Stars Talk New Album ‘No One Is Lost’ + Exclusive Video Premiere
"Music is my religion," says co-founder Torquil Campbell. "I was raised in the church of art."
Stars’ new album No One Is Lost isn’t a Christmas album, but lead male singer and co-founder Torquil Campbell sees a comparison.
“Put your hands up, ’cause everybody dies,” he sings in the thumping chorus of the set’s title track.
Um, wait. How exactly is that like the most wonderful time of the year?
“Well, it’s like singing ‘Auld Lang Syne,’ right? That’s what New Year’s Eve is about – acknowledging that everybody dies, and that you’re one step closer to it … and hoping that you’re going to be the exception.
“That blind faith is what keeps everybody going, that joy in the face of despair …”
If not quite “Jingle Bells,” Campbell is simply dashing through an explanation of Stars’ philosophy, on display again in its new set, for a crowd of lucky listeners at New York’s Rockwood Music Hall a week and a day before its Oct. 14 release. (The album’s opener “From the Night” has already become a top 20 hit on the weekly Billboard + Twitter Emerging Artists chart, reaching No. 18 in August. The title cut soars in at No. 13 this week.)
Like the band’s catalog of uplifting alterna-pop, joy ultimately outshines darkness in Campbell’s view, leaving angst to melt like a winter’s final snow powerless against an emerging spring thaw.
“People get up and brush themselves off and say, ‘We’re all going to die … Let’s go out and have fun!’ I think it’s a beautiful part of youth and I don’t want to forget it.”
In trademark fashion, Campbell then abruptly changes the mood, much like a Stars song whose brooding verses explode into an exultant chorus. “I am the exception … and I want to pass this gift on to you mortals,” he proclaims with a wide grin, and the crowd (assembled by New York adult alternative radio station WFUV) exhales with laughter.
“Says the total hypochondriac,” an eye-rolling Amy Millan reminds Campbell and the audience.
On No One Is Lost, Stars serve up another batch of melodic pop/rock, led by Campbell and Millan’s vocal tradeoffs. Co-founder Chris Seligman, Evan Cranley, Patrick McGee and Chris McCarron complete the current lineup. Having formed in New York in 1999, where Campbell and Seligman largely recorded its debut album Nightsongs, the band relocated to Montreal, its base since recording 2003 follow-up Heart.
The chill of the icy North has helped shape Stars’ outlook, at times lyrically bleak. But, so has Campbell’s and Seligman’s backgrounds. “Chris is Jewish and I’m Northern English,” Campbell says. “We’ve always been informed, to a certain degree, by a sense of gloominess.”
Campbell chuckles heartily at that last word, more evidence of his, and the band’s, refusal to let sunshine stay hidden too long.
No One Is Lost shows off Stars’ especially dance-driven side. No wonder: the band recorded its seventh studio set above a disco, the since-shuttered Royal Phoenix, in Montreal. As Campbell often slept on a couch in the studio, he’d hear beats throbbing through the floor. Eventually, they continued on into the title cut and “From the Night.”
“The music would end at 3:30,” Campbell tells the Rockwood crowd. “I was trying to get to sleep and Charli XCX would be, like, banging downstairs. And, I loved it.
“It was a beautiful bar. We used to go down there and drink after recording and everyone was there, in their best clothes, trying to pick each other up, looking beautiful on these big nights out. We were just sitting there, finishing our day, looking at it all and I think we kind of fell in love with it.”
Beyond dance, the album includes jangly guitars (“This Is the Last Time”), ’80s-reminsicent alt-pop (earworm “Trap Door,” complete with a sax solo of which the late Clarence Clemons would surely approve) and ballads like Campbell’s favorite song on the set, “Look Away,” which he sings with Millan.
“When Amy brought that tune in, I was like, ‘That’s why I love being in Stars.’ It’s a story song. You get to play a part. Over the years, we’ve had so many opportunities to tell the story of this fictional couple that we invented together.
“I feel lucky when I sing that song.”
