Coming out of the early 2000s Canadian music scene that spawned bands like Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene, Metric, and Feist, the five musicians who are Stars — Torquil Campbell, Amy Millan, Evan Cranley, Chris Seligman, and Pat McGee — long ago carved out a place for themselves amidst all the clatter. By floating the airy vocals of Campbell and Millan over the pop-smart musicality of the rest of the band, Stars crafted a sound that is unlike any other.
It is compellingly literate, melodically elegant music made by and for the pop sophisticates among us. It is fantastically consistent, yet continually evolving music that doesn’t yield to or chase after trends. And it is soulful, danceable music that moves both hearts and feet with its substance and style. Their latest release, No One Is Lost, should easily cast aside any doubts about how brightly Stars can shine.
Let’s start with a big question… How do you define “pop” music or, more specifically, “indie pop,” since that’s really what Stars play?
Whenever I think of pop music, I think of “Lollipop, Lollipop.” That is one of the silliest, most ridiculous, seemingly mundane pieces of art you could ever come across. And, yet, it is unbelievably infectious and, if I hear it, I can’t get it out of my head and I can’t stop shimmying around the room. I think pop music is something that’s been around a long, long time. I guess it refers to “popular” music, but what the hell is that, these days?
“Indie pop” is a term I came to late. I didn’t really know what the hell indie rock was. I didn’t know what they were talking about because I wasn’t really listening to it when it was becoming a fad. No one called the Smiths “indie pop.” No one was calling that anything. What are the Sex Pistols? The Sex Pistols, these days, would probably be considered indie rock. I feel like, in the ’90s, people pulled out “independent music” because it was cool. Being on a major label was turning into a disaster for everyone and it was super-cool to do it yourself.
It’s a big question, a tough one. I guess, as far as the “indie” part goes, it’s the idea of taking a little more control of your life, a little more control of your music, and having it be a little more DIY. And that brings an aesthetic. Like I said, I came to it late. I wasn’t really listening to that stuff and suddenly I’m playing in a band that everyone’s calling indie rock, so I had to do my research.
One of the fascinating things about Stars is that you guys tuck in electronic parts here and jangly bits there, and you always meld everything into a cohesive sound that is very much your own. And it’s more than just the two voices. What do you guys hold on to that is uniquely Stars? What’s the secret to that consistency?
We’re a very democratic, diplomatic group of people, as far as the band is concerned. Since the five of us have been working at this together, it really is five different opinions coming into the room and five different tastes, five different perspectives and outlooks and everything. When Prince goes into the studio, Prince is just doing what Prince does. It’s Prince. With us, it’s going to be five different things and we’re going to have to fight through it.
There are definitely some benchmark, base-level things: We love music. We love pop music. We have similar tastes in bands. But, really, what you’re hearing is a reflection of all of our personalities — for better or for worse — coming together.
It’s true. I don’t know any bands that sound like Stars. People say we sound like other things. I can hear some Morrissey in Torq’s singing from time to time. And I hear some Tammy Wynette and country inflections when Amy sings, sometimes. But, as far as one band that we would be emulating, I can’t think of one. I find we are unique… again, for better or for worse. Some people like that. Some people don’t. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Obviously, you guys all have your own individual influences and interests, and those are always evolving. I would think it would be quite tricky to incorporate it all.
Exactly. And we’re all out on our own little planets here, as far as our tastes and likes are concerned. But, honestly, we spend so much time with each other, these things rub off. They really do. Ultimately, we end up influencing each other.
Also, having two different voices gives the band an interesting edge, but it has been the downfall of other groups suffering that ego dance. How do Torq and Amy work that out?
Yeah, well the ego dance can be pretty spicy. There’s no question about it. But, also, I don’t think it necessarily happens only between singers. I mean, yeah, I guess, if you want to go cliché… and let’s… let’s go cliché…
Let’s do it.
Singers tend to be a little dramatic, if I’m going to paint a wide swath with a wide brush. So, having two in a band, you’d think would be suicide. But, the fact of the matter is, a familial friendship has come about. And friends and families fall apart. There’s no question about it. But I think, to Torq and Amy’s credit, they don’t see themselves as the center of the universe. And they do understand that they’re not in this alone. We’re all a part of this piece. I might not be singing or at the front of the band, but, when we’re in the studio making decisions, I’m as annoying as the rest of them.
There have definitely been some diva moments in our life. But Amy and Torq are self-aware. They can recognize when this is happening. And it’s part of being in a band. If you don’t have an ego, it gets pretty tough to get out there and throw yourself in front of people and prance around. It takes a lot. And it takes some ego to be able to do that. We’re lucky. Definitely, there have been some tenuous moments, but we’ve made it through. It takes a village.
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And you guys have all been together for almost 15 years now. That kind of longevity — yes, it probably adds to the friction — but it must also add to the easing and safety of it.
In the last few years, for sure. There were a few years in the middle there when no one was really sure if we were going to make it or what we were doing. In the last five or six years, there’s been an overall feeling of, “Yes, we’re in this together. We need each other. And this is what we do.” There was sort of an acceptance and things became lighter, at that point. We laugh a lot quicker.
