Stars’ Torquil Campbell on Touring, Loving and Hating New York, and the Cult of Larry David

“Ask away,” says Torquil Campbell casually to me on Monday after our long distance call is connected. Ultimately, the lead singer of Canadian indie pop band Stars proves disarmingly entertaining. Between his tweets and his demeanor during interviews (at least ours), there’s no lack of laughs. A few questions in, the line cuts out. Upon being reconnected, he teases, “I just gave, like, a ten-minute answer and, at the end of it, there was nobody there. You missed some amazing shit, man. Never to be repeated. That’s too bad. That’s it.” I like this guy. (And, for the record, I got some other “amazing shit,” so not to worry.)

The forty-year-old singer-songwriter and actor, perhaps best known for his membership in Stars, but also other notable ensembles such as Broken Social Scene, is gearing up to tour pretty consistently through most of next month. He and his fellow bandmates—comprising Chris Seligman, Evan Cranley, Amy Millan, and Pat McGee—who released their seventh album in September, kicked things off on Wednesday and make their way to New York City today. Catch them in Brooklyn, to be exact, at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, where tonight and tomorrow they’ll split the bill with L.A.-based band Milo Greene.

In the half-hour allotted to talk, Campbell didn’t hold back, opening up about making music, growing up, picking battles and taking revenge. From his distaste for touring to his stance on fame, his love of Larry David to his dream of limo driving, this Vancouver-based artist bears all, including the fact that this path is not technically what he wanted.

Did you approach The North differently than past albums, or is it sort of a consistent process?
It’s both. After 13 years and so many records, we definitely have a method and a system that works. It changes a little bit every time, but now I think we’re pretty set on the way we do it together. In terms of the methodology, it wasn’t that different. But every time you make a record, you choose different gears, different places to record, and different things are happening to you in your life. You’re a different person. So, those three things always inform the same methodology and that’s what changes: the filters through which the work passes. Sometimes they bear a striking resemblance to the last time, but, this time, I knew it was 180 degrees [different]. This was definitely the most fun, least painful project ever.

The most fun and least painful?
After 35, or after you have kids, it’s like, “Well, who really gives a shit, ultimately?” Am I really going to go to war with this person I love and lose sleep and have fucking anxiety attacks just because we can’t figure out what bassline works? As a young band, it’s the only thing that matters to you. Then, time passes, and so many other things mean so much more. It’s not that the work isn’t important; it’s just that it’s in the context of the rest of your life. You learn how to calm down and get on with it. So much of life is learning that you lose about seventy percent of the battles you choose to fight. That’s the average. There’s no point getting upset about it.

Going back to your time together, what’s that kind of longevity like? And what do you foresee for the future?
It’s amazing. I think it’s something we’re all very proud of. We’re proud of the music, but I think we’re prouder, in a way, of this co-existence we’ve built together. All the things we’ve been through together. [Laughs] It’s an endless parade of bad decisions and big mistakes, and yet nobody pulled the plug. Nobody ever did that. At one point or another, every single member of the band has had a right to do that or been the cause of someone else having a right to do that. And yet we haven’t. In that respect, it’s a lot like marriage. It’s hoping for the best. [This is the point at which we were disconnected.] As for the future, we’re going to keep going and probably play fewer shows.

But you love shows.
Oh yeah. I love playing shows. If everyone could just come here, to Vancouver, I would play, easily, 300 shows a year. No problem at all. But, I think being on the bus and being away from my family and that aspect of it, it’s fun for, I don’t know, let’s say ten years. And then, after that, it’s like, “Okay. This is a fuckin’ ridiculous way to live my life. I’m spending an hour-and-a-half looking for my sock. Where am I going anyway? Why do I need socks? It’s not as if anybody knows whether I’m alive or dead, until 9 PM tonight. So, why don’t I just not wear socks?” It’s just a pointless way to exist. And then you play a show and you’re like, “Oh, life means something and, god, I love my job and it’s so great and aren’t we lucky to have people cheering for us?”But, then you wake up the next day and you’re in the middle of nowhere without your family. So, that aspect of it is getting old, for sure.

I hear that. Makes sense. So, how do you feel about fame?
Ever since I was a kid, people have been telling me I’m going to be famous, all my life, and I never have been. I’m not famous at all. Nobody knows who the fuck I am. I’m nobody. First of all, obviously—it goes without saying—I’m in a tiny indie band [that] nobody gives a shit about. But, even people who give a shit about us, I’m just some forty-year-old guy. The only time I’m famous is when I’m singing those songs. Other than that, I give myself a solid 4.7 out of 10 on the human impact scale.

