Stars’ Torquil Campbell discusses ghosts, memories, and music in a conversation about the band’s stunning new album ‘From Capelton Hill’ and their remarkable staying power.
Stream: ‘From Capelton Hill’ – Stars
We’re still interested in the same basic question, which is, “How do you write the perfect song?”
Together for over twenty years, indie rock band Stars are still shining bright.
The Montreal-based band sound as fresh as ever on From Capelton Hill, their stunning ninth studio album and first LP in a half decade (since 2017’s There Is No Love in Fluorescent Light). As catchy as it is cathartic and as dreamy as it is dynamic, From Capelton Hill is part-walk down memory lane and part-looking forward into an uncertain, but hopeful future. Characterized by captivating moments of intimacy, nostalgia, connection, and reckoning, it finds Stars dwelling in intense self-reflection and self-assessment, taking in the richness and the fullness of the lives they’ve made together over the past two-plus decades.
“We’re still interested in the same basic question, which is, ‘How do you write the perfect song?’” founding member Torquil Campbell says, speaking over Zoom from his home in Vancouver. “We’re still fighting the same battle against the impossibility of writing a better song than “Waterloo Sunset,” which is never going to happen, but we’re going to keep trying. What else can one do?”
For Campbell, Amy Millan, Evan Cranley, Chris Seligman, Patrick McGee, and Chris McCarron, this is so much more than a band. Stars is a family; a gang.
“We love each other,” Campbell emphasizes. “We really, really love each other. We’ve had children and raised those kids together. We’ve gone through people’s parents dying together, people’s parents getting ill. There’s a lot of love.”
It’s a love that translates fluidly into From Capelton Hill’s twelve songs,
whether it’s the smoldering ‘80s synth-inspired “Build a Fire,” the achingly earnest and emotive reverie “Capelton Hill,” the tender acoustic serenade “Snowy Owl,” or the gorgeous, glistening indie rock fever dream, “Pretenders.” The latter is a romantic dalliance down memory lane for Stars that sees co-vocalist Amy Millan singing what she’s described as a “love letter” to Torquil Campbell and her memories of the band’s origins. It’s a poignant, raw, and honest look into one’s own past, with lyrics like, “We were Rockefellers, we were the best of the pretenders, all our bets on being young forever” evoking a beautiful sense of sentimentality and wistful warmth.
What′s become of you in that bed?
Painted the walls with all those pretty things you said
I was the girl, you were the one
We were certain it would go on
When we were happy hopping turnstiles
We said goodbye to the dive bars
The gilded foyer unfolded
We were Rockefellers
We were the best of the pretenders
All our bets on being young forever
There’s a sense of sober appreciation permeating these emotionally mature, deeply moving songs; a kind of profound self-awareness befitting a group of musicians as tight-knit, and as dedicated to their craft, as Stars. From Capelton Hill captures, in so many ways, who Stars are today and who they want to be – not only to each other, but also to their listeners.
“We’re just trying to be a kitchen sink band,” Campbell says. If you’re doing the dishes… or you’re breaking up, or you’re staring out the window, we’re there for you. We want to be like bread, it’s just there in the fridge and it keeps you alive.”
The band’s 20th anniversary came sometime during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Campbell says they didn’t even realize it had happened.
“I think that it’s hard to remember them when they come up, because you’re just so occupied with trying to stay alive and stay in the present,“ he says. “I think for the band, it’s just like one endless moment of trying to make it work.”
Atwood Magazine caught up with Torquil Campbell to dive into the depths of From Capelton Hill and explore twenty years of Stars. What ensued was a deeply philosophical, sometimes existential – and always heartfelt – conversation about music, camaraderie, memories, ghosts, and more.
“The longer we’re around, the more the band is kept alive and kept vital by the people who listen to it,” Campbell explains. “When we started, it was like 90% our energy, 10% the audience’s energy, and it’s basically been going the other way. As long as there is an audience and as long as people care about it, then it makes it very difficult to not keep going, because that’s incredibly lovely that you’ve gotten through to someone on that level.”
We started out wanting to be a cult band, and we are, for better or worse, we’re a cult band.
As for From Capelton Hill, Torquil reassures us this is far from Stars’ swan song. With that said, he hopes the record speaks to listeners on that same visceral, vulnerable plane from which it was made.
“I hope that it’s there for them,” he says. “That’s the most important thing in the world to Stars. It’s what we’ve based our whole career on: We want to be there for you, we want to be your anthem. We are not a band that wants you to think much about us while you’re listening to our music; we want you to think about yourself. Your life is incredible, your life is filled with dramatic plot twists and terrible tragedies and huge triumphs, and we are the fucking soundtrack. That’s it.”
To me, that’s what great records do: They let you go back into a house that never goes away, it’s never going to be torn down. When everything else around you is gone, there’s still a song that takes you back somewhere, and that’s why the record’s called ‘From Capelton Hill,’ because that’s where we like to live.
Stream: ‘From Capelton Hill’ – Stars
A CONVERSATION WITH STARS’ TORQUIL CAMPBELL
Atwood Magazine: Torq, first off, congratulations to you and the band, not only on this album's upcoming release, but also on passing 20 years together.
Torquil Campbell: Thanks, man, crazy, huh?
Absolutely! This milestone was achieved probably at some point right before or during the early parts of the pandemic; did Stars do anything to commemorate 20 years?
Torquil Campbell: No. [chuckle] No, I don’t think we realized it, you know? I mean, what would we have done? Like I’ll put a tweet up? I don’t know, ’cause I guess it would have been… ‘Nightsongs’ came out in 2000, so it would have been right at the beginning of the whole thing. And we had a few plans, but oddly, we were sort of… We did get lucky, we got luckier than some bands because we didn’t have a record coming out, we had just finished a cycle, and we had just finished doing this play that we had done about ourselves, which was hilarious.
