Stars: Gang of Losers

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Torquil Campbell is mulling over the idea of beauty. On his way home from taking his daughter Ellington to school, he has pulled over to chat—lest he risk a ticket for driving while talking on the phone. Somewhat appropriately, he’s found himself people-watching.

“There’s a woman walking her little dog,” he says, setting the scene. “What does she have a dog for? There’s no reason to have a dog. She has a dog because the dog is fucking beautiful. And it makes her feel beautiful. Even if she has to pick up shit to experience that beauty, it’s worth it for her.”

Disarmingly charming, and erudite even when attempting to verbalize a cascade of thoughts that run the gauntlet from the state of politics in his home country (“Canada now is a petrol state hurdling towards the same fucking bullshit that the United States is mired in”), to the educational system (“School is rubbish.”), to his first acting gig as an eight-year-old (“Everybody was doing coke in the bathroom!”), off-the-cuff observations are characteristic for the Stars co-frontperson.

When engaged, he speaks in a series of exclamation points. But at the heart of every conversational tangent, no matter how hot-button or banal, (“There are people in my band who are occasionally irritated by the things I say in public, and who don’t want me to speak for them,” he notes, wryly.) is a common thread—Campbell genuinely cares about people. His friends. His fans. His daughter’s teachers. Empathy is crucial, he contends. We’re all in this together. In short—no one is lost. It’s a theme that Campbell, alongside Stars bandmates Amy Millan, Evan Cranley, Chris Seligman and Patrick “Patty” McGee have been chasing across the past eight albums and 15 years.

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Although they wouldn’t officially call themselves a band until their early 20s, Stars unofficially began when Campbell met Seligman in their Toronto high school. The pair began bonding, first over their shared music classes, and later over mixtapes filled with artistic touchstones New Order, Saint Etienne, De La Soul, Marvin Gaye, Spiritualized and The Smiths (whose song “This Charming Man” they would later cover on Stars’ debut album, Nightsongs).

“It was fitting that we would start playing music together,” Seligman reflects. “It evolved. It was like stepping out of a more classical situation that we were in. I was studying French horn, and he was studying acting. It was through hanging out a lot that we wanted to try and express ourselves in a more interesting way.”

By then, the pair had relocated to New York, diving into the early 2000s Brooklyn music scene that also included Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Metric, both of which occasionally shared lodging with members of Stars. Eager to expand their sound, Campbell and Seligman invited fellow musician and high school pal Evan Cranley into the fold. A trombone player by trade, Cranley recalls being inspired to transition to the bass, and the trio began to find their way into the pop world. Cranley notes that he was instantly taken with Stars’ sound, particularly “My Radio,” a track on Nightsongs that was among the first he contributed to.

“Torq and Chris were very original because they weren’t modern musicians,” Cranley says. “Torq was an actor and Chris was a French horn player. I really liked their approach to songwriting and arrangement. It didn’t come from a traditional pop base. It came from two people who didn’t really know what they were doing. That really appealed to me.”

Eager to add a female voice to their moody and occasionally dark pop, Stars brought co-frontperson Amy Millan to the mix. While most members of Stars are hesitant to evoke something as pie-in-the-sky as fate, it’s hard to argue that finding Millan after putting out an ad for a singer that triggered an avalanche of replies wasn’t fortuitous.

“We put out an ad for a girl singer in New York,” Seligman says. “We realized quickly that the person that’s going to come in to the fold has to be someone that you love and trust…We were from the same neighborhood. We had mutual friends. Amy went to school with Emily Hanes and Kevin Drew. Evan knew Torq and I. It was all out of the same family. You can’t try and force things like that. They have to happen naturally.”

On the advice of Cranley, the trio relocated to Montreal shortly before work began on their sophomore album, Heart. After playing with the band for two years, McGee signed on as Stars’ official drummer in 2003, and the lineup was solidified.

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It’s a rare band that can make it past the decade mark—and even rarer still is the band that can do it with their artistic integrity intact. Although interviewed separately, when asked about the secret of their longevity, each member of Stars brings up the same list of attributes that they see in their bandmates: Forgiveness. Compromise. And, perhaps above all, humor.

“More and more, the reason I love being in Stars, the reason I love my friends in Stars, is that they’ve taught me that life is very, very sad and extremely funny,” Campbell says. “You can feel both things simultaneously. Stars as a group of people spend a great deal of time feeling those emotions together. It’s kind of what makes us in love with each other. There’s really no line between shit being hilarious and shit being heartbreaking.”

“We crack each other up beyond belief!” Millan says, laughing. “Nobody makes me laugh like my band members. Just last night Patty told me that I’m funnier than I’ve ever been. That’s the highest compliment in Stars. There’s so much sadness. How can you possibly do anything else other than try to get a couple of jokes in there?”

