Steven Ray Morris: Hi, this is Steven. Is this Torquil?
Torquil Campbell: Hi.
Am I pronouncing it correctly? I’m always afraid I’m gonna get that wrong.
(Laughs) No, you’re pronouncing it fine.
Oh, cool. Thank you for taking time out for an interview. You guys came back from Mexico today?
Yeah, we just flew in from Mexico; yeah, it’s fantastic.
And you guys are in L.A. right now?
Yeah, we’re in L.A. getting ready for this show tonight.
Cool. Again, thank you for agreeing to do this little interview for Santa Barbara.
No problem, no problem.
I got a few questions here, so… First of all, you guys released In Our Bedroom After the War this year with a unique release strategy, with a digital release a few months before the hard copy. I wanted to ask if anything came out of it, lessons learned, something you’d do in the future?
Um, well, it was an interesting thing to do; it had its good aspects and its bad. Um, I know that the label appreciated it a lot, but I think maybe that it was something that happened before the industry knew how to cope with it, in the sense that the press felt that by the time the hard copy of the record had come out, there wasn’t much point in writing about it, ’cause it had already been out for a few months, you know? And that lead time is something that hasn’t been acknowledged, in terms of the Internet and releasing records. On one hand, I think it was good ’cause it continued to develop a relationship with the people who listen to the music, but the industry didn’t know what to make of it, and that may it hurt it in a way.
I think it was smart to release the hard copy with the DVD, a whole documentary…
Yeah, it’s a whole film. I think at this point, you have to make the hard copy as attractive and an interesting object as possible, or why would anyone have any incentive to buy it?
True – we are getting into an age where, as one artist put it, buying a CD is quaint, and that can be scary for someone whose livelihood is made out of that.
It has its scary aspects, you know? Because it forces you to tour constantly in order to make a living, and if you have people you love, that be very difficult. On the other hand, it’s a much more direct and democratic relationship that you build with the people who listen to the music. You know, like all things, it has its good and bad aspects.
Yeah, that leads me into my next question… In general, with the democratization of artistic creativity, I wonder with someone who is “on top,” if I want to use that phrase (Torquil laughs), how you would react to the fact that almost anyone can release their songs on MySpace? Does it relieve the pressure, or does it make you want to step up your game?
I don’t think we for one second ever think in our of ourselves as ever being on top. I think we all rest comfortably in the bottom third of existence, but yeah, no… I love it. This is brilliant technology. It’s amazing that people can make music and put it up for everyone to hear, and that aspect is so great, and it has opened up the discussion of music so much and gives people a platform for sharing their works. Music is a completely subjective experience; you can enjoy something or not enjoy it, depending on who you are, so the more music there is out there, the more opportunities people have something to find something that they like, you know?
As a musician myself, I’m glad there is enough room for everybody in a way.
It’s an incredible place. If you have work that’s almost finished or needs funding or the kind of music that is hard to find a home for, it’s an incredible way to build an incredible relationship with listeners, or [to build] a career really without having to be approved of by someone who works for a record label, and that’s a fantastic thing for music, I think.
Yeah, you guys just released a new EP, Sad Robots, and that’s unique. Is it going to just be able available online and at shows? Or will it also be in stores eventually?
Umm, it sort of may creep into stores. I think it’ll be available in certain independent record stores, but I don’t think it’ll ever be a mass-released piece of work. It was very much a thing we did for fun, some new music that would be interesting for people who had been listening to us for awhile. It was never meant to be a major release; it was really just music we had in our heads that we wanted to get out there, and it just seemed like the perfect format to do it in.
Yeah, you guys have a new version of “Going, Going, Gone” [on the new EP]. Side note: I made a music video to it my freshman year for fun.
No way, really?
Yeah, I’m sure if you YouTube it, you can find it.
It’s cool you’ve picked that song back up, considering it’s on your first album [Night Songs].
Yeah, it’s actually the third time we’ve released that tune. The first time was another live version on our very first EP. It’s sort of a weird song, because it’s stuck around in many versions and many different permutations. I don’t why, but it seems to have hung in there, you know?
Yeah, I saw you guys open for Death Cab for Cutie a few years ago, and I wanted to ask – since I will be seeing you Friday and I was just wondering – how playing your own shows is different from being an opening band. What has changed over the years? What are we to expect Friday?
Well, a lot’s changed: We’ve really tried hard to make the show a complete union from the technical to the artistic. Each time we go on tour, we try to challenge ourselves to bring a complete vision to the show, and a more complete sense of what we do to the show. So I think show has moved forward since then.