If you say so! How do you like returning to New York?
Well, I lived in New York for ten years and the band started in New York. I like coming to New York like a New Yorker likes to come to New York. There’s a part of me that loves that place and it’s very deep inside me. To this day, my wife still says that, even though I was born in England and I grew up in Canada, I act like a New Yorker. That was where my personality came into full fruition, where I found 11 million assholes just like me. [Laughs] I feel very at home there. On the other hand, I hate New York. Like everybody does. New York is a reflection of you. It’s whatever you imagine yourself to be. On a bad day, New York is a bitch. And, on a good day, New York is an angel, I think. I like coming to New York and having something to do. I like the fact that I come to New York and play shows and people come to the shows. There’s an element of revenge I enjoy. I think a lot of people end up living in New York to try to get revenge on New York for all that New York has done to them over the years. People are motivated by revenge. I feel that. It’s satisfying to come and get a little revenge on New York every once in a while.

Revenge, huh?
It’s about my personal relationship with New York. The experience of ten years trying to make it work there. Sometimes it did work, but a lot of the time it doesn’t work. New York is so tiny and there’s so many people doing amazing things; if shit isn’t going your way, it’s very palpable, and you feel very much left out of the shit that is going right. It can be a cruel place. I love it.

Ditto. What do you get into when you’re here?
Well, we work most of the time. I’m a person who just goes to the same place, no matter where I am in the world. In New York, I still go to the bars I went to in 1996. I have no idea what’s happening in New York. I just go to New York and I recreate 1996.

In another interview, Amy Millan claims Stars is like Seinfeld. She says, “If you really looked into the deep psyche of Stars, it’s like Seinfeld, but Larry David is actually in Seinfeld instead of behind the scenes writing it. That’s my life. I swear to God we are a Seinfeld episode in normal life, like there’s the glamorous aspect of getting up on stage and writing amazing music, but then there’s the daytime stuff that’s pure Seinfeld.” Can you speak to this?
[Laughs] All I can say is, I think Larry David is a big person in all our lives. I have a t-shirt with his face on it. That’s how much I love Larry David. I suffer from anxiety. When I’m in the throws of anxiety attacks, I don’t have a prescription for Xanax—I just watch Curb Your Enthusiasm. Or sometimes I just listen to it on my headphones. I’m obsessed with Larry David and the work of Larry David and I think everyone else in the band is pretty obsessed with Larry David. The thing about Larry David is, he’s a dark motherfucker. Like, he doesn’t care how dark it gets, as long as it’s funny. I think, in Stars, that’s the kind of people we are. We really don’t care. There are things we would never say in public, obviously, but there are jokes made in our band that are truly morally reprehensible. But, if they’re funny, everybody has a good laugh. At least half the reason we’re in the band is just for jokes, just to hang out and wait for punch lines. The one thing we all have in common is, we share a fucked up sense of humor. And our cult leader is Larry David. We would follow him anywhere. We’d do anything for him. We worship him. We think he’s fucking genius.

Oh, we’re not alone. We’re among the legion.

What would you be doing if not this?
The only job I can think of that I would actually be able to do would be driving a cab or, like, driving people to the airport in a limo. I could do that. And I would like to do that. I really would. People think I’m joking and I’m not joking. I think it would be awesome. You just put on the soft rock station. You have water bottles—my car would be fucking awesome. Like, I’d have Evian bottles in the back, maybe a couple of newspapers to read. If you want to talk we can talk. If not, I’ll leave you alone. It’s fine. We don’t have to talk. And I would drive very smoothly. If you’re in a rush, I’ll drive fast, but I’m not going to go crazy. I’d be really good at that. Wouldn’t that be a great job?

[Laughs] Can you please make a music video where you’re the limo driver and the rest of the band’s in the back?
That’s a great idea! Actually, that’s a very good idea. Yes, we can. I’m going to do that for you. I’ll get right on that. I’m going to steal that from you.

Yesss. [Laughs] Lastly, have you always wanted to make music and act?
No. I’ve never wanted to. I’ve never wanted to act and I’ve never wanted to make music. I just had to. I couldn’t do anything else. I didn’t want to do anything else. So, by elimination, that’s what happened. That’s what I am. It’s what everybody in my family is. It’s what my father was, what my mother is, my brothers, my sisters, my wife, my child. Everybody in my life is obsessed with art and is a performer of one kind or another. There’s not a single person I love who isn’t in that field or doesn’t have that within them. Even the people I’m close to in my family who are not performers, that’s our religion. We’re fundamentalists. I was raised in a house where groceries were bought [with] money made from art. Art was the Bible and art was the devil and art was everything in between. I was told art could change people’s lives and you could change the world and you could start revolutions with it. That’s my fate. I have never wanted to. It’s what I am. 