And so we were just sort of gearing up to make another record, and I think… It’s funny, I think about those kind of markers. I think that it’s hard to remember them when they come up, because you’re just so occupied with trying to stay alive and stay in the present, and I think for the listener, those markers mean a lot more, because that’s how music works for people. You know what I mean? It’s like, Oh, this reminds me of a time. This takes me back to this age or of being in college or whatever it is. I think for the band, it’s just like one endless moment of trying to make it work. So no, we didn’t, but we should. I don’t think 22 years, maybe we’ll wait till 25 and then we’ll do something big. Set Yourself on Fire came out in 2005, so if we do the 20 years for Set Yourself on Fire, that’ll be 25 years we’ve been a band. I mean, what the f***! That is so weird.
It makes you realize that like Willie Nelson just… He feels like he’s just getting going. You know what I mean? Like, you don’t sit there going, “Ah, I’ve been doing this so long.” You’re always like, “How am I going to do this?”
To do it as a band is something different because you're sticking it together as all of you for that long.
Torquil Campbell: Yeah, it ain’t easy. And it is true, that is the miracle of it. That’s the part that just gets increasingly more difficult to ever contemplate giving up, is just the success of having it made, having made it work with six people. But the thing is, it’s like… I’ve been best friends with Seligman since I was eight years old, and I’ve been pals with Evan since I was 13 years old, so the band’s part of our life, but it’s not the whole of our life, there was a life before that as well. So I think it’s just… The band really was started as an excuse to hang out. It really was! No kidding, me and Chris just didn’t want to stop being together in New York City and hanging out, and so we just lived in one room and came up with an excuse and kept making music, but it never occurred to us this would be the situation 20 years on. It’s incredible.
I hadn't heard about this play you were just talking about. Do you mind giving me like the boilerplate pitch on what this play was?
Torquil Campbell: It is like Seinfeld crossed with Chekhov, it’s called Stars Together, and it is starring… It starred us, and it was about us, and we rebuilt our jam space on stage in Toronto at Crow’s Theatre, and we collaborated with a dear friend of mine, Chris Abraham, who’s the artistic director there, who worked on my one-man show, True Crime, when I did… I wrote a play and performed it for a few years, a while back. And so he’s been a collaborator with me on a lot of things and he and this… And Zack Russell, who’s a young man, he’s a great writer in Canada, a TV writer. We… They came to us and we were like, We want to do this show where we put you guys on stage and you tell the story of the band, and you kind of talk about what it’s like to be a band right now in the world and be a group of people who are aging in rock and roll.
And we made this play, we worked on it for a year, and then it ran in Toronto for a couple of months, just before the pandemic started, actually, we were booked to do it at other places, but the pandemic, of course, put the kibosh on it. So we were going to do it in Montreal and potentially New York. And hopefully that might happen, but at the moment, it seems very close to being turned into a television program, which is… I know, sounds exciting, but to me, represents a kind of nightmare that I never even imagined I would have. So I’m just praying with everything I have that that doesn’t happen. [laughter] Because I spent my life trying to stop being an actor, and now it’s like Al Pacino. Every time I get out, they pull me back in, I can’t seem to escape. So I would like not to have to act even as myself ever again. That would be my wish.
But I loved doing the play. The play was one of my favorite things we’ve ever done, like watching the guys in the band who’d never acted before, take that on, learn how to act, deliver monologues. It was incredible, it was a blast, and it was really good. I’m really proud of that show.
You keep things fresh after 20 years, I guess.
Torquil Campbell: Yeah, man, you know what, it was amazing, like everybody should do a play where they play themselves, because if you really do it properly and you take apart yourself, and you come up… You do the difficult moments, and then you re-enact them. Say you and your wife were like, “Okay, let’s act out one of our fights,” when you weren’t actually having a fight. When you’re getting on fine, you’re like, “Let’s have one of our fights.” And then you try to act it out. You’d be like, “Jesus, I act like an idiot.” You know what I mean? Stepping outside of it allows you to not have to do it in real life. It’s weird. And now when we start to fight, we’re like, “That sounds like dialogue from the play. Let’s not do this.” So we just don’t.
Did the playbill say, “starring Stars” on it?
Torquil Campbell: Well it was called Stars Together, and it was a concert, too. We played 14 songs during it. It was a full band setup. And so, you would sort of veer between this ultra-realistic kind of grim depiction of life in a band, and then the lights would drop, and suddenly it would be a rock show. ‘Cause it was our jam space, the set was our actual jam space, Mount Zoomer, which is a legendary jam space in Montreal, where… I actually heard it was found in 2002 by Win and Régine from Arcade Fire. And they moved in there as an apartment, and their names are still etched in the pavement, outside… When somebody was fixing the pavement, they put their names in the pavement.
And then they moved out when… Of course they did, yes. When they became very, very famous, they moved out, and Wolf Parade took it over. And then Wintersleep took it over. And then we took it over. So it’s been a jam space now for over 20 years. Wolf Parade have a record called At Mount Zoomer, which is named after that jam space.
Stars must be in quite the self-referential space these days, as From Capelton Hill contains similar qualities. Your band has prevailed where so many of your contemporaries and peers from the early 2000s from both New York and Montreal did not. You mentioned how everybody's friends, and it sounds like it's a family effort. To what would you attest Stars' staying power?
Torquil Campbell: We get this question, as you can imagine, a lot now because, as you say, it’s really, really hard to keep a band together. Although I’m pretty impressed with the staying power of a lot of the bands that were our contemporaries. Metric is still around. Broken is still around. Arcade Fire is still around. But there have been lots of great bands that didn’t make it, like Wolf Parade. The short answer is love. Evan and Amy are a couple. Amy and Chris were a couple until Evan and Amy broke them up. I’ve loved Chris all my life. He’s been an obsession of mine, whether it was playing baseball with him or doing drugs with him, or starting a band with him. He was always the guy I wanted to do shit with ’cause he was fucking hilarious and the weirdest person I’ve ever met, and just the hardest-working person I’ve ever met. So, so hard-working and kept me at things that I would have given up on.
I really do think that the answer to that question is a combination of love, of having really, really similar senses of humor, and being really dedicated to making each other laugh in a kind of obsessive way, to the detriment often of getting shit done. And lastly, I think we got lucky. I think that we just happened to accumulate a group of people who weren’t quitters. There are people who end things easily, and there are people who don’t. And I’m not an ender. I don’t do endings. If you want me out of your life, you’re going to have to tell me, or I’m not leaving. That’s just the way I am. I have friends for a long time, and… I don’t leave things. And neither does Amy, and neither does Evan, and neither does Chris, and neither does Patty, and neither does Nar Nar.
