When Torquil Campbell, the frontman of Stars, picks up the phone, he apologies. He was listening to R.E.M.’s Fables of the Reconstruction and almost missed the call. “My wife and I live in Ontario for six months a year because of her job and I just got back home to my record collection here in Toronto,” he says. “I bought this at 15-years-old.” There’s an unmistakable warmth in his voice, like the calm tone a child whose face is pressed against the matted fur of a stuffed animal would use. He’s at peace. For a brief moment, he was reliving his youth.
Campbell’s not like most musicians. In fact, neither are Stars. The five piece indie pop band have solidified their place in Canada’s rock scene over the years since they first began in 2000, and their newest album, No One Is Lost, sees them taking on dance music. Part of that comes from their distinctly electro-pop sound and immediately recognizable voices. The other part comes from their role as music aficionados themselves. In a few minutes, he begins talking about The Smiths and Basement Jaxx, not because they’re similar, but because he loves their work. Music consume him, even when he’s not making it himself.
He’s nostalgic for his younger years in the same way many Stars fans are with their records, but, ultimately, came to peace with where he’s at. Stars’ most iconic record, 2004’s Set Yourself on Fire, turns 10 this year. If you had your fingers crossed they would tour behind it, go ahead and give it a rest. They’re not in it to make money, and frankly, they don’t even know if anyone wants to hear it. “I would rather be here and feel like this conversation in the present is special than enjoy the idea of reliving the past,” he says. “The thing is, a record hits you when it hits you. People who fell in love with Funeral and You Forgot It In People were having sex for the first time and getting stoned for the first time and wanting to move out of their house and realizing that life sucks — aka growing up. We happened to be lucky enough to be there, but our record wasn’t special — they were special. You will never hear a record and have the physical, seismic reaction that you had when you were 16. It will never be as intense as the first few years.”
Campbell is right. Stars grew up in Canada during a time of change. They’ve seen the before and after. In fact, their newest album captures that, only by means of a now-defunct karaoke discotheque. The five would head there to drink after recording until, symbolically, the record dovetailed with the final days of the discotheque. “It was a bit of an institution. It could have used a paint job and there was never anybody there, which made it very desirable. There’s nothing worse than bars with people in them,” he laughs. “There was something forlorn and touching about it because it was clearly lost. It was a very Stars-y nightclub. It was forgotten about with faded drag queens in it, like a Stars song or something.” The more they hung out there–and the more the club’s beats pounded into their recording studio above it–the more it started to make itself heard. How do you make a nightlife record for people who always walk home alone?
With the five sitting there trying to come up with pop songs while dance beats drilled through the ground, they finally caved. Drummer Pat McGee threw his hands in the air, surrendering amidst laughter: “Why don’t we just do it? It sounds fun.” What started out as a joke lent itself towards a solid sound the band captured perfectly. Maybe that’s because Stars frequently challenge themselves with jokes anyway. “When you find something that’s laughable while you’re writing a pop song, that’s the bit you should pursue,” Campbell says. “There should be something faintly ridiculous about pop music. There isn’t in indie rock. God knows we don’t want to end up in that ghetto.” The album’s aesthetic was a result of their gear, namely the room’s lack of soundproof and the drums lacking an isolation kit. Because, really, as much as your goals create your sound, so do your obstacles. “We have an idea, and then it all goes out the fucking window, so you figure out how to cheer yourself up. That’s life. We made this record in a state of blind hope. A lot of the energy and dance-y nature comes from that effort to be joyful,” he says. “Let’s have fun in this life because it can be so fucking heartbreaking.”
Stars weren’t the only Canadian band to dance their way out of disaster. Arcade Fire‘s Reflektor, Caribou‘s Our Love, and Chromeo‘s White Women all fit that mold, too. “We held a summit. Win [Butler] rented a bunker for us and we all listened to Barry White,” Campbell says, laughing. “I don’t know how that happened, but you’re right. It’s funny. More and more youre seeing the influence of a different generation of musical influences.” He attributes Canada’s disco revival to the shift away from guitar rock, something they moved to New York to avoid right away. Canada in 2000 was filled with those bands. “You had to or else you couldn’t make a living,” he explains. “The kids who were younger than that, like me, were listening to English music and college music. Or sometimes it came from the Europeans in Canada — Kevin Drew, James Shaw, me, Emily [Haines]. We found this place that was empty where we could make something, but really we were just bringing sounds in.”
The difference in theirs comes in the form of humor. The lyrics on No One Is Lost throw up middle fingers carelessly, giving working men something to look forward to come the weekend. It may sound like Friday night club songs, but it will hit you in the heart later. “All great records–with the exception of Pink Floyd and Radiohead–have a sense of humor, because those are two humorless bands who are fucking amazing,” Campbell explains. “Most bands try to undercut themselves so that there’s tension in the music. Look at Converge. They’re big influences on us, believe it or not, and their music is so fucking raging, and if you figure out how to hear the words, there’s a lot about vulnerability and feelings there. He’s quite a huge softie.” Stars, on the otherhand, are the inverse of that. Their music is a sweet, beautiful Play-Doh with poisonous, rough words. They have mastered the art of duality, and as such, they’ve earned their place in the industry.
That’s where they find themselves today. Memory reels spin in the forefront of their minds on No One Is Lost, but the swiftness of their dancing makes it more pleasurable than devastating. It’s about putting on a show for the audience, not indulging in their own nostalgia. Stars have never really had mainstream attention or lots of features or crazy reviews, but they’re still here, in people’s lives, in a passionate way. That’s hard to quantify when you’re listening to the music. “If I was sitting in a room with a stranger and about to play them No One Is Lost for the first time, I would look them in the eyes and say, ‘Listen, this is done with absolute fuckin’ sincerity, we worked really hard, and we really hope you enjoy it,'” he says with a laugh. “That’s something to always take into account with a piece of art. It is what it is. The interesting part is what’s happening to you when it’s in front of you, and in this case that means our fans. It’s not about us. It’s about the receiver. It always has been.”
STARS. ROYALE, 279 TREMONT ST., BOSTON. SUN 11.9. 7:30PM/18+/$22.