Interview: On new album, Stars reclaim vision of ‘The North’
October 17, 2012
Written by Roman Gokhman
Torquil Campbell the actor should know a thing or two about stage terminology. The son of two Shakespearean actors, a veteran of the theater and with appearances on television shows in Canada and the U.S. under his belt, Campbell knows the music his Montreal indie quintet Stars makes is not melodramatic.
After nearly a decade of steady acclaim, the quintet’s sweetly crafted yet agonizingly conflicted pop music still gets stuck with that term – including during this recent phone chat – with which Campbell takes issue. Although he and smoky-voiced Amy Millan verbally spar and tell two sides to stories with dialogue-laden narrative vocals in many of the songs on Stars’ six studio albums, those fights are not of a grand nature, he says.
“Melodrama is the escalation of stock situations of drama into operatic levels,” he said. “For me, what we do is we take incredibly mundane, quiet, devastating moments in your life that nobody else notices, and we play the music that happens inside your head when you’re going through those moments. To me, that’s kitchen sink drama; that’s domestic drama.”
Stars’ latest album, The North, is no exception. Millan, her husband, bassist-guitarist Evan Cranley, Campbell, drummer Pat McGee and keyboardist Chris Seligman will make a stop at the Fillmore Saturday.
The band got its start in 1999 when the Québécois residents met in New York, and they gained recognition with their third album, Set Yourself on Fire, in 2004. But this tour will be a new experience for the band. Now Millan and Cranley, as well as Campbell, have young children, who will be coming along for the ride.
“(Seventeen-month-old) Delphine is coming for the whole ride because both her parents are in the band, so she kind of has to,” he said. “Ellington (Campbell’s daughter, 3) is going to come to Europe, so it will be both kids. Everyone will be on the double-decker. It’s going to be like ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.’ It’s going to be awesome.
“We’re all bracing for huge changes. There’s 11 people on the bus, and Delphine is one of them, and we all want Delphine to have a semi-normal life; as much as she can, riding a bus with a bunch of grownups that she doesn’t know. Everybody’s committed to making that happen, but then that totally rocks the world of all the (other) people. So it’s like, ‘Have to drive 400 miles? Let’s go in the back and listen to Led Zeppelin and smoke weed for seven hours.’”
Being parents, husbands and wives hasn’t mellowed Stars politically. The North is a statement about Canada’s utopian vision of the 1960s and ‘70s, when the country was finding its culture, and introducing human rights policies, socialized medicine and public works projects, such as Montreal’s Habitat 67 – the beehive-modeled public housing complex that is displayed on the album cover.
To Campbell and the rest of Stars, the country has lost its course, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper is one of “a bunch crooks and oligarchs and criminal scum who are trying to ruin the country and turn it into an oil refinery.” The album opens with a speech by Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, who in 1967 created a sound documentary called The Idea of North.
“The album is a way of reclaiming what a vision of the North is,” Campbell said.
After the tour concludes, Campbell said he will work on rekindling his theater career, which was his primary career prior to Stars. He and several friends are working on plays or musical theater projects, he said. He hasn’t gotten away from that part of his life entirely, however. Writing song lyrics has allowed him a way of expressing parts of himself by interweaving his psyche into the characters he creates.
He described his favorite character to return to as the Hyde to his Jekyll, which allows him to vent the darker elements of himself.
“Writing songs is a way for me to vicariously experience those moments of real darkness that some people go into in their lives – murder, drug addiction, crazy, dark sex,” he said. “There’s a guy in some fucked-up world I would like to be, which is kind of terrifying. Fuck it, it’s just a pop song. That’s the great thing about art. I’m not hurting nobody.”