When dancing to Stars’ infectious electro-pop, it’s easy to overlook the introspection lurking beneath the hooks. But 12 years of fights, marriages, children, and making music have brought their maturity to the forefront on the band’s latest album, The North, due out on September 4th via ATO Records. The tempos are more restrained, and the arrangements are more minimal, leaving plenty of room for vocalists Torquil Campbell and Amy Milan to show off lyrics that successfully tackle love in all its redemptive glory and messy destruction. Campbell phoned in for an extensive conversation on Woody Guthrie, the blurry line between romance and politics, and how even Nazi skinheads fall in love.
There’s a male voice that opens two of the tracks on the album. Who’s the speaker?
The first sample is Glenn Gould, who’s a Canadian pianist. He did this kind of sound collage documentary thing in the ’60s about the Canadian North. And that’s him talking at the beginning. And then the sample sort of halfway through the record is Woody Guthrie.
Was it from a concert?
No, it’s from an interview. It’s from like an archival interview on YouTube. Just because our song is called “A Song Is a Weapon”, you know? And he used to write on his guitar “This machine kills fascists,” which I’ve always thought was the most amazing thing to do, ever. [Laughs.] It’s such a great thing to write on your guitar. And it reminded us of him, that song.
When Stars gets political, it always seems to be in a more subversive way than other bands. Is that something you guys are conscious of?
Well, I think that we’re kind of — at least I am — shy of getting too overtly political. Because I think political songs are right up there amongst the hardest songs to write. Because it’s hard not to be topical. And if you’re topical, you can be timely, but you can’t be timeless. You know what I mean? It’s hard to write a political song that means something ten years on. There’s people who can do it. There’s Billy Bragg. But it’s a tough gig. So, I think for us, the thing that’s interesting about politics when we’re writing songs is to try to relate them to personal politics. And that’s kind of been always something that we’ve dealt with as a band, this idea that the way you treat the person lying next to you in bed is relatable to the way that you see the world and the way you behave out in the broader world.
I mean, you did make a record called In Our Bedroom After the War. Was the song “Barricade” from that album in the sort of personal-political vein you’re describing? Wasn’t it a story about two people in love at like a soccer riot or some other kind of riot?
[Laughs.] I really wrote that song… I mean, it’s a novelty song, really. It’s a joke song. I read this book called Among the Thugs. Have you heard of that book?
I’ve heard the title but don’t know that much about it.
You should check it out. It’s an amazing book. It’s written by this guy, Bill Buford, who spent like three years hanging out with soccer hooligans in England, and I just suddenly had this idea in the van one day. I was like, “What if you wrote like a really romantic kind of Dusty Springfield love song about, you know, a Nazi skinhead soccer hooligan who fell deeply in love with another Nazi skinhead soccer hooligan? And then one of them went straight and kind of joined the work world and, you know, got his tattoos removed, and the other one didn’t.” I think, because of the album it was placed in, people saw it as a song about political protests, which is fine. It can completely be taken that way.
But to me, it’s really kind of a macabre… more of a horror story about the idea that even Hitler fell in love. That love is kind of an amoral thing. It happens to everyone. It even happens to serial killers and Nazi skinheads and the darkest people in the world. And I just thought that was kind of an interesting topic to write a song about. But for me, that song is less political than it is about just how love is blind. Love is not something that only good people experience. Love comes into everyone’s life. Even people who murder kittens and stuff.
You’ve always talked pretty overtly about love in your songs. You don’t shy away from emotion. Do you think that’s rare in music today, that a lot of bands are more concerned in being apathetic or too cool to write lyrics like that?
Well, I can’t speak for other bands, you know? I think, for me, love songs are kind of synonymous with the whole idea of writing songs. If you think about where the idea of a song came from, I have to believe that it came out of a sense somebody had one day that what they had to express just couldn’t be expressed by talking. And that heightening the way you spoke and the melody of your voice was the only way to express the feelings that you have inside yourself. To me, love is both a terrible and a wonderful thing, and it’s the motivating factor for everything that’s gone on in the world, whether it’s George W. Bush or me.
