordaining one still-living music legend as The Last Great Rock Star. Oozing machismo and replete with pasts steeped in sex, scandal, and substance abuse, these aging, rabble-rousing rebels all seem like sensible contenders–that is, unless you're Stars frontman Torquil Campbell. For this Canadian crooner, the title should go to a certain melancholic Mancunian, or a well-bred and super-polished rap mogul, rather than any of the aforementioned arena greats.

"I think that Morrissey's palpably aware that he carries a kind of mysterious power that is hard to achieve," Campbell explains on the phone from Golden, Colorado, where he and his Stars bandmates are taking a day off from touring to soak up the scenery. "What's so great about Morrissey is he is arbitrary and infuriating and irrational, and that's what a rock star should be. There are still some pretty great rock stars out there–Kanye West is a pretty great rock star–but, to me, the greatest rock stars always kind of seemed like rather sad people who had to become rock stars, because they didn't fit in anywhere else. There seem to be fewer and fewer of those people."

According to Campbell, there is also less and less to be excited about when it comes to indie rock music in general. The singer, who formed Stars in Toronto but is now based in Vancouver, says today's hipsters are being shortchanged by a scene where sticky angst and sweaty exuberance are being replaced by cautious moves and calculated career paths.

"There is a conservatism that has crept into indie rock that I find very worrying," says Campbell, whose childhood in England has left him a slight Yorkshire lilt. "There's a sobriety, a kind of analytical bent that I find a bit boring, frankly, and I don't understand why the kids don't stand up and go, 'Shut up! Do something sexy and beautiful and dark and pathetic and fucked-up.' Isn't that what rock 'n' roll is for?"

Not surprisingly, sexy, beautiful, dark, and pathetic are all spot-on adjectives to describe the subtle harmonies, electronic blips, and crashing guitars on Stars' latest album, In Our Bedroom After the War, recorded at Vancouver's Warehouse Studio. To the chagrin of the industry, and to the delight of eager fans, Stars–which includes Amy Millan (vocals and guitar), Evan Cranley (guitar), Pat McGee (drums), and Chris Seligman (keyboards)–released the follow-up to their breakout 2004 record, Set Yourself on Fire, digitally a full two months ahead of the scheduled street date. Campbell says the bumped-up schedule was a shot at a business that is often oblivious to changing technology in the everything-is-downloadable age.

"We needed to acknowledge that in this world now, in this environment, pop music is as anarchic as it's ever been," the frontman explains. "We can't continue the traditional method of, um, you know, wait for Rolling Stone to say what they think and then head on down to HMV. You can do that, but that is a dying environment and you have to sort of put yourself into the new world, the new way of doing things. It was all about our attempt to get with it and get organized about how we were going to release our music, given that things have changed so much."

All the hubbub swirling around the release date certainly gave Internet speculators and coffee-shop dwellers something to blog about. Was Stars' ploy really about acknowledging the fans' right to access art ahead of schedule, or had the band trumped the industry and figured out a way to get rich on 99-cent downloads? Campbell argues that the unexpected move was more about getting the music to the people as quickly as possible, rather than subverting the inevitable Internet leak, as was widely reported.

"We're happy to have people steal the record, you know, go into the store and stuff it into your shirt–I couldn't care less," Campbell says. "I just want you to hear it. On one side, it's theirs and I hope they forget all about me, and it's just them and a piece of music. It's my sincere hope that they forget who made it and what it is, except for what it means to them."

Morrissey couldn't have said it better.

Stars plays two concerts (an all-ages day show and a no-minors evening show) at the Commodore Ballroom on Saturday (November 17).

Link: Stars official site