Stars’ secrets for surviving the music industry

STARS at the Great Hall (1087 Queen West), November 22 & 23, doors 7 pm. $35.

While 2017 might be a politically turbulent time, musically it feels like the buoyant early-aughts all over again, with so many beloved Canadian indie acts releasing new music. Joining that list is Montreal-Toronto pop purveyors Stars, who are back with new album There Is No Love In Fluorescent Light, which distills their wistful, heartfelt synth-pop down to its essence.

The quintet, led by singers Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan, has been honing that signature sound over nearly two decades. Their die-hard fan base has followed them since their early breakthrough albums Heart and Set Yourself On Fire, but for dreamy-eyed teens of today, Stars songs resonate like a diary entry.

Stars never quite broke through in the same way as peers like Broken Social Scene (who members of Stars often perform with) or Arcade Fire, and they’re fine with that – their intimate approach doesn’t exactly lend itself to stadiums. Still, in today’s world, where record sales are down, streaming revenues laughable and music fans’ devotion often fickle, staying together as a band for almost 20 years seems like quite the feat.

So, what’s the secret to their longevity? As they set up for a recent intimate set on the rooftop of the Thompson Hotel to preview the record, NOW sat down with Campbell and Millan to discuss how they’ve managed to sustain a career in music strictly on their own terms. 

(Scroll to the bottom for An Evening With Stars, Anthony Seck’s intimate glimpse into the band’s inner dynamic.)

Never stop making music

If it feels like there’s always a new Stars album around the corner, that’s because the band is always writing and recording, Millan says. Eight albums into their career, the band is all too aware that if they want to keep doing what they love, they have to keep releasing new music.

 “We don’t have a choice,” Campbell explains, joking that he feels like Drake, basking atop the hotel in the summer sun. He expertly dictates his drink order – “gin and tonic in a short glass, lots of ice, twist of orange” – and continues, “If we want to continue making a living in this business, we have to keep putting music out, and we have to keep playing shows.” 

“We should have broken up seven years ago and gotten back together for the 2013 Coachella – that would’ve been the smart play,” he quips. “But we just kept making art, and for better or worse, that’s what we’ve done. We’re the Grateful Dead of indie rock.”

“We’re not writing songs about being 16,” adds Millan, sipping on an Aperol Spritz. “We’re writing songs about being in our 40s and having families and growing older and watching people pass. We’re just staying true to our own muses and not trying to fit into something that we’ve never fit into. We’ve never hit the fashionable mark.”

Enlist outside perspectives

While they’ve worked with outside producers before, for There Is No Love In Fluorescent Light, Stars opened up their usually insular process to include Peter Katis, best known for his work with the National and Interpol. Coming into the recording sessions with more than 25 songs, they credit Katis with helping them hone in on the core of their indigo-hued retro-pop sound. 

“A lot of what’s on the record is what Peter Katis wanted to do with us,” Campbell says. “He wanted to make a classic Stars record. It was like, we wrote a script – we could direct it ourselves, or we could go get Stanley Kubrick, you know?

“I wrote a bunch of fucking bullshit about the end of the world, but everybody knows the world is ending,” he continues, smirking. “They still care more about why that person didn’t call last night – it still affects them more. So you gotta keep going for the jugular, making people feel shook – in a good way.”

“Some of these songs that I didn’t know I believed in, he completely made them come alive,” says Millan. “He just gave them a gloss that I don’t think they had before. And it’s great. As a band who argues a lot, it took the argument out.”

It’s okay to fight

If being in a band is like being in a family, Stars exemplify that notion. Not only has the band been together for years, but now they’ve also added their extended families into the mix. Millan and bassist Evan Cranley are married with young kids, while Campbell has an eight-year-old daughter, and their children often join them on tour. Having parents who are working artists is something Campbell is familiar with as the son of Stratford legend Douglas Campbell.

“The most important thing that I want to teach my kid is that it’s okay to fight,” Millan says firmly. “That you can have these intense relationships and friendships, and you can work it out. Things aren’t always going to be easy – they’re going to be really hard, and they’re going to be sad and they’re going to be frustrating – but forgiveness is powerful.”

“What you want to imbue to your child, especially to your daughter, is confidence, right?” Campbell says. “You can’t make them happy all the time, but you give them confidence in any situation. So I hope she sees that I’m confident, and she can be too. It’s okay to sing your life.”

Don’t sacrifice your identity

Stars’ earnestness – from Campbell’s acerbic rants and tweets to the band’s heart-on-sleeve tunes – might not win them points for cool, but tell that to the devoted crowds who still sing along show after show.

“I think that pop music is a matter of taste – it’s like your favourite restaurant or your favourite tailor,” Campbell says. “You make a relationship with your customer – you tell them what you’re going to do, you do it with all your love and soul every time, it’s consistent, you always come correct and you come with a smile and you’re fucking grateful for their patronage. 

“We are no longer engaged in gathering people who don’t like us. We’ve got half a million people in the world who fucking love us, who would die for us.” 

“The fact that we talk about love – which a whole generation of people feel meh about… we have drawn towards us the people that have the biggest hearts, and who have the softest souls,” Millan enthuses. “And we’re still here for them.”

Manage your money

Stars have never been shy about the realities of being a gigging mid-level Canadian act. They’re hugely grateful to be able to make a living doing what they love, but even this far into a relatively successful career, finances are always a consideration. 

They’re able to tour across North America and fill soft-seat theatres. Even though fans overseas clamour for the band to come to their town, tours of Europe or further afield are still risky – and expensive – propositions.

“I wish when people bought records, I’d invested way more of that money and didn’t spend it all on wine,” Millan laughs. “I was like ‘Oh, we made it now!’ and then the bottom of the industry fell out.”

“The thing about talking about art and the process of art is that people want to mystify it,” Campbell adds. “There’s no mystery – it’s exactly the same as doing anything else in life. And I think that if everybody imbued art with a little more ordinariness and imbued their ordinary shit with a little more art, we could all be a little more healthy in the way we view the world, you know?”

NOW Premiere: An Evening With Stars

To mark the release of There Is No Love In Fluorescent Light, Stars teamed up with director Anthony Seck to film this special mini-documentary, which offers an intimate glimpse into the group’s long-time friendship and career through candid conversations over dinner at local restaurant Campagnolo. 

It’s a window into the inner workings of a band whose songs touch on the very things they discuss in the film – friends, family, love and the importance of art.

“Filming An Evening With Stars was a chance to sit down with a group of artists I have closely collaborated with for years and hear new stories and histories that are hilarious, close to the heart, and true,” Seck says.

Watch An Evening With Stars below: | @TabSiddiqui

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