So that is, I think… That’s just luck that you have a group of personality types who are like, “No, I’m going to forgive this person. I’m going to hang in there. I’m going to stick around. I’m going to give it one more shot.” That kind of stuff. And we’ve made it work. We’ve made a living, and I think that we’re all… Canadians are… I’m not a Canadian, but I’ve lived here for a long time, and they’re very… They’re cool with finishing fourth. They’re not risk… They’re risk-averse. And we did something that worked, and I think you get one band if you’re lucky, unless you’re… I don’t know, Thom Yorke. And then even then, you kinda only get one band, that really goes, that really, really goes.
But love… I mean, we love each other. We really, really love each other. And we’ve had children and raised those kids together. We’ve gone through people’s parents dying together, people’s parents getting ill. There’s a lot of love.
It sounds like it's the human element that keeps things together really in the end.
Torquil Campbell: Yeah, yeah, and I think that we are an extremely strange band in a way because we’re not… We don’t all like the same kind of music, and we’re not all kind of living the same kind of life, really. We come from very different places. There is music that we all unite around, for sure, The Smiths and New Order being kind of the big ones, I think, that really mean a lot to everybody in the band. But Evan comes from a jazz background, and Chris comes from a classical background, and Amy comes from a country and western bluegrass background, and Chris McCarron comes from much more of a kind of metal punk world, and I come from the Pet Shop Boys.
So I think that we’re all interested in the conversation musically that continues, because it’s always so complicated putting this shit together. It’s not just… I think… The Strokes, it’s like they’re an amazing band, but they did what The Strokes were going to do in their first album. They weren’t going to go and make like a ’70s louche funk record after that, they weren’t those kind of musicians. So in a way, why stay together? You made a perfect thing and you were all coming from that same place. So how do you keep going as a band if there isn’t that tension? I think the bands that stay together for a long time, you would find that there’s a lot of people being like bringing stuff in that is like, what? You want to do that? Okay, weird!
It's wonderful to hear that, especially because so many people today look at a band and say, “a band's a business.” Sure, but first and foremost, if it's going to survive, it sounds like a band is a family, and to be a family you have to nurture that family more than anything.
Torquil Campbell: It’s a gang, too. It’s like at this point, being in Stars or even Arcade Fire, as big as they are, we’re basically like sort of ocean liners from the 1920s. We are so outside the economic and conceptual model of how music’s being made and distributed and consumed right now, we’re too big to… We’re this ungainly… We’re the Hotel Europe. It’s like everybody’s still wearing bow ties and doing just table-side service of fucking crepes Suzette. If you like that kind of thing, then here we are, but it’s certainly not rational. If you look at the pop charts, if you look at the people who are making it, there is one person, and then they go hire some people, Billie Eilish or Luna Li or Japanese Breakfast or any number of great bands, it’s one person doing it.
And where’s the jam spaces? Having a band is a very hard thing to do now in North America. They still seem to manage it in England for some reason, but here they don’t… I don’t know, it’s hard. Space is expensive, and… So yeah, I mean, it is a business, but it is a gang.
I like that.
Torquil Campbell: There is an aspect of revenge. Honestly, I felt like quitting today. I woke up to a bunch of emails where I was like, “You know what? This is just not fucking worth it anymore. I just can’t fight this fight every day,” but I know that… I know that I have to stay because I love these people and I love playing shows, and I love the listeners, but also as Nile Rogers once said, they said, “What’s your motivating factor in your career?” And he was like, “Professional jealousy, like, Fuck you, I will not die.”
Honestly, Torq, it's better than a desk job as well.
Torquil Campbell: Exactly. It beats working. But I refuse to die. As long as there are people who want me to, I will not.
You mentioned The Strokes' debut album; they probably were just starting around the exact same time the band formed, right?
Torquil Campbell: Literally the same month. I just found a notebook, dude, from 2000 of mine, and, you know, lists that you make when you’re like 24 years old. It’s like, get a job, get a life. Brush your teeth. Try to be more sane, smoke less weed. And one of the things was call Ryan Gentles. And Ryan Gentles was The Strokes’ first manager. And the story goes that Ryan Gentles was trying to decide whether to rep Stars or The Strokes as his first band, and he chose The Strokes. Very smart decision by Ryan Gentles. But I… That’s why… And I… That’s me, I never fucking called the guy. Somebody told me, “Oh, this guy’s interested,” never called him, ’cause I’m an idiot, ’cause I was working on brushing my teeth.
It was all around Fez Time Cafe. Was that still around when you were getting out on Lafayette Street? I think it died early 2000s. That was a place where a lot of bands were playing, the Fez. It was a little cabaret space, it was great. That was really pre-Internet, before you could get big on the Internet, you had to just play shows.
New York is a funny scene right now: I feel like the city is kind of undergoing its own little evolution. We'll see what happens.
Torquil Campbell: I lived in Brooklyn, but I don’t know what they’re so proud about, but whatever. When we moved to Brooklyn, it was like, “It’ll be like living in the country.” That’s what we thought. “We’ll move to south Williamsburg. It’ll be like living in the country.” Not so much.
How do you feel Stars the band has evolved musically? How does the band that made From Capelton Hill compare to the one that formed in the city; the one that made those first couple of records in the 2000s?
Torquil Campbell: Massively, because in 2012, Chris McCarron joined. Up until then, Evan was covering base and guitars, so we were hiring guys to play with us on the road and play Evan’s parts, but the record was always made with this weird thing of like Evan playing bass, Chris playing keyboards, Amy maybe strumming some chords, me singing, but we couldn’t ever hear the song finished or fully realized until we recorded it, ’cause we’d have to overdub the guitars. Once we got McCarron, who… That was the luckiest break we ever got. He was a guy who everybody in Montreal wanted, he was playing with The Dears, he was playing with Land of Talk, he was playing with all kinds of people.