We are motivated by our desire to be loved and to have people love us and to love others. I always think of when somebody said to George W. Bush, “Why did you invade Iraq?” He said, “Well, they tried to kill my Dad.” I mean, I thought that was kind of a charmingly guileless thing to say, you know? [Laughs.] That he had motivated this massive army and put a country into war because he was pissed off that someone had tried to kill his father.
I just don’t know how you can avoid the topic really. If you’re going to write songs about life, you’ve got to write songs about love. Because the two go together. And the other thing you have to write about is death. Because that is the other inevitability to me of life, that you’re going to love somebody or be loved by somebody and that you’re going to die and have to let go of that. And that tragedy is at the heart of what keeps us all going. If you never had to say goodbye, then [love] wouldn’t be worth anything. And if you didn’t die, you wouldn’t have this compulsion to make connections with people in your life.
I mean, it does seem that in the indie rock-sphere, anyway, writing in a very basic way about love is maybe, I think, more rare than it was 20 or 30 years ago. But I think that ultimately, music is made with love. So, even if you’re not writing about love, you’re expressing it just in the very act of making music. You know, I think there’s a lot less decision making than maybe people realize about what you write in a song. I think people write about what’s inside them and what they can. I’d love to write about all kinds of things that I don’t write about because I just don’t have the ability to do it, you know? I do what I can and hope that that’s enough.
Would you say that any songs on the new record are biographical in that sense? Not just in the fact that they were written by you, but that they came directly from specific events in your life?
Well, I always kid myself that none of it is. I think in the act of making it, I kind of hypnotize myself into thinking that I’m always writing from the outside. But when I look back on songs a lot of the time over the years, I’ll suddenly realize, “Yeah, you were trying to send yourself a message there. You were trying to self-analyze.” I get squeamish at the idea that songs are about me. Because I want the songs to be about you. For me, pop music has been a really amazing thing in my life because I could put on records by total strangers, and they could make me feel like they were inside my life and understood what was happening to me. It’s kind of what I hope to bring when I make music, a sense that your life is incredibly important and dramatic and that this music illustrates that somehow, rather than the music illustrating how important my life is. You know what I mean? Like, I’m really into this — so many people are right now — this beautiful Frank Ocean record.
Oh, yeah. It’s fantastic.
To me, that record’s about my life, right? For him, it’s probably about his life. [Laughs.] I don’t want to sit there and think, “Man, this is so cool about Frank Ocean’s life.” It’s a gift that he’s giving me, that it gives me the time to go, “Wow, this record really relates to things in my world.” So, that’s kind of my goal as a songwriter, and I think it’s all of our goal in Stars. To make records that make you feel like your life is vital and exciting and important and that we are soundtracking it for you, rather than you stepping into our world.
I saw you guys a few years ago at The Vic here in Chicago. Your closing message to the audience was something like — I’m paraphrasing here — but something like, “Go home and live your beautiful, fucked-up lives.” To me, that kind of thematically ties back to the music of Stars — everyone being in love, but in this really tumultuous way.
Yeah. If pop music can lay claim to one original thing, it’s that it was sort of the first art form that stepped out of the concert hall or the gallery or this idea that art elevated you. It was the first art form that stepped down to you. That’s why the word “pop” to me means a lot. It’s popular. It’s an attempt to communicate at whatever level people need to be communicated with. So, if you’re the kind of person who gets through chemotherapy listening to Celine Dion, then God bless you, and Celine Dion’s done her job. If you’re the kind of person who gets through therapy listening to Stars, then God bless you. But that music steps down into your world rather than asking you to step up into its world. And that’s what pop has always done for me as a kid, as an adult, as a father.
When I put records on, they save my life because I feel like they’re coming out of the speaker into my world. I want people to use pop music to realize the beauty of their own lives and how fucking dramatic and how intense their lives are and be okay with that and not feel like it’s some sort of… It’s not aspiration music; it’s not gospel music; it’s not Bach. It’s down in the dirt, in the kitchen sink with you. And it’s a way of making that shitty stuff in your life special and beautiful.
