Stars’ Torquil Campbell on Frank Ocean, Life After Death, and Their New Album “The North”
The North Streets September 4 Via ATO
Three things in life are certain: death, taxes, and that Stars’ fascination with mortality, love, and the great beyond isn’t going anywhere. “I consider it my responsibility to affirm kids’ belief that what they’re going through is huge,” says Stars frontman Torquil Campbell, mulling over his band’s pendant for leaning towards the epic and emotional. “I’m there to soundtrack it.”
Recently, Under the Radar caught up with Campbell (who shares frontperson duties with Amy Millan) to talk about his band’s forthcoming sixth full-length, due out September 4 on ATO, The North. The extensive conversation turned from traditional “making of” questions to include Campbell’s thoughts on the nature of art, the prevailing flaw in optimism, Frank Ocean, and the state of Canadian politics.
Laura Studarus (Under the Radar): In the past, your albums have had some very definitive themes. Is there a prevailing theme or subject to The North?
Torquil Campbell: I think that’s what’s kinda unique about it. I’m not sure there is a theme, per say on this record. I think this is kinda an attempt—a successful one—to just make a pure Stars record, to take all the themes that we’ve dealt with over the years, and all the sonic ideas, and express exactly who we are as a band and what we’ve arrived at as our sound and our story. For me, the record is less on the nose than the other ones are. And that’s why it’s better, really. I think there’s more space in it, for people to enjoy it as a series of songs. There are always things that tie Stars songs together: there’s memory, and there’s travel, there’s distance, there’s death, there’s sex. There’s those things. I think that when you’re around for a while, I think you start bands out, or at least we did, with things in our baggage that we really wanted to express. An agenda that we wanted to get across about the way that we saw the world and the way that we saw pop music. I think that we’ve done that; we’ve expressed those things. I think that we’re free now to get to the essence of what Stars is about, which is great pop songs. That is really what we’ve always been engaged with. And occupied by. And we didn’t sacrifice that this time to a concept. The overarching idea was let’s make some really great songs, and let them stand on their own, and they’ll have a common vibe.
The record is a lot wider. There are things on it that sound like they could be on Heart, but there also things on it that sound like they could be on The Five Ghosts, or Set Yourself on Fire. We didn’t tie ourselves into “this is our gear for this record, let’s use this gear.” We just threw everything we had at it.
Was that an intentional move on your part? Or was it gradual evolution based on the songs that you had?
Everything begins with intention, and then you end up doing what happens. Do you know what I mean? It’s like the rest of life. You make plans, and then inevitably they fall away in the face of what is actually happening. So many things go into making records. So many possibilities. Can we get this studio at that time? Are we going to work with this person? Are the available? You travel along that road. By the time you get to the end of it, you look back, and it wasn’t what you planned. But it was what was meant to be. Without those initial ideas, without those impulses, you don’t end up getting what you get. But I think you really have to be open to the idea that when you make a project, whether it’s a piece of music, or deciding what to plan in your garden, in the summer. Shit isn’t going to work out the way you planned it. The plan is important, and then it’s important to forget about the plan and let things happen.
Are you saying you believe in fate?.
I think I am, really. I think that if I were to define what fate meant, I would have a hard time doing that. I guess, if fate is what you accept, then I believe in fate. I think accepting what happens to you determines your fate. Resisting what happens will lead you astray, generally in life. What is it they say? Fate is a man’s character.
You live according to what your principals are, then you accept that those things are not going to necessarily end up being what you thought they were. Especially in the case of a band. I do believe in fate. A band is a very fragile and unbelievable thing to keep together. If you’re not willing to accept whatever happens, you’re going to break up. Stars have been pretty good over the years at accepting what comes, and making the most of it. You know that Mercury Rev line, “Bands, those funny little plans, that never go quite right.” That’s a great description of a band, and a marriage, and a friendship. You make plans, and they don’t go right, and at the end of it, you think, 'It couldn’t have been any other way.'
Is there a romanticism in Canada to the idea of going north, the way there is in the U.S. with going west?
