Stars have been making their sometimes-dancey, sometimes-depressed brand of relationship-centric music for over a decade now, so it's a bit jarring to hear singer Torquil Campbell open a song with a line like this: "There's been a lot of talk of love, but that don't amount to nothing."
But the lyric from "Hold On When You Get Love And Let Go When You Get It," a single off The North, is indicative of the album's refreshing candor. It's as though the old band has shed its skin and found new energy without compromising much of its sound.
So if some of the messages on The North are less subtle than the band's earlier work (there's a song called "Do You Want to Die Together?"), so be it. "I do find this record pretty different than the last record," Millan told The Huffington Post in an interview. "There's a fresh feeling going into this record. And our last album was quite intense, so I think that part of us just wanted to shake our limbs and have a bit of a dance party."
In a separate interview, Campbell agreed and added that the band has actually never tried to write gloomy music. "I think the records are always set out to be in the spirit of joy. We write some sad songs, but I think at the heart of what we do is a lot of humor that maybe gets missed, or people choose to ignore it, I guess," he said. "The great thing about the fragility and idiocy of the pop music medium is that you can get very heavy because it has an innate silliness to it."
But music isn't always treated as something harmless. Millan said the conviction and sentencing of punk band and activist collective Pussy Riot was "heavy" on the band members' minds. She said that band would work to support the three imprisoned women, and noted the incident as "one of the most important things that's happened in rock and roll in a while."
Though Stars has yet to sort out precisely how they'll be supporting Pussy Riot, Campbell argued that expression anywhere is a thumb in the face of the Putins of the world, who he readily labeled as fascists. "You want to support Pussy Riot? Just be in a band," he said. "It reminds me that, yeah, we're just a stupid band but we do have an ability to do something very fundamental, which is a human right, is to express ourselves. And we have to do that, all of us have to do that. Tell the pricks that they're pricks."
The North soars on many a song. The aforementioned "Hold On" and "Do You Want To Die Together?" offer cathartic releases led primarily by Campbell, with Millan's vocals coming in strong to dance under and through his singing on their respective choruses. Elsewhere, "The Theory of Relativity" offers a dance-pop sensibility without going off-message. "A Song Is a Weapon" sees the singers responding ably to the lush instrumentation provided by Chris Seligman, Pat McGee and Millan's partner (and the father of their baby daughter) Evan Cranley. The title track, "The North," sees Campbell at his most spare ("It's so cold in this country, every road home is long").
In our extremely wide-ranging conversations with Millan and Campbell, the singers talked Paul Ryan, recording with a young child around and how they stay inspired after making music together for 12 years. To make reading easier, we've edited the transcripts of the two interviews together.
What was it like, recording this time around?
Amy Millan (AM): We did have this originally, incredibly classic, original RCA studio called Studio Victor, we did a lot of our recording there. And it just makes you come correct, because the walls are filled with the ghosts of Oscar Peterson and Frank Sinatra, so you can't really play. You got to come correct.
Torquil Campbell (TC): It was less fraught and much more enjoyable than it had been before. We did a lot of things right that we had fucked up in the past, just in terms of keeping things simple for ourselves. And making sure that we had fun, and we put ourselves in a position where it was fun and it was within our control. You can lose control of things very quickly when you walk into technical spaces. Any time you work with equipment that you don't quite understand you can lose control of it, and we managed not to do that this time.
You've been making songs with similar themes for quite some time now -- are you still drawing from present life experiences, or do you find that you're just fluent in the language you use to write songs?
AM: I feel that every song we make is counterpoint to the last song and every record is counterpoint to the last record. And I think I've drawn from my recent experiences, like I had a baby recently. It's a very different experience when you've been in a band for over ten years, because you have to have a rebirth and renewal of faith, otherwise most bands break up at this point.
TC: I think the latter. I don't think I ever really did draw from current life experiences. There's that Smiths' line "I sat in my room and I drew up a plan," and I think that's a lot of what a good band is. For years before you're in a band, you imagine the world a certain way. Then when you get into a band, you have a story in your head that you need to get out. That world, those characters, those narratives, those images and symbols. I've been throwing things into a box and shaking it up for some time now, and I'm content to do that. I've never been that interested in being an artists that jumps wildly from one world to another, though there are great artists who do that. But to me it's about picking your world and defining it and defining it and getting it more clear.
Are there actual, distinct characters that move from album to album? How accurately are you using that word?
TC: Sometimes, yeah. I think there's a couple that keeps coming up. Maybe a couple of couples. To me the songs that we write are populated by a few people who are quite a lot like us, and a few who are nothing like us, who are criminals really. Who are psycopaths and sociopaths and very bad people. And there are people who are sort of falling down. And it's a lot easier for me to write pop songs about people who are on the edge of something, at a moment of crisis. Or that moment where you step too far and go into a decision that you know is going to take you down. To me, that's a great moment of drama, whether you're writing a script or a drama of a book.
You want to find those moments, that's where narrative happens. And that's when people form relationships with your characters. We've all done that in our lives or we want to do it. And that's why pop songs are great, because they let you feel what that might be like, or remember what that's like without doing it.
Are there tangible ways having the children around has changed the band?
