by Michael Cohen
Montreal pop rockers Stars came down to NYC this week to play a few shows including a benefit concert at NorthSix for Save Darfur Coalition, Human Rights Watch, and Doctors w/out Borders. I sat down with singer/songwriter Torquil Campbell while the Stars band hauled gear into the Bowery Ballroom for their sound check on Wed April, 27. Torquill explained why everybody’s a star and pop culture is better than no culture.
Stars is Torquil Campbell (vocals), Chris Seligman (keys), Amy Millan (guitars, vocals), Evan Cranley (bass), with Pat McGee (drums).
FREEwilliamsburg: I’d like to start with the back-story and how the band met…
TC: We met as children, me and Chris have known each other since we were 8. But the band started in Williamsburg–we moved there ’cause it seemed like countryside to us at the time. We moved into this loft with our friend James who’s in a band called Metric, with Nick Zinner who wasn’t making music at the time but is now the Yeah Yeah Yeahs guy. And we built this big loft, put up all the walls and shit. And that’s where the band started. We made our first record there. But it wasn’t a record, it was just us making some music ’cause we had nothing else to do. And then somebody wanted to release it. So once we realized we were gonna be a band we moved to Montreal and Amy and Evan joined.
FREEwilliamsburg: Why Montreal?
TC: Growing up in Toronto, we didn’t want to move back there and do our past again. Montreal is a good middle ground. It’s a place where you can not really have a job and spend a lot of time working on your music. We had no money so that sounded like a good idea.
FREEwilliamsburg: At that point, would you believe it if someone had said 5 years later you’d be a nationally touring band sustaining yourselves financially…
TC: No, and I have quibbles with certain aspects of that description of our career, but I would definitely never have dreamed in a million years that this was possible. Even this modest success that we’ve had. We actually haven’t been very lucky. We’ve just worked very hard for a very long time. It’s the most unbelievable thing in my life ’cause I didn’t start doing it until I was 26 and it was something I was just doing to distract myself.
FREEwilliamsburg: Has your creative process changed from just messing about in your loft and wasting time with you friends versus trying to come up with songs or albums or themes?
TC: The creative process, oddly, has not changed all that much. It was always very constructed in my mind. I guess I’d spent a long time thinking about ‘what if I were in a band, what would that band be like? What would the record covers be like? And what would we say? And how would it be?’ So I had constructed the whole thing in my brain. And really it’s just a process of letting that happen.
It changed when Andy and Evan joined because they became part of that process. But it didn’t alter the way I thought about making the music. I’m not a musician, really. I’m a music fan that can sing a little bit. And it’s much more about the whole world of the song, the whole world of the music.
FREEwilliamsburg: Let me read this to you from your website: “young people who through their music are trying to save us from our mundane and complacent fears”
TC: Yes that’s not something we ever said. When we saw that on our website it resulted in someone getting yelled at, I think. We’re not trying to save anyone from anything. We’re hoping they’ll save us. And nobody’s fears are mundane and complacent. People’s fears are highly dramatic and extremely crucial. I think that if we have a mandate as a band it’s to make people see that their lives are beautiful dramas: everyone is the star of their own incredibly dramatic, complex, and moving story. And the rest of us are just characters in that story. We want to be a soundtrack for those moments in people’s lives when they feel like the choices they’re making or the things they’re doing are taking them somewhere that they’ve never been before.
FREEwilliamsburg: That’s highly linked to your acting background. That you wanted to live the lead role not just act it?
TC: Just getting into others people’s lives and celebrating. I always really liked pop music that made people’s kitchen sink dramas into big moments and big things. I think that’s what pop music does better than any other art form, take the minutia in peoples lives and turn it into something that’s memorable and dramatic. So as an actor, I always thought of characters when I was writing songs. That’s how I learned about stories. It was always somebody else’s stories. I wasn’t like writing lyrics to be confessional or about how sad I was because my girlfriend had left me.
FREEwilliamsburg: I feel that many of your songs want to be up-close and personal
TC: We want it to be very raw and something that people can feel unafraid of when they listen. That was always something about music that meant a lot to me — soul music of the 60 and 70′s or the Smiths. They were different kinds of music but they had in common that they made you feel unafraid when you listened to them. They made you feel like being vulnerable or sad was beautiful and actually heroic.
FREEwilliamsburg: How did you become involved in yesterday’s benefit concert?
TC: James Wu in the Fatales got in touch with us literally five days ago and told us they had been organizing this benefit. We love Doctors Without Borders and put information about them on our record and have always wanted to help them in any way we can. So we were gonna come to New York anyway and they needed an extra band on the bill so we did it.
FREEwilliamsburg: What’s your view on art in relation to mass produced pop culture
TC: Pop culture is better than no culture that’s for sure. That’s where we’re headed I think. That’s the frightening end game where we might go to.
FREEwilliamsburg: That there’s only one culture or a lack of a counterculture?
TC: That it’s just hard for us to know, really. We live in these big cities where we have at our disposal libraries and bookstores and video outlets to see foreign films on DVD and read all kinds of different media and press, all different kinds of books. That opportunity is not there for a huge number of people who live even in North America. And if you go into the heartland of this country you have to search hard to find those people who are getting it out there. But there’s always those people there. There’s always little bookstores, there’s always anarchist cafes, and people doing interesting shit no matter where you go but they’re a little enclave in a big sea of people who are basically eating whatever they’re told to eat and we all know that. But those people are living lives that are just as dramatic, beautiful, and profound and filled with drama as any of ours and if they knew it, imagine the power of that.
FREEwilliamsburg: As a former New Yorker, what’s your feeling about playing Summer Stage? [with Death Cab for Cutie and The Decemberists Aug 18]
TC: It’s so fuckin awesome. It’s going to be fantastic. We met Death Cab for Cutie last year and they’re just incredibly wonderful people and very inspiring. We’re very excited, it’s a great honor. It’s beautiful to look out see the skyline of New York City while playing a gig in the summertime. The best thing is I’ve acted Shakespeare, gotten busted for smoking pot, and also broken up with a person or two, all in the park. Now I’m gonna play a rock show also with The Decemberists, they’re from Portland.
FREEwilliamsburg: Is there a notion that you can’t be too educated and still have a pop appeal?
TC: I don’t know. I think actually the more education you have the better you can get at it.
FREEwilliamsburg: Don’t some producers dumb everything down…
TC: Well dumb is a relative word. I’ve always had a weird relationship with this idea because to me, pop is context. You know that song by JoJo with Bow Wow? It’s a genius track about a fourteen year old girl, saying ‘I like you and that’s why I’m hanging out with you.’ Then Bow Wow does his stupid little rap about how he doesn’t sleep around on the road because he’s got a real good girl back at home. If you’re 12 years old and hearing that stuff it changes your life. You feel sex for the first time and how to relate in the world. I think it’s great and I don’t have a problem with it being there. Really the anger that people direct toward them should be directed at record companies who choose to make their own act a priority. Celine Dion didn’t ask to spend 50 times more on her record but they chose to because they thought it would sell. Someone else is having life changing experience to it. Better pop culture than no culture at all.