And for whatever reason, I think ’cause we offered him steadier work, maybe, than other people, he jumped on board, and as soon as he did, we wanted him to write with us because he’s easily, one of the best guitar players I’ve ever heard. He can do anything, and he’s got incredible taste. So once we got him, and that was around ‘The North,’ it felt like to me, the band became really a different group. It went from being a synthesizer-based band, where the drums and the bass sort of lived as like dance, in a dance music world, to a rock band, where the synthesizers kind of jumped on top of that.
And it’s weird, ’cause I think in a way that was the same genesis as New Order. The first New Order records are very much Stephen Morris and Peter Hook creating that foundation and there are synth lines over it. Barney could barely play guitar at that point, and then by ‘Brotherhood,’ they’re a rock band, like the first side of that record is a full-on rock record. So that is the biggest change, I think. We’ve never tried to change. We’re still interested in the same basic question, which is how do you write the perfect song, what is the perfect hook, what is the best possible song we can write.
And we’ve never put style over that, we’ve never closed up our box of options, musically speaking, in order to keep a consistent style throughout the record. So if we feel like a song needs a cello, we go get one. If the song needs a french horn, then Chris plays it, and that’s always been much more important to us, the kind of, the idea of a perfect song. Me and Evan very much vibe on that thing together, like Evan and I are huge Elvis Costello fans, huge Squeeze fans, and I think we’re both really obsessed with the idea of what is the combination of these 12 notes that no one’s come up with yet that is going to slay and… So in a way, we haven’t evolved, except in the sense that we’ve gotten better at using our weapons.
We’re still fighting the same battle against the impossibility of writing a better song than “Waterloo Sunset,” which is never going to happen, but we’re going to keep trying. What else can one do?
You also just answered my next question, which was going to be, what makes Stars shine after all this time? It sounds like “the pursuit of the perfect song” is really this unending driving force.
Torquil Campbell: Yeah, I would say too, though, that the longer we’re around, the more the band is kept alive and kept vital by the people who listen to it. So it’s like when we started, it was like 90% our energy, 10% the audience’s energy, and it’s basically been going the other way, do you know what I mean? Like as long as there is an audience and as long as people care about it, and we hear people say lovely things to us about what the music means to them, then it makes it very difficult to not keep going, because that’s incredibly lovely that you’ve gotten through to someone on that level.
We started out wanting to be a cult band, and we are, for better or worse, we’re a cult band, and so the people who love us, they fucking really, really love us, you know. I always think like The Hold Steady and us are kind of like the two cult bands left in the world, and I think in a way we represent the same idea, which is like, if you come see us, we’re going to give you what you came for, we’re not going to be… We’re not going to turn our back to you and be difficult and offer up some pretentious bullshit that satisfies us, we’re here ’cause we love you, we’re here to make you happy, to give you a good night out, that’s a big part of what we do.
Action, love, and perseverance. I understand. We are also about to come up on 20 years of two of my personal favorite Stars songs, “Elevator Love Letter” and “Heart.”
Torquil Campbell: I love those songs. Those are two of my faves as well.
Really? Does any of Stars' earlier material continue to resonate with you?
Torquil Campbell: Yeah, lots of it! I love Heart. That’s still my favorite Stars album. I love Nightsongs because it was really a different band, really – it was me and Chris and Jimmy and Emily from Metric who made that record, really. I don’t listen to it very often, it comes up on the radio or somebody will play it, ’cause they think it’s like, you’ll go to a dinner party and someone will think it’s nice, it’ll be nice to play. I’m like, “What the fuck are you doing? What are you doing right now? You think this is what I want?” But I just love the the… I love records that live in very, very specific worlds, and for me, ‘Heart’ lives in a very specific… ‘Heart’ was made in a bedroom by four people for no reason other than total love, there was no… We had no deal, we had no record deal, we had no manager, we had nothing, we just made it ’cause we loved each other and we wanted to hang out, and I can hear that in the music.
I certainly can too. The energy is just so... raw. It doesn't try to be anything other than itself, and you really go for something. It's heavy too, which I really like. Is it easier to look all the way back at the stuff you're making then than it is to pinpoint some of the stuff from the 2010s, like The Five Ghosts or The North?
Torquil Campbell: It is easier to think… It’s odd. Yeah, I think I have more memories of doing that stuff than I do the stuff that we made in the mid-oughts, partly because we were just so fucking busy. We just… That was when we were really, really like, make a record, tour, tour, tour; make a record, tour, tour, tour; make a record, tour, tour, tour. And in between all that, we were having children and my dad died, and in the middle of making ‘The Five Ghosts,’ my father died. ‘The Five Ghosts’ is I think, for me artistically, my favorite Stars record. Even though I know that’s not something many people agree with, I really believe in that record, but that I think is because I needed it so badly at the time, and I put so much of myself into it. But yeah, I do think it’s easier in a way to look further back…
And even No One is Lost and Fluorescent Light...
Torquil Campbell: Because it’s like those feel to me more like part of a continuum of what we’re doing now. They were all written in Zoomer, they were written in a similar post my dad dying, which for me was like a major kind of dividing line in my life. My kid was born, my dad died four months later. That, 2009 was the year that it was like, “Okay, you’re not young anymore. You are… This shit is real.” So all those records after that were made in a different world for me, you know, I was a different person. So it feels like when I can look back at that, that other self, it’s like I can take more distance from it almost, you know?
I'm so sorry to hear about your loss.
Torquil Campbell: Yeah, well, it happens to us all. It’s a heart-breaker, that’s for sure. It really… He was the guy – my dad is the guy who says, “When there’s nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire,” that’s my dad.
So, he is forever memorialized?
Torquil Campbell: I know, it’s weird hearing that song, I’m like, “Oh, there’s my dead dad.” Yeah.
I can imagine.
Torquil Campbell: Yeah, he was a legend, my dad, a great Shakespearian actor and an amazing person, so it was a big hole. I thought about him the other day, actually, because Devon Welsh from Majical Cloudz, do you know that band? His dad, Ken Welsh, is also an actor, really great actor, he was in Twin Peaks and a bunch of stuff. You would know him if you saw his face. And he just died the other day, and it just reminded… My dad and Ken were friends, so it reminded me of the people we’re going to lose in the coming years, man, it’s going to be crazy. When fucking McCartney dies, it’s like, “What the fuck? Paul McCartney is not in the world? That’s weird.”