AM: I think that altogether it makes things more fun. I think that there is a different kind of balance that you have to strike with each other, you have to give each other a lot more room to change schedules, which is a very boring way to talk about it. But I wrote a lot of songs when she was in the room, there are a lot of tracks with her screaming and singing in the background, and I think that's just adding to our life.
Was there any consideration of putting any of the children's voices on the record?
AM: Oh if you listen closely, you just might hear them. They're all buried in there, secretly.
Are you excited to having an expanded family on tour, or are you apprehensive?
AM: Oh it's so much better. I mean it gets so crusty when you're just hanging around a bunch of hungover people who have been around each other for too long. So when you add some fresh meat into that, some Aryan curls and language for the first time -- my daughter is going to be learning to speak when we're traveling through Southeast Asia, which is hilarious when she's trying to ask for pancakes but really it's going to be, "You mean won-tons?"
Let's talk about politics a bit. We've had a wave down here in the States of musicians coming out in full force, with the Silversun Pickups telling Mitt Romney off and Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine blasting Paul Ryan. Is politics something you're interested in?
AM: We do have a song on the record which is "Song is a Weapon," which I think draws itself from the idea of being a political song. We grew up in politics, our parents were very political. I was campaigning in Canada since I was 8. All of our parents in the band were very active in politics. It's just something that was bred into us.
TC: Isn't it extraordinary that Paul Ryan is a man of so little self-awareness that his favorite band is Rage Against the Machine? Dude, listen to the lyrics! I mean, Jesus, you are one conflicted dude. You've got some issues. Really very strange.
What's so terrible about what's happening with Pussy Riot and why everyone feels the way they do it about it is that we all know that what they're doing is harmless. There is no harm. It is a use of music that is mischievous and funny and subversive, and they're being thrown in prison for that. It's pretty terrifying. But I think that's what I like about pop music, it can be simultaneously very dark and very silly at the same time.
I think the important thing about that is, obviously there's not much we can do, we don't live in Russia. But what's important about the story is that everyone is palpably aware of the fact that we are maybe two or three steps away from this happening here, especially in Canada. I mean we are living under a government that is very blatant and open about its attempts to repress free speech, and about its vicious kind of attitude toward anyone that disagrees with it.
I don't think it's out of the realm of possibility at all, in five years, if Stephen Harper wins another election, that you'll see them start to persecute artists for expression. To me it's like a warning sign, like if you see a tsunami coming from thousands of miles away. If you look at what Vladimir Putin believes in and what Stephen Harper believes in, there aren't really many differences. One of the only things we have that keeps Stephen Harper from being like Putin is our constitution, our judicial system and our ability to speak freely.
I was reading the comments section of the Globe and Mail and it's terrifying how many people are writing on those boards, "These girls deserve what they got." There's a part of human beings that's very nasty and ugly and likes to see people who express themselves suffer for it. The fascists don't get where they get on their own, they need people to support them, and there's lots of them out there.
Are there tangible ways in which you've seen the artist community in Canada react to this perceived threat?
TC: Well they've started with the scientists. There was a specific directive from the Harper government that any scientists that worked with Environment Canada you has spoken out against the government will be fired. And they sent the same directive to the Canada Parks employees, and it's something they've started to disseminate through their bureaucracy and civil service is, "We will not tolerate dissent from people who work for the government." So that's their beginning move.
If they get away with that, which they seem to be doing, they'll move on. They'll begin to start repressing media and they'll attempt to start oppressing artists from speaking in their daily lives. It's happening all over Canada. In Quebec they just passed a law that more than 12 people gathering in a place without a permit are illegal. And as I say, you wonder how fascism comes about. It doesn't come overnight with tanks in the street and suddenly there's a knock on the door. It comes like poison, you swallow a little bit and a little bit more poison, and before you know it, you're dying.
I think Harper is a very smart man and has studied people like Putin and understands that if you keep people's economy good, if you keep them well supplied with consumer items and you give the impression of a free press, you can start to repress free speech and people really won't object to it.
And you know, I know when I say this, I will now scroll down to the bottom of the comment page on The Huffington Post and there will be hundreds of people saying "This fucking douchebag doesn't know what he's talking about, how dare he say that Canada isn't free." Those are the very people I'm discussing, those are the yes-men who let fascism roll. And to them I say, fuck you. Let's fight.
At the risk of being too reductive, is there a lyric or song that you've been able to look back on with a particular sense of pride?
TC: "When there's nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire" -- I feel proud of it not because I think it's difficult, it seemed like a pretty simple thing to say, to me. But I'm amazed and it thrills me in a way to know that people have that tattooed on their skin, and that my dad said it and that we got him to record it off the phone. It was a very instantaneous, off the cuff thing to have my dad say this. I had never written it down. The fact that my dad's voice is heard by people who don't know who he is or the art that he did -- that connection is a moment of great pride for me. Because that will never go away, my dad's voice will go on saying that, his voice will stick around. And that makes me feel very good and it makes me believe in art. I hate religion, but art is the best one that I've seen one so far.
Anything else you'd like our readers to know?
TC: We've never really been the thing, but we've just been so fucking lucky. Without people that buy records, art doesn't happen. If that tree falls in the forest, and there's no one to hear it, maybe it fell over but who gives a shit? So thanks for being in the forest.
Stars will tour throughout the fall. The North is out September 4.