They also share a noted sense of rebellion. Both Millan and Campbell’s parents were leftist activists, a mindset that has infiltrated both Stars’ music and onstage banter. While invested more in pop hooks than anarchist yells, Campbell goes so far as to call himself a punk at heart, dedicated to the ethos of being true to himself and the people around him. If their music has a youthful edge, he says, it’s because it’s aimed squarely at anyone looking for an alternative to conformity.

“Being punk doesn’t mean having fucking piercings or turning your guitar up,” he explains. “It’s being honest and not being ashamed of who you are. Being proud of who you are. Speaking up for the people who feel bad about who they are. Giving them permission to say ‘fuck you.’ I might be a different sexuality than you, or I might not be able to express myself like you. Or I might be shy. Or I might be weak. Or might be any number of things. But I have a gang, and that gang is Stars…When I grew up as a kid, I had bands that stood up for me. The Smiths stood up for me. New Order stood up for me. The Replacements stood up for people who got called fag at school, who got beaten up for people. They didn’t just put out a record and go and play some shows and say ‘I’m not interested in politics.’ They spoke up and said whatever idiotic thing came into their heads. We have the permission to do the same…It’s still a very potent thing, to have a band, to write that band’s name on your bag. People forget that in high school, that can get you in some trouble. Not to say the least of which, imagine if you’re gay! Or if you’re transgendered! Or bisexual. Or if you’re on the autism spectrum! If you’re disabled! Those people aren’t told ‘that that’s your fucking identity, stand up for it and be proud of it.’ People hide that shit. ‘Hopefully no one will notice.’ That enrages me. It continues to enrage me. Pop music is the forum of young people. It’s the artistic forum that consumes you. Even when I’m old, I’m going to try to write songs that in some way relate to young people. It’s their art form.”

It’s an assertion echoed by McGee. Finding yourself is a lifetime project that society just isn’t set up to make easy. Music is a much-welcomed assist. Or at the very least, an escape.

“People are terrified of getting old,” he notes. “I’m telling you—being a teenager sucks. In your 20s, did anyone really have fun in their 20s? There were good times, but it was heartbreak most of the time…In your 30s, you have a realization of yourself. You realize that your ego has been destroying your life ever since you realized that you needed a good haircut or else people weren’t going to like you. And then suddenly in your 30s you realize that this has been fucking me up, this whole being obsessed with myself. No one’s going to like me if I’m not a certain way. So that is dissipating a bit.”

If that makes you think of the hive mind at work, well—that’s a fair assumption. Having spent years on the road together, often crammed into a tiny van, the members of Stars have had plenty of slowly mind meld.

“We sat in a tiny can together for 15 years,” McGee laughs, confirming the observation.

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Musical vagabonds, Stars, like many young artists on a budget, began their life as bedroom musicians. Seligman took over production duties, while Millan created a “song sausage” out of an old duvet so the group could record clean vocals. As their notoriety and bank accounts grew, they began experimenting with different set-ups.

“We got romantic a few times and rented a cabin in the woods,” McGee says.“That’s still one of our favorite things to do. We’ve recorded extensively under those circumstances. We’ve gone into some very nice studios in the last few albums. Which is great. We’ve learned a lot from that experience. But it’s just prohibitively expensive to do that at that point. Technology and our collective skills and our friends that we bring in that have real skills.”

Before the recording of their eighth album, the band finally decided invest in a studio of their own. Originally Win Butler and Régine Chassagne of Arcade Fire’s apartment above an old discothèque, the space in Montreal’s Mile End neighborhood was bought and used as a studio by Handsome Furs before finally being turned over to Stars. For his part, Cranley takes a poetic view of their new digs.

“We made the first two records in bedrooms,” he adds. “We decided, ‘Oh, let’s get far away from bedrooms’ and made a bunch of records in studios. Then finally we came around and made it inside this apartment in a studio together. So it’s almost come full circle.”

Stars dove into recording their album in October 2013. Early in the process, amidst laying down tracks and bringing in a children’s choir for “Turn It Up” (which features Milan and Cranley’s daughter, Delphine, and Campbell’s daughter, Ellington), the band was hit with devastating news. A close friend had been diagnosed with an aggressive, life-threatening disease.

“Stars have been thrown in jail as a band, Stars have had lawsuits threatened against them,” Campbell says. “We’ve gone through everything that a band can go through. When that happened, we were like, ‘Okay, we are going to do this. We are going to do this in an act of blind hope that everything will be okay.’ That energy suffused everything about the recording. Every day was an act of hope. You will not fucking close this shop down. There’s joy in there because we were doing it, but it was more blind hope than joy.”

Campbell says there were numerous talks among the band to decide if they should continue with the album—or take time off to until they could properly focus. Millan, however, says that, for her, there was never any option than to proceed with recording.

