For quite some time following their 2001 debut, the go-to group for emotive, dreamy-yet-dark rock was Toronto band Stars. But, with the exception of their 2008 Sad Robots EP (which followed their 2007 album In
Our Bedroom After the War) the band had been conspicuously silent in the past few years. Individually, the band members experienced birth and death and all manner of life milestones in the interim; collectively, Stars spent more than a year crafting their latest album, The Five Ghosts, released in June. Paste recently chatted with Torquil Campbell, who shares Stars' vocal duties with Amy Millan, about being haunted, growing older and doing what you can.
I read that the new album took a little bit of a different turn after some negative experiences that different members of the band experienced, and just to the extent that you’re OK talking about this, I was curious about how that influenced the creative process?
Torquil Campbell: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I mean, you don’t think of it being different so much as it is one thing. Your life is one thing, you know, and different things happen to you. I lost my dad this year and had my daughter this year and other people lost their lovers or their place where they lived for years or changed their life in a big way or whatever. I just think that we were haunted this year. We were haunted, so we had to be haunted. That’s what we were. You do what you can, you know. So it’s what we made because it’s what we could make. I think that’s maybe a little bit of an unknown in the artistic process and the way people think about how people make art. I think sometimes, artists make what they can at the time. It would be great to speak of nothing but joy in one’s life, but you can’t. And sometimes you can. You have to make use of what’s around at the time, that you’re working with. I think the record, like every other record we’ve made, was a reflection of that.
Am I also correct in saying that “He Dreams He’s Awake” is the first song you all came together and wrote as a unit, more or less?
Campbell: Yeah, yeah. It was the first song that we started writing on the record and it was really the first song in a long, long time that we’ve written that just sort of happened out of people just starting to sit at an instrument and begin to play. That was important for us. It was a lovely moment for us, I think. I think that’s when we knew we were going to be able to make the other record and it was going to be something we believed in.
Is that kind of how all the songs came together, then? Did that set the tone?
Campbell: Well, they all came together in different ways. As I say, it took a long time to make the record and the process of writing the songs—it varied to some degree from song to song, but what they all had to do was go through a period of time where we were all playing them together in a room, live, with [someone] taking notes and telling us what wasn’t good. (Laughs) So all the songs went through that process. The inception of the song, that’s a lot more mysterious and there’s a lot more variation in the genesis of the songs. But in terms of what they all went though, that’s what they all went through. It was us in the room, playing them together and talking about them and figuring out how to make them good. And we didn’t leave them alone until everybody in the room felt good about it.
Was it somewhat of a different experience than in past records, since you said that most of the members of the band were coming from this haunted, negative place? Was it maybe more emotional than it had been before? I don’t want to put words in your mouth.
Campbell: I don’t think it was a negative place. That’s definitely not what it was. One thing I learned from what I went through this year is that sorrow and joy are not opposites, you know? And there’s a lot of beautiful things to be had in the terrible experiences one has in life. It may sound hokey, but it’s true. It’s part of the gift you get from going through hard things. You know, as you get older, you get more of those gifts. That’s what wisdom is. That’s knowing something that you didn’t know before. And in a lot of ways, that’s a very, very—that’s what we needed. We’ll never not know the things we know now. (Laughs) You know? That’s all. We just wanted to make a record from that place. And not just about our private lives because frankly, our private lives were a very small part of the impetus to create the record because we have five separate private lives. We don’t share—we’re great, deep friends, obviously, and we share our triumphs and our tragedies in life, but, you know, we each have our own personal lives. So you don’t really bring that to the table. What you bring is your openness and your technique and your willingness to listen. And then that stuff kind of filters through. That’s natural. But when we’re together as Stars, we’re trying to make that’s about you, not about us. I think that’s a difficult thing to do. It’s a difficult point to make or it’s a difficult thing maybe for people to read into what’s happening. It’s such emotional music that I think sometimes people think we’re making it about us. We’re really making it about you, about anyone who cares to listen.
That’s a very interesting concept. But it seems, when you’re making any kind of art, to be a good place to be coming from.
Campbell: Yeah, yeah. I think personal art—there’s no right or wrong way to make art. There’s no right or wrong kind of art. But what personal art does is very different from what narrative art does, you know, and I think we’ve always thought of ourselves as a narrative band. A story-telling band. A band that wants to create melody that act as a catalyst for your memories and your feelings and your experiences.
One of the songs on the new album that really stands out—and I think it will also stand out to a lot of people that are familiar with your music—is “We Don’t Want Your Body.” It kind of strays from what people might stereotypically categorize as your sound or whatever.
Campbell: (Laughs) Yeah.
And it was also particularly interesting because the lyrics kind of contrast this danceable song that’s going on. That’s one that I was hoping you could talk about, where that came from.