It’s similar in the sense that it’s unknown. I think the North of Canada, represents less the idea of opportunity than the west does. So few people in Canada have actually been north. That’s what’s interesting about it, 95% of us live within 100 kilometers of the U.S. boarder. The north is a vast unknown in Canada. It’s powerful, empty, and an intimidating place that most Canadians never see in their life.
I think we were intrigued by that emptiness and distance. We live in a country defined by what we are not. We’re not in fact a particularly northern nation. Most of us live very much the same as you do in Los Angeles. We get snow occasionally, but even that is happening less and less. Really for me, I think the title The North; I was born in the North of England, so it has that implication as well. Musically a lot of what Stars draws on comes out of the north of England, like New Order and The Smiths, those band were very influential to the sound of the music. I romanticized my childhood in the North of England a great deal. But it’s also a way of saying that is where we are all from. We grew up in a northern city in Toronto.
Right now, Canada, despite the fact most people abroad think of Canada as a socialist utopia, Canada is in a very very very bad way, and has been take over by essentially Tea Party neo-cons. The government of Canada is the worst we’ve ever had, and a very frightening group of xenophobic and ugly human beings. The cover art is Habitat 67, which is a building built for the world’s fair in Montreal. It was built in a period of Canada’s history that was very utopian. Where a lot of public projects were being built. This was a society that was a lot more like Scandinavia. So the title is a way of reclaiming that idea of the north, instead of [Canadian Prime Minister] Stephen Harper’s idea of what the north is, which is a fortified oil factory, basically, which exists to make money for corporations. So I think all those things play into it.
The potential for this place is very beautiful, and it’s getting very messed up. Pop music, I’ve always believed in the revolution abilities of pop music. You only have to look at what Frank Ocean has done to make you believe in the power of pop music. The guy is challenging a whole group of people’s expectations and using art to do it. That’s big. It might just be a guy singing soul music, but that’s a big thing to do.
We’ll there’s such a precedent for challenging social norms with art. Go back to Elvis and his hips.
Exactly. "They couldn’t film the spirit from the waist down." That’s a Prefab Sprout lyric. Just the idea that the movement of your hips can change the world. It’s why I love this art form.
With Stars many of your previous albums have been politically driven to some extent. Do you see that as part of your mission, to offer a challenge?
I try occasionally to write political songs. But they’re the hardest thing to do, I think. You want to make them timeless, you want to not just write about a specific thing, which will them become irrelevant. So the great political songwriters are to be admired, because it’s very hard not to be too topical or too on the nose with political songwriting. To me, pop and politics, love and politics, they go together. For me, personally, you can't separate your personal morality from your public morality. When you write about loving someone or hating someone, you’re really writing about what you do in the world. There’s always politics in our music.
I’ve always personally identified with the narratives that you use. I know that you have a history of acting, but when writing or recording music, do you and Amy consider yourselves to be character actors as well?
I think we do. I think me and Ames over the years have carved out a place together that we occupy and we know how to talk to each other within the context of a song. So I think we do, in short. I think we also write from our hearts. It’s not that we’re pretending to be other people. But I think we have developed a dialogue that very much resembles two characters in a film or in a book. The great thing about having two voices in the band is that you can have this conversation. It doesn’t just have to be a one-way story. You don’t have to give just one side of the story or the other.
I was very inspired by The Beautiful South in making this band happen. Great band in the '90s. You listen to them, and you’re like, “Oh Stars ripped off The Beautiful South!” [Laughs] They told a lot of stories based on a man and woman talking to each other. So that’s definitely an aid or a kind of starting point for us. We don’t just have to have one side of a story. We can have a character come in and say, “That’s how you might see it, but this is how I see it.”
I’m honestly surprised that more bands do have both a male and female frontperson like you do.