Plus, when you’re an opener, it’s always tricky: You don’t have much time to sound check, and the show isn’t yours, so it’s a different energy, and we are now much more confident and organized and focused, I think, than we were a few years ago, and hopefully it continues.
That’s the process of having a career: Hopefully you continue to focus and hone the things you think are good and get rid of the things you think are weak, and that’s an endless process that never really ends.
It’s building muscle while still trimming the fat, in a way…
Yeah, you find that it isn’t what you acquire, know or the technique, but what you can take away, or how little you can do and still create an effect in your work, and that’s just a process that goes on for your whole life.
Yeah, you only have a short time on the stage…
I was going to say that with In Our Bedroom After the War, there is a sense of theatricality or melodrama, and this ties into the fact that your music has lots of film references. Is that all just a natural part of music, especially when describing relationships?
I think it’s kind of funny, because the use of the word “theatricality” in the blogosphere and indie rock [scene] is a derisive, short term for things, which make people uncomfortable because they are too emotional. And it’s the same thing with melodrama.
My definition of melodrama is “Desperate Housewives,” you know? We are band that’s about drama, but I don’t think the drama is cheap. And melodramatic kind of implies [cheapness], and that’s the funny thing about words: Everyone has a different interpretation of what a word means, and within the context of trying to describe music, you can describe it in a certain way which, on one level, may say something true about it, but also kind of reduces or cuts off the possibility that it can be experienced in a different way.
So I don’t think that we think about whether we want to be dramatic or theatrical. I mean, I have a background in theater and so does Amy, but I guess it’s always been a bee in my bonnet, this use of the word “theatrical” to describe us, because it’s often used by people who have never gone to the theater, and so they see theatricality as people with feathers in their hats and people with English accents.
Samuel Beckett is theater as well, and there is nothing theatrical about that: It’s cold, and terrifyingly kind of un-dramatic. I love the aspect of theater that happens in rock ‘n’ roll, and I think it’s essential if you look at David Bowie or the Smiths or even Public Enemy – any great band has a theater within a world they create that you choose to enter or not, and on that level, I think Stars are very engaged in trying to create a very complete world for the listener, and not trying to reveal ourselves too much.
Ironically, it seems like we are revealing tons of ourselves, but I think that’s just a projection put upon us. We very rarely write about our own lives: We have a stock company of characters. There is that filmic aspect there because I think we are a narrative band, so we get into the issue of ‘What is the story? How do you tell a story?’ And that’s definitely something we are always examining and trying to find new ways into, you know? How many stories are there really? It’s sort of the characters that inhabit them that make it unique, in a sense.
Yeah, being a film a major, the three act structure can seem maddening at times, but you learn to side-step it with the creation of unique characters, so you almost forget that you’re going through the normal progressions. With your music, I didn’t mean to use theatricality in any sort of negative sense…
Oh no, I was just thinking about it the other day. You wish you don’t have to explain yourself, but on another level, when you’re misunderstood, you have the urge to. It’s a strange, you know what I mean? (He laughs).
Yeah it’s funny, especially the word “melodrama” because you can think “Desperate Housewives,” but you can also think Darren Aronofsky with “The Fountain” and “Requiem For a Dream,” which are very melodramatic, but its not in that ridiculous soap-opera way…
I think English culture in general – whether it’s North American English or English English – has and always will be frightened by the idea of emotion, and that’s produced a lot of great art, but it kind of led us down a garden path where art has become a very esoteric thing in people’s lives and doesn’t speak directly to them, and people who consider themselves culture vultures or people who really understand art look upon the idea of emotionality in art as cheap, and they’re right and wrong, but so is life. A lot of times people have cheap, dirty, simple emotions. And it’s an important part to being a human being. Sometimes it isn’t trick. Sometimes it is what it is. Sometimes you just get your heart broken. Sometimes you’re just in grief, sometimes you’re just in pain, and there is nothing ironic about it, you know?
Yeah, if somebody is moved by “the worst movie ever,” the fact that they are still moved still means something, in a way.
Absolutely. It’s very important to remember that. You have to respect the magic of that, in some sense.
Being moved in general is important, especially nowadays.
It’s better than not [being moved]. Bad art is better than no art at all. That’s how I feel.
That leads me into my next question. You guys are all involved in various side/solo projects (Broken Social Scene, etc.). Is that to have more creative outlets, or more out of boredom?
I just think it’s what we do, trying to get better and have new experience and stretch yourself and get new perspectives on things. Bands are like a family: Everyone has a role. It can be wonderful, but it can also be very constraining.
