Published Jan 01, 2006Armed as always with a shameless passion, a melodic prowess and an envied lyrical flair, Stars have exploded the tender, insular world of their last album, Heart, to rise from the ashes with a rallying cry for "the soft revolution." The phrase has been bandied about by singer Torquil Campbell for several years, in reference to both a populist pop movement in Canadian music and, on a slightly larger scale, the dawn of world domination by the meek.
Since printing "Long live the soft revolution!" in Heart's liner notes in early 2003, the Can-pop cabal has charged ahead, with Toronto and Montreal-based bands such as the Dears, the Hidden Cameras, Broken Social Scene, the Arcade Fire and Metric making substantial progress in their art and their visibility. The meek, however, have seen better days. As Campbell, Evan Cranley, Pat McGee, Amy Millan and Chris Seligman watched the world erupt and listened to their above-mentioned "epic friends," the quintet felt incensed and emboldened, ready to write a sonically brilliant, lyrically stinging opus that would kill all haters with love. Call them arrogant, call them naïve — they've been called much worse — but Stars have faith in the power of music and the power of individuals to change the world, either within the system, within themselves, with dissent, or with the ultimate sacrifice.
"At this point in history, there could be an argument made that the only real act of protest is going to a town square and setting yourself on fire," says singer Torquil Campbell, addressing the literal end of the new album's title, Set Yourself on Fire.
As with "The Soft Revolution" (now a Stars song title), Campbell became obsessed with the phrase and the very idea of self-immolation, which has been espoused in Buddhism symbolically ("set yourself on fire for the Dharma") and literally, with a series of monks becoming martyrs for peace in Vietnam in the '60s and Tibet in the '90s. After a "don't try this at home" disclaimer, Campbell expresses admiration for such selfless acts. In a somewhat safer response to today's troubles, Stars have aimed two new songs straight at George W. Bush and his war, namely "He Lied About Death" and "Celebration Guns," but the album title also bears a much more figurative and personal message, a call for philosophy in action.
"We all have to set ourselves on fire," Campbell states. "We can't wait for someone else to ignite that in us that is beautiful, that in us that is important, that which we have to do, that which is our dream. So much of life is spent trying to dim what you are, control what you are, and I think pop music and music in general can make you feel like you want to break out of what you've become, burn it all, and start again."
An even more personal interpretation is put forward by Stars guitarist and singer Amy Millan. She and Campbell are not a couple, but they play one in Stars duets such as Heart's title track. Campbell, a long-time part-time actor, is married to fellow thespian Moya O'Connell; Millan and Seligman broke off a brief engagement this year. As a result, Millan can't help but see "set yourself on fire" in the context of that relationship, which was book-ended chronologically and, in a sense, thematically, by this album and its predecessor.
"Heart was the beginning of a lot of our relationships," she says. "Now we feel a little bit older and experience has sort of changed what love means to us. When things aren't going as planned, sometimes you have to burn your house down and start from scratch."
Love of all kinds, in all its kaleidoscopic complexity, has not only inspired every restlessly romantic word of Stars' poetry and every melancholy note and vivacious lilt of their music, it's driven the band itself, both as socialist, bohemian individuals who recoil from conventional work within the system, outside the art world, and as a unit bent on perseverance for better or worse, until death do them part.
During the making of the new record, Millan and Campbell had an explosive argument that nearly unravelled the band, an event they subsequently chronicled (and semi-fictionalised) in another new song, "The Big Fight." Millan likens songwriting to being in the trenches or giving birth, but war and labour tend to produce bonds that aren't easily broken, and this band's love is unconditional.
"There's an element of ridiculousness to all of us, and because of that, we forgive each other very deeply and nobody holds grudges," adds Campbell. "Seeing people deal with your shit and stick with you sort of incurs respect, and after a while you just stop giving them quite so much shit."
At First Sight
Before the love, before the shit, the would-be members of Stars admired each other from afar as students in Toronto. As a teenager, Campbell started dabbling in music with Seligman, Metric's James Shaw and Chris Dumont, assembling a band called Luxe to play occasional theatre parties. Campbell and Seligman soon moved to New York City, where Campbell stepped up his acting career, hitting stages with the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman and doing cameos on TV shows like Sex and the City and Law and Order, and Seligman went to work as a freelance French horn player in the Big Apple's orchestra pits.
"Chris was totally at loose ends in his life so I suggested he come down, do the music for this Greek tragedy I was directing and just hang out for a few months," Campbell explains. "He had such a great time that he felt he couldn't go back, so we moved into one room together in Greenwich Village. That's when we started to write songs and record the roughest of the rough stuff with his computer and keyboard."