Prince isn’t around, David Bowie’s not around, you know? That’s really when things went to shit. When those guys died, it really does feel like everyone gave up.
And yet here we are.
Torquil Campbell: And yet, here we are, we soldier on. Which is what he would want us to do, I’m sure.
I couldn’t agree more. From Capelton Hill shares a lot of the same musical qualities that made Heart and Set Yourself on Fire such enchanting listens. It's undeniably brighter and tighter than those albums; most of your songs come under four minutes, and there's no eight-minute opus like “Don't be Afraid to Think,” but it's brimming with just this undeniable charm of fearlessness and passion. What was your vision for this album?
Torquil Campbell: So it changed, I think. Well, the initial vision was we just want to play acoustic electric instruments as much as possible, we wanted to get Chris off synthesizers, we wanted to get him back to playing the Rhodes, he used to play a lot of Rhodes. We wanted to play in the room together, that was like our big ambition, it’s like, “Let’s write in the room together.” And then the dreaded 19 came along, so that totally fucked our plans on that level.
But eventually we managed to get in the room together and write quite a lot of the record that way, like the four or five tunes from the album that made the cut were songs we wrote in the last three months when we actually could be in a room again together. But I think the vision also changed, in the sense that like, as I’m sure you feel and everyone feels like, what were we planning before March of 2020? I can’t remember. Life and people’s perception of their own lives has changed so foundationally and fundamentally because of this pandemic, and when it hit and we were all in lockdown for three months here in Canada, like total lockdown, and then partial lockdown for another five months after that, it completely shook my foundations of identity.
And I had no idea that would happen, like I had no idea how much my sense of self was wrapped up in being a musician, it really didn’t… I thought I was a dad, a husband, a neighbor, or whatever, like I defined myself these ways, but then once I had to actually go for a walk and think like, “Wow, I might never play a live show again,” like this might not happen again, that fucking really rocked me, you know? And so a lot of the themes of the album are informed by that experience of asking yourself, “What can you hold on to? Answer: Nothing. What do you lose? Answer: Everything. How fast does time pass: Quickly.” And you can’t go back. So acceptance of that, instead of fighting against it, became a big part of writing those songs.
The whole album is named after a place in North Hatley, Quebec, which is in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, about an hour-and-a-half south of Montreal. And my family, who are American, have had a house, a summer house there for 120 years, my great-great-grandfather built this place in 1904. And it has no heat, you can’t be in there in the winter, so you close it up six months a year, and it’s where we made ‘Set Yourself on Fire,’ Stars made ‘Set Yourself on Fire’ in North Hatley. We’ve spent many, many summers up there together, writing and hanging out, bringing our kids up there, and it’s the only place in my life that’s stayed consistent. I moved from England, then I moved to America, then Canada, then I went back to America. So the only place in my life that really feels like home has been in this house, and so the title ‘From Capelton Hill,’ a lot is about the notion that everything changes, we can’t stop change; as you get older, change speeds up.
And there are places in your mind, there are places, maybe physical places, where things don’t change that are incredibly important. And I think music acts in that way for a lot of people, it’s like a house you can go back to that never changes. You go back and listen to ‘Set Yourself on Fire’ and ‘Heart,’ they haven’t changed. I’ve changed, but those records haven’t changed. And I love that about pop music, that when they recorded “Waterloo Sunset,” it was a particular day in London, and Ray Davies was 27 years old, and he was a fucking genius, and he was drunk and he hated his brother, and they made that record and it’ll never change, even though Ray Davies doesn’t drink any more, and they like each other again, and he’s an old man now, that moment never changes.
To me, that’s what great records do: They let you go back into a house that never goes away, it’s never going to be torn down. When everything else around you is gone, there’s still a song that takes you back somewhere, and that’s why the record’s called From Capelton Hill, because that’s where we like to live.
Nothing here has changed except you, same old town, same lives passing through. I understand the lyric now.
Torquil Campbell: Yeah, there’s also a line, maybe my favorite line I’ve ever written actually on my favorite Stars song, which is “We Called it Love” from There Is No Love In Fluorescent Light, and there’s a refrain at the end that goes, “I don’t believe people ever change, but I’ve changed,” ’cause that’s what everybody thinks. Everybody thinks no one changes except for them. That’s how life feels.
You've been in deeply philosophical mood for many years now. No One is Lost is coming up on its own 10 years of writing, and that album is also a lot about loss, change and how we transform over the years.
Torquil Campbell: Yeah, we’ve always dealt with those things.
And I appreciate that; I think that's what fans love is, that it's catchy music with soul.
Torquil Campbell: We’re just trying to be a kitchen sink band. If you’re doing the dishes or you’re going to your mother’s funeral, or you’re breaking up, or you’re staring out the window, we’re there for you. We want to be like bread, it’s just there in the fridge and it keeps you alive.
I've never heard of the phrase kitchen sink band, but I love it.
Torquil Campbell: That’s what we are! Just stand at the kitchen sink, do the dishes, listen to us and we’ll try to keep you alive. That’s what we do.
You said this album is about getting everyone together in one room. Had other albums been done piecemeal and not together in the same room?
Torquil Campbell: To some degree. Since 2005, I haven’t lived in Montreal – I’ve been living in Vancouver for a long time. My wife’s from out in Vancouver, so I live down by the beach in Vancouver. So the boys often start the music alone and then send me ideas, then I go to Montreal. Ultimately the songs are finished and written completely when we are all together, but a lot of the time, initial ideas will be sent back and forth over the internet. But I think it was more just like we wanted to actually set up, write and record at the same time…
Do it the old-fashioned way.
Torquil Campbell: Yeah, the way they used to, and I do think we’ll probably… If the band makes it to another record, I think we’ll try and do that, because it would be really fun to just have that complete cohesive experience. It’s generally always like, you write and then you record, it would be fun to try and write and record at the same time, it would be cool… Many have tried it. Many have failed, many have spent a lot of money doing it, except we’ve never seen a mistake we don’t want to make ourselves…
This album starts in such an interesting way: “Your guardian angel has put candles on both your knees. He's telling you not to worry, but here whisper to us in palmistry.” What's this song about to you, and why open with it?
