Lost in Stars

Published October 14, 2014

ABOVE: STARS. PHOTO COURTESY OF SHERVIN LAINEZ.

Despite a 15-year career and seven albums to date, Canadian quintet Stars maintains the homegrown, youthful flavor that produced hits such as “Your Ex Lover is Dead” and “Hold On When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give it.” The band’s latest offering, No One is Lost, out today, pokes fun at its supposed optimism. Through frontman Torquil Campbell’s tranquil notes, the 11-track pop record accepts, embraces, and even celebrates loss. For Stars, if in the end we’re all lost, we might as well cling to blind hope and dance. 

JAMIE LINCOLN: Stars has been together for 15 years now, is that right?

TORQUIL CAMPBELL: Correct.

LINCOLN: That’s a pretty long time.

CAMPBELL: That’s a hell of a long time. How old were you when we got together?

LINCOLN: I would have been 10 years old. I love how long that took me to do the math.

CAMPBELL: Hey, you don’t write about math. [laughs]

LINCOLN: Especially for the music industry, 15 years is a huge chunk of time.

CAMPBELL: It’s eons.

LINCOLN: Do you consider Amy, Evan, Chris, and Pat friends first and band mates second, or the other way around?

CAMPBELL: They’re family. They’re neither of those things first. I’ve been best friends with Chris since I was eight years old; I’ve known Evan since I was 12 years old. We all grew up in the same neighborhood. They’re absolutely family first, but they’re interchangeable because the band was an excuse to hang out with my friends. You can’t have one without the other. That’s the great thing about being in a band: it’s a gang for people who are too wimpy to fight. You can create a gang and have an identity and fight for something and stand up for something just by making pop songs. They’re my gang members and gang members are for life, and if you try and leave, we execute you. That’s the way it goes. A simple bang, back of the head, into the river, and we keep moving on.

LINCOLN: Par for the course, really. So in that same light, do you fight like family members?

CAMPNELL: [laughs] Oh yeah.

LINCOLN: Care to elaborate?

CAMPBELL: [laughs] What do you want me to say? Absolutely we fight.

LINCOLN: I’m assuming it’s one of those unbreakable bonds? You can say anything you want, and it’ll always blow over.

CAMPBELL: I’m not an endings person. I don’t do endings, you know? There may have been people in the band who wanted this to be an ending from time to time, but me and Amy don’t really do endings. You cannot escape from us. Once we’re friends with you, that’s it. I don’t like saying goodbye to people. I find it much easier to forgive people than to say goodbye to them, I always have, in any facet of my life. It’s hard sometimes to forgive people, but I find it harder to say goodbye if you love them. That’s been a really beautiful aspect of being in the band for so long, we’re really learning that all of those times you say to yourself “is it worth it?” with a person, generally speaking, it is. There are very few things that should break the bonds of love. Abuse … in a romantic context. I can see infidelity causing someone to not want to do it anymore. But when I see friends of mine break up and they’re like, “Oh, we still really love each other, but we just couldn’t make it work,” I don’t get that. I don’t understand what that means. Make it work. Love is something that when you get it, you better fucking hold on to it. I have no intention of changing friends until I die, and then, I guess I’ll have to.

LINCOLN: [laughs] Each of your records seems to encapsulate a specific theme. With No One is Lost, is there a particular theme attached to it?

CAMPBELL: For me, I think if you listen to our records, they come at different points in your life. When people say to me that Stars records have themes, I think what they mean is we write songs—or try to write songs—that are timeless. We try to write songs that catch you at the right time in your life, and that you can hold on to. We write kitchen sink songs. If you’re doing the dishes or you’re driving to your mom’s funeral, or if you’re getting over having done MDMA and you feel sad, you can listen to Stars because we’re not going to demand of you that you be cool. We’re going to talk about the big things that matter, which are the little things, really. For me, Stars has always had one overarching theme, which is, we’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway, whatever God means to you. People are terrible. They do terrible things to each other, they hurt each other, they lie, they’re vain, they’re shallow, they’re violent … but they’re all we have. Acknowledging that we lose is the overarching theme in everything in Stars. To me, that’s what punk means. Stars is a punk band because we acknowledge loss. We’re not trying to win. We’re not trying to project victory. You win alone. I’m not interested in singing for the one winner in the room; I’m interested in singing for all of the losers in the room. I think the theme for us is your weakness, the thing that makes you most scared about yourself, is the most beautiful thing about you, and it’s your greatest weapon. You can use it against the bullies of this world. By acknowledging defeat, you are undefeatable. That’s what Set Yourself on Fire (2004) meant. It could be taken as an inspiration thing, like burn bright and show everybody that you’re fabulous, but for me it was acknowledge that you’re a piece of shit so that no one else can do it. I can’t be a target if I’m already in flames.

LINCOLN: So, would you describe yourself as a cynic, then?

CAMPBELL: No! I’m cynical about human society, and deeply, deeply cynical about politics and politicians and religion—all the structures that have made up our world. Anyone who isn’t cynical about them is deluded because they’re all shit. The institutions that govern this planet are all corrupt, disgusting things run by, generally speaking, middle-aged white men in an act of hatred against the rest of humanity. That’s just true. But I fucking love people. I believe in people. I’m a socialist, I’m a vegetarian, I’m a pacifist, and believing in those things means you believe in people’s natural inclination towards goodness. I think people are naturally good, I see it every day. Look at this restaurant. No one’s causing anybody any trouble in here. We’re all sitting, respecting each other’s space, we’re keeping our voices down, we’re saying “please” and “thank you”—those are acts of generosity that we commit on a second by second basis that we don’t give ourselves enough credit for. There’s a lot of kindness in this world, we’re just such vain creatures; our vanity can be used against us so easily. We’re like dogs, hairless dogs.