Meanwhile, Millan led a rootsy rock group called 16 Tons that played sporadic gigs with Evan Cranley, a multi-talented session musician who moonlighted with a series of bands, eventually winding up with the newly named Stars in New York. When he found out that 16 Tons had split, he recommended Millan to the group and contacted her through Metric's Emily Haines, Millan's high school buddy. Although Campbell and Millan had attended Toronto's Jarvis College simultaneously, their paths never quite crossed until she was coaxed down to New York. Once she tested the water and was assured that her songwriting would be welcome, Millan jumped in.
"I was immediately best friends with them," she says. "They're really incredible men and they made me feel a part of it right away, as if I was the person who was always meant to be in the band."
In the spring of 2000, Stars completed their gorgeously slight debut album, Nightsongs, absorbed Millan's ample singing and guitar-playing talents and scored some choice gigs around their adopted hometown.
"Then we were arrested for smoking pot," Campbell recalls. "Chris was at home with a big celebratory dinner and bottles of wine and it was a beautiful Sunday afternoon so Amy, Cranley and I went out to the park to hang out. We got thrown in jail for 24 hours. When we were finally released by the judge, we got directly into a cab and went to a club to open for the Trashcan Sinatras, so we had the opportunity to say, 'Ladies and gentlemen, we just got out of jail.' It was fantastic. Ah, the things this fucking band has been through."
Spending a night in the slammer was only one of the negative aspects of a very drab life in New York. Ironically, the experience had once inspired Campbell and Seligman's "rock'n'roll fantasy," driving the duo to lift themselves out of the gutter with warm and cosy electro-pop and clever, whimsical lyrics. However, a chaotic existence rife with distractions was not the setting the fledgling band needed to write their next album, so they packed up and moved back north, eschewing the familiarity of Toronto for a new city, Montreal.
The band's first dispatch from their new home was The Comeback EP, an extension of Nightsongs that found Stars showcasing the new line-up and stepping away from pastiche — the incessant New Order / Smiths / Saint Etienne comparisons had become a tad tiresome. It was also their second and last record for Le Grand Magistery, the Michigan-based label that the band attempted to extricate themselves from throughout much of 2002. In the midst of this contractual dispute, Stars gathered in Seligman's small apartment for another painstaking series of writing, recording and editing sessions, but the toil and stress were far from audible on Heart, eventually released via Paper Bag Records on Valentine's Day 2003.
The momentum Stars had amassed over three records shifted into top gear with their sophomore album, a graceful paean to love uniting synths and guitars in timeless pop tones. Between their affiliation with Broken Social Scene, their increasingly extensive tours of North America, the UK and Europe, and a maudlin wave of critical acclaim, Stars were swept to an unprecedented level of indie stardom.
Not all critics were enamoured of the band, however, as exemplified by two harsh online live reviews by Nada Mucho and Pop Matters, which accused Campbell of being "silly, stupid and embarrassing" and an "egomaniacal stage-stealer."
"People have always either loved me or hated me as a human being and there's really nothing that can be done about it," says Campbell, who's been resigned to sporadic bad reviews since he was eight. "I actually like the fact that people have eviscerated me, because if there are no negative reactions to your art, you're probably making something that isn't all that interesting."
With few promo photos and fairly fleeting appearances in videos, Stars have remained relatively anonymous over the years, which may explain the misconceptions of both their detractors and their fans.
"Some people seem to invent who we are and what we represent when they're listening to the music, and I love that," says Campbell, citing the recent shock of a few Swedish fans at the sight of his wife — they were certain the singer was gay. "Other people assume we'll all have jet black hair and high cheek bones and stare off into space and smoke cigarettes, which couldn't be further from the truth, but the music was always meant to be much more beautiful than we could ever be. Some people like us more when they see we're a lot more human than they assumed, others are disappointed that we're not their indie geek dream come true, but I'm very glad we're not."
Ashes to Ashes
About 125 km east of Montreal is the town of North Hatley, where the summertime population of 1,400 (including Campbell's parents) is halved in the winter. In mid-2003, Stars found themselves in North Hatley's Pilsen Pub sitting beside actor, director, producer, writer and music supervisor Allan Nicholls, a regular in Robert Altman films. Coincidentally, Nicholls had also played in a Montreal-based band in the '60s that was booked to open for the Rolling Stones by a young Donald K. Donald, who would soon hand Stars a record deal with Aquarius/DKD (in conjunction with Arts & Crafts International). Fortuitously, Nichols was in the midst of building a basement studio in his North Hatley home, which he kindly rented to the band for what Amy calls "a super price — we spent more on booze than rent."
For five frigid weeks in January and February, Stars went to work on their album as they always had, with Campbell and Millan on lyrics and Seligman and Cranley on music, their long-time live drummer McGee in tow for the first time. The bitter cold kept them close, inspiring artistic feats and culinary feasts daily, but creeping claustrophobia necessitated the occasional escape, usually drunken and stoned tobogganing and ice-skating.