Yeah it’s interesting. As I said, bands are hard to keep together. There’s not a lot of people who can share that way. A lot of the time, there’s one person writing most of the material. In our case it’s totally the opposite. Every tune is touched by every single person in the group. That’s what we base our whole career on. We’re a democracy. We’re not just a democracy, we’re a marriage. We’re family. Everybody in the family gets to have their say even if it doesn’t have much to do with them. You’ve got to be willing to do that. A lot of people when they start bands, they’re 20 years old, and they don’t know each other well enough, or they don’t trust each other enough to do that. Stars are lucky to have known each... Me and Chris have known each other since we were eight-years-old. There was a lot of getting to know each other before we started making music.
It’s fun when you know someone that long, it’s hard to hide your personal evolution.
It sure is. Even when you would really like to. [Laughs]
How often do you pluck details of your life for songs? You touched briefly on the fact that you can’t separate personal politics from public. Is it the same for personal details? There’s a line in “Walls” that hit me really hard, where the characters are dancing to “Hand in Glove.”
Yeah. That song and that band are massive for me. Very rarely, to be honest, do I pluck stuff from my own life. I can’t speak for Amy in this. For me, I want so much for other people to connect with what I’m saying, that I shy away from the idea that my life would somehow be relatable. I’d rather talk about their lives.
The best bands, I feel are the ones that understand that the reason pop songs are special is because of you. When you go see a band, the reason you stand in a crowd screaming is not for the band, it’s for your own life. It’s for the memories you’re having and the feelings that this music is evoking about the specialness of your life. So I try very hard to focus on magnifying the drama in the lives I see around me and in the lives I imagine my listeners have. I want them to feel what I felt when I started to connect to pop music, which is an incredible sense that someone who didn’t know me was going inside my head and understanding my life, and magnetizing and dramatizing it in this enormous way. When you’re 17 or 16, you feel the drama of life so enormously. But no one is treating you very seriously. The only thing that really takes you seriously is a band. They depend on that drama. They depend on your life being important to you to sell records and make a living and to have something to do. I consider it my responsibility to affirm kids’ belief that what they’re going through is huge. I’m there to soundtrack it.
If you haven’t read it already, I’d really suggest checking out Killing Yourself to Live by Chuck Klosterman. He really goes into this idea that whatever value art has, it’s brought in by the viewer or the listener.
There’s that idea of 'only connect.' Someone asked E.M Forster what is art, and he replied, “Only Connect.” I think that it’s genius, because what he’s saying is “everything is art if it makes a connection to another person.” Without that connection, it isn’t art; it’s just something he did. It’s a craft. But it’s not art until it’s shared and understood, and reflected back. The people who listen to our music make it art. We make music, they make it art buy making it important in their lives.
That’s why I believe in art, as a religion, as a tool to change things. Because it doesn’t exist without connection. Like economics.
With death being such a ongoing theme with Stars, and your last album The Five Ghosts having such a through line about life after death, do you have a personal concept of the afterlife?
I don’t. I believe in ghosts. I pray that what I believe is true. I’ve lost people I love and I want to be around. I don’t want it to just end. But I could be wrong. I’m willing to admit that it could all just be silence. But I hesitate to believe it. I don’t know. It just seems that there are so many clues to the fact that we’re more than what we seem to be. I don’t necessarily believe in God, per say. But people who say God doesn’t exist, that seems just as unlikely to me that the possible that God does exist.
When I go back to my summerhouse that my family has had for 110 years, and I feel the ghosts of my grandmother, and my father, and her mother, and her father, that’s not just my imagination. There’s something in those pieces of furniture that are real. I’m not going to deny them just because I can’t see them. That’s silly to me.
You want to feel these people because you love them, which also seems like a very major theme for your music.
Love is everything. Love is what we’re here to do. It’s what the cost is. The cost of love is death. That’s the price you pay for loving people, you have to say goodbye. It’s a heartbreaker. But it’s worth the cost. It’s worth it at the cost. I don’t think you can have one without the other. Without death, you could never love anybody because love exists only with the potential that it could be lost. For me, these two things are sisters. They sleep together. That feeling of holding someone in the morning doesn’t mean anything if you don't know that one day you won’t hold them. That’s what makes it precious.
