Stars’ Torquil Campbell on Touring, Loving and Hating New York, and the Cult of Larry David
“Ask away,” says Torquil Campbell casually to me on Monday after our long distance call is connected. Ultimately, the lead singer of Canadian indie pop band Stars proves disarmingly entertaining. Between his tweets and his demeanor during interviews (at least ours), there’s no lack of laughs. A few questions in, the line cuts out. Upon being reconnected, he teases, “I just gave, like, a ten-minute answer and, at the end of it, there was nobody there. You missed some amazing shit, man. Never to be repeated. That’s too bad. That’s it.” I like this guy. (And, for the record, I got some other “amazing shit,” so not to worry.)
The forty-year-old singer-songwriter and actor, perhaps best known for his membership in Stars, but also other notable ensembles such as Broken Social Scene, is gearing up to tour pretty consistently through most of next month. He and his fellow bandmates—comprising Chris Seligman, Evan Cranley, Amy Millan, and Pat McGee—who released their seventh album in September, kicked things off on Wednesday and make their way to New York City today. Catch them in Brooklyn, to be exact, at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, where tonight and tomorrow they’ll split the bill with L.A.-based band Milo Greene.
In the half-hour allotted to talk, Campbell didn’t hold back, opening up about making music, growing up, picking battles and taking revenge. From his distaste for touring to his stance on fame, his love of Larry David to his dream of limo driving, this Vancouver-based artist bears all, including the fact that this path is not technically what he wanted.
Did you approach The North differently than past albums, or is it sort of a consistent process?
It’s both. After 13 years and so many records, we definitely have a method and a system that works. It changes a little bit every time, but now I think we’re pretty set on the way we do it together. In terms of the methodology, it wasn’t that different. But every time you make a record, you choose different gears, different places to record, and different things are happening to you in your life. You’re a different person. So, those three things always inform the same methodology and that’s what changes: the filters through which the work passes. Sometimes they bear a striking resemblance to the last time, but, this time, I knew it was 180 degrees [different]. This was definitely the most fun, least painful project ever.
The most fun and least painful?
After 35, or after you have kids, it’s like, “Well, who really gives a shit, ultimately?” Am I really going to go to war with this person I love and lose sleep and have fucking anxiety attacks just because we can’t figure out what bassline works? As a young band, it’s the only thing that matters to you. Then, time passes, and so many other things mean so much more. It’s not that the work isn’t important; it’s just that it’s in the context of the rest of your life. You learn how to calm down and get on with it. So much of life is learning that you lose about seventy percent of the battles you choose to fight. That’s the average. There’s no point getting upset about it.
Going back to your time together, what’s that kind of longevity like? And what do you foresee for the future?
It’s amazing. I think it’s something we’re all very proud of. We’re proud of the music, but I think we’re prouder, in a way, of this co-existence we’ve built together. All the things we’ve been through together. [Laughs] It’s an endless parade of bad decisions and big mistakes, and yet nobody pulled the plug. Nobody ever did that. At one point or another, every single member of the band has had a right to do that or been the cause of someone else having a right to do that. And yet we haven’t. In that respect, it’s a lot like marriage. It’s hoping for the best. [This is the point at which we were disconnected.] As for the future, we’re going to keep going and probably play fewer shows.
But you love shows.
Oh yeah. I love playing shows. If everyone could just come here, to Vancouver, I would play, easily, 300 shows a year. No problem at all. But, I think being on the bus and being away from my family and that aspect of it, it’s fun for, I don’t know, let’s say ten years. And then, after that, it’s like, “Okay. This is a fuckin’ ridiculous way to live my life. I’m spending an hour-and-a-half looking for my sock. Where am I going anyway? Why do I need socks? It’s not as if anybody knows whether I’m alive or dead, until 9 PM tonight. So, why don’t I just not wear socks?” It’s just a pointless way to exist. And then you play a show and you’re like, “Oh, life means something and, god, I love my job and it’s so great and aren’t we lucky to have people cheering for us?”But, then you wake up the next day and you’re in the middle of nowhere without your family. So, that aspect of it is getting old, for sure.
I hear that. Makes sense. So, how do you feel about fame?
Ever since I was a kid, people have been telling me I’m going to be famous, all my life, and I never have been. I’m not famous at all. Nobody knows who the fuck I am. I’m nobody. First of all, obviously—it goes without saying—I’m in a tiny indie band [that] nobody gives a shit about. But, even people who give a shit about us, I’m just some forty-year-old guy. The only time I’m famous is when I’m singing those songs. Other than that, I give myself a solid 4.7 out of 10 on the human impact scale.
If you say so! How do you like returning to New York?