Campbell: Well, yeah, I mean, that’s one of those great vibes where—going back to that idea of doing what you can. You’re sitting there one day and you’re in a room and somebody starts playing a drum beat or somebody starts playing some chords. And maybe the chords start out as slow chords, as melancholy chords, but Patty [McGee, drummer] is feeling upbeat, so Patty plays something kind of dancey to it. And that affects what [Evan] Cranley plays on the bass or what riff Amy might start playing on the guitar. Then once that’s happening, I think, this is obviously starting to sound kind of ridiculous—I wonder if I can make this ridiculous but kind of indelibly good in some way, despite its ridiculousness? We love that song because I think it does that.
The best pop music, for me, is simultaneously ridiculous and kind of badass in some strange way or relentlessly addictive, you know? So musically, that’s where we started with it. It was just like, "Let’s pretend like we’re in Maroon 5." (Laughs) And you laugh about it for half an hour and you start seeing a hook or whatever if somebody’s playing a hook. And you’re like, “That’s fucking hilarious,” and you stop and you laugh at yourselves. And 90 percent of the time, when you do stuff like that, at that point, you’re like, “OK, let’s move on and do something good.” But sometimes with those ridiculous things, you’re like, “You know what? That’s kind of good in a strange way. Maybe we should bang away at that. There’s something about that that’s kind of interesting.” And I think that’s what happened with “We Don’t Want Your Body.” And once you’re musically on a path that ridiculous, you have to shovel a little medicine into the sugar and sort of bitch slap the listener a little bit, out of the ridiculous pleasantness of the hook or the silliness of the hook. (Laughs) So that you get the tension in the song. So, you know, the lyrics are about everybody. They’re about our culture. They’re about fame and the culture of desire and the culture of lust and the culture of self-revelation that we live in. Everybody is showing their tits to everybody else. It just gets a bit boring, doesn’t it? They’re just tramps, but we’re just tricks. Everybody’s implicit.
One other song that really caught me—the idea of “I Died So I Could Haunt You” is so striking to me, and I was curious about how that idea was born and where that came from?
Campbell: I don’t know, man. I don’t know. I wish I knew, you know. If I could find that place, I would go and mine it. It comes from whatever. I hate to repeat myself, but it comes. Like it just is there. I read this interview with Barney Sumner once, who a lot of people think writes ridiculous lyrics—and he does write completely ridiculous lyrics—but there are moments of unbelievable profundity in his ridiculousness. Quite of lot of moments. In a way, he’s a very brilliant lyric-writer, in my opinion. And they asked him, how does he get his lyrics. He said (affects British accent), “It comes through the tentacles in me hair from out of space.” When I read that, when I was 17, I was like, “He’s just being an idiot.” But I think, in a way, it’s all you can really say. They come from outside and then if they hit you, you write them down and you start to try and figure out what they mean. I mean, to me, I guess, it just felt like my dad died so he could haunt me. It’s like his absence was so strong. He was even more present in his absence, and I just realized it, so I wrote it down.
Do you have a personal favorite part of The Five Ghosts? A song or any element of it, really, that you hold dear?
Campbell: What I like about it is that every song on the album earned its place there. I like its brevity. I like its consistency of mood. And I like that I can listen to it and not hear one moment where we indulged ourselves or where we didn’t get the idea we were going for. And, you know, some people may feel that and some people may not. Art is such a subjective experience and how you experience a piece of art is entirely your own and entirely valid. But for us, I think, as musicians, we are deeply sure inside ourselves that we walked away from that project having given our hearts to it and having been humble before it and not punked out on it. I like that I can listen to it. (Laughs) Heart and The Five Ghosts are the only Stars records that if you put them on, I’m like, “Yeah! This is awesome. Let’s listen to this record.” … The other ones, to me, are varying degrees of kind of people losing their shit and falling ass backwards into a bunch of great songs. But Heart and The Five Ghosts are, to me, the sound of what Stars is when Stars takes care of each other and works hard.
So where do you see Stars going next? I know you have the tour and everything coming up, but more long-term?
Campbell: Well, we have shows to play. We’re going to go play songs for people and play shows for people and then I think, you know, we’ll pretty quickly, I think, try to make music again. I think the more you do music and the further you go in your career in music, the more you want to get done and the more you feel time catching up with you. You know what I mean? It’s like, "Let’s get this shit out there because we’re still relatively young and we still have our health and we still have our sanity and we still have each other." (Laughs) "So let’s get a lot of work done." So I think we’ll probably be making new music fairly soon, but we do have to tour this record and, you know, the record is doing amazing. We sold three times more last week in both America and Canada than we ever have before. We got into the top 10 in Canada. That sort of shit has never happened for this band before. We’ve got to push that. Hopefully we’re going to make a really happy fucking—I don’t know. Pain to joy.