I have to admit, I was surprised by “Hold on When You Get Love And Let Go When You Give it.” It felt like an unexpectedly optimistic take on some of the classic Stars themes.
I think this record in general has an alarming amount of optimism. Or at least not pessimism. In the vacuum of its optimism it seems pessimistic. I wanted to write a song that was the definitive Stars statement. What we as a band represent. If Pink Floyd represents that part of your life that’s about existentialism, and being alone, and being high, and fear—they evoke a lot of fear in a great way—Stars, I think, evokes faint hope. Not obvious hope, not Katy Perry hope. But that hope becomes—despite the fact you know that everything is probably going to turn out shit—at least you have a pop song, right? At least you can listen to a tune. And that gives you some faint hope. And for me that tune is, I may be a loser, but at least I know how to hold on.
Given how adroit you are at expressing sadness in song, do you find it hard to write something that’s so relatively hopeful or relatively upbeat?
Oh yeah, Tolstoy said that writing happiness is the hardest thing to do. There’s no doubt that it is. If you think of the history of how many great works of art are about happiness, it’s a very small number. It’s much easier to write about sorrow. I’m determined as I get older—and I think most artists get to be, the more grim you realize life is, the more determined you are to use your art to express the joy of it. One of the reasons I’m such a big fan of soul music is because I think soul musicians over the years have been better than most at expressing joy and evoking joy. Dance music and soul music for me are very powerful things, because they do it without fear. I think in narrative rock and roll, in indie rock or in folk music, we have a tendency to, quote unquote, to be interesting, or have our story seem realistic. Those are important things to do. But if you can make people want to get up in the morning with your music, you’ve done something special.
I think you’ve hit on something important there. We do, as a society, tend to hold up sadness a being something greater or more important than joy.
It’s weird isn’t it? We endow sadness with profundity, and happiness with silliness. I think people moping around is the most goddamn silly thing you can possibly do. Sometimes happiness in the face of it all is a deeply profound and complex choice. I’ve been thinking a lot it, but I guess I go back to the Frank Ocean thing. Here’s a guy who exists in an oeuvre and a genre where homophobia and fear of loosing your career or your respect is enormous. What does he do with it? He makes art out of it. He writes this beautiful piece of narrative writing, and he lets his art speak for itself. That’s a hopeful act. I guarantee you; he’s going to get what he deserves for that, which is love and acceptance, and joy. It’s using your art the way it should be used. I’m really in a state of enormous admiration for that young man. You want to know about my art, you want to know about my life? I’ll tell you! And if you’re beautiful enough, you’ll take it. If you’re not, what do I care?
Do you personally identify as an optimist?
No. [Laughs] No I don’t. But since I had my kid, she makes me optimistic, because she’s obviously the finest human being to ever live.
Well, of course.
Of course! But no, I don’t identify with an optimist. My buddy Chris Dumont is staying with me this week while we make some Memphis music. I think he can definitively say that I don’t identify as an optimist.
The only problem with optimism is, it isn’t funny. And funny is everything. There’s no point in being in a band, if people aren’t going to be funny. If you’re not going to be funny in a band, you’re in Nickelback. It must can’t happen, you’ve got to be funny or go away. The only way to be funny is to realize that life is shit. So I do that, I accept that life is shit.
Well, there is something to be said for upbeat realism.
Yeah. Well funny has to be true, right? Saying things are going to be all right is patently untrue. It’s not going to be all right. There’s nothing funny about that.
One thing this conversation reminds me of is the through line to the new Saint Etienne album, where they ponder the significance of music in a person’s life. Have you heard it?
Have I heard it? Are you kidding me? I preordered it and got up early that morning to listen to it. They’re one of my five biggest bands of my whole life.
As they were wondering in the album, do you believe it’s possible to stay idealistic and have the same response to music as you do when you’re a teenager?
