Torquil Campbell inquires about the weather in our fair city at the beginning of the interview on a gorgeous, sunny, summer morn in Calgary, where he and his band Stars will be Friday, July 26 for a Calgary Folk Music Festival Mainstage set.
“Yeah, here, too,” he says.
He’s in California, so, yeah, obviously, but they’re not a possible eight weeks or less away from winter. Or any winter for that matter.
Campbell laughs when the possible dickishness of his response is pointed out.
Then again, perhaps he’s merely being generous in providing an easy transition into talking about Stars’ latest charmer, There Is No Love In Fluorescent Light, which just happens to bear a lovely song with the title California, I Love That Name.
The album, the veteran act’s eighth studio album which dropped late last year, is one that Campbell has no problem describing as “one of our best.”
It’s impossible to disagree. Fluorescent Light is Stars at their most Starsiness — filled with tales of modern disaffection, alienation, love and the loss of. But it does so in a more subdued way than recent offerings, one that hearkens back to perhaps their finest moment a decade prior, In Our Bedroom After the War.
If 2014’s No One Is Lost was their full-on mid-life crisis at a disco, their latest is them leaning into where they are 25 years into a pretty wonderful career. It is, unflinchingly and without any negative context, a very mature Stars album.
Campbell laughs once more at the use of the word. “Oh, I think it’s more than appropriate at this point.”
The success of the album and the co-singer/lyricist’s affection for it owe a great deal, he says, to the fact that this is the first effort where the band has not even been partially involved in its production. They gave the reins up completely to Grammy-winner Peter Katis, known predominantly for his work with The National and Interpol, with the album being recorded in both the band’s home of Montreal and Katis’s studio in Connecticut.
Campbell notes that being at arms length from the final result has allowed him to appreciate it in a way that he and his bandmates — Evan Cranley, Patrick McGee, Chris McCarron, Chris Seligman and fellow front person Amy Millan — have never been afforded, perhaps hear themselves as fans hear them.
“Yeah, I think that has a lot to do with it, it’s a record made through the prism of how Peter Katis sees us and that extra layer of distance allows us to hear it better, I think,” he says. “But also the work is more clear because we had Peter. I think that we really were due for giving over power to someone else completely, and we all did it at the very moment when we wanted to do it. No one had their backs up when Peter made some strange suggestions, no one was I like, ‘I wish we could do it our way,’ we were just so ready for someone else to push us into a direction.
“And he’s an amazingly decisive — he’s a leader. Some producers are uncomfortable with being seen as the person making the decision because they want to make it seem like it’s more collaborative, but Peter has no problem with being quarterback. In fact he’s someone who definitely needs to be quarterback.
“It was a perfect pairing for us.”
Katis even chose the 12 tracks that would make up Fluorescent Light from an enormous amount of material that they provided him with.
Some of those, Campbell says, were very much of the time that we now live, “obviously apocalyptic in nature, and half of them were very urbane and a continuation of the story that we’ve been telling for 20 years.
“And those were the things that he was really drawn to,” he says of the latter. “I think that he reminded us that this band was formed with the ethos of writing sad songs that were very pretty. We wanted to write poison songs, we wanted to inject poison into pretty things, and we’re really good at that.
“I don’t think there’s many people that do it the way that we do it, with two voices and with an ability to tell both sides of a story, so I feel like thought that that was a really good thing to do myself. That’s what we do well, that’s what people come to us for and that’s the contract we have with our listeners.”
All you have to do is listen to their new single and non-album track One Day Left, which will rip your fucking heart out almost as cold and devastatingly as After the War’s brilliant Personal and which Campbell says takes that Stars ethos “to its logical conclusion.”
Campbell says that has always been the strength of Stars, that both he and Millan are able to put words in each other’s mouths, with more than two decades of knowing one another to know what they can, and bandmates, who provide the musical backdrop, will call them on it when it doesn’t ring true.
“If we don’t have anything to say ourselves, we have something to say to the other person,” he says. “And that is a great freedom as songwriters to always have that option, to step outside yourself and give someone else a voice. And that’s been a great pleasure to me.”
As to the fact that it’s two distinct personalities speaking in the singular Stars voice, he says that listeners could probably figure out who the writer is 90 per cent of the time knowing their particular makeup no matter who was singing the words.
“Amy tends to be a little more optimistic about life, but not always, and I think that we kind of try to find a halfway point from each other. I think Amy has made me a more optimistic songwriter and I’ve made her a songwriter maybe a little more willing to deal with darkness than she wouldn’t have otherwise,” he says, before noting another big difference between the two with a laugh.
“Amy doesn’t like it when I swear in songs. But I don’t give a fuck.”
And that, it should be noted, is another large part of the charm of Stars and has been since they started — the different voices, the different personalities, the different relationships (Millan is married to bassist Cranley) making for something that is something all its own.
Well, sort of.
The subject of a recent and excellent interview by Victoria Times Colonist writer Mike Devlin comes up, where the journalist compared them favourably to Fleetwood Mac for all of the obvious similarities.
“I always like to say that we are quite literally the poor man’s Fleetwood Mac,” Campbell says, again laughing. “I just hope I’m not Lindsey Buckingham, that’s really all I hope because I need this job.
“Maybe we should fire (guitarist) Chris McCarron and hire Lindsey because he works for $600 a week. I’ll write him a letter right now.”
(Photo courtesy Shervin Lainez.)
Stars perform at the Calgary Folk Music Festival Friday, July 27 on the MainStage at 8:20 p.m. For tickets and the full schedule please go to calgaryfolkfest.com.