Behind the Beat: Toxic Holiday

With the exception of an intense, short-lived fascination with rock journalism (circa seventh grade), I've been a fairly capricious, fickle music fan, in search of the compellingly listenable pop gem. I download singles. I have infatuations with new artists, but often find myself decrying their later work.

But one of the few acts whose career I've followed closely, and with whom I've maintained LTL, is Stars. The Montreal-based band—initially a duo, now a quintet—has been producing immaculate, intricate, intimate indie pop since 2001.

It all began with Nightsongs, with its Baudelaire-ian manifesto "luxe, calme et volupte"; its sinuous, down-tempo cover of The Smiths' "This Charming Man"; the irresistible hidden track "Toxic Holiday" (eurotrash dance anthem beat, clever lyrics); and its tales of love and obsession. There were the nostalgic, neo-Victorian love songs "Tonight" and (contemporaneous b-side) "The Aphidistra Files." The band marshaled obscure cultural references as adroitly as Momus (with whom they briefly shared a label, Le Grand Magistery) but their songs were unfailingly beautiful—simultaneously evocative and cerebral.

Later albums were also captivating. 2003's Heart had its moments of sublimity ("What the Snowman Learned About Love," "Look Up") and its winsome love songs ("Rich Girl," "Romantic Comedy"). Set Yourself on Fire, released in 2005 to critical acclaim and commercial success, was a masterpiece (several Stars singles were featured on popular TV shows, including The O.C., Degrassi and the short-lived MTV reality show 8th and Ocean). "Your Ex-Lover is Dead," a baroque pop gem about romantic nostalgia, apparently elicits the greatest audience outcry during Stars shows; "Reunion" is similarly compelling, an anthem for twenty- and thirty- something suburban wastrels.

In 2007 Stars released In Our Bedroom After the War, which, in addition to the requisite beautiful chamber pop, has a whimsical neo-funk track ("The Ghost of Genova Heights"), a relatively propulsive rock song ("Take Me to the Riot"), an irresistible ode to domestic bliss ("My Favorite Book,"), and lots of other unadulterated pleasures.

The band launched a fairly extensive North American tour late this summer; frontman Torquil Campbell (the band also includes singer-guitarist Amy Millan, keyboardist Chris Seligman, bassist Evan Cranley and drummer Pat McGee) agreed to an email interview to promote Stars' appearance at Pearl Street Sept. 17. Campbell, presumably tired from traveling, recording and tedious inquiries about Montreal's music scene, had a little fun with my verbose, nervously adulatory questions.

Advocate: There are a couple of great quotes from you about Stars' high-low sensibility and the origins of the band's name: "Everybody sitting on the bus is having some huge fucking emotional experience. So that's the dichotomy of pop music—it's one of the things that I like most about it—that it can be simultaneously very grand and very important and portentous, and extremely dumb and throw-away and simple. I think that's what the name Stars refers to. There are stars in the sky, there's the universe, there's all those profound questions about life. And then there's Jennifer Aniston and what we know as stars in our world."

These comments also seem particularly relevant to the fact that the band's songs have been included on multiple TV soundtracks. Any thoughts on this?

 

Campbell: Thanks for the cash, suckers!

 

Were you happy for the exposure?

Absolutely!

Skeptical about the medium?

Couldn't be more so!

I wondered about Stars'?relationship with and interest in TV culture. On the one hand, the band expresses a lot of skepticism about slick marketing in interviews, and yet you have appeared on Sex and the City, Law and Order, and other shows. Were you happy about the way your songs complemented or enhanced the drama of certain television programs?

We despise it [TV culture], just like everyone else does. And we are slaves to it, just like everyone else is. My fave [scene that incorporates a Stars song] is when people eat a hamburger?while "Your Ex-Lover is Dead" plays in the background. &Well, in respect to my "appearances" on television shows, that is exactly what they are: brief flashes of my face, the face of a desperate, impoverished, embarrassed man who can't believe his life has been reduced to doing two lines on TV shows he hates. They were jobs I was grateful to have as a struggling (aren't they all?) actor in New York. Nearly every actor with an agent in New York eventually gets on those shows because they can't keep hiring the same people over and over to play the janitor or rape victim or whatever. It was a gig like every other actor gets. A shitty gig, but a gig. I wasn't even in Stars at the time. I got paid $900. Which was fucking awesome.