Photo by Kevin Barnett

BlackBook Tracks #23: Teenage Kicks

This week’s playlist is dedicated to being a teenager, which is something that people seem to be universally nostalgic for despite the fact that we can all agree that a lot of those years sucked. Does it have something to do with missing when you didn’t have any real responsibilities? Whatever. Shout out to anyone who knew me in high school who’s still friends with me now, because all the awkward stuff that happens to me currently doesn’t even compare to how bad it was back then.

Veronica Falls – “Teenage”

This track inspired this week’s theme. It’s the first single from the London band’s forthcoming album Waiting For Something To Happen, promising more wistful lo-fi guitar pop.

Broken Social Scene – “Anthems For A Seventeen-Year-Old Girl”

This is never going to get old, right? No, no it’s not.

The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart – “A Teenager In Love”

Most of the Pains Of Being Pure At Heart’s songs sound sort of inherently nostalgic, but “A Teenager In Love” really nails it. If only more bands had been mixing twee and shoegaze when I was in high school, it would have made lying facedown on my bedroom floor way more special.

College – “Teenage Color”

This track from French electronic producer David Grellier may be carried by a carefree synth hook, but there’s still the constant reminder that one day, you must grow up.

Marina and the Diamonds – “Teen Idle”

This ballad from the Welsh chanteuse is a look back on the bygone years that nails all those conflicting feelings. Feelings! Those sucked, didn’t they?

The Virgins – “Teen Lovers”

Remember when fashionably sleazy Gossip Girl/Nylon magazine rock was sort of its own micro-genre? It was pretty alright while it lasted, though.

TEEN – “Sleep Is Noise”

The lo-fi synth-pop outfit delivers reverb-laden vocals over a rattling beat. It’s comfortably fuzzy while staying firmly grounded.

T.Rex – “Teenage Dream”

Marc Bolan’s glam rock sprawl recalls the idealism of adolescence. We’ve all been there.

Girls Aloud – “Teenage Dirtbag”

A Wheatus cover done by British pop stars is a thing that happened a while ago. I don’t care if you care that it exists.

The Undertones – “Teenage Kicks”

I think it’s some sort of law in the English-speaking music world that if this punk classic doesn’t do anything for you, you’re a worthless shell of a human being.

Follow Katie Chow on Twitter.

10 ‘Indie’ Albums From 10 Years Ago That Are Better Than Interpol’s ‘Turn On The Bright Lights’

Matador on December 4th will release the 10th Anniversary Double LP of Interpol’s Turn On The Bright Lights. (“All pre-orders include exact replica Interpol pin from the era,” too, so act fast!) I don’t know about you guys, but my relationship with this album never went beyond zoning out to “Untitled”—or maybe “NYC,” if I was feeling especially moody. Here’s the stuff that came out in 2002 and was vastly better. Just sayin’.

The Notwist — Neon Golden

Boards Of Canada — Geogaddi

Lambchop — Is A Woman

The Walkmen — Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone

Imperial Teen — On

Mclusky — Mclusky Do Dallas

Luna — Romantica

Belle & Sebastian — Storytelling

Sleater-Kinney — One Beat

Broken Social Scene — You Forgot It In People

Follow Miles Klee on Twitter.

‘Scott Pilgrim’ the Soundtrack vs. ‘Scott Pilgrim’ the Movie

I have precious little interest in seeing the forthcoming Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Like a lot of people, I’ve got Michael Cera fatigue, and while Miguel Arteta’s Youth in Revolt almost proved sufficient incentive for me to reconsider, this vehicle doesn’t come even close. In it, Cera plays the eponymous hipster who thinks himself on top of the world until a pair of doc martens with bangs (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) throws him for a loop. The catch is: in order to date her, he’s obliged to defeat her seven “evil” ex-boyfriends. It’s a kind of sci-fi, comic book romancey thing that Kevin Smith has already loudly embraced, which is a sure-fire sign that I should steer well clear. The soundtrack, however, just might be another story. Pitchfork is reporting that it will feature original and/or previously unreleased material from the likes of Beck, Metric, and Broken Social Scene.

