Apr 02, 2005
Montreal, Canada, is best known in America as the place eighteen-year-old New Englanders go to get legally trashed on their summer vacations. Torquil Campbell admits that locals survive the miserable winters in much the same way. "A lot of sex and alcohol, that's the recipe," says the Stars' singer, keyboardist and songwriter. "You stay indoors and pretend it's not happening."
But a funny thing happened while Campbell and his friends holed up with hot chocolate and Boreale Rousse in their apartments over the last year. Their bands, whose ranks include Broken Social Scene, The Dears and The Arcade Fire, became really, really popular. Spin Magazine called Montreal the most vital rock scene going these days. The Arcade Fire sell out thousand-seat venues in the time it takes to untie a pair of snow boots, and Stars was recently deemed sufficiently hip to score Seth Cohen's melodrama on an episode of The O.C.
Montreal is getting love from everyone. Except, it seems, from those who live there. We talked with Campbell over the phone after he came home from Le Pistol, a Montreal dive bar, about Smokey Robinson, Dick Cheney the Sociopath and why every pretty girl needs a Molotov cocktail all her own.
Under The Radar: Many of the songs on Set Yourself on Fire and Heart are allusive to certain real places, like Pont Champlain in "Your Ex-Lover Is Dead," and very detailed, idiosyncratic events like "sipping cactus brandy from a china spoon." How much of this comes out of your own life?
Torquil Campbell: Almost none of it actually, neither of those things anyway. Like cactus brandy, I'm not even sure it exists, it just sounded like something a vampire would drink. Pont Champlain is a bridge in Montreal, so it's part of my world, but there was never a specific episode there. I've never found it easy to write that way, it's much easier to use it as an aspect of a story or a narrative. Then part of you begins to reveal itself when you write. You start from the outside. My life is boring, why would I write about that? I'd rather write about people with these huge, dramatic things in their lives. But you go in towards yourself, and it elicits parts of you that aren't automatically revealed. I'm a big details guy, I like numbers, like "six too many drinks," even though I'm not a very exact person. If you give something exactitude, it brings people to an immediate place and you speak right in people's ears. It's more like a story you're telling to one person, and the closer you get to that, it's more like you're working backwards towards yourself. Fiction has a veil where even you're not aware of what's happening, it's a fiction to you as well. But it reveals yourself as you cross the void, and it comes together in the end.
UTR: Many Canadian bands have expressed an interesting belief in interviews that because nobody expects to make any money or have a lot of commercial success from the start, it's much easier to succeed as artists and get noticed by the musical community. Is that true?
Torquil: It's not easier to get noticed, but it's easier to make art in an unfettered, un-egotistical atmosphere. The expectation is that you do it to get it done, to feel good. Montreal is a French city with a big market for Francophone singers. All the bigwigs come here. But if you're an Anglophone, there's no industry at all. People come to see nothing but the music. Because of that, you don't get bottled into your first good idea. Maybe The Bravery could have turned into the next Flaming Lips, who knows? But now they're supposed to be the next Duran Duran, and maybe that's not what they want. Getting tied to a trend is dangerous. [Laughs] I know Montreal is trendy now, but we've been doing the same thing at the same clubs with the same vibe when nobody paid attention.
UTR: How are Montreal and the friendships between bands changing now that you're touring the world, The Dears play on Carson Daly's show and Arcade Fire are selling 100,000 records?
Torquil: It's funny you should ask that. I just came back from a bar with Murray [Lightburn, of The Dears], just talking about our lives. The neighborhood's not changing. It's hard to grasp in America, but Montreal is a Francophone city. The signs are in French. The bureaucracy, the government, they're all Francophone. There's a very rich and active Francophone culture in Quebec, where big stars will sell a million records but sell, like, 79 in the rest of Canada. The Montreal "scene" seems like a big deal to outsiders, but the city is the same as it was 40, 50 years ago. There's a small Anglo community, and it's mostly students living in cheap apartments making art. Most of the bands are on a plateau, and most of them live in one neighborhood. Our lives are pretty impervious. I asked a friend, who is a Francophone, if the French community is jazzed up to see Montreal in Spin Magazine, and he said that nobody even knew. Nobody knows the future, and we never thought anyone would pay attention. Interviewers always ask "What is it about Montreal?" In Francophone culture, the song is the way people in society express their feelings, even in a schmaltzy, completely sincere way. There's an open sentiment that there's an honor in romance, and it permeates art, so the uptight Anglo kids from Toronto or Dallas express themselves, and it's awesome. That's what a song is. When you have a feeling too big to speak, you sing it. I don't care if it's good music or not, I mean, I'd rather listen to Celine Dion than nothing. Even if it's hackneyed and vulgar, she wants you to be moved.
UTR: It's awfully early to be asking this question, but how are you deciding what to do next, both as a band and a musical community?
Torquil: We're very clear on what we're going to do next. We're going to make one more record, and then the Akron scene or whatever will become popular, and the media will move on. We'll try to hold on to as many fans as we had when there was media, and we're very lucky to have a had a moment where people paid attention. We're just going to keep recording, have babies, get old and die, you know? [Laughs]. It's a little scene, and you can't change the world. Seattle didn't change the world, and even London in 1977 didn't change the world. You can only change your own world. I'm feeling very big picture now, thinking about things that matter so much more than this.
