EARNING THEIR STRIPES
Torquil Campbell – leader of Montreal's Stars comes across as a tireless information enthusiast, responding to all questions in our interview with as much detail as he can muster. Characteristically, his band (in which the singer shares co-lead with vocalist Amy Millan) are celebrated word smiths, big of heart, and key-holders of sublime hooks. A new album, The Five Ghosts only strengthens their already solid catalogue, and upon discussing Stars' fifth record with Campbell, it serves as proof that some pretty sinister events can sometimes result in truly great beauty.
Regarding the album's intriguing title, Campbell opens up about being strangely pestered by the number five, and felt forced to confront its apparent hold on him. "It's a very unsettling number for me, and overtime I began to obsess over why that was." Campbell mysteriously reveals. "Usually I have a very polemical answer for what I write about and why I use certain references, but the five ghosts were just there. They seemed to demand the record be called that, and I don't want to give you a flakey answer, but it was something that was outside of my reasoning." Torquil was eventually moved to do a little research on the expression 'five ghosts', which offered a something of an explanation. "I found out that the five ghosts is a feng shui term meaning the five points of energy in a house and how those energies change when someone dies." He describes, "It suddenly all became clear to me because my father had just died."
Even stranger events began to take place, informing precisely the direction Stars' new album was going to take. One highlight from The Five Ghosts is also the bands debut 'impressionist' track, He Dreams He's Awake. This trance-like, mostly instrumental track stands alone alongside their often conceptual rock songs. Torquil elaborates, "That's an interesting one because it was the very beginning of the record, and is so far the only song Stars have ever written with just the five of us sitting in a room starting from scratch." He remembers. "It happened the day after we all got together in Vancouver to start work on this album, and Chris, (Seligmano - keyboards) who'd been living in this rented apartment, was coming to rehearsals in the daytime looking ashen faced, having not slept all night. He claimed that he was being haunted by this female entity that was trying to attack him!" Campbell exclaims, laughing. "We thought it was kinda funny, but then on the third night he left his flat and refused to go back, so the rest of us had to go back and get his luggage and stuff. He told me he would wake up just after falling asleep each night and this ghost would be there standing over him. So this record was started in these strange circumstances and no matter how you try and steer things to be, I dunno more cheerful I suppose, ghosts were all there around us commanding the album."
If Torquil felt that making this album satisfied the number five's hold on him, he's not willing to admit it just yet. If I'm reading between his words correctly, Campbell doesn't want those little demons to disappear as long as they're pushing him into creative terrain. "Our (Stars) parents never told us when we were growing up to go get a job or gave us a hard time about who we were, so I feel blessed by that, but it means that we have a temptation to explore the dark side of life when we get together. I don't really know why that's the case, I mean the hardest question for me to answer is always 'where did you get that idea from?'" Campbell continues, "If I knew the answer to that, I'd go back there and rape the place of ideas. Instead I have to just ponder these things when they come." He adds, "So in reaction to these 'five ghosts', I ended up writing a short poem - which we didn't use on the album - but it goes; Five ghosts in the garden,/five ghosts in the shed/five ghosts on the pillow when I lay down my head. Who were these figures/who could they be?/Three of them were strangers and the other two were you and me."
The bizarre happenings Campbell describes, encouraged Stars to map out and stick to a previously untried method of recording for the fifth album, with the emphasis on capturing the 'raw spirit'. "We had a very clear plan in that we weren't going to demo but instead get together in three individual sessions. (We would) write for two weeks, record everything we had in another two weeks and then take time off and go back to what we had recorded and see what we thought of it." How the change of process affected the album and band in Torquil's mind was ideal for preventing any stagnation. "The fun part of making an album can be quashed if you over do the demo side of it. You can end up trying to recapture a flame that was burning somewhere else so we didn't want that to happen anymore." He continues, "As much as we love Set Yourself on Fire and In Our Bedroom After The War, I think they suffered from people not willing to let go of individual contributions and tunes, so this time we were very ruthless with ourselves and pushing for the songs to earn their place on the album."
Campbell is separate from the rest of Stars in that he's hardly able to play any musical instruments, yet he possesses an incredibly keen ear for luscious hooks and melodies, making him peerless within the band. Of his main role, Torquil chimes in; "Knowing melody is just like knowing how to skateboard, you know." He says in what I've come to see as a typical response from the singer; "It's a particular physiological thing that happens in our brain. Some dudes just know how to skateboard, but I could never get that. I don't even know that much about making music, but I know how to write melodies. Even Johnny Rotten, who wasn't a musician had a great sense of melody – he understood what a brilliant hook was, and that's enough sometimes." He continues, somewhat understated. "People look for gratification in pop music, so if somebody has a half finished phrase in their mind and you can write the end of the phrase for them in music, you're giving them gratification and they're gonna want to keep coming back. That is what I know how to do. It's all I know how to do in music."
Torquil may have answered his calling in music, but a sideline in acting holds a special place for the singer. Appearances in popular dramas Sex & The City and Law & Order have fed his urges, along with various stage shows in Canada and New York. He's the son of actor parents Doug Campbell and Moira Wylie, but instead of a full time career, Torquil sees it as more a retirement plan. "It was totally what I thought I would end up doing you know." He laughs, "Everyone in my family is in the theatre and it was the only world I knew, until luckily I met Chris - my first musician friend." Torquil adds, with a mock sigh. "But somehow I just know I'm going to end my days acting though."