In the film, Cera’s character is bassist for the band SEX BOB-OMB, and the filmmakers tapped Beck to write the fictional rockers’ set-list. There are four new tracks included on the album (out August 10th), with Beck providing the instrumentation and the pic’s actors doing their own vocals. Additionally, regular Beck collaborator-cum-producer-cum-all-around-best-buddy Nigel Godrich has produced both the soundtrack album and the movie’s score, which is slated for a tbd digital release. The complete track listing of the former is as follows:

01 SEX BOB-OMB (Beck): “We Are SEX BOB-OMB” 02 Plumtree: “Scott Pilgrim” 03 Frank Black: “I Heard Ramona Sing” 04 Beachwood Sparks: “By Your Side” 05 Black Lips: “O Katrina!” 06 Crash and the Boys (Broken Social Scene): “I’m So Sad, So Very, Very Sad” 07 Crash and the Boys (Broken Social Scene): “We Hate You Please Die” 08 SEX BOB-OMB (Beck): “Garbage Truck” 09 T. Rex: “Teenage Dream” 10 The Bluetones: “Sleazy Bed Track” 11 Blood Red Shoes: “It’s Getting Boring by the Sea” 12 Metric: “Black Sheep” 13 SEX BOB-OMB (Beck): “Threshold” 14 Broken Social Scene: “Anthems for a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl” 15 The Rolling Stones: “Under My Thumb” 16 Beck: “Ramona (Acoustic)” 17 Beck: “Ramona” 18 SEX BOB-OMB (Beck): “Summertime” 19 Brian LeBarton: “Threshold 8 Bit”

April Music Reviews: Laura Marling, Bright Eyes, Broken Social Scene

Laura Marling, I Speak Because I Can (Astralwerks) Laura Marling’s second album contains whispery narratives and brassy love ballads, a show of range that should dispel any and all comparisons to other British pop tarts. In folksy, Celtic-inspired canticles, Marling ruminates on unorthodox topics such as The Odyssey, men at war and dreary snow. On “Blackberry Stone,” the album’s most heartfelt and saddest track, Marling keens over love lost with the most poignant limerick we’ve ever heard: “You never did learn to let the little things go/ You never did learn to let me be/ You never did learn to let little people grow/ You never did learn how to see.”—Eiseley Tauginas

Radio Dept., Clinging to a Scheme (Labrador) What’s better than witnessing a fall from grace? Witnessing a glorious comeback. Three songs off Radio Dept.’s first album, the critically acclaimed Lesser Matters, landed on Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette soundtrack. The follow-up, Pet Grief, eschewed the Swedish trio’s ambient-pop formula and drew tepid reviews. It’s been a long four-year wait for the band’s third record, but rest easy: Clinging to a Scheme pulls together the finest elements from the band’s previous offerings, mixing dreamy pop with punchy vocals. The album’s best moment comes courtesy of “Heaven’s on Fire,” thanks to a jarring sample of Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore singing over sweet-sounding synths, “When youth culture becomes monopolized by big business, what are the youth to do?” —Cayte Grieve

The Kissaway Trail, Sleep Mountain (Bella Union) Critics who claim that the Kissaway Trail is nothing more than a poor man’s Arcade Fire can go ahead and pat themselves on their smug backs. The Danish five-piece’s sophomore effort, Sleep Mountain, is a forgettable Neon Bible, which is to say it’s perfectly fine background music stuffed to the gills with disparate indie rock influences. The opening track, “SDP,” is the album’s kitchen sink, with its forceful bass line, swelling chorus, piano chords, church bells and aching Win Butler-esque vocals. It’s a proven formula that might work if it didn’t feel so inauthentic. Tellingly, the album’s best song is a fragile and deliciously trippy cover of Neil Young’s “Philadelphia.” —Alexandra Vickers

Bright Eyes/Neva Dinova, One Jug of Wine, Two Vessels (Saddle Creek) Originally released as an EP in 2004 and now spiffed up with four additional tracks, One Jug of Wine, Two Vessels finds friends and collaborators Conor Oberst and Neva Dinova in good form. Stylistically varied, the album features both the moody, melodic down-tempo indie chuggers that Oberst is known for, as well as more rocking, ecstatic tunes. Those four new songs are welcome extras: “Happy Accident” has a forceful backbeat and cutting vocals, while “I’ll Be Your Friend” features a blistering sax solo. —Michael Jordan

Caribou, Swim (Merge) Swirling, propulsive and incredibly catchy, Swim is filled with rhythmic, warm electronica sounds that would fit in on the dance floor or around the campfire. The natural and unprocessed instrumentation lends a lovely ambiance to the more sparse sections and some jarringly playful “found sounds” arise in the addictive percussion. Daniel Snaith’s lilting voice floats in and out of the dense soundscapes, occasionally locking into a melody or a lyrical refrain. —M.J.

