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An Interview with Torquil Campbell

An Interview with Torquil Campbell

By Chris Illich

Torquil Campbell doesn’t really need an introduction, so if you don’t know who he is, you should probably pay attention.

Campbell (pictured right) is the modest, honest, well-spoken singer of Canadian rock band Stars, and has been making music for 15 years with them. They have released seven records along the way, most notably their 2014 album No One is Lost. He had just performed at Nathan Philip’s Square for the Pan Am Games a few days before.

Campbell resides in Niagara-on-the-Lake when he’s not touring the world with Stars, and was in between summer festivals when I had the pleasure of sitting down to coffee with him at the Balzac’s in Niagara-on-the-Lake. We talked about the music industry and what it’s like to be in a successful band in 2015. Afterwards, I immediately went to listen to the interview over again while I drove back to St. Catharines and I knew I couldn’t write an article. It had to go up, as is.

I didn’t really think about it at the time when I was setting up the interview, but he’s the first Niagara ‘rock star’ to be featured in The Sound, it was a pleasure to talk with him and I hope you enjoying reading our conversation as much as I did listening to it.

Stars perform at Jackson Triggs and Mindbomb Records (acoustic in-store) on Aug. 21.

To start things off, after doing this for 15 years, what do you wish you knew now that you knew when you first started Stars? Well, I wish I knew industry rule number 4800. Which is that record company people are shady – that’s a Tribe Called Quest lyric by the way.

I wish I had known the value of my work. I think people try to tell you that before you start in the business. Well-meaning people try to convey to you how important it is to value what you have and to not give anything away, but it’s hard when you’re starting out.

It feels like any interest is good interest. But I wish I knew not to just take the first thing that came along. I think we made a lot of mistakes signing bad deals, which ended up costing us a lot of money to get out of.

I think we just didn’t know our own value and we weren’t patient, and patience is the greatest virtue you can acquire in the business.
And in terms of the band? I think to really last in the business you have to have an amazing live show. It took us a few years to get there and I feel like if we had worked harder out of the gates on the live show we would have gotten further faster.

We didn’t have a drummer for a few years and we were just sort of fucking around, half-assing it. It wasn’t until Evan Cranley, our bass player — who had been on the road since he was 15 — insisted that we put all the money we made into making the show better. To this day I think that is the reason we’re still around because people come to the shows and know they are going to see something good.

When you’re talking about putting the money into the show, did you mean in terms of the light, design and the production side of things? Lighting, design, equipment and hiring great people to work. You can get bad tour managers, you can get bad sound guys, but you always get what you pay for. That also ends up meaning that you make a lot less money than people think you’re making.

For example, take St. Vincent, her Tour Manager is one of my close friends. She’s playing huge rooms all over the world, she’s doing great, but she’s not making a lot of money.

The way that she’s getting into a lot of those huge rooms is by playing amazing shows with amazing bands, with amazing crew and amazing sound. So, when she shows up the audience thinks “Wow, that’s incredible, I’m going to buy that record,” or “I’m going to come back to that show.” It’s a long-term kind of investment rather than a ‘Hey, I’m successful, I’m going to go out there and take the money and run.” That might get you one or two tours, but it’s not going to get you a career.

And that’s the thing, getting people to buy your record is a hard sell. Record sales are still an important statistic, but these days it’s all about being on the road. Records just don’t make you any money these days. Not any more they don’t. It’s about building the relationship with the audience and building your customers. People will come back if they feel like what they got in return for their money was worth it. If they don’t feel like that then they don’t come back, they’ll go somewhere else.

We spend a lot of time and energy making sure that when we go out and play shows that the audience has a great time and becomes a great part of it.

From working at the Shaw Festival for the last two seasons, I know that you and your wife Moya O’Connell (one of the leading ladies at the Shaw) live in NOTL, but what is it like being so far seperated from your band in Montreal? It’s not ideal, I wish we had more time together. We’ve been doing it for so long that we have a schedule worked out now. We all know how it goes, but if I’m honest, I would prefer it to be different. But, Montreal is a pretty terrible place to work as an actress especially in English, so for Moya its really a non-starter to be there. I hate the winter so there’s many reasons not to be in Montreal.

I think part of what keeps us going is that we aren’t in each others grill all the time. We do have time to miss each other, do other things and have other relationships in our lives. There are a lot of good things about it.

I would like to spend more time making music with Stars rather than planning when to make music and kind of squeezing it in. We’ve got Osheaga coming up and we’re going to play Set Yourself On Fire (2004) all the way through and we’ve never played some of those songs live so it’s a big task. It’s going to have to be crammed into a small space of time and that’s really nerve-wracking. So in some degree I do wish that we were together more.

What is it like to think back to when Set Yourself on Fire came out, and how much your music has changed in ten years. Is that a reflection on Stars developing musically, or on how music is made now? I think it’s a little bit of both. I think it’s mostly us getting closer to what we’ve always wanted to do with our music. With a lot of modern music — and pop music is a pretty simple idiom — there are only so many chords and most of it is in 4/4 time and has a verse a chorus and a verse. There’s a lot of structure in pop music which we’ve always embraced. We like structure, and we like pop songs, but the gear informs so much of what ends up making a record sound like it sounds.

If you took a Neon Indian record and put it all on acoustic instruments then it would sound like a folk record, so context is everything in pop music. We’ve always loved dance music, and we’ve always loved bands like New Order and techno music from Detroit, and I think we just didn’t have the technical know-how at the time of Set Yourself on Fire to really go there. We were relying more on acoustic instruments because we knew how to play them. We didn’t know how to use the gear that we now know how to use. Alot of that goes down to Chris Silegman, our keyboard player who worked really hard on getting that part of it really going.