Torquil Campbell: Well, it’s one of my ghost songs. I’m very obsessed with ghost stories, you can go through our catalog and find a lot of them, and even in the Memphis catalog, my other band as well, there’s a lot of ghost stories. I’ve always been obsessed with ghosts. I think it ties in with the notion of loss and with is there a place where the people we go… The people we love, go. Can we talk to them? I’m actually trying to write a play about it right now, I’ve been going to see spiritualists and stuff. I’m trying to contact my father, but I’ll let you know if I do it. But that is a sample from a movie called Seance on a Wet Afternoon, which is a beautiful ’60s film starring Richard Attenborough and Kim Stanley.
And that song in my mind is about a girl who ends her life on Beachy Head, which is a place in England where a lot of people go to kill themselves. It’s a cliff in the southern part of England, a big white cliff where people drive and then they jump off the cliff. It’s actually, I think, where Nick Cave’s son died, his first son. I don’t know if you just… If you heard, but Nick Cave’s second son has died, I cannot even… Holy shit, dude, that is hard. Poor man, absolutely terrible. And he’s such a beautiful artist too, it’s really sad, but… So that is a ghost story basically about trying to contact this girl, the lover and the parents of this girl trying to contact her.
I think it starts the record because it takes us back into the past, and because I think we wanted to create a groundwork of like, this is what the album is going to sound like, it’s the most sort of like old school ’90s Morrissey big indie song on the record. And that, I think, was a big influence, that musically, not the racism part, but I think, sadly, so fucking sad, don’t get me started on that guy, ’cause he was my obviously my fucking hero in life, and it’s just so sad what happens to old men when they don’t get out enough, but… But those records I love, those ’90s Morrissey records, they sound amazing. The guitar playing is amazing, and Jace Lasek, who we made this record with from The Besnard Lakes, who produced this record, and Marcus Paquin, who worked on it with us as well, they’re both big fans of that kind of era of music, and so are we, and it’s what we grew up in.
So we wanted those guitars up front. We wanted you to know that it was going to be more of an acoustic, electric, electro-acoustic sound than it was a synthesizer sound, I think. And that song just has forza, you know, it has energy to it, that I think gets the record going in a good direction. But all that said, we don’t really choose song order. We find it impossible to do. We get in horrible fights when we try and sequence albums, so we often shop that out to someone else. Kevin Drew from Broken Social Scene often sequences our records for us.
Did you say this album has forza?
Torquil Campbell: Yeah, sonically, it’s up here, it’s not back here. Everything’s very warm. Everything’s very present. The vocals are very up front. It’s much more direct, sonically, than I think we’ve done before. We worked with Peter Katis last time, who’s one of my favorite producers, and I love the sound of “Fluorescent Light,” I think it sounds gorgeous. And I think this one just kind of makes it a little more raw and puts the guitars up front and the vocals up front, so.
I love that. “Won't you tell me why, when I think of her, it makes me cry.” We heard sung in the chorus. “Tell me what the future will be, take my hands and practice palmistry.” I hear this as a means of processing grief. The question to you about that would be, was grief a big theme in writing this album? And where did that interest or motif come from?
Torquil Campbell: Well, I love the word palmistry, and a lot of the time, songs are like Sudoku; you have one thing that you’re sure of, and you build around that thing that really hits you. I loved this word palmistry. I was like, “I love that. I want to use that word in a song.” So that was fundamental to it. But yeah, grief is central to our work. Amy lost her dad when she was five years old, tragically. I think that Amy and I, as songwriters, are people who are, to some degree, still dealing with grief, unprocessed grief, and finding ways to talk about it that allow us some distance from it. And I am fascinated by… As I said, I wrote that song, I am in the midst of this two-year journey of writing this play about ghosts, about whether or not ghosts are real and whether or not you can talk to the dead.
So it was part of my obsession outside of the band, at the time, was this idea of going to see palm readers. And Patty’s ex-girlfriend was also a psychic and a palm reader, so there was that person around who was kind of trying to make an argument for it. I don’t know if I believe in it or not. I believe in ghosts, I don’t know that I believe in psychics, but I’m open to believing in it. And I think that the idea of… I went to see a spiritualist the other day at this spiritualist church, I went to a service where a medium comes in and there’s like 30 people in the room and they just cold-read people. It was fascinating, but what was most… I didn’t buy her, I thought she was not… I saw what she was doing. I don’t think she was trying to con people, but I think she was conning herself, I think where her knowledge was coming from was about the questions she was asking people.
But what I did observe was that the people there were in deep pain. There was a mother there whose son had been murdered and they hadn’t caught the person, and she had been coming to this woman every day to try and get answers. And that desperation is something that I think is amazing drama and amazing kind of core material for a story, which is the notion of, when you lose somebody or something and you cannot get over it, what do you do? You beg, you plead, you go looking to psychics, you ask God, you pray, whatever it is. You start to ask the universe, why did this happen? And I think that song is about that sort of sense of desperation that you’re willing to believe anything, if it says that that person is still around somewhere.
I've done my share of asking that over the years myself. Did you always believe in ghosts? What drives your belief in what we often call the supernatural?
Torquil Campbell: I guess I always did believe in ghosts. Some of my earliest memories are ghost memories, my friend and I looking for ghosts in a graveyard in this little village in northern England where we grew up. We are convinced that… He’s still my friend, actually, he’s still my dear friend. I’m going to England this summer to celebrate my 50th birthday with him. We’re going to go see The Wedding Present together. But yeah, in our village where we grew up, but we would hang out in the graveyard looking for ghosts when we were like six years old. There was this ghost, the white lady, that was supposed to walk in our… In this graveyard in Castleton, where I was living. So I guess I was always obsessed with ghosts and obsessed with that fear, that tingle of fear that the notion gives you that there’s something that we don’t see that is around us.
And I think that if you’re a storyteller or if you are a performer particularly, you have to believe in ghosts, because what you do disappears. I come from a theater family, and all the shows my dad ever did, he spent 60 years being an actor, they’re gone, there’s no record of his career other than the people’s memories that they have of him playing those parts. And those shows that we’ve played, they’re gone, like they live as ghosts in people’s memory. When we play shows a lot, I’ll say, “Put your hands up for your ghosts, put your fists up for your ghosts.” Because I want people to be proud of having ghosts.