“Would Marc Bolan ever be as important?” The answer is no. He isn’t. And what I love about that record so much, is that they know that, but it can still be bloody important. Will it ever be the same? Will I ever be able to sit on the pavement outside of Record Peddler again and stare at The Smiths record through the window, waiting to buy it? No I can’t do that. I don’t have time. Record stores don’t exist any more. But I can still know that there are kids out there who are doing the equivalent of that. And just being a part of it for me still gives me shivers, just to be a tangential part of that. I think Saint Etienne feel the same way.
I feel like as a listener it’s really easy to personify albums. But listening to The North, and feeling the heaviness of some of the themes, I wonder, do you feel like this could have been made anywhere other than Canada?
Not by us. No I don’t think so. I think that there are things on it that are uniquely Canadian. Canada has, over the years, we’ve taken the tradition of Neil Young, and Joni Mitchell, and Leonard Cohen, which is essentially the North American folk music tradition, and we have mixed it up with the European immigration in Canada that happened in the 1960s and 1970s, and the Jamaican immigration. The people who, like me, and [Metric's] Jimmy Shaw, and [Broken Social Scene's] Kevin Drew, whose parents came from England, and took them to this very Canadian, North American place. So you get a blend of those two influences.
I think in America, that happens, obviously, but America has a history that is so deep, and rich, and endemic. I think it’s possible for American bands to make music that sounds like almost anything. In a strange way, Canada can really only sound like Canada because there’s so few of us here. If you make a record, you are taking a big part in the conversation because there aren’t that many records being made. It’s always been great to be from this country because you can make your little mark on the conversation in a way that’s maybe more indelible than you could in a bigger country with a richer history. We’re writing the story as we go along here. In America, you’re kinda opening that book over and over again and retelling the story according to you. Canada doesn’t really have a story yet. It’s up to us to tell it. That’s what Stars, and Arcade Fire, and all of us are engaged in doing, trying to tell the story for the first time.
It’s interesting how even when you’re working in a different genre than the band next to you, you’re ultimately a product of your environment.
Absolutely. That’s another thing that happened. In Canada, we got lucky because there wasn’t any real industry here, and there weren’t enough bands of each kind to make up a series of separate industries. Everybody just kind of blended together and jumped in the pool together. There isn’t that ghettoization of musical forms that sometimes happens. Less and less everywhere I think. One of the good things about the Internet is most kids now listen to alt-country and hip-hop and dance music. It’s not unusual to like all that stuff now. Twenty years ago it really was. You were a guitar kid or you were a synthesizer kid, and you had to make your choice. Now that seems really silly and old-fashioned.
This may be me idealizing the north, but it seems like a lot of what goes on in the Canadian music scene wouldn’t have been possible without the arts-friendly government.
There’s no doubt that the Canadian music industry would not exist without subsidizedation and Canadian content laws. All those things now are being decimated and stripped away by the present government. So I am loathed to give any credit to the government of Canada at the moment, because they are anathema to everything that has happened in the past 25 years. They are taking the structure of Canada and throwing it in the toilet. We’ll see in five years, whether we can still feel smug about art in our country. It’s in free fall, just like everything else in this country. We’re in a very alarming state.
You can be sure that Stephen Harper is working hard at removing government subsidy to the arts because he wants to shut down descent, and he wants to shut down conversation. Yeah, having an national broadcast like the CBC, having things like Factor and Video Fact, I don’t know how anybody does it, how art exists without government subsidy. People say they don’t want to pay for art because they don’t want to consume it. Well I don’t have a car and I don’t want to pay for your fucking road! But I do because I live in something called a society. And if you don’t want to live in a society, then move to the woods and build your own road and don’t ask me to pay for your road. Or your athletic center. Or anything else. If you care about what I’m into, I’ll care about what you’re into. Then we can live in something called society. If not, let’s collect rocks, and hide in a cave, and throw them at each other.
You constantly hear people come out and say, “I’m so sick of these artists with their hands out, asking for free handout from us!” Well you know what? I’m sick of all these people in the army asking for a handout from me. Go mine for gold and then buy your gun. Don’t ask me to go pay my taxes so you can shoot people. You’re not doing it in my name. It’s a fatuous argument on the face of it.