“We had to believe that everything was going to be okay,” she says. “Because it was the only choice. He had to be. Even though we all live like this in some parts of our lives, it’s all a lie…He needs to believe that nothing is changing. It would have been worse for us to sit around and worry. Worrying is just praying for something bad to happen.” (While he’s still currently battling his illness, the band says that the outlook for their friend is positive.)

Sonically, No One is Lost is one of Stars’ most upbeat outings to date (Millan cites “Hold on When You Get Love And Let Go When You Give it” from their previous album, The North, as a jumping-off point). But it’s an album saturated with a grim sense of optimism. The band’s signature melancholy is met with guitar-heavy dance riffs (“From the Night”), playful duets (“You Keep Coming Up”) and slow-building ballads (“Nothing I Can Do”). The pop is often effervescent and filled with dramatic crescendoing choruses, but the lyrics run the gauntlet of the human experience, Campbell and Millan playing a series of roles from the provocateur (“You always did the things they told you/you always bought that shit they sold you”), to the deliverer of cold comforts (“Wish I could tell you there was nothing but time.”) The unnamed couple that first made their appearance in Heart’s “Elevator Love Letter” and were later resurrected for “Your Ex-lover is Dead,” “Midnight Coward” and “Walls” even returns on the country-flavored track “Look Away.” Much to Millan’s enjoyment, Campbell’s’ vocals in the duet take on a distinct Kenny Rogers twang.

That dual mindset, seeing both the beauty and the pain, is what inspired the album title No One is Lost. Millan recalls feeling unsurprised when Campbell sprawled the phrase on his t-shirt early during the recording process. Likewise, his other bandmates were quick to see the phrase’s potency.

“One of my nicknames in the band is ‘positive asshole,’” McGee jokes. “People are negative all the time, and then I’ll flip it and get all positive on them. It’s so annoying for people, not taking part in the darkness. Flipping like that is almost darker. You can’t get anything done when you’re all confrontational or grumpy about things…Ultimately, I liked the title because I found it hopeful. It was coming from Torq. Torq isn’t always the most hopeful person. Torq suggested it and I was like, ‘Yes! That’s positive and concise.’ It flows off the tongue quite nicely. I’m just going to roll with this positive moment coming from my bandmate Torquil.”

Campbell, while acknowledging the optimism that infused the recording sessions, isn’t so quick to call the title the result of a sunny outlook. A lover of humanity, he wants everyone to be okay. However, he says, that’s not the case. It’s an idea that has informed not only Stars’ newest album, but also their body of work as a whole.

“Absolutely everyone loses this game,” he says. “The lucky ones finish this game while losing everything you cared about while playing it. That is devastating. That is a devastating reality, that the price of this beautiful trip is loss. I don’t want people to feel sad. I want them to know that we are going to lose together. I’ve been saying this in songs for a long, long time. If you look back, it’s a phrase that is basically my only idea. We’re all going to lose, so let’s lose together. Alone. Winning is for losers. I say that to my kid all the time. I don’t want to hear about what you won. I have no fucking interest in you winning. I want to hear about the experience of you doing it. We live in a world where winners are celebrated. Winners are adored, are idolized and listened to. Raised to the top and given money and given everything. Favorite lyric ever? ‘They’ve got a name for the winners in the world, I want a name for when I lose.’ That’s Steely Dan. When I heard that, it was like, ‘That’s it, that’s what I represent.’ That’s what I’ll always represent.”

It’s a message of sloppy beauty. People may not be inherently good, but existence can be. From the characters in their songs answering personal ads, engaging in acts of hooliganism and just being straight-up brokenhearted, to the fans who come to their shows, Stars wants everyone to know that they’re okay. And that there is a place where they belong.

“Stars are luvvies,” Campbell says, using the old theater term for someone who’s a bit of an emotional mess. “We’re for luvvies. We make music for messy fucking people, who get drunk and cry and tell people how they feel. If you want to be fucking cool, you should probably go somewhere else.”

“We have managed to collect a 15-year career, and the ability to play around the world, because I think we do understand that your life is incredibly dramatic,” he continues. “There is no fourth wall. You play the rock show. Wherever you want to go. You want to sit back and chill, that’s fine. But if you want to go with us, we will fucking go with you. We will celebrate your life, and we will acknowledge the drama of your life. Even if you work in IT and have two kids and are in bed by 10 o’clock every night. Even more so if you work in IT and have two kids, because the stakes are high! All you have is the love around you.”

Love is the answer, they contend. And love is beautiful.

“People say that they never want to live forever, that would be so awful,” Campbell empathically declares. “That’s bullshit! If they can invent a way for me to live forever, I am staying forever! I don’t want to say goodbye to this beautiful place with all these ridiculous, hilarious, fucking people. My life is a fucking dream.”

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