February 5, 2009

Heavenly Music: The Sun Interviews Torquil Campbell of Stars

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Just when you start to think that fame and success go straight to every human head, Torquil Campbell, lead singer and songwriter for Stars, proves that the brilliant can still be unpretentious and modest. Stars is typically categorized as an “indie rock band,” and although “indie” has become an arbitrary and unspecific genre designation, Campbell is somehow just what you hope every indie musician would be. In fact, with his simple philosophy on music and his remarkable voice, Campbell is just what you hope all musicians would be, onstage and off: really, really cool.

The Sun: Your albums have unusual names, like Dead Child Stars and Set Yourself on Fire. How did you come up with these titles?
Torquil Campbell: I don’t know; they just sort of come to you. I know that’s boring. I guess you have compulsive things that keep coming up in your mind, a little melody, for example. I’m always looking for phrases that have a contradiction in them, that seem kind of dark and ugly but in another way can be looked at as being different. Things like Set Yourself on Fire or In Our Bedroom After the War, you just sort of hope that they come. I guess the mystery of them makes them things you sort of stick with, because there’s things about them I don’t even understand.
Sun: Where are you originally from?
T.C.: I was originally born in England, but I grew up until I was eight years old in Canada [and] lived in Toronto. We all grew up in that part of Canada.
Sun: Is that where you met?
T.C.: Yeah, we were all neighborhood kids.
Sun: I know three of you guys are members of the band Broken Social Scene. How do you do both at the same time?
T.C.: This is the question we all hate to answer. They’re just great, great friends of ours. I’m not in Broken any more than anybody else is. Really I just hang out with them from time to time and play trumpet. You never think that you’re going to have this thing that people think of as a legitimate sort of going concern. We were just hanging out. They’re people I know and love. Evan and Amy play in the band much more than I do. [We’re] just like any group of friends.
Sun: Is trumpet your main instrument?
T.C.: I don’t really have a main instrument. I played a little trumpet in high school and I just mess around on things. I have nowhere near the technical abilities that the other people in the band [do] in terms of playing instruments. I guess my skill set is much more aimed towards writing lyrics and just towards how I think the music should sound. When you’re playing rock and roll music, which tends to be quite constant and repetitive no matter how experimental it is, it’s really more about your approach to it than it is about what you’re playing. The way I was able to become a musician was by contributing in that way, just kind of thinking about the music in a more general way than an actual “doing” way.
Sun:: Do you prefer using your voice or an instrument to make music?
T.C.: It’s sort of one and the same. Whatever I can do to make the song happen is kind of my focus. I’m not good enough at doing any of these things to really enjoy them for the sake of playing them because I think you have to get pretty virtuostic to get pleasure out of playing an instrument. For me, it’s still an obstacle in a way because I’m not proficient enough at them to always get exactly what I want out of them.
Sun: How would you describe Stars’ music? I usually see it referred to as “indie,” but I’ve always wondered what that term really meant.
T.C.: Me too. I don’t really get what that means. [Well], I guess I do in a way, but for me it’s just pop music really — we just make pop songs. I’ve always wanted to make pop songs, not because that’s the right music to make, but because that’s what I feel I’m capable of doing. You do what you know how to do. We’re just a group of people that have developed a way of making songs that are memorable — just a kitchen sink pop band.
Sun: But when I think of “pop,” I think of Britney Spears.
T.C.: Well, I think that’s just language — it doesn’t really mean that. It means popular music, music that tends to connect with people. That’s really all it is. To me, the word “pop” has taken on a different meaning than it did when I was a kid. And you know, Britney Spears might make a great record one day. There are a lot of good “pop” songs. If people thought of my songs in the same way [that] they thought of Beyonce’s songs, I’d be very happy because they connect to Beyonce’s songs in very basic, crucial ways — they hear them in the grocery store, they sing them to themselves in the street — those things are good, you know? A good song is a good song. For me, that’s really all that matters
Sun: You’ve been on Law and Order and Sex and the City. That sounds like fun.
T.C.: It wasn’t really — just a day on a TV show. As an actor I did a lot more interesting things, but they weren’t on TV.
Sun: What would some of those be?
T.C.: I’ve played Romeo in Romeo and Juliet, the fool in King Lear, [I] did a play in New York for a year with a lot of great actors called Shopping and Fucking.
Sun: Sarah Jessica Parker from Sex and the City: hot or not?
T.C.: She seemed like a very nice lady. Lots of cigarettes; the crew would have a plastic ziplock bag and they would take all of her cigarette butts and put them in the bag and sell them on ebay. But [she] seemed like a very nice woman, a very, very busy woman.
Sun: What’s your favorite current band or singer?
T.C.: Apostle of Hustle.
Sun: What about your favorite all-time band?
T.C.: The Smiths. They’re the greatest rock band of all time.

Catch Stars tomorrow, Feb. 6 at the State Theatre. Tickets for Cornell students are $12.50 at the Willard Straight Ticket Office.