Millan offers another reason for No One Is Lost‘s renewed emphasis on tempo. “[2010’s] The Five Ghosts is a really sad record. We made it when Torquil’s father passed away. You can feel the sadness of it.
“Then, in [2012’s] The North, we were kind of coming out of that. The last song on it is [the new wave, New Order-like] ‘Hold on When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give It.’ When we’d play it live, the whole room would just jump up and down.”
“We thought, ‘This is an amazing feeling. Let’s go back into recording and try to capture more of that.’ “
After Stars’ Rockwood showcase, Campbell explains Stars’ songwriting process in an informal chat on a bench on Orchard St. He says that the goal of putting a live energy on record that Millan referenced has its limits once they begin to create.
“We follow the song. We don’t let our tastes dictate the song. We try to let the song try to tell us how to play it. So, it can end up having lots of disparate sounds. But, the song will have integrity.”
The band plays around with ideas, Campbell says. Sectional, hook or rhythmic ideas, and Stars “dump them on the table and sort through them and find ones that we feel are … melodically open. Like, there’s a space there for you to put a melody in. That’s kind of how it starts.
“Then, it’s very, very communal. We write the song in the room together and, piece-by-piece, go through it. Sometimes, people will go in by themselves and completely change it … and irritate everybody … but, generally speaking, those choices are right.”
Campbell pauses. Has he said too much?
“It’s like if you talk about it, you’re jinxing it. We don’t really think about how we write songs, because I think we’re afraid if we thought about how we do it, we’d stop being able to do it.”
He attempts to assuage any songwriting powers that might dictate the fate of future compositions.
“It’s just plugging away, like anything else. Like building a fence, or fixing your bathroom sink. It’s labor.”
Campbell is presented with the idea that songwriting, like all art, is a kind of magic, the creation of something out of nothing.
“To me, the magic is in the response,” he counters. “It’s the connective ability of music that’s magical. But, that’s the choice of the people who receive it.
“Every once in a while I’ll be listening to music and I’ll be like, ‘This is such a weird thing. It’s just all these tones and rhythms played over and over again in repetition.’ And, it’s such a massive part of people’s lives. It’s such a weird thing. We make these noises with our mouths and people listen to it.”
Listening to music is, in part, a physical need, Campbell points out.
“You’re getting a dopamine shot, or an adrenaline shot. That notion of the hook is … from drug-dealing, right? You’ve got to put something in there that’s going to keep them coming back,” he says laughing.
“I really like that aspect: that there’s like an insidiousness to pop music, that you’re trying to worm your way into people’s existence and make them addicted to you.
“But, their lives won’t be ruined.”
Post-show, Campbell reaffirms the most defining trait of Stars’ songs: their positivity.
“Music is my religion. I was raised in the church of art. I believe in it as a political tool. I believe it can change people’s lives, make people more powerful and can overthrow the mighty. Maybe that’s naïve and stupid, but it’s my faith. I was given it by my parents, by my community.
“When I see people come out at night, there are still people who spend their money on shows. People who put their best shirt on and call up their friends and get on the subway and get down there, on a Tuesday, and see a band they like. That’s an act of enormous generosity, and ‘ego-less-ness’ – to stand one way, all together, next to each other, and watch someone else do something for two hours.
“We talk a lot about the narcissism of this era, how everyone’s staring at their phone, and that’s true. But, people are still going to shows and loving being in a dark room together and dancing and getting drunk and listening to music. It’s been going on for thousands of years. And, I love it. I think it’s the best part of us.
No One Is Lost furthers Stars’ contributions to their honorable calling.
Still, one question persists. What would the set have sounded like if it weren’t written and recorded above a disco. What if they’d made it above, say, a … bakery?
“It’d be like, ‘Stars have returned … 400 pounds!,” Campbell laughs. “And, extremely happy …
“You know, we should start to experiment. Let’s move in over an abattoir next time and see if we make a black-metal record. The sound of the buzz saws would influence us.
“Or, a dry cleaners! We could inhale the fumes, make like a psychedelic album.
“Gee, you’ve really opened up my mind now …”