We all collect ghosts around us, whether they’re ex-lovers or they’re people who are dead that we loved or they’re who we were… Growing older, suddenly, there’s more ghosts around you than there are people. And they need us, they need us to remember them. In order to be alive, they need to be remembered. So to me, the idea of ghosts is very beautiful because it indicates that our love for someone or our spiritual connection to someone is enough to keep them going. I don’t know if you’ve lost someone close, but when my dad died, it was like he was more present than when he was alive in a way, for a while.
So you think about him more frequently, he's present with you more frequently.
Torquil Campbell: Yeah, you just put him in context of like, “Jesus, that was the space he filled? That is a huge space that is now empty.” And that empty space is palpable. And I think… My mother once said that, “Ghosts are spirits that insist on being remembered.” And I think that’s a fair, fair definition, and that’s the purpose of art, really, is to make you remember your ghosts.
There's something to be said about the act of you having to remember somebody and take the energy to remember someone. I share a similar experience to what you said about your father, so I can really relate to this idea. That is an idea of ghosts that I find very believable, palpable, spiritual. I like that interpretation a lot. It's really nice.
Back to Stars’ music. You go straight from that song into the nostalgic and self-referencing “Pretenders,” which feels like a requiem for the band, Stars: “We said goodbye to the dive bars, The gilded foyer unfolded, We were Rockefellers.” It almost reminded me of Billy Joel's “Famous Last Words,” which he wrote intentionally as the last song of his last album. In this self-reflective state, were you were wondering, “Will live music ever happen again?” What role does “Pretenders” play?
Torquil Campbell: It feels very celebratory to me, even though I do see that it is kind of a requiem as well. Amy wrote that, I think, as a kind of love song to me, to our partnership and our relationship together as singers and artists, and so I take that song as a very kind of… It just… I’m grateful for it, I guess, because Amy took the time to think about our life together, but yeah, there is definitely a looking back on this record. I mean, we can’t deny that every time we do something now, it might be the last time, and that’s not… I don’t sit comfortably with that, because as I say, I’m not an ender, I like the middle of things, I don’t like the beginning of things and I don’t like the end, I’m a big middle guy.
And so that the idea that this would end is kind of impossible to me, but I’m also trying to come to terms with it, because if I don’t, then I won’t have celebrated and been grateful for and been fully present for all the stuff that we’re doing now, all the shows we’re going to play and all the times that we didn’t think we might have together. I mean, if the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that no plan you make is entirely certain, and nothing that seems sure is sure. Nothing is sure. So that’s been troubling for me. I’m a pretty… I’m a scaredy cat that way. I like security, at least in the area of love. Like I like to know that the people I love are going to stick around, but of course they’re not, and I’m not, and so that song to me just is a really nice way of saying cheers to each other.
I really appreciate that. When I say “requiem,” I almost think it as the more traditional, not the American way of looking at a funeral, but really the celebration of life and a real, like look at the beauty, look at the life we made together as Stars. I love that song...
Torquil Campbell: I love it too, it’s one of my favorite Stars songs – I really think it’s terrific.
I can appreciate why it was one of the first songs you released off this record, alongside “Snowy Owl,” but I want to hear from you. They are such different tracks sonically, sowhy put those two together as the first introduction to this album?
Torquil Campbell: I think because of that, they kinda represent the two sides of the record. There’s a lot more acoustic folk, for lack of a better word, music on this, than there is on most Stars albums, and there’s quite a bit more rock music as well. So I think the label decided on those two songs, actually, the label really felt strongly about “Snowy Owl,” because I think they felt it was unusual for a Stars track, and represented a different kind of approach. It’s the first Stars song that Chris Seligman’s ever written on guitar and plays guitar on. And me and him wrote that up in North Hatley together. So I think it’s very much a North Hatley song, and so that ties deeply into what the album is called, and what the themes of the album are. But also, they’re just sort of the two sides of the album that we swing back and forth between those kind of exuberant songs, and the songs that are, seem trapped in sadness.
Going into the middle of that spectrum, one personal favorite song of mine is “If I Never See London Again.” Musically, I think the song is just brilliant.
Torquil Campbell: Me too, that’s my favorite. I love that song.
Why is that – and what was the goal of this song? How did it come together?
Torquil Campbell: That was written early pandemic, and again, deep in the notion that I might not be able to play in London again, that I might… That travel might be something that wasn’t going to happen for years. I think we all forget that we were contemplating those realities, but we were, that was really a thing, that it was like, will we ever be able to get together again? And that was so hard and so sad. And so I think I was just in a real state of grief when I wrote that song about the notion of not seeing a place I love so much. And then I kinda went back to a song called “The Vanishing,” that is about a lover… Two lovers landing at Heathrow Airport, and one of them is asleep and the other one gets up and leaves and disappears, and it’s this kind of dark story of imagining… My wife and I went to London in 2002, and I shopped ‘Heart’ around to UK labels and managed to get us a deal, but we spent like four months there, and it was an amazing time in our life.
And that, the original song, “The Vanishing,” was kind of a rumination on what would have happened if I had just left, if I was a different kind of person, and I had just walked away from her. And I think “If I Never See London Again” touches on that… Goes back to that memory and tells the real story of landing at Heathrow at dawn and being together in London and vowing that we would go back one day, vowing that we would live there one day. And of course, life takes you in other directions, and children get born, and it didn’t happen, but London’s always represented a place to me of just total wonder and beauty, the depth of the place, the timelessness of it, the modernity of it, and the ancientness of it, the amount of art around every corner. It’s just been a place that I’ve always deeply loved, and so the chorus is kind of a dialogue between my wife and I, really.
If we’re saying, I need you to be strong, we can’t let the past catch up with us for long, because that is often the dynamic in our relationship. My wife is someone who’s actually faced a lot more hardship in her life than I have, so she’s learned how to deal with it, how to be optimistic, how to live in the moment, how to move forward. And a lot of the time, she will be the person who drags me out of the past or out of my grief, or out of my regret, and makes me realize that life is happening right now. And you may not be in London, but you’re alive, and there’s things around that are beautiful, and no matter what it is, you have to make it work. And so I think that too was a lesson that I learned over the last couple of years, was like, I found a way to be happy without doing a whole bunch of shit that I used to do. And that’s a lesson that I’ll have moving forward. I won’t unforget that, I won’t un-remember it, I mean.
