How the band turned its love of pop music - that 'silly little art form' - into its highest-charting album yet.
"The album's not about anything specific. We just tried to make a record that had great songs on it."
Before Stars' recent show at New York's Webster Hall, the band's Torquil Campbell is humbly attempting to diffuse any ideas that the quintet's new set "The North" is anything more than, well, a collection of catchy pop songs. "I mean, the songs are individually about things but … people want to, especially with a 'story-telling' band like us, attach a great theme to what we're doing. But, if we had a great theme, we would write books or some proper form of art.
"Like … you get into pop music because you're not smart enough to do real art," Campbell muses. "It's really up to other people to say what 'The North' is about. That's the thing: we make the music; once you buy it, it's yours. You can have whatever experience you want with it. That's the deal."
On the Sept. 22 Billboard 200, "The North" (released on Soft Revolution/ATO) debuted at No. 48, granting Stars their northernmost rank so far. 2010's "The Five Ghosts" marked their sole prior appearance on the chart, having debuted and peaked at No. 67. "It's a beautiful record, but how many people want to listen to a whole record about death?" Campbell asks of "Ghosts," which features such dark-but-hooky tracks as "Fixed," "Wasted Daylight" and "Dead Hearts," the lattermost of which was featured on NBC's "Chuck." (The band has also inked synchs with "Alias," "Gossip Girl" and "The Vampire Diaries.") After a pause, Campbell answers his own question: "You know who wants to listen to it? People who know. And that was worth doing.
"For some people, that record, I really believe, is going to be something that they come back to."
The path to a new chart high has taken more than a decade, as Stars released their debut full-length, "Night Songs," in 2001. The Montreal-based band - rounded out by Amy Millan (who shares lead vocals with Campbell), Evan Cranley, Pat McGee and Chris Seligman - has grown its fanbase via a catalog of melodic pop/alternative songs, their story-telling threads often infused with dreamlike imagery.
"A lot of people listen to music because it makes your heart feel good. You're trying to capture that moment," Seligman, Campbell's friend since childhood, says of songwriting. "There's not a lot of conscious thought. I think it wouldn't be as much fun if we thought about it too much."
"I mean, I think about (a song's creation), but it never turns out the way I want it to," Campbell says. "It turns out … the way it's going to turn out."
While Campbell sees Stars as a pop act, the band has found support largely at rock radio. "Backlines," the lead single from "The North," has garnered airplay at triple A WXRV Boston and KCMP Minneapolis, as well as such lynchpin college outlets as WFUV New York and KCSN Los Angeles. KCSN and fellow college station KEXP Seattle have also championed the set's swirling, beats-driven "Hold On When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give It" (perhaps the best song that New Order never recorded; "The people of New York (made) the whole floor bounce at Webster Hall!" Millan beamed after Stars' first Big Apple performance of it).
The band's affinity for guitar buzz and cascading keyboards fits with alternative and triple A's current stylings, even if Stars' ability to create a memorable melody would make the band at home on pop radio. Are such titles as "North" cut "Do You Want to Die Together?" just a bit too deep for top 40 stations playing, say, One Direction's "Live While We're Young"?
"You know, I don't really know what 'deep' means in music," Campbell says. "If you're going through chemotherapy and listening to Celine Dion helps you, then Celine Dion is deep. Maybe some other people think she isn't, but what right do they have to say to you that your experience with a particular piece of music isn't profound?
"Pop music is a silly little art form. The songs are short, there are hooks in it, choruses. There's repetition. But, if it means something to you, it means something to you. And, if it means a great deal to you, then it can be your whole life.
"When my dad died … there were songs like 'Danny Boy' that are sentimental, kind of hackneyed songs … but, he liked that song and, to this day, when I hear that song, it sends me into a depth of feeling that is not maybe going to be the same depth of feeling that someone else has in response to that piece of music, but that doesn't mean that the response isn't valid," Campbell says.
"This is why getting into 'What is good music?' and 'What is bad music?' is not only a pointless conversation, but an erroneous one."
In their second decade, and enjoying their greatest chart success, Stars are grateful for their steady build. "We're not interested in being cool. We're too old to be cool and even when we weren't too old to be cool, we weren't cool," Campbell says with a smile.
Following dates in the Northeast, Stars will tour Canada throughout November before playing shows in the United Kingdom, France and other European countries in December. "At this point in our lives, we're worried about the people who listen to our records. We're not worried about the people who don't. And, that's a beautiful place to be, because, for 10 years, we had to worry about people who weren't listening to our records. We had to go find an audience and convince people to give us a chance."
"I think as soon as you're good with that, you're happy with where you're at and you're happy playing music, which I think we always have been," Seligman adds.
"But, we're at a better place. That's a freeing notion."