The song “Do You Want To Die Together” from The North exemplifies that for me. It kind of has this 1950s ballad thing going on. Then it just comes in with these nasty, huge chords.
That was just a notion I had one day walking to jam. We were writing and I was like, “We can kind of do this ’50s last dance of the night kind of song, and then we can just fuck it, annihilate it in the middle, and we could take the subject matter of a lot of those ’50s songs that was kind of buried in the lyrics — which was like sex and death.” They couldn’t really talk about those things. You couldn’t say, “Do you want to die together?” in 1955. People wouldn’t play it on the radio. But that music was so basic and so emotional, it still kind of conveyed that. When me and Amy [Milan] are writing duets, it’s an attempt to continue to try and examine the different ways and modes and contexts into which you can put that conversation. Essentially, it’s the same conversation through a song like “Personal” or “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead” or “Do You Want To Die Together?” Those characters are all kind of the same characters. How do we put them in different rooms, and how do we put them in different forms of music and continue to make that conversation fresh?
It’s the same with The Smiths. When you write the kind of music we write, which is very emotional and dramatic music, people have a tendency to maybe miss the joke, you know? Not that we’re doing it insincerely. But there’s a fine line. [Laughs.] As Spinal Tap once said, “There’s a fine line between clever and stupid.” And that line is where you want to walk sometimes. You want people to think, “This is kind of ridiculous. So, why am I feeling so deeply when I’m listening to it?” I like that about pop music, that you can walk that line between being ridiculous and being emotional.
Do you have a favorite song on the new album?
I think for me, “Hold On When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give It” is the ballad of being in this band, in a way. The sound of it, the lyrics in it, the feeling it gives me when I put it on, to me, is the best of having been a part of this band. So, that song is kind of an anthem for my journey in this group.
Are a lot of your songs about the ups and downs you’ve had within the band, or is that something that’s been exaggerated by the media?
No, man. If anything, I think it hasn’t been explored enough by the media. [Laughs.] It’s been the only thing that’s really kept us going, that idea of being reckless with your love and being forgiving. If you don’t have those two things, you can’t survive as a band. You can’t survive in a marriage. You can’t survive as friends. You can’t survive as a fucking planet, really. You have to forgive people, and you have to recklessly give your love, no matter how many times you end up getting slapped in the face by it. To me, that’s the only way to continue.
Cautiousness is death. We have, I think, achieved that. No matter what we’ve done to each other or how we’ve hurt one another, we’ve just kind of gotten back up again, given each other a kiss, and moved on. In that song, there’s that line “If I’m frightened, if I’m high, it’s my weakness/ Please forgive it/ At least I hold on when I get love/ And let go when I give it.” I’m not a particularly good person. I’m not a brave person. I’m not a balanced person. But at least I know that if you stop giving it away, if you stop holding on when you get it, you’re going to be in trouble. You’re going to be cautious, and you’re going to stop mattering.
Has there ever been a time where you or someone else in the band has thought, “This is it; it’s over,” or are you always able to tell yourself, “This will pass,” even in the most extreme circumstances?
No, there’s been hundreds of times where people have said that. [Laughs.] It happens quite a lot. But this is my life, and I love these people. The idea of having to say goodbye would be such a defeat, and it would be so sad given all the amazing shit we’ve done together and all the good laughs we’ve had together. I think saying that is a way of exorcising it, but once you’ve said it, you realize there’s no possible way. You’ve just got to keep going with these people.
If you’re lucky, you get one band. Other people don’t let me sing vocals in their band. Other people might look at my lyrics and be like, “Dude, you don’t know what the fuck you’re doing.” But these people trusted me. And I trusted them. And that was enormously generous of them. And kind of whatever they do, you have to like ultimately say, “Man, these people gave me a gift no one else was willing to give. They trusted me in a way no one else trusted me, so I’m going to stick with these people.” This is my gang. And I’m going to. We have no plans except to continue to love and hate each other and make pop music.