It's beautiful that this song manages to be both an ode to London, and also capture all the things that London represents that you don't need to be in London for. There's certainly a lesson learned – that we don’t need London; we can do it here.
Torquil Campbell: Yeah, exactly. We had it, it’s inside us. Memory is inside you; it’s not an everlasting present. I wish it was, but I’m not Buddha. I live a lot of the time in the past, and it’s okay to live in the past sometimes; it’s a beautiful thing.
Looking back on this album as a whole, where do you feel From Capelton Hill sits in the Stars catalog? What does this album mean to you right now, sitting on the precipice of its release?
Torquil Campbell: It’s huge because we made it. The pandemic didn’t kill us. The total shit show that is the music industry didn’t kill us, streaming didn’t kill us. Age didn’t kill us. We found a way to continue and we found a way to make something beautiful that we believed in, and there were periods of time, frankly, during doing it when we really didn’t know if it would happen. There were a few false starts with the record from a production point of view, and we didn’t know if we’d find a label for it, and it just feels like… We did this one for us, we made all those records in the teens, very much within the machine of trying to keep our head above water as a band and grow and stay in that race for the top, and I think this record’s made in a place of acceptance of where we are in the world, and we’ve managed to hang on to, about, I don’t know, a million people who listen to our music around the world.
And if I had contemplated the notion that a million people would be listening to our music 20 years in, when I was at… Fucking just hoping I would see my record on the shelf at Other Music on Fourth Street. That was my life goal. That was all I had. It was like, what’s your career plan? Well, we’re going to get the CD up on the shelf at Other Music, and after that, I don’t really have a plan, I’m gonna probably get a job. You know what I mean? That was a big deal back then. And so, it is a… Every single Stars record now is a way of reassuring each other that we love each other and that we’ve made something beautiful, that it was worth it.
It's very special. It sounds like the music really means so much more to you than just a collection of songs. It's been a long time since I've heard an artist talk about music the way that you do.
Torquil Campbell: Wow, thanks. Well, I love it a lot, and I love these people a lot, so that’s the thing, if you don’t have love, I don’t know how you do it. It must be a nightmare.
Are there any favorite songs on the record that we haven't talked about yet that you would want to just shout out or touch upon?
Torquil Campbell: Oh, man. There’s a lot of them. I love “I Need The Light,” I love the little David Bowie, “China Girl” guitar on it. I love… A lot of the things I love on the record are musical decisions that the boys made, and just hearing them be amazing at music is a really nice thing. I love the beginning of “Hoping,” it sounds like The Cure, I love those little touches of references to other things. I think we did that more gracefully than we have in the past, so to me, it’s just those little moments of musical pleasure. I think the record really gives the listener a lot of those little moments of musical pleasure that are just like, Oh, that’s nice music, quite apart from what we’re saying, it’s like the way we’re doing it. It’s got style. It’s got flavor.
It's funny that you say “we made this record for us,” because I feel like it's one of your catchiest, most accessible records ever…
Torquil Campbell: It does go back into more Set Yourself on Fire territory, for sure, I think. It’s more direct than we’ve been in a while – we’re kinda coming out and asking you to love it.
I wonder if this represents the closing of one chapter, or if it's really the beginning of another, and I feel like it's the latter of those two.
Torquil Campbell: I think it is the closing of a chapter, and I hope there’s another one, I really, really, really hope there’s another one, and I think we all really hope there’s another one. And I think it’s just about making sure that this thing continues to be a source of comfort in our lives for each other. Like I depend on these people as friends more than anybody else, and so as soon as the band makes it difficult for me to be friends with them, we won’t do the band anymore, but right now we’re better friends than we’ve ever been. So I guess we’ll keep doing the band.
That's an interesting way of putting it. I also wonder if the fear that your next album may always be your last, will make every album even better than the last?
Torquil Campbell: That’s what we’re hoping! It’s like, “Okay, this is my last omelet, I’d better make it good.” Better beat those eggs!
What do you hope listeners take away from this album?
Torquil Campbell: Oh, always the same thing, which is just I hope that it’s there for them, that’s the most important thing in the world to Stars, it’s what we’ve based our whole career on is like, we want to be there for you, we want to be your anthem. We are not a band that wants you to think much about us while you’re listening to our music, we want you to think about yourself. Your life is incredible, your life is filled with dramatic plot twists and terrible tragedies and huge triumphs, and we are the fucking soundtrack. That’s it. We’re just like, when Molly Ringwald’s making her dress in Pretty in Pink and Thieves Like Us comes on, that’s what I want to be.
Have you yourself taken away anything from this album and this period with the band?
Torquil Campbell: Yeah, it’s made me a better songwriter, I’m more confident on my own. I’m doing this project right now called 100 Songs for 100 Souls, I’ve taken on commissions, a thousand bucks a pop from people, I will write you a song for you, just for you, you’re the only person who gets it, you own it. And so far, I’ve gotten 82 commissions, I’m about 25 songs in, I’ve written 25 songs for people over the last couple of months. And that… I wouldn’t have been doing that if it had not been… Actually, if it had not been for Covid. Because what Covid let me do was I had to be in a room alone.
I didn’t have my compatriots, I had nobody would turn the computer on for me, and in that space of time, I did my first live show ever on my own streaming. I wrote a musical with Ben Gibbard on my own. I wrote film soundtracks, I did all this stuff that I wouldn’t have done because I would have been with Stars. So it turned me into a musician in a way, instead of just a guy who plays one on TV, which I think I was before. I feel much more confident in myself than I did before doing this record.
“I forget that we always want more, don't we?” You sing on the title track... It's a question that seems to have ever-increasing significance for the band and for this album, and I think that's the note I want to end this conversation on, with that lingering in the air.
Torquil Campbell: Yeah, we’ll see! So far, we want more. We always do.
We want to be there for you, we want to be your anthem. We are not a band that wants you to think much about us while you’re listening to our music, we want you to think about yourself.
Stream: ‘From Capelton Hill’ – Stars
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