That’s nice. The level at which Stars operate… you guys haven’t broken out like Arcade Fire, but you’re still going, well-liked, and respected — which is certainly not nothing in the current music climate. What would be a win for Stars?
A win?
We’ve had some wins in the past. Modest wins, for sure. A win is that we’re still a band. It’s a win that we manage to eek out an existence doing this. There’s not a lot of room for the Arcade Fires. There are just so many bands out there. I think we feel really fortunate to still be a part of the fabric. We’re still part of the quilt.
I mean… I’d love to win a Juno. That’s our Canadian equivalent of a Grammy. I’m not even going for a Grammy. [Laughs] I’ll leave the Grammy to T.I. and Ariana Grande. For me, one step at a time. Stars has never been a band that has shot straight for the top. We’ve been clawing our way along the sidewalk.
[Laughs] You’re not shooting for the stars…?
[Laughs] No. We might have started out that way, but it’s a long way to the top. A win for me would just be to maintain what we’ve been doing. That doesn’t sound very ambitious, does it? [Laughs]
[Laughs] But it is! That’s a great goal.
I’d love to keep the status quo, really. [Laughs] For my mom… I would be thrilled to have a Juno just as a token that I have been here among the people.
[Laughs] A little pat on the back.
Exactly! From the community. Anyway… it’s probably not going to happen, but that’s fine. [Laughs]
I have an artist friend who talks about middle-class musicians. He believes that, these days, you don’t have to be a Grammy-winning star to do your thing and make a living and support your family.
Yeah, it’s pretty amazing.
To me, that would be a win.
Well, then, we’re winning! The thing is — the thing about any job in this day and age — there’s no guarantee, you know? We’re so fortunate to have fans who are dedicated. Like really dedicated. There have been fans who have been in the front row for 10 years. I go to any number of shows and it’s like, “Oh, my God! We are still here. I can’t believe these people haven’t given up on us yet.” It’s really flattering, but it also pays the bills. We do not have a luxurious lifestyle, but we do eat and pay our bills and manage to have a comfortable life. And that’s great. I thank my stars for that every day.
[Laughs] Pun intended?
Yeah, there are too many puns to be made with Stars. You can’t even pun! It’s true. I say that and I’m like, “Oh, God…”
Drummer question… because…
Right. I’ll do my best.
Try. That’s all I ask. Most people probably don’t notice how much a drummer translates the emotion and melody of a song. It’s not all four on the floor… especially with you. What’s your process for figuring out where you fit within a song and how you can enhance it?
How interesting and personal! I appreciate this question.
For me, especially in pop music, I find drums have always provided an energy, for sure. Before I joined this band, I’d just finished playing a lot of jazz. I was really into IDM, and drum and bass, and Aphex Twin, and all this stuff. I was playing fast and furious with lots of fills. I get in this band and, for the first four years, I wasn’t allowed to do a fill because it was so distracting and annoying! It was like, “Don’t express yourself spontaneously. Don’t do that. It’s getting in the way.” And, to a certain degree, that’s true. I learned a real lesson with that.
So, definitely, you’re responsible for an energy and that’s one of the most interesting things about recording. You can play the same take five times. You’ll do the exact same thing, and one of them will just have a feeling about it that the other ones don’t. And that’s what you try to capture, first of all.
What I find, in our band, is the music always comes first. Chris and Evan and the other Chris [McCarron] and I sit in a room and noodle around and come up with musical ideas… which is fine for a while. But you really can’t do anything until the vocals get on there. The vocal melody and the vocal rhythm and the sentiment really do dictate what I play. It changes everything once the vocals get in there. You can go around in a circle all day long playing eight bars of this and eight bars of this and trying to come up with a form and everything. But, until the vocal gets there… it’s interesting and people probably don’t think about this… but the vocals and the drums have a very intimate relationship. They complement each other when it’s done well. And it’s not easy.

Which album would you say is the band’s high bar… so far?
Well, the one that always gets referred to is Set Yourself on Fire. Which is a good record, I think. I remember making it. I remember listening to it. I remember thinking, “Yes, that’s good.” But that was also a time. It was a very specific time when you had Arcade Fire and Feist and Broken Social Scene and Death Cab for Cutie and all these bands of a similar ilk hitting it at the same time. Everyone just sort of showed up and, then, everyone was on board. I mean, yes, I think it reflects a good effort on our part. It was good. But I think we’ve gotten better as musicians and songwriters since then, which you struggle with on records.
I listened to our new record a couple weeks ago… [Laughs] I’m gonna listen to it again to re-learn the songs… But I listened to it and, just as far as process is concerned and our abilities… we recorded this on our own. We didn’t go into a big studio. We had a great friend — Liam O’Neil — join us to help plug mics in and get sound and record properly. But we did it in our jam space. To me, that was a coup in the sense that everyone else is doing it like this. We began like this — making records in bedrooms. Then we branched out and went the route of big recording studios and spending too much money — which was fine. It was a good experience. But, now, it seems to have come full circle and we sort of found the best of both worlds right here at home, which is great.
So, yeah, Set Yourself on Fire definitely gave us a kick in the pants that we probably needed to get to this point. But I’m always happiest with the newest thing we’ve done. Whatever’s the current thing going is the thing you want to nurture the most.
This article originally appeared on Cuepoint.