It's the first week of May, and Torquil Campbell has finally opened the windows of his Montreal apartment, ushering in a breeze he'll let blow for the next three months. Campbell recounts this past winter as "unbelievably brutal" and is spending this afternoon letting the spring air rejuvenate him.
As it turns out, Stars, the sophisticated, epicurean pop group for which he composes and sings, could also use a breath of fresh air. "We're at a point now as a band where we're feeling a bit lost, and I think that's because we're just about to have the idea that's going to help us continue," he says from the apartment/studio where Stars has been working on a new album. In a city where, as Campbell relates, "no one ever seems to do anything but sit around in cafés and smoke cigarettes," that very boredom never fails to inspire him.
"Montreal is an incredibly soft, romantic place," he says slowly. Taking cues from the city's sleepy Catholicism and ornate architecture, Campbell has emulated those traits with Stars, a dignified easy-listening combo that has undertaken a passive yet passionate war on the mundane and the ugly. Like Matisse and sundry centuries-past experts on sensuality and beauty, Campbell, who grew up surrounded by artists, refuses to see art as a distraction or luxury but as necessary for existence as eating or sleeping. Stars has even launched a gentle insurrection of sorts, the Soft Revolution, dedicated to locating loveliness in everyday life, printing slogans such as "Luxe, Calme, et Volupte" on its records.
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"We're trying to strike people with something very soft, and that's a tricky thing to do -- to make people understand that their lives can be radically changed by just lying down and loving something," Campbell says unself-consciously. "It sounds incredibly hippie-dippy, but the hippies got that part right. They just also got seduced by a whole bunch of other shit that wasn't that interesting."
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Nowhere on Nightsongs, a full-length debut released in 2000, has Stars made that mistake.
"Your first record tries to express the effect other people's music has had on you," Campbell notes. "Part of making Nightsongs was to reflect that back at that world and fit into that world somehow." Jaded observations on childhood ("On Peak Hill"), friendship ("Going, Going, Gone"), and the futility of fame ("International Rock Star") are delivered with a wistful sadness reminiscent of the lonely nights and shortened afternoons that accompany autumn's approach.
"We're sad," Campbell is quick to acknowledge. "But I don't think we're depressing. It's when sadness feels beautiful, which I think is quite a lot of the time, actually, if you don't get too hung up on it."
Since Nightsongs feels like an FM station from the 1980s, it's not surprising that its most-discussed track was a sparkling reinterpretation of the Smiths's "This Charming Man" bouncing along to a dancehall reggae bass pulse.
"The greatest rock 'n' roll band ever," says Campbell, who grew up similarly obsessed with Marvin Gaye and the Blue Nile. "In ten years' time, maybe people will put them in their correct place in the history of pop. The Smiths are huge for us," he sighs, "and we don't care who knows it."
With childhood chum Chris Seligman, Campbell worked on Nightsongs in a Manhattan loft with singers Emily Haines and Amy Millan while juggling an acting career that has occasionally landed him juicy prime-time roles on Sex and the City and Law & Order. "When you're a working actor in New York, everybody gets to be on Sex and the City at least once," shrugs Campbell. Now relocated 380 miles north, Campbell, Seligman, Millan, and guitarist Evan Cranley recorded The Comeback EP during the mean Montreal winter of 2001, emerging with songs that held just as much drama as Nightsongs but sounded tougher and prettier at the same time. Both records were released on Le Grand Magistery, the Michigan-based boutique label that's home to eccentric pop auteur Momus (Nick Currie). The arrangement forged a creative relationship with Currie that continues ("I've never met anybody who has such a free path between conception and execution," raves Campbell) though Stars and the label have parted ways.
But not before issuing The Comeback, five songs spearheaded by the annoyingly simple, addictively endearing descending keyboard riff of "Krush," which begins with Millan sweetly beckoning, "It's all dark, the streets are empty/take me home, we're radio-friendly." Carefully constructed instrumentals like "Côtes des Neiges" lend a noble, stately grace, replacing the tongue-in-cheek nostalgia of the debut album.
That grace accompanies Campbell's never-ending mission to inject art into every aspect of daily life.
"You can drive a bus like an artist," he says, outlining his utopia. "Everybody knows what it's like to have a small interaction with somebody during their day in which the other person is living their life to the fullest. You go into a store and the guy behind the counter makes a joke or gives you a deal on something or smiles in a way that connects with you and makes a huge difference in your day. Imagine if your whole day was just made up of those moments -- what an extraordinary world! That's what we're trying to do as well. And on a mundane level, we're just tired of irony and people clanging things around and being skinny and pretending that means anything. It's not enough to sneer at things anymore, you know?"
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