In favor of not needlessly contextualizing, let’s work around the basic assumption you’re already somewhat familiar with Stars and the incredible body of work they’ve managed to produce since their formation in 2000. Their sound, though ever evolving, is instantly recognizable and always fresh, and with this October’s release of No One is Lost, the band’s seventh studio album, the music remains just as excitingly dynamic and sonically refreshing as it was when you first heard Set Yourself On Fire. Torquil Campbell, a founding member of the Canadian indie band, was kind enough to provide some insight as to why exactly the Canada indie music scene is so consistently poignant and exceptional. Hint: it has something to do with maple syrup, moose, and government subsidies.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p4oYWhD7trk
Z: How you doing?
TC: I’m good. Sorry, I completely forgot I was about to do an interview. I thought you were the guy from the car insurance company.
Z: I’m better than that guy.
TC: You’re definitely better than that guy. I mean that’s not saying much—you’re better than some guy from the insurance company—not stiff competition but you did it, Zeke, you beat him.
Z: That makes me happy; a self-esteem boost for sure. Okay, I’m going to ask you some questions now: why is Canadian indie rock so delicious, so awesome? I mean what makes it so great?
TC: (laughs) It’s all the maple syrup. I don’t know, man. Well, one big thing—not to take your question too seriously—but one of the things, I think, that created a healthy scene was government subsidies. We’re subsidized here so we can apply for art grants to help us tour; help us make records; help us make video; and even to have some spending money. So a lot of bands, I think, would have faded away after an EP or two, or after an album or two, manage to build themselves a career because we didn’t have to go out and make a profit every year. So that’s a huge huge part of it. There’s a lot of indie bands—ugh, I hate that fucking word—there’s a lot of great bands in America and there’s a lot of great bands in Canada, but we’re such a smaller country. There is sort of an exponentially bigger number of good bands here, and I think that’s because of the opportunity we’ve been afford by support from the government. And that’s why it’s a good question to ask when I talk to American websites and stuff because subsiding art works. It creates money; it creates an economy. We’ve brought money into the Canada economy, and so have all the other bands that have done well out of Canada. They’ve made their money back two times, three times over on us. And you guys should have it too. It’s a shame that the NEA and stuff isn’t funded the way it should be and people don’t have the access they should.
Z: I’m glad you’re talking about it because it’s not really a flashy topic, subsidizes. But it certainly should be talked about.
TC: Yeah, it’s good. A society with a lot of art is a prosperous society. It creates prosperity, and I think people look at art as something like a charity they have to support. When you have nightclubs and record stores and bookstores and theaters that are open and thriving then you have whole neighborhood that are growing out of that, and I think people should pay more attention to. So that’s part of why we’re so awesome, the thing is we’re just fucking awesome. It’s living in igloos and learning how to make records while polar bears are attacking you. Having to hunt for your own fish with a spear.
Z: That’s what gives you guys your creative energy.
TC: Win Butler wakes up every morning and goes and finds a moose, and that’s what gives him the energy to make those great records.
Z: I discovered you guys alongside Broken Social Scene and that opened my eyes to indie rock, and I know you guys are on Arts & Craft’s label.
TC: We’re not. We haven’t been on Arts & Craft in almost seven years.
Z: Oh shit, my bad.
TC: No, but it’s interesting how many times people say that, and it goes to show how unimportant labels are now. And in a way we always will be because we’re family with those people and we came out of that world, and we still work with them on the publishing side. So you’re not all wrong.
Z: Okay, I don’t feel too bad then. Do you still collaborate with those guys?
TC: They are still very much our best friends, the people in Broken. We’ll always be very involved with all those people; they’re very close to us, personally. We all lived how to do this together, and we’ll always be close to them I won’t be surprised if we make records with them again, to be honest with you.
Z: Having just released your last seventh studio album have you found that the music-making process has become more refined over time or is it since you guys have been making music and have established yourselves you feel more free to experiment?
TC: I think it’s the first one. We’ve always been on the same path. It’s like all seven albums in our head are one album. It’s just one pursuit of trying to write great songs and trying to make them sound the way we want them to sound. And we have gotten better at that, and we have gotten closer to that. It’s not so much experimentation as it is learning what experiments are worth doing, and that comes with technique knowledge and with just knowing yourselves, so there’s less wasted time and more opportunity to get things articulated. As an artist, or as anything you’re doing in life, any pursuit you have, you spend the first little while kinda imitating what you love. I love tennis, and when I first started playing tennis when I was a kid, I just pretended to be John McEnroe. I tried to hit everything the way John McEnroe hit it, and I copied the way his body moved.
Z: And start shit with the other players.
TC: Yeah, and throwing my racket. But as time moved on, I started to realize I’m not very good at playing the way John McEnroe plays. I have to play the way I play and it’s a lot worse than John McEnroe. So then you start to find yourself—you start off as a collection of your influences and you end up as yourself—a little more of yourself. So it’s just a journey to be more and more like yourself.
Z: I’ve heard you guys described as having a flaunt pop vocabulary, which allows you guys to create albums that are always very different from one another, yet still so distinctly Stars albums. Would you agree with that?
TC: Yeah, I would. I’d say that’s true. I think that comes from the guys in the band. The dudes playing the instruments are very virtuosic. Chris went to classical music school; Evan has played in every kind of band from jazz to reggae to punk to everything; Pattie is a jazz graduate from University. They all have a lot of virtuosity; they can play a lot of stuff. That gives them the option of making choices that are not necessarily just about their taste. So you can let the song lead you instead of your taste or fashion or abilities leading you. And yeah, for better or worse, it’s hard to say Stars always makes albums that sound like this. We have a tendency to not follow our taste or the fashion of the day, and rather follow the song. If you’re someone who needs everything to sound cool or of the moment, then you might find us a little weird, I guess.
Z: And then you’re lame.
TC: And then you’re a lame person, and you shouldn’t come to our show. Watch the Bachelor. It’s an outstanding program and you should just stay home and watch it.
Z: Okay, I got one more for you. Could you talk a little bit about the experience making this last album?
TC: We made this record in our studio, and we’d always hung out in our studio, generally speaking, till about 8 o’clock at night. We’re kinda day workers when we’re writing. So then we built this studio to make this record and we were like “okay, we got to stay up all night.” We were working seventeen, eighteen hours a day. We suddenly realized we’d built this whole studio over a club, and we were hearing this unts, unts, unts coming through the floorboard about four nights a week. At first we were kind of alarmed at the consequences of that, and then we were like “maybe this is a message somehow.” Because we’ve always loved dance music and we’ve had a little bit of that in our music, but we never really tried to go for it—never really got the gear, and never really got the technical knowledge and know really how to use drum machines. And so we did, we decided we’d figure that shit out, and we got Liam O’Neil who is in the Stills and works with Metric a lot. And so that inspired us to push forward with this idea of using lots of four-on-the-floor beats and using a lot of dance music influence in the record. It’s a funny thing, it’s been fourteen years and it still feels like we just started doing this, and we’re still trying to figure out just how to do it. And every time you do it you think, “is this who we are? Is this the record that defines us?” As you go on you start to realize it is a continuum and that the music all becomes one and you wonder less about each individual album, and you start to think about what you’ve done in a continuum as a whole. And hopefully, next time we make an album, it’ll be different again. There’ll be something else, some other obstacle that pushes us into a corner and forces us to reinvent what we’re doing. Those obstacles are ultimately what keep you going. If the path were clear all the time, you’d make the same album over and over again and disappear up your own ass. It’s that thing of how can we articulate ourselves around this challenge that makes it worth continuing to do.