Chris Pureka, How I Learned to See in the Dark (Sad Rabbit/ABA) Traveling troubadour Chris Pureka is a sizzling amalgam of Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams and Ryan Adams. Each song on her unfettered, gritty third release, How I Learned to See in the Dark, uses gut-wrenching vocals to tug our ears’ heartstrings (never mind the disastrous anatomy misstep). Now backed by a full band, Pureka’s sound keeps maturing. “Landlocked” showcases her mastery of finger picking, while “Broken Clock” plays with rhythm and puns to put over the pain of a broken heart.—Hillary Weston

Broken Social Scene, Forgiveness Rock Record (Art & Crafts) It’s time to face facts: Broken Social Scene will never make another You Forgot It in People. That landmark album was a brilliant balance of experiments and hooks. Their 2005 self-titled follow-up had more ambition but less form. But now that the burden of trying to top a classic has been lifted, the Toronto musicians can finally be themselves. The familiar enthusiasm (“Water in Hell”) and kinkiness (“Me and My Hand”) are there, as are Emily Haines, Amy Millan and Feist, who sing together for the first time on the luminescent “All to All.” On “Highway Slipper Jam,” BSS adds a jittery Radiohead-like beat to their repertoire, which goes to show even low-fi musicians eventually go digital. It’s not as catchy an effort as People, but then again, it isn’t trying to be.—Ashley Wetmore Simpson

Crushing the Covers of “Love Will Tear Us Apart”

Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” — a lo-fi classic, staple on indie rock mixtapes, and for all intents and purposes, a reluctant pop song — is a track that everyone from record store obsessives to casual fans will never, ever tire of. It does what a timeless song should do: perfectly captures a specific moment, while conveying a mood, message, and sonic output that stays consistently relevant and universally accessible as it ages. Now it’s being covered for the soundtrack to an Eric Bana/Rachel McAdams movie (The Time Traveler’s Wife) by Canadian indie rock high priests/priestesses, Broken Social Scene.

As reported and posted by Pitchfork, BSS’s cover is a dark, piano-driven moody dirge-esque ballad that does the song’s more mournful tones proper justice (though that synth line from the original song? Could’ve done without it).

Initially debuted in 1979, and first released on a 7″ in April 1980, the song never made it onto a proper Joy Division album until long after lead singer Ian Curtis had killed himself, when Joy Division had morphed into New Order. As noted by Rolling Stone, who named it #179 on their top 500 songs of all time (one spot above “Hey Ya,” seven behind “Dream On”):

Singer Curtis did not live to see this British band’s best single become a hit. He committed suicide in May 1980, two days before a scheduled American tour. “Ian’s influence seemed to be madness and insanity,” said guitarist Sumner.

Who else has taken a shot at the song over the years, though?

Well, The Cure, naturally, who didn’t really do anything too special with it, but turned in sufficient work nonetheless. The Arcade Fire and U2 covered it once when The Arcade Fire joined U2 on stage once in Montreal. An exciting moment, but unfortunately, it comes out sounding more like a late 90s-era U2 song than an Arcade Fire track or the Joy Division original. Or, as the Youtuber who posted the video wrote, “Arcade Fire join U2 on stage in montreal, for a Joy Division cover, Bono tries too hard.” Pretty much, though Win Butler gives Ian Curtis’ baritone a noble shot.

A popular cover is Honeyroot’s 2005 cover of the song, which actually landed the otherwise obscure group on the UK singles chart a la *Gary Jules’ cover of Tears For Fears’ “Mad World”:

Nouvelle Vague, who have made a career out of giving 80s classics a French New Wave bossa nova twist, give their version the grace, lightness, and peacefulness no Joy Division song ever had. If only it didn’t sound like every other Nouvelle Vague song they’ve ever recorded. Still, wonderful.

As is Swedish singer-songwriter (and supposed heir to Nick Drake’s throne) Jose Gonzalez’s shot at it:

And then there’s what’s generally understood as the worst cover of the song, ever: 80s star Paul Young, who recorded his take three years after the original was released. It’s so goddamn terrible, we’re not going to post it here. Check it out for yourself.

Then again, Paul Young — dickcheese that he turned in for this assignment — might not have the worst one, after all. There’s always New Order, who gave the song they recorded in their former incarnation an awful tribute, something that resembles a hackneyed shell of what used to be (and could generally encapsulate what many a Joy Division fan and/or music critic tends to think about New Order).

Massive cover fail. Finally, to be fair to the memory of Joy Division, the original:

My Old Kentucky Blog has a comprehensive list of LWTUA covers for download that’s worth checking out. Last piece of trivia: about that aforementioned Gary Jules and “Mad World” cover? It originated on the Donnie Darko soundtrack, a movie that might hold the best tribute to the song, period, in which the title character loses his virginity to — what else? — “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”
Tears For Fears Tickets