I think maybe the next record will be a lot quieter. It has been a gradual ramping up since The Five Ghosts (2010) of wanting to play more songs that work in a live context. For a long time Stars had a lot of mid-temp songs, which are great songs, but when we’d get into a live forum there’d be a lot of dips in our set that we wouldn’t be able to get past.

When we wrote “Hold On When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give It” from The North (2012) we had a watershed moment because we saw the response live from the four on the floor, banging dance song. It was so fun and we wanted more of that. So I think No One Is Lost is to a certain degree a reflection of wanting to have that communion with the audience and let them have more fun.
And that really comes through on the new album. It sounds big and slick and ready for the dance floor. Our producer Liam O’Neil was a big part of that. He founded The Stills and he works with Metric. They are just amazing at making things sound huge and Liam is a big part of that. He’s just a technical wizard at getting big sounds out of boards. So it’s a combination of factors.

Personally my plan or vision for the next record is a little more torch songy and a little mellower and a little bit more like what we were doing in 2003-04.

And is that a response to this record? Is it time to tone it down again? Well, you play these songs live for a while and your body starts to want to respond to some other rhythms and melodies. I think that slower songs offer more opportunity to tell stories.

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One of the things I’ve always loved about Stars is that Amy Millan and I can tell two sides of the same story within the same song. So, you don’t get just one perspective in a song, you get two, maybe three. I really love that aspect of writing with Stars and I never get tired of it. I want to keep building up that world of these two people building up this conversation between each other. I am more motivated by the stories I want to tell rather than the particular music I want to make.

You’ve been doing this now for 15 years and have established yourself as a band, you can kind of make whatever you want and it will be received. That depends on who you ask. You can, in a sense. We have a very loyal following of people who will go with us anywhere. I think we have alienated some people over the last few years by not sounding the way we did when they were 17 and got into us.

There’s always that thing – you want your favourite band to always sound exactly the same forever. I think that if they did sound the same forever they wouldn’t be your favorite band forever. I think U2 really hit that rut, they will always sound like U2. They have doubled-down on that sound so many times they don’t know how to get out of it anymore.

At this point, I don’t worry about people who don’t like Stars or who don’t know about Stars, I worry about people who do. We have an incredible relationship with a very large number of people all around the world. And they’ve been incredibly loyal. When you’ve been in a band this long you’re asking people to buy, you know, seven records or come to their tenth stars show, that’s a big ask.

So why do you enjoy it? It must be tough with the geographical separation, and being on the road all the time away from family. What keeps you guys going, and for so long? I sometimes ask myself that question and then I play a show and the answer is so resounding. It’s an incredible privilege to be affirmed the way one is affirmed when you make art and people respond to it, like when you see people having an awesome time singing the lyrics, experiencing an emotion, or remembering something about themselves.

Being a part of that is such an amazing way to make a living, to get paid.
Nurses and teachers and all these types of heroic people don’t get applause at the end of their shift, but we do. And that’s incredibly rewarding and joy inducing.

Also, I love the people in my band a lot. It’s like marriage or family and breaking that up would be tragic and sad and I would miss them. I don’t see any compelling reason to do that. The band started as a reason to hang out with my friends and it continues to be a reason to hang out with my friends – that and I get to see the world.

That being said, there is all of the bullshit and all of the fear, you know, about the music industry falling apart. It makes it harder and harder to make ends meet and to make the math add up. Especially for a band that has been around a long time. We’ve really become a niche market at this point, a lot like any band that has been around for a long time. But, it’s just such a fantastically positive thing, and I’m a negative person, so to be in something where I experience positive feedback is good for my soul.

On the otherside of things, to counteract that, what is something that you wish you could change about the indusry? The thing that drives me nuts is this whole thing about how the industry has completely failed to respond to the death of record sales and the disconnect of the audience. I think people still don’t understand that if they don’t pay for art, art will not get made.

You don’t have to buy a record, but it’s super important for people to change the culture around the idea that art should be free. Art should be free up to a point and then you should give what you think is fair – whether that’s buying a t-shirt or supporting a Kickstarter campaign or going to a show or whatever you can do. Because, if you’re not Nicki Minaj, you’re not being supported by the business. Universal may have something to do with our record but they’re not investing any significant amount of money, because they aren’t going to get anything out of it. They’re just distributing it and throwing it against the wall and hoping for the best.

I think there is a sense that because of the way rock musicians are portrayed in the media, people think that everyone is making a ton of cash. A lot of the bands people love are not making a lot of money at all and they need your support. I just want to find a way to have people who love music to support it and find a way to give your favourite band $10. Because if everyone does that it will make a huge fucking difference.

And by playing shows like your in-store at Mindbomb Records before your show at Jackson Triggs (Aug 21), you’re kind of showing that if you’re willing to put yourself out there, audiences should too, and hopefully people show up and walk out with a record in their hand. Well, I think there’s some really great stuff going on in downtown St. Catharines right now and I’m happy to support. It feels like people are taking some chances and making some things happen, its really great to see. A few years ago, downtown was super dead. So it’s really nice to see something coming back there.

As negative as I am, when I see what you’re doing with The Sound, or what Chris Charkowy at Mindbomb is doing, well, you asked me earlier why I’ve stayed in it, that’s why I’ve stayed in it. Because 99 per cent of the people I’ve met in this game are awesome and are doing it for the right reasons. They’re not doing it because they’re making a lot of money doing it; they are doing it because they love doing it. It’s a constantly positive, affirming experience. I believe in independence. I believe in small businesses. I believe in supporting your community and in building your community. This is a growing area and there’s stuff happening and we need to start building our community here.

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