Well, I lived in New York for ten years and the band started in New York. I like coming to New York like a New Yorker likes to come to New York. There’s a part of me that loves that place and it’s very deep inside me. To this day, my wife still says that, even though I was born in England and I grew up in Canada, I act like a New Yorker. That was where my personality came into full fruition, where I found 11 million assholes just like me. [Laughs] I feel very at home there. On the other hand, I hate New York. Like everybody does. New York is a reflection of you. It’s whatever you imagine yourself to be. On a bad day, New York is a bitch. And, on a good day, New York is an angel, I think. I like coming to New York and having something to do. I like the fact that I come to New York and play shows and people come to the shows. There’s an element of revenge I enjoy. I think a lot of people end up living in New York to try to get revenge on New York for all that New York has done to them over the years. People are motivated by revenge. I feel that. It’s satisfying to come and get a little revenge on New York every once in a while.
It’s about my personal relationship with New York. The experience of ten years trying to make it work there. Sometimes it did work, but a lot of the time it doesn’t work. New York is so tiny and there’s so many people doing amazing things; if shit isn’t going your way, it’s very palpable, and you feel very much left out of the shit that is going right. It can be a cruel place. I love it.
Ditto. What do you get into when you’re here?
Well, we work most of the time. I’m a person who just goes to the same place, no matter where I am in the world. In New York, I still go to the bars I went to in 1996. I have no idea what’s happening in New York. I just go to New York and I recreate 1996.
In another interview, Amy Millan claims Stars is like Seinfeld. She says, “If you really looked into the deep psyche of Stars, it’s like Seinfeld, but Larry David is actually in Seinfeld instead of behind the scenes writing it. That’s my life. I swear to God we are a Seinfeld episode in normal life, like there’s the glamorous aspect of getting up on stage and writing amazing music, but then there’s the daytime stuff that’s pure Seinfeld.” Can you speak to this?
[Laughs] All I can say is, I think Larry David is a big person in all our lives. I have a t-shirt with his face on it. That’s how much I love Larry David. I suffer from anxiety. When I’m in the throws of anxiety attacks, I don’t have a prescription for Xanax—I just watch Curb Your Enthusiasm. Or sometimes I just listen to it on my headphones. I’m obsessed with Larry David and the work of Larry David and I think everyone else in the band is pretty obsessed with Larry David. The thing about Larry David is, he’s a dark motherfucker. Like, he doesn’t care how dark it gets, as long as it’s funny. I think, in Stars, that’s the kind of people we are. We really don’t care. There are things we would never say in public, obviously, but there are jokes made in our band that are truly morally reprehensible. But, if they’re funny, everybody has a good laugh. At least half the reason we’re in the band is just for jokes, just to hang out and wait for punch lines. The one thing we all have in common is, we share a fucked up sense of humor. And our cult leader is Larry David. We would follow him anywhere. We’d do anything for him. We worship him. We think he’s fucking genius.
Oh, we’re not alone. We’re among the legion.
What would you be doing if not this?
The only job I can think of that I would actually be able to do would be driving a cab or, like, driving people to the airport in a limo. I could do that. And I would like to do that. I really would. People think I’m joking and I’m not joking. I think it would be awesome. You just put on the soft rock station. You have water bottles—my car would be fucking awesome. Like, I’d have Evian bottles in the back, maybe a couple of newspapers to read. If you want to talk we can talk. If not, I’ll leave you alone. It’s fine. We don’t have to talk. And I would drive very smoothly. If you’re in a rush, I’ll drive fast, but I’m not going to go crazy. I’d be really good at that. Wouldn’t that be a great job?
[Laughs] Can you please make a music video where you’re the limo driver and the rest of the band’s in the back?
That’s a great idea! Actually, that’s a very good idea. Yes, we can. I’m going to do that for you. I’ll get right on that. I’m going to steal that from you.
Yesss. [Laughs] Lastly, have you always wanted to make music and act?
No. I’ve never wanted to. I’ve never wanted to act and I’ve never wanted to make music. I just had to. I couldn’t do anything else. I didn’t want to do anything else. So, by elimination, that’s what happened. That’s what I am. It’s what everybody in my family is. It’s what my father was, what my mother is, my brothers, my sisters, my wife, my child. Everybody in my life is obsessed with art and is a performer of one kind or another. There’s not a single person I love who isn’t in that field or doesn’t have that within them. Even the people I’m close to in my family who are not performers, that’s our religion. We’re fundamentalists. I was raised in a house where groceries were bought [with] money made from art. Art was the Bible and art was the devil and art was everything in between. I was told art could change people’s lives and you could change the world and you could start revolutions with it. That’s my fate. I have never wanted to. It’s what I am.
Photo by Kevin Barnett