LINCOLN: [laughs] You’ve been quoted as stating, “This record’s called No One is Lost because that is a fucking lie. We are all lost, we are all going to lose this game, and as you get older, you lose people more and more.” I read that and thought, Wow, that’s an extremely sobering statement.

CAMPBELL: [laughs] I know you’re only 25, but it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee. You’re going down,

LINCOLN: If you think we’re all truly lost though, how do people find meaning in life?

CAMPBELL: Blind hope. Blind hope is all we have. There’s a Greek tragedy called Prometheus Bound; Prometheus is the [titan] that gave humans fire. He’s chained to a rock and bemoaning his fate and saying, “I gave you everything. By giving you fire, I gave you blind hope. By giving you a little light that kept you warm at night, I let you believe that this was all going to be okay.” For me, that’s what art has been. Music and books, it’s an act of hope to make them, and it’s an act of hope to listen to them. That hope will be dashed, you will say goodbye. People say, “oh, I would never want to live forever, that’s so awful, I would hate that.” Fuck you, dude. If they come up with something, I’m taking it; I’m sticking around forever. Why would I want to leave this? This is a beautiful dream.

LINCOLN:  Do you consider being a musician work?

CAMPBELL: I consider being a performer work. I come from a theater family; I’ve been an actor all my life. I started acting when I was a kid, and I’ve earned a living as an artist all my life. It’s my job in the sense that it’s everything I am, the only thing I know how to do. I literally do not have qualifications to do anything else on this planet. Seriously, it’s scary. [But] I don’t consider it a job [because] it’s my religion—it’s my faith, it’s my family, it’s everything to me. Getting up on stage and being able to make people feel like their lives are slightly more special than they realize is my only talent, so that’s what I use. I use my talent.

LINCOLN: Have you ever had to make any concessions as a musician?

CAMPBELL: Yeah, I think you have to make concessions in life. One of the most frustrating things about getting older is [you realize] the reason you have a plan is so you can see everything that it isn’t. The plan never works. Something happens and you adjust to it and you adapt to it and you accept it and you keep going, but that’s not the plan. Is Stars everything I imagined it would be when I had an electro set and was writing Stars on all my books when I was 20 years old? No, it’s nothing like what I imagined it would be. I imagined that no one would ever listen to me, except for 12 people who were art students in Belgium, and I would sit in a garret somewhere and smoke cigarettes and play very rare synthesizers and talk to Interview magazine … so at least one of these things has come true. We became a band that was kind of a big band, kind of a band that quite uncool people listen to, people a lot like me. I’ve realized that’s a much more beautiful fate than the plan I had.

LINCOLN: My dad listens to you. I’m not saying my dad isn’t cool, but …

CAMPBELL: That’s incredible to us. We have 16 year olds at our gigs still—there’s still kids coming—but there are people who have grown up with us, like you.

LINCOLN: Musically, do you think Stars has changed over the years?

CAMPBELL: We haven’t really changed, we’ve just gotten better at executing what we’ve always been trying to do. We’re not really a band that has undergone huge stylistic decisions to change, we’re just trying to follow the song. More and more, we let the song lead us—we don’t try and put the song into a structure of our taste or our fashion. I would love to sound like the Junior Boys, I love the Junior Boys. I think their world is so fucking cool, and I love the way their records sound, and I would love to project that into the world, but I can’t. Your obstacles define your achievements, and without those obstacles, you’re just another bland nothing. For all of my life, I’ve had this one song in my head, and I’m still trying to write it. I’m still trying to get that song out. I’m getting closer, every record I get a little bit closer to saying it the way I want to say it.

LINCOLN: Do you think you’re a perfectionist in that way?

CAMPBELL: No! [laughs] There are perfectionists in the band, but Stars is very much a tension between people who are incredibly process-oriented, i.e., Chris, Evan, and Pat, and people who are all about their effect, and completely obsessed with connection, and with being seen and being loved and paid attention to, and that’s me and Amy. The tension of the band is those two courses pulling against each other. This doesn’t put me in a particularly good light, but it is true that every single song I’ve ever written I think is fucking awesome. [laughs] As soon as we finish it, I’m like, “Boom! That’s fucking amazing.” And everyone else is like, “Well, it could use some work…” “No, no, it’s good. Let’s move on.” I’m not confident about my appearance, I’m not confident about anything really in my life, I’m a very tortured soul when it comes to self-confidence, but when it comes to my pop songs, if I started to question, I would never stop questioning. My pledge to myself is I will believe in my music, always. I stand behind everything I do. If I don’t think it’s amazing, how the hell is anyone else going to think it’s amazing? But that’s just me.

LINCOLN: Inherently, do you think the “Digital Age” is good for the music industry, or bad for the music industry?

CAMPBELL: The music industry has been bad, always. I think it continues to be bad. It’s been pimps up, hoes down since 1953 and it’s never going to change because we just want to play the songs and get free beer and have people love us. The music industry knows that. They know that if you give the band booze, and you give the band a stage, and you plug in the shit, they’re pretty much going to be happy. They’ve been exploiting that since day one, and there will always be pimps, and we’ll always be pimped. But, you know, I would rather be a hoe than a pimp, personally, because I give joy, and all pimps do is take. I’ll die loved … used, but loved.

NO ONE IS LOST COMES OUT TODAY, OCTOBER 14. FOR MORE ON STARS, VISIT THE BAND’S WEBSITE.