Any moments you can think of when pulpy drama became really compelling or transcendental when coupled with a great pop song?

I think my personal favorite is the moment when OMD turn the end of Pretty in Pink into something you simply cannot resist.

In an article published in The A.V. Club, you compare a Billie Holiday song to a novel. [Campbell interjects: "A Billy Strayhorn/Duke Ellington song, sung by Billie Holiday, I think."] This description seems to fit Stars songs as well: they are all meticulously crafted, and obviously the lyrics are often poetic and a little purple. And of course you seem to be an articulate culture vulture in interviews. [Campbell interjects: "I like the vulture bit of that description."] Are you all avid readers?

Not all of us, no. In fact, one of our members, who shall remain nameless and plays the keyboards, recently announced that he "didn't read." Full stop. Not even road signs, apparently.

Any additional sources of literary inspiration you care to cite?

Penthouse Forum.

What is the Stars' lyric writing process like?

It depends on the person doing the writing, but in general I would say that Amy and myself are inspired most of the time by the music that the guys come up with. We start from there. And in my own case, that means mostly being in the room, listening to them play it almost at its inception. The lyrics come much more easily for me personally when I am around the band.

Stars is well ensconced in a really fertile Canadian musical community. You call Feist, The Dears, Broken Social Scene and Arcade Fire friends and collaborators. You have noted that New York is often inhospitable to new acts and that you relocated to Montreal for financial reasons. Any more romantic/grandiloquent theories about the Northern soul and why Montreal's and Toronto's indie scenes seem to have produced such stellar talents? Canada apparently also produces more poets and poetry than any other nation. [Campbell interjects: "I didn't know that!"]

I think if I think about myself any more, my head's gonna explode! You ever get that feeling?

Stars has also been touring almost relentlessly the past few years. How have the trappings of success changed touring for you?

We'll let you know when we are successful.

Any aspects of being on the road, pre-international stardom, that you're a little nostalgic for??

What the hell! I'm an international star? I just sat in coach on Southwestern Airlines to Buffalo, routed through Vegas, where we were number 27 in line to take off for an hour and a half?and had to pay six bucks for a beer, squeezed in between two huge dudes who had been on a bender for four days and smelled like Tostitos and venereal disease. Then I took a shuttle with 10 other people to a parking lot. I was on my own after that. I had to borrow money from my wife to pay for the taxi. I'm nostalgic for the time when I wasn't an international star, yes. It was a much higher quality of life back then.

Any cities you particularly love to play?

San Francisco, Amsterdam, Ottawa, Melbourne, Austin, Calgary, Halifax .

 

Any really great sightseeing experiences?

So, so many. It's worth the hellish flights. Maybe Tokyo was as lucky as I've ever felt to be in a band. And Cologne Cathedral is the scariest manifestation of religion I've ever seen.

Are you able to write new material on the road?

No, not at all. Maybe we will figure it out, but so far we need to be stationary.

Is touring a source of inspiration?

It's very little of one for me, to be honest. So much of touring is repeating the same activity in different places. You can write songs about being on?the road and stuff, but it's difficult to work Seinfeld and marijuana into every tune.

On Nightsongs you do a cover of the iconic Smiths song "This Charming Man" that is really fresh and charming. You've also done the Pogues' "Fairytale of New York." ?Any covers you like to incorporate into your live act?

We did "Hungry Heart" by the Boss for a while.

Songs you're dying to cover?

"Why Do You Have to Go Out With Him When You Could Go Out With Me?" by the Brilliant Corners.

Plans for covers on upcoming albums?

We're going to continue to do what we've always done: cover other people's songs, rename them and pretend that we wrote them ourselves!

Any covers you think are audacious or admirable?

I love the Pet Shop Boys' cover of "You Were Always On My Mind." Such a brilliant song, and put into a different context, still gives you a lump in your throat. The brilliance of the Pet Shop Boys' version is that it also gives you a lump in your trousers.

 

Author: Sarah Feldberg

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