Eventually, as much as you love your family, you also want to spend time being something else to someone else. I think that working with other people, in that way, allows you to come in fresh and not have those expectations upon yourself or have them put upon you, and you can reinvent what your roles are in this specific family. I think this is a very fun and important part of work of any kind, or whatever you do in life. I think you have to continue to change your perspective on everything your doing and that way you grow.
I have this theory that your stuff, your friends, your family consistently remind you of who you are, and then when you go on your travels and you’re alone in some hotel room in Tokyo, you suddenly think, “Who am I?”
Yeah exactly, it’s a beautiful feeling; it’s a great feeling.
It’s almost terrifying, but almost liberating.
I was going to say that a lot of the Stars songs do cover a lot of geography, [featuring] global motifs. Is that because you love traveling, or is it more related to the romantic notion of being all over the world…?
Um, I think my life has consisted of a lot of travel. There is that aspect of it, but it also goes back to the aspect of escaping personal songwriting and [making] songs that could be about anyone in the world and create songs that are about people and places and events and actions, and maybe not so much about what we specifically feel or what’s happening inside us. I think that we try to reveal what’s happening inside by going from the outside.
When I write a song, I just feel compelled to set it somewhere interesting. Chris and Evan and Pat will start playing music, and Amy and I will just get inspired by the music they are making. A certain type of melody will come out, and that’ll remind you of a place or make you want to create a certain type of feeling. Different places have different feelings. Specifics in songwriting are a big thing for me that I think ground the songs and give people a clear picture of what you are trying to show them. If you give them details, they’ll fill in the rest for themselves. I think that’s why location comes up so often in the songs.
When I’ve been to Tokyo and I’m in Mori Tower overlooking the city, I can’t help but think of Set Yourself on Fire.
Definitely with that song, with that big sparkly keyboard sound, that just seemed very epic to me, and it was a song for traveling, and that’s why those lyrics came out of me. That was really initiated by the melody and the music that the guys wrote.
So then Evan and Chris and Pat will have a musical idea, and then you and Amy bounce it back and forth until some mystical song baby is born out of that process?
Yeah, that’s really it; there is a mystical aspect to it that goes unspoken that you can never really explain. You can talk about process, but it doesn’t explain how it really works, because the spark of whatever you get in the song that makes the song tends to be something that even you don’t really understand. I remember reading Bernard Sumner from New Order saying that he thought he got his lyrics from outer space, that his hairs were tentacles. Clearly he was fucked up on something, but he had a really good point that they come from outside. Language is a virus. You catch it.
I imagine that it’s maddening when people start to ask you about process and how you wrote a particular song.
Well, it’s not maddening, but I feel badly not to be able to explain. All I can say is that it’s a secret… I don’t even know. If I ever knew, it would probably stop. I’m superstitious; I try not to think about. If I think about it, it might go away.
We live in a postmodern world.
I just have a few more questions, thank you again for taking the time…
No problem, yeah I gotta go to dinner in five, but ask away.
I usually have an order to this, but never really works out that way. Is this your first time in Santa Barbara?
To be honest, I cannot entirely remember. I think it is I think it is our first time, yeah.
It’s a cool little venue; I think you’ll enjoy it. It’ll be a more intimate crowd.
We are happy to be California for a week. We are happy to be out west and enjoy the heat; it’s getting cold back where we come from. It’s nice to prolong summer a little bit.
Yes, totally, I was studying abroad in New Zealand where it was almost the dead of winter when I left. Coming back here where it’s nice and sunny and everyone is wearing sandals and was like, “Wow, this is the life.”
(Laughs) Life is good.
One more question: the obligatory ‘What’s next?’
Yeah, we have a couple of shows in Canada the next couple months and then we are going to Japan and Australia and Singapore and Taipei and we just came back [from] Mexico. So we are just trying to get everybody covered and be able to take some time off and hopefully begin working on the next record, and hopefully by next fall, we will have another album out and continue working on [other] new projects and grow the idea of what the band is and expand the potential for creativity and see if we can do different things in different ways and keep on truckin’. We have no intention of stopping.
We are a very close group of people, and we have been very lucky enough to make a life out of this. I think we all feel lucky — this doesn’t happen often. [Many] bands don’t make it four albums deep, and once you have something like that, it’s worth protecting. So we spend a lot of the time making our band work better and make the business work better and think about the music and what to do next.
Got to keep on hustlin’, infecting peoples hearts.
The work is everything you know? The work takes care of you. The harder you work, the more you can get towards the idea your looking for. We just keep pursing that notion.
Well, thank you again so much, and we all look forward to seeing you guys play on Friday.