UTR: Speaking of which, your records are rather brash about your liberal politics, both lyrically and in the album packaging, such as the picture of the woman holding a Molotov cocktail.
Torquil: That's actually my wife Moya.
UTR: Really? I'm sure this is wrong, but she's not the same Moya referenced in that Godspeed You! Black Emperor song, is she?
Torquil: [Laughs] I certainly hope not! That's worth looking into. There's going to be a rumble later. But I don't consider myself a liberal. Liberals make me sick, actually. I'm more of a radical anarchist.
UTR: But those songs seem to be aimed very specific targets, especially George Bush ("I hope your drunken daughters are gay!"). How do these big-picture political issues impact you emotionally as songwriters?
Torquil: I'm not a very good political songwriter, not yet, and I admire those who can do it. We're a love song band, we write love songs, and what we were trying to do on Set Yourself on Fire is point out the relationship between love and politics. You don't have revolution unless you understand that love is the absolute power, that people can have everything and be miserable or have nothing and still be happy. It's the only thing that can change the world, and that's been the opinion of Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha. The world is so interdependent. We're so close. Like the 9-11 images, they were played around the world, who ever dreamed we'd all see that? Where's the room for love? You have to find room, cram it in. There was this woman up here who did these serial murders, killed children and videotaped it, and she cut a deal with the cops and now she's getting out of jail. I don't think she should ever get out of jail! But in the same way, I don't think Henry Kissinger should ever get out of jail, you know? They should both be sitting in the room where they keep murderers. I fucking hate evil, so I guess that makes me a liberal.
UTR: How does being Canadian affect the way you write about American political issues?
Torquil: I'm actually American. I've lived [in Montreal] for eight years, but I was born in England and I'm a landed immigrant in America. The only place I'm not a citizen is Canada. But there are things that I don't know, feelings that my friends there have. I'll talk to Ben Gibbard [of Death Cab For Cutie] and he'll have this very deep depression, and it's different for me because I don't have to live under that law. But we're so connected, I mean, Osama Bin Laden and George Bush are the same person, fighting their fake war to make money off of people's backs. I think fundamentalist Islam and fundamentalist Christianity are best friends, and we suffer under their chaos, while 95 percent of the rest of the world just wants to find a pretty person to marry and have kids with.
UTR: Have you ever gotten an angry or antagonistic response to songs like "He Lied About Death" at shows or in letters?
Torquil: I wish we had gotten more, so that we wouldn't feel like we were preaching to the converted. I hope that at shows some people would disagree, and I'd appreciate them for listening whether they agreed or not. I wrote "He Lied About Death" as a rant against George Bush, but I specifically didn't mention his name. It can be about Osama Bin Laden or anyone [like that]. They're just not decent people. They don't live like the rest of us. They're perverts and we're going to call them out for what they are. Dick Cheney is a pervert and a sociopath. If he wasn't doing what he's doing now, he'd be out raping women. Some perverts go to jail, some go to the White House. Those are they only places they can go, into jail or into politics.
UTR: In a way, songwriters were quickest to pick up the torch regarding political art in the last few years, be if left wing (Bruce Springsteen) or right wing (Toby Keith). Are you worried that these sentiments are too easy, that they won't last outside of the particular time and place they were made?
Torquil: Of course they won't. But that's the tradition of folk music, that in five minutes you can respond [to an event] with a melody that rhymes. Pop music is supposed to be temporary, that's the dynamic. It might not be relevant in ten years, but in a hundred years it could be. Look at [comedian] Bill Hicks, he was writing about George Bush and Saddam Hussein in 1992. He's dead now, but here we are 15 years later. It seemed to be topical then, that we wouldn't ever see it again, and now it's like he recorded it yesterday. The use of song to talk about what's happening now is human, and that's why we're doing it. We're all irrelevant. Except for ice cream. That's always relevant.
UTR: A lot of Canadian songwriting "collectives" with lots of members contributing write sprawling epics with very dense arrangements. But yours are concise pop songs that are structurally very different than those of, say, Broken Social Scene or Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Is that a stylistic goal for you?
Torquil: I grew up obsessed with two kinds of music: 60's and 70's American soul and 70's and 80's British pop. They're very different, but they both loved the three-minute pop song with hooks that were played quickly and simply. That's what I bring to the songwriting. Everyone else loves those [types of music], but they bring different things. I would love to challenge myself to get out of that, but why be something other than yourself? You can get a whole history of someone's life in a Smokey Robinson song, and every time you hear it, it just devastates you. I like epic rock, I would love to make epic rock, but for now I stick to what I'm good at, which is knowing the rules and exploiting and changing them to make pop songs.
UTR: All of you contribute to the songwriting, and play a variety of instruments. What's the actual songwriting process like? Do you run around in a roomful of instruments and leave with a new song, or do each of you have prepared material that you flesh out as a band?
Torquil: We intended to sit in a room and bang it out. Chris or Evan would play a riff until I wanted to kill them if they ever played it again. I write while they play, and it usually takes me 30 or 45 minutes to write a song and that's it, I don't rewrite. But Amy [Millan, co-vocalist and guitarist] will get an idea, and then go away for a while and come back with bits she'll teach me. There are things we might suggest, it's very collaborative, but the thing that makes it work is to have a taste leader, where at some moment they'll say "I'm satisfied," and you trust them to say if something's not working. But we try to not speak about [the process], we might jinx it.