"It was the kind of house where I could tell what kind of cereal Patty was having from my bedroom, just by the sound of it falling into the bowl," says Millan. "The walls were so thin that if you could only hear people whispering, you knew they were talking about you. It was a bit psychotic but we managed to not break up, which was phenomenal."
The "little red house on a hill" wasn't quite The Shining's Overlook Hotel, though Millan has made that comparison, but the atmosphere certainly seeped into their art.
"We were looking up at the stars and realising that, all over the world, there are all these unbelievably different, disparate experiences happening simultaneously and they're all bound together by some indefinable thing that we cannot name," says Campbell. "That's what happens when you eat shrooms in the country — you start thinking about that shit."
Over and above the fungus influence, the band was bent on creating a bigger, sexier, livelier, more cohesive sound in the wake of their soft revolution comrades and frequent tour partners Broken Social Scene and the Dears.
"They're both incredibly dynamic live bands that have the ability to unify audiences," gushes Campbell. "We were very much inspired to try and write music that could do that for people 'cause it's such a beautiful experience. It can also make touring a lot more fun because each evening is an emotional ride rather than a series of songs played by rote, as neat and clear and clean as possible. Opening up the music was an exciting prospect to all of us."
After four weeks spent recording the album in Montreal's Studio Plateau with Scottish engineer Tom McFall, Stars secured the mastering skills of renowned producer Tony Hoffer (Air, Beck, Grandaddy, etc). On the very last day of post-production, with the band members spread out all across Canada, it was time to seal Set Yourself on Fire with a little Stars trademark.
"Torquil always has great ideas for sound-bites to draw you in to the record," says Millan, referring to the "luxe, calme et volupte" opening of Nightsongs and the "This is my heart" introductions on the last record. This time, Millan called on her band-mate's father, Douglas Campbell, a lauded Shakespearian actor who's been a role model, not only for his son, but for Stars, having lived the life of an artist for most of his 82 years.
"He's a brilliant man and a wonderful speaker with this incredible godlike voice," says Millan. "He was in Vancouver, just having his eggs in the morning, so I was able to catch him on speakerphone, which is exactly how we recorded the beginning of Heart."
In the end, Stars saw all their wishes come true. Backed by a real record deal with a devoted support system behind it, their incendiary third album is a beautiful thing wrought with ease and immediacy, and they've overcome all the fractures, fights and other occupational hazards to become a true band bound by love if not by blood. As insular as their world sounds, Stars will always leave an open door in their music and in their performances, a headspace and a physical place where everyone is welcome.
"We're not Belle & Sebastian — we're not trying to isolate people with our sweaters," offers Campbell. "We challenge ourselves to write from a more universal perspective because we want everybody to come in. All the hosers, the dudes with the mullets, we don't give a shit — they can all come in."
Constellations of the Soft Revolution Sideshow
Broken Social Scene
Stars bassist Evan Cranley has been part of Toronto's most celebrated indie rock act since it was quietly sparked by Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning back in 2001. The super-group's open door has since attracted Amy Millan, a nearly full-time band member who sings the parts of Feist and Metric's Emily Haines in concert. Chris Seligman and Torquil Campbell also join in on horns whenever the two bands tour together.
Stars found insta-buddies in these fellow romantics and Smiths fanatics, the Montreal quintet who've spent a decade pulling themselves up the indie ladder and into the public eye. The Dears/Stars exchange program has seen drummer George Donoso III playing on Heart, Chris Seligman and Evan Cranley playing on No Cities Left and Murray Lightburn and Nathalia Yanchak joining the "Calendar Girl" choir on Set Yourself on Fire.
With a bio that speaks of Boards of Canada and Nick Drake getting high on solvents, this duo has Stars written all over it. New York-based Chris Dumont has a long history with Torquil Campbell (aka Dead Child Star), dating back to the proto-Stars band Luxe. The duo reunited in 2002 to write and record an EP, A Good Day Sailing, followed just this past summer with an intoxicating debut album, I Dreamed We Fell Apart, featuring Stars' Pat McGee on drums.
Sparring guitars and synths, clever lyrics and classic pop hooks adorn this nomadic quartet's 2003 album, Old World Underground Where Are You Now? Years earlier, singer Emily Haines sang on Stars' first LP, Nightsongs, while James Shaw lent guitar and a touch of production to Set Yourself on Fire. Shaw also got his hands dirty on both Memphis records, credited on the new album with "bass and heartbreak."
After the collapse of her band 16 Tons, Millan planned to unearth her unreleased solo material when Stars came a-knockin'. Until last year, those songs stayed in the vault, apart from the occasional solo live performance, sometimes as Lady Lustre. Backed by the Whiteleys and a few familiar faces from her other bands, Millan's old and new C&W-flavoured ditties will finally see the light of day next